Robert Maxwell, the British press baron who died last November under mysterious circumstances, was a monster — a ”jungle man,” in his own words. His ambition knew no limits; nor did his vanity, his ruthlessness, his effrontery, his mendacity, nor his Olympian energies and appetites. He built a vast empire that collapsed within moments of his death, leaving as his only monument the memory of his prodigious personality. Although he tried to suppress it, Maxwell: the Outsider, Tom Bower’s splendid and minutely detailed 1988 biography published in the U.S. for the first time, in an updated edition, may be his surest ticket to enduring fame.
Few American tycoons can boast a more disadvantaged background than Maxwell’s. Born Jan Ludvik Hoch in 1923 in the remote and impoverished foothills of Czechoslovakia’s Carpathian Mountains, the young Maxwell ”wore a black skull cap day and night, with ringlets of hair dangling in front of his ears.” Most of his family was killed in the Holocaust. By the time he was in his early 20s he had escaped the Nazis, fought heroically with the British Army, embarked on a career as a trader and entrepreneur, and erased all traces of his origins. The terrible struggles he endured while young stripped him of the principles — and the fear — that mute the behavior of other ambitious men.
A British press lord is a far more exalted figure than his American counterpart — among other things, his position often leads to a peerage. Americans know Maxwell as the man who rescued New York’s Daily News from extinction, but in Britain he already controlled the Mirror Group newspapers, which he regarded as instruments of dominance, not of truth. He insisted that his editors run flattering stories about him and his friends and suppress or alter anything negative. When he was criticized elsewhere in the press, he responded with a fusillade of lawsuits. After Maxwell: The Outsider appeared in Britain, the ”Bouncing Czech” called Bower ”a liar and a perjurer,” sued him and his publisher, and warned booksellers that he had obtained an injunction against the book — which he hadn’t. On three separate occasions Maxwell prevented paperback companies from publishing the book. In addition to his mania for control, he may have feared that an honest and thorough accounting of his finances would show that his empire not only was not profitable, as he insisted, but was in fact virtually insolvent.
Maxwell’s whole career, as Bower sees it, was dedicated to crashing the gates of British respectability. He ran for Parliament as a Labour man only because ”the Tories wouldn’t have had him.” But Maxwell was also almost as devoid of shame as he was of fear; no humiliation was ever permanent. He rebounded from every public excoriation, every bankruptcy, every crushing reversal. And then he savored his revenge until he got bored with it. There were many who came to loathe and stayed to flatter.
Bower is properly awed by Maxwell’s sheer excess. But he also knows how to make distinctions. He shows how a large part of the British financial and journalistic establishment was complicit in the man’s crimes and misdemeanors. He details Maxwell’s murky dealings with the KGB — he appears to have both euchred the Soviets and acted as their ”agent of influence” — but rebuts Seymour Hersh’s recent allegation in The Samson Option that Maxwell worked with Israeli intelligence. It seems surprising that he didn’t.
And after 500-odd pages few readers will believe that this indomitable man killed himself merely because he was four and a half or so billion dollars in debt. He had been insolvent virtually his entire career. Bower argues that Maxwell’s fall from the slippery deck of his boat, the Lady Ghislaine, was the result of a heart attack. But by that point in the story, I have to admit, I was almost sorry to see him go. A