Robert Maxwell

Do you remember the disgraced British media tycoon Robert Maxwell, who stole from his own company pension fund?  The noted expert, Robert Hare said: "I'm not saying Maxwell was a psychopath, but he sure had psychopathic tendencies." The well-known journalist John Simpson devotes several pages to Maxwell is his book "A Mad World, My Masters: Tales from a Traveller's Life".  (Pan Paperback, Sep 2001, ISBN 0330355678, pp 147 - 150)

I came to know Robert Maxwell, war hero, politician, media baron and crook, in the later 1970's and early 80's, thanks to his thoroughly dubious connections with Eastern European dictators.  Whether he was actually in their pay, I could never decide.  He acted as though he might be, in some ways, and yet there was only ever one cause in Robert Maxwell's mind: Robert Maxwell.  It is perfectly possible that he chose to spend his time with the rulers of countries like Romania and Czechoslovakia because it made him a bit of money and he liked to get onto the front pages of the slavish state-controlled press and have people fawning over him.

He was jovial, but invariably menacing.  Everything he said sounded pompous, in that loud, phoney accent of his from which every trace of the original Slovak had been surgically removed.  He gave expensive parties whenever his company brought out a new, grovelling biography of some Communist dictator, nationally written by Maxwell himself.  I would be invited.

'Ah, here we have the man from the BBC,' he would boom as I shook his hand.  'What lies have you been broadcasting about Romania [or Czechoslovakia, or Hungary, or East Germany] lately?'

And having insulted me, he would dismiss me from his mind.  Perhaps he only did it to ingratiate himself further with the ambassador of whichever dictatorship his latest volume was about.  I would usually try to come back with some quip, but it never registered with him.  I was small fry: not the kind of person whose voice he listened to.  If Maxwell hadn't been such an interesting, despicable character, I wouldn't have gone to these occasions.  But I was fascinated by him: the rumbling voice, the huge suits that looked as though they had been laid down at a shipyard, the tiny black shoes, the heavy dewlaps, the sharp, perceptive eyes as expressive as horse chestnuts under brows like an untrimmed hedgerow.

There was an old man, a good ten years older than Maxwell, who used the pool where I swam most mornings when I was in London.  Victor Grosz and I took a liking to one another.  He was shrewd and cultured, and had seen the world.  We used to sit side by side on the long chairs beside the pool, talking.  Victor had known Maxwell in his time.  They were both Jewish, and had been born in nearby villages in Slovakia.  In September 1939 they had set out together for France, to fight Hitler's Germany.

'I loathed the Nazis, naturally.  So did Maxwell.  But he was crazy.  Something used to come over him when he fought them.  We transferred to a British unit together when the French began to collapse, and on the way to Dunkirk we were lucky in a skirmish and captured a group of Germans.

'Maxwell went mad.  He lined them up, took out his revolver and started shooting them one by one in the forehead.  I tried to stop him, but he took no notice.

'Then a British officer heard the noise and came round the corner.  He pulled out a pistol and told Maxwell he would shoot him if he didn't drop his gun.  They had been going to give him a medal, but after that they couldn't.  It was only later that he got one.  Maybe they'd forgotten.  Or perhaps they didn't care any more.'

The year 1989 brought the collapse of each of the dictatorships which Maxwell had smarmed up to.  His grovelling books on Ceausescu (Builder of Modern Romania, published by Pergamon Press in 1983), Zhivkov of Bulgaria, Honecker of East Germany and Jaruzelski of Poland suddenly disappeared from sale.  His work on Ceausescu had included the transcript of an interview between Maxwell and the great man, during which Maxwell put this fearless, searching question:

Dear Mr President, you have been holding the highest political and state office in Romania for almost eighteen years, a fact for which we warmly congratulate you.  What has — in your opinion — made you so popular with the Romanians?

By comparison with this, David Frost seems almost aggressive.  It took Ceausescu a full page of the transcript to answer the question, when he could have summed up the real reason in a single sentence: I have one of the biggest and nastiest security services anywhere.  After the revolution took place, and Ceausescu and his wife had been executed by the people they were supposedly so popular with, a journalist asked Maxwell if he regretted writing about him so fulsomely.

'Haven't you ever made a mistake?' was Maxwell's engaging reply.

A few months afterwards, I went to Baghdad to cover the run-up to the Gulf War and stayed there while the bombing stared in January 1991.  Conditions were bad, and I developed kidney stones.  After I was thrown out of Baghdad I went into hospital in Jordan for treatment.

The hospital was a Palestinian one, and was supported partly by a British-based charity.  There was a good deal of bad feeling among Palestinians against Westerners in Jordan at that time, but even so I was well cared for.  My reporting had attracted a certain amount of attention, and the morning after I had been taken to hospital the British press in Amman asked to come and see me.

They filed in politely, with ingratiating smiles on their faces; rather like Maxwell with Ceausescu, perhaps.  They listened without much interest to what I had to say about the kindness of the hospital staff, then started taking photographs and chatting.

'What've you got this for?' asked one of them, a man from Maxwell's paper, the Sunday Mirror.

He was fiddling with a Saddam Hussein lapel badge on my bedside table.  One of my BBC colleagues had brought it for me that morning as a joke.

At that point I made a serious error.  You should never be ironic or go into unnecessary detail when Fleet Street is around.

'The cleaners here were a lot nicer to me when they saw it by my bed this morning,' I said.

It happened to be true, but it caused great trouble.  A few days later the director of the hospital burst angrily into my room, holding a press cutting which someone in London had faxed to him.

It was quite a long article, by Sunday Mirror standards.  It described how, in exquisite pain, I had come to the hospital and had been turned away by the doctors because I was British.  Then I had remembered by Saddam lapel badge, and put it on.  The whole atmosphere changed, the article said.  They allowed me in, and gave me treatment.

The whole thing was only smoothed over with the director of the hospital by my promising to write to the proprietor of the Mirror Group, threatening to sue.  The proprietor was, of course, Robert Maxwell.

I wrote to him, suggesting that a large donation to the hospital might be in order.  That gave me pleasure, since the hospital was Palestinian and Maxwell had become an ardent Zionist.

There was no reply.

I wrote again, and said how disgraceful it was that he should ignore a complaint like this.  Still no answer.

By October, months after my first letter, I was enraged.  But I was also baffled; how could I get Maxwell to reply to me?  One day I found myself sitting with a friend of mine, who had once worked closely with Maxwell.  I asked him what to do.

It turned out that the people in Maxwell's private office were under the strictest orders never to open the mail.  Once, though, my friend felt that so many letters had piled up that he had to go through them.  He came into the office at the weekend, locked the doors behind him, and examined the post item by item.  He found, among other things, two writs and a cheque for a million pounds.

'Just ring him up.  He'll enjoy hearing from you.'

He gave me the number of Maxwell's mobile phone.

I meant to ring him at once, but I kept putting it off.  A week later, on 5 November, I was driving home with my daughter Eleanor after a long lunch to celebrate our trip to Buckingham Palace that day for the Gulf War honours.  Eleanor fell asleep, and I turned on the radio.

'The newspaper proprietor Robert Maxwell apparently drowned last night after falling from his private yacht in the Mediterranean . . .'

That man never did anything by accident, I thought; he must have jumped.  When the reports came in of the imminent financial collapse of his company, I was sure of it.  Maxwell had once been a heavy cigar smoker, but had given up the habit on medical advice and had never touched another.  That evening, an hour or so before he drowned, he smoked a last cigar.

Maxwell was a brute, a bully, a crook and a shameless flatterer of other crooks.  But whatever else he was, he was never a coward.

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