Fall: The Mystery Of Robert MaxwellHighlights from The Pat Kenny Show
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- 26 Feb 2021
Author John Preston’s has written very entertaining account of the extraordinary life and death of Robert Maxwell, the definition of corporate villainy. He joined Pat on the show to chat about his book 'Fall: The Mystery Of Robert Maxwell'.
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The part Kenny show on news talk with Marter private network during current restrictions. Don't ignore your health concerns. Our expert team is ready to help. Now, Robert Maxwell, he was viewed by many as the embodiment of corporate villainy. He was a larger than life character that nobody really, really knew.
A new book from John Preston delves into the many names, back stories and tall tales attributed to Maxwell, as well as his obsession with Rupert Murdoch. The book is called Full Subtitle The Mystery of Robert Maxwell. And John Preston joins me now on the line.
John, good morning. Good morning, Pat. Now, this is an extraordinary story about an extraordinary man, and you bring us back at the beginning of your book to where he was and Robert Maxwell, he was somebody else.
Yes. He was born in this very small town in the west of what was then Czechoslovakia. And he came from a Jewish family. There were a lot of Jewish people in the area and maximum 16 or 17, about 16. He sets off to basically find his fortune. And whilst his way, both his parents, three of his siblings and his grandfather are all killed in Auschwitz. So that is the kind of prism you really have to look at Maxwell's life through.
His origins, though, were not very hopeful. I mean, you talk about the Czechoslovak government trying to lure people to ruthenium, which is where he came from, a tiny village there. And they said in their tourist blurb, the very best thing here is the fresh air. And the pamphlet also suggested that the Ruthenian were unusually thick, rather unintelligent. So for such a man with a massive intelligence to emerge from Ruthenian is quite remarkable.
Yeah, it is absolutely an astonishing story, and his mother had this strange conviction that her son, Robert, although he wasn't Robert in those days, was going to be famous and she would tell people that in the village and they would all fall about laughing. Of course, it turned out to be true. He did become or tried to become the greatest media baron in the world.
His story, he heads off, he heads for Budapest, eventually he might have been actually tried and executed.
He makes his way and joins various parts of the allied forces before he finally sees combat in World War two, where I think the word swashbuckling would probably be an appropriate word for some of his activities.
Yes, that's certainly true. I mean, he actually won the military cross, which is won the Victoria Cross. And he was unquestionably extremely brave.
But there was also a much darker, more ruthless side to his character.
He shot the mayor of small town in France on the town square in full view of the inhabitants to deter anyone from taking up arms against the British and may indeed even have shot unarmed German soldiers who had already surrendered.
And you say that his soldiers who are with him said, you know, hang on a second, that's not armed. They had surrendered. In other words, the whole idea of fair play, they understood and he couldn't understand that concept.
I think that's true. I mean, you know, one of the many strange things about Maxwell is you did have a sense of morality.
Well, you know, no, I mean, but it was pretty skewed and it never really held him back from getting what he wanted.
And what is remarkable, and it's almost helter skelter, the pace of your book have that in the post-war era.
He kind of very rapidly, through various tricks of the loop, became quite wealthy or at least had the trappings of wealth. I mean, he was probably a con artist.
Well, I mean, I know what you mean, but nonetheless, by the mid 1950s, Maxwell said he had turned himself into the biggest publisher of scientific journals in the world.
And, you know, yes, it could have been selling, you know, sardines or fur coats. But nonetheless, he did actually believe in what he was doing. It's really only later that things start to get much darker.
He was likely a spy for the British government for many of those years, those post-war years. Isn't that so? Because he had, you know, a command of maybe half a dozen languages or more, he could move freely through Eastern Europe.
And on one occasion, you write about him arriving in with a big box of documents in Moscow as supposed to be a list of publications of scientific material. But as they borrowed a camera to take pictures of them all before surreptitiously returning them to to where he'd got them, and his wife said, you know, what's he out?
He's got to be a spy. This is not kosher. No, I mean, there's no doubt that he did he did work as a spy for British intelligence after the war. Just how long he carried on. Being a spy is a kind of move point she certainly loved kind of passing information back and forth from one government to another. But whether you I mean, you know, Maxwell was the complete opposite of what a spy is supposed to do because he basically had to be the centre of attention of any room that he walked into.
So the idea that he would kind of operate behind the curtain spies normally do would have been absolute kind of anathema to him in his wartime years.
He had many, many names. I mean, amongst them, Ivan DiMaria.
So in a sense, rooting the identity of Robert Maxwell, which he finally embraced.
I mean, he kind of built up a whole mythology around himself and adopted some airs and graces, but sometimes his origins would reveal him.
Yes, he would say sort of weird things like, you can't you can't shut the stable horse after the door is bolted, but he would deliver it in this kind of extraordinary plummy English voice.
You'd actually learn English from listening to Winston Churchill speeches on the radio, although we couldn't at the time understand a word that Churchill was saying.
But yes, it was only, you know, periodically the mask would slip and you would people would realise that, oh, hold on. Maybe it isn't his first language after all.
Now, he famously, as I discovered in your book, lived in a council house for all his life. Explain.
Yeah. Yeah, it was a hell of a council house.
He basically lived in the house, a big, big mansion called Headington Hill Hall, which is just outside Oxford. And it hasn't happened to be owned by Oxford Council. So Maximov leased it from them and would always boast that he had the best council house in the country, which was probably true.
But it was strange for such a rich man not to be at all interested in possessions, really. I mean, he never owned a property and maybe that goes back to his childhood. That kind of deep, ingrained fear that if you put down roots, they were likely to be torn up again. Hmm.
Now, moving on through his success with Pergament Press and his wife said he lived it, he breathed it. Everything was Pergament press. And he became, as you say, very successful, but not quite successful enough in his own mind. He saw Rupert Murdoch as I suppose, first of all, an icon, but secondly, someone to be emulated and perhaps even superseded. Yes.
I mean, they were kind of you know, they were locked in this titanic battle for 30 years. And Murdoch essentially won every round the fight.
Every time Maxwell would try to buy a newspaper, Murdoch was snatched from underneath his nose and it drove Maxwell nuts. And he really came to see Murdoch as his kind of nemesis. And indeed, it's actually his struggle to go toe to toe with Murdoch, particularly in America, that precipitated him on this path towards his financial downfall and his mental physical disintegration and ultimately his death.
The grand life that he lived, quite extraordinary, you tell of one tale where he's meeting the Kinnock's and they don't have a grand mansion to entertain him. Neil Kinnock being the leader of the Labour Party, who almost became PM, but not quite.
And they entertained himself and his wife, Betty, in a local trattoria.
And Betty and Rupert Murdoch or Robert Maxwell arrived in separate Rolls Royces for their dinner.
Yes. I mean, that may say something about the state of their marriage at the time because they were certainly drifting apart.
But they did lead a very, very lavish lifestyle.
And, you know, Maxwell had more helicopters than anyone else in the country. And he loved to kind of whiz around in people's gardens.
And, you know, he loved to drink the finest wines and eat kind of virtually bucketfuls of caviar.
So, yes, he didn't stint himself at all, which is largely why he became so enormous.
What was the reason for his ultimate demise? Because we know after his death, he was still feted, you know, fell off the back of his yacht or decided to do himself in, who knows? But that's what happened to him. And he even in death, he was praised and lauded until it emerged that he'd robbed the pension fund. Yes, I mean, essentially what happened was that in 1998, three years before Maxwell died, he bought the US publisher, Macmillan, for an insane amount of money, I mean, a billion dollars more than the company's own directors thought it was worth.
And he did that because he wanted to slug it out with Murdoch in the States.
But then, you know, there was a recession. Interest rates rose. And from that moment on, he constantly kind of trying to rob Peter to pay Paul and shuffling money around from one bit of his empire to another. And as you say, looting the mirror pension funds.
And but when nobody, of course, knew any of this when he died. So he dies on November the 5th, 1991, the world leaders are queuing up to pay tribute to him and say what a fantastic man he was. And it's only three weeks later that quite a lot of the same people are also queuing up, say was a terrible villain. And they'd always known there was something fishy about him. So, you know, he falls incredibly.
His reputation falls incredibly far and incredibly fast.
He himself, though, was observed to be disintegrating before his demise.
You know, he was becoming extremely obese, number one, but also becoming moody and almost depressed about what he deceived or not.
Yes, he became increasingly paranoid and then you could sort of trace that back to his rivalry with Murdoch as well.
He also fell in love with his P.I., who is many decades younger than him. She went off and married somebody else.
And that was another thing that kind of tipped him really to despair, actually. I mean, you know, he he's enormously wealthy by this stage, but he lives completely alone up in his flat in the top of his headquarters called inevitably Maxwell House. He just gorges himself on Chinese takeaways and watches old Clint Eastwood movies. It's a kind of sad story, someone who's backed himself into this terrible corner and has no friends and nowhere left to turn.
Now, many people listening to this programme who are younger won't even know much about Robert Maxwell, except for the fact that his daughter Guillén came back in the news because of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, which is still ongoing. She was his favourite daughter.
She was the youngest. And yes, she was his favourite child. That's why he named his yacht The Lady.
So, yes, I think she was probably better at diffusing her father's.
Pretty frequent rages than any of the other children. Well, I have to say, John, the book is like a thriller and gallops along, and we've only skimmed the surface of what you reveal about Robert Maxwell, a quite extraordinary man, a quite extraordinary life, which ended in failure, I suppose.
But you can't deny the energy and the ebullience and the life force that Maxwell was in his heyday.
Yeah, that's absolutely right, you know, very few people lead incredibly vivid, epic technicolour lives, and Maxwell, for all his flaws, unquestionably did. Well, the book, as I say, it reads like a thriller, it's called Fall The Mystery of Robert Maxwell. It's out now and its author, John Preston. John, thank you very much for joining us on the programme.