Autopsy on a fraud

 

The corpse was instantly recognisable. The eye could follow the jet black hair and bushy eyebrows on the broad Slav head down the huge white torso towards the fat legs ... An incision, 78 cm long, stretched from the neck down the stomach to the crotch ... Firm, black needlework neatly joined the skin to conceal the damage to the deceased's organs."

Perhaps all biographies should start with a jolly autopsy. Tom Bower certainly needed a new angle for Maxwell: The Final Verdict, since he had already given us Maxwell: The Outsider, a biography of the late publisher, Robert Maxwell, whose body was recovered off the Canary Islands in November 1991. Insurance companies would save £21 million if it could be established that Maxwell killed himself. Hence the presence of the insurers' expert, Dr lain West of Guy's Hospital, London, at the autopsy in Tel Aviv which Maxwell wished to be his final resting place.

A strong stomach is required for the first chapter, as pathologists speak in an eerily dispassionate way about their mucking about with a human body. Readers may content themselves with the conclusion. To Dr West's disappointment, the Israelis found that Maxwell, feeling unwell, had been on the deck of his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, looking for fresh air. Stumbling, probably from a minor heart attack, he had fallen forward, passing under a steel cord or over a rail and, as he twisted to grab it, had hit his head against the boat. In double agony, he had lost his grip and dropped into the sea.

There he died, some time later, from exhaustion or a heart attack. Tough luck on the insurance companies.

Bower's new book is a highly concentrated account of Robert Maxwell's increasingly desperate attempts to conceal the fact that the emperor had no clothes. His deception took the shape of pretending that his family trusts in Liechenstein had sufficient assets to meet any liabilities in the public companies he controlled. His lenders were taken in because they wanted to be taken in. They funded Maxwell's acquisitions because they earned fat fees.

It is difficult to feel sorry for the banks who left to the rogue, not knowing that the collateral he was pledging was pledged to more than one. Maxwell's extravagant lifestyle encouraged them to believe he was as rich as he said he was. His cultivation of world leaders served the same purpose.

Maxwell told the editor of the Daily Mirror, which he owned, that the Gulf War would be over in two days and that the Soviet Union's invasion of Lithuania was unimportant. "Don't you realise that Gorbachev wouldn't do anything without ringing me first?" He eventually sacked the editor for refusing to print the scoop he supplied that Margaret Thatcher would survive the Tory party's heave against her.

The megalomania was accompanied by bullying, from which even his family was not spared. He spoke contemptuously of his French wife, Betty, and his sons and daughters as being interested only in his money. There is a sad moment in the book as Maxwell drifts further away from reality. He is staying with Betty in a suite in the Helmsley Palace Hotel in New York. His valet has flown to London to begin his annual holiday. Bowers writes: "in his [the valet's] absence, conditions in the suite had deteriorated. Nothing had been washed. Papers, plates and clothes were strewn over the furniture and across the floors. By the time Betty left for London she would be unable to find even a kettle to make her husband a final cup of coffee . .. Clearly, she was beyond caring for him or capable of clearing up herself."

The constant lying and evasion eroded Maxwell's stamina. Sleep became difficult. Instead of solid rest, he managed only naps. He "scavenged through the kitchen cupboards for food, eating whole corn fed chickens, bowls of corn flakes and large cheeses, scattering the debris around the floors for the staff to clear the following morning.

Bowers says his sexual appetite was relieved by summoning secretaries to his office, usually during the afternoon. Some of the girls said their employer would open a bag of gold coins "to encourage those who were slow to overcome their shyness".

Though Robert Maxwell is dead when this book begins, the most interesting parts concern him. His son, Kevin, comes across as clever but cold. The other son, Ian, is portrayed as a playboy. The last chapters concern the trial of the two brothers for conspiracy to defraud. The Serious Fraud Office lost the case, though Kevin is facing new charges.

Bowers is participant as well as author in this story. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company owned the company which published Maxwell. The Outsider. Lloyd Webber invited Maxwell to dinner in a Mayfair restaurant to try and resolve the lengthy and expensive litigation which arose from publication of the book. Maxwell told the composer that the Mirror had been offered photographs of him dancing with young girls in nightclubs. The threat was unstated but typical of Maxwell. A thoroughly nasty piece of work, whom Bowers successfully fillets and guts.