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Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell – Lively account of a press baron

John Preston fascinates with portrait of rags to riches narcissist, shapeshifter and survivor

Robert Maxwell with daughter Ghislaine and wife Elisabeth: His narcissism and self-aggrandisement prompt comparisons with Trump, but the events of Maxwell’s life are graver and more shocking. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell
Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell
Author: John Preston
ISBN-13: 978-0241388679
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £18.99

In the TV drama Mad Men, about postwar ad men in New York, the ageing secretary Miss Blankenship dies at her desk. Her boss, a partner at the firm, has to find a few words in tribute to someone viewers had known only as occasional annoying comic relief. “She was born in a barn in 1898. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.” The point being that the breakneck disruptions and advances of the 20th century meant even the most banal lives were epic in experience.

The life of the disgraced media baron and pension thief Robert Maxwell was certainly not banal. It was epic on a scale no sane screenwriter would attempt to boil into a single script. Such is the sheer volume of events in Maxwell’s life that John Preston’s engaging account, Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, sometimes has only a few paragraphs to deal with episodes that would justify a book on their own.

In less than a decade, Maxwell (born Jan Hoch) moved from teenage life in medieval poverty in eastern Czechoslovakia – his Jewish family lived in a two-room shack and sold animal pelts to scrape a living – to receiving the Military Cross from Montgomery as a British army captain in the closing months of the second World War. To get there, Maxwell had traversed central Europe on foot before finding his way to Belgrade (he may or may not have escaped incarceration in occupied Hungary by killing his guard) and on to Beirut, then Marseilles, where he joined the Czech division of the French army. But that army was in retreat in 1940, so he found his way to Liverpool, where he began his extraordinary life first as a British soldier, then Labour MP and larger-than-life press baron.

Death camps

Within a few years he changed identity at least four times; Jan Hoch became Ivan du Maurier, who became Leslie Smith and finally the vaguely Scottish sounding Robert Maxwell. In those same few years, virtually his entire family were murdered in death camps, and Maxwell himself would commit what would now be deemed war crimes while serving as a British officer. He would also establish a record in espionage that would form part of his mystique for the rest of his life and beyond.


After the war, with funds whose origins are still unclear, though they may have come from MI6, he acquired the rights to unpublished academic texts in postwar Germany, which would form the basis of a publishing empire.

If this lively and fascinating book has a flaw, it is the lack of pause for reflection on the bewildering pace and proportion of Maxwell’s life. But that may be entirely appropriate, because the life itself was lived as a relentless narrative of spectacle and self-invention, with scarcely time for self-examination, even if Maxwell himself had been so inclined.

His bottomless narcissism and self-aggrandisement prompt comparisons to Trump, but the events of Maxwell’s life are graver and more shocking. He lost most of his family to the Holocaust, and later two of his own children died. He himself took life and later the livelihoods of thousands of Mirror pensioners with little apparent concern.

The revival of interest in his remarkable life is in the arrest of his youngest daughter Ghislaine for allegedly abetting the paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, a man whose capacity for deception has prompted comparisons to Maxwell.

Rivalry with Murdoch

Another regular comparison is Rupert Murdoch, whom Maxwell considered his great rival. But Murdoch both started from a more enviable base – he inherited a newspaper to run – and demonstrated decade after decade strategic farsightedness. As this book demonstrates, where Murdoch was (and is) cold-blooded and cool-headed, Maxwell was hot-headed and capricious.

Their relationship started in 1963, when Maxwell tried to get his soon-to-be-rival (yet to expand into either the UK or the US) to partner with him in marketing cheap encyclopaedias in Australia. Murdoch quickly realised he was being conned, and within a few years he would outmanoeuvred Maxwell in acquiring the News of the World.

It was not until 1984 that Maxwell finally realised his ambition of owning a Fleet Street newspaper when he took control of the Daily Mirror. But he always, always wanted more. In the final years of his life, his empire laden with debt, Maxwell could not stop himself from acquiring possessions like a sun king. He could not afford the New York Daily News but could not resist overpaying for it in the final months of his life, using money fraudulently borrowed from major banks – who in turn were paid back with money robbed from the pension funds of his workers. Like many of the authoritarian eastern European leaders he courted and printed hagiographies of, his socialism was shamelessly ironic.

So much 20th-century experience was squeezed into Maxwell’s gargantuan frame: war, genocide, the collapse of empires into failing states and the creation of new empires, the rise of mass communication, financial capitalism and frightening technological advance. Perhaps most of all, the new-found possibility – unheard of in most of human history – that an individual, through will and amorality, could invent and reinvent himself.

Born in a hovel, he died off the side of a 180ft yacht floating in the Atlantic, both a villain and a victim of history’s most outlandish century.