Robert Maxwell: 30 years since the mysterious death of a daring tycoon


1991 MAXWELL col goss Media mogul drowns in yachting tragedy – Robert Maxwell with his sons Ian and Kevin

Less than half an hour earlier, he had called to complain about being too hot. Now he was too cold.

“Turn off the air conditioning,” he growled. These are believed to be the last words he said.

It is 30 years ago today that Maxwell, the man who had competed for decades with Rupert Murdoch for dominance in British media, was found dead at sea, after apparently diving from the deck of his yacht the Lady Ghislaine. Has he fallen? Did he jump? Has he been pushed? Some three decades later, the cause of his death remains shrouded in a mystery that the man who indulged in the controversy would likely have loved.

In the 1980s, Maxwell and Murdoch were the two titans of the British media and made little effort to cover up their dislike for each other. But while they both had similar ambitions, they couldn’t have been further apart in personality: Murdoch was the publicity-shy Australian who rarely gave interviews, Maxwell was brash, ostentatious, even vulgar, reveling in his fame as the man millions loved to hate. .

From the crushing misery of his childhood as a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia – most of his family perished in Auschwitz – to the height of his power as owner of The Daily Mirror, the New York Daily News , and not one but two top football clubs, Maxwell’s remarkable life would have formed the basis of a good movie. Except that the most dramatic plot was yet to come.

As tributes poured in, from President George Bush to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sharing their own personal anecdotes, it quickly became apparent that the self-styled master of the universe and benevolent philanthropist was not quite what he seemed. . His vast empire had been built on a foundation of sand, supported only by the fraud Maxwell had committed on an unprecedented scale.

Robert Maxwell died 30 years ago today

It later emerged that Maxwell had a heated argument with his son Kevin the day before his death, having been summoned to the Bank of England over a £ 50million default on his debts. Maxwell ignored the request, instead taking his yacht the Lady Ghislaine to the Canary Islands. In the days following his death, it emerged that £ 440million had disappeared from the Mirror Group pension fund, and suddenly the big and the good were much less vocal in their adulation.

Born Jan Hoch in 1923 to a poor family in present-day Ukraine, Maxwell joined the Czech army in exile after fleeing Nazi persecution, before enlisting in British forces in 1943, in the North Staffordshire regiment. Rising to the rank of captain, he was decorated with the Military Cross by Marshal Bernard Montgomery for his wartime exploits. He made Pergamon Press one of Britain’s largest publishers of science books, although his business methods led him to be declared “unfit to run a public enterprise” by the DTI in 1971. .

As a young man, he dreamed of being Prime Minister, but after being elected Labor MP for Buckingham in 1964, his political ambitions began to slow. His ruthless trade relations with the unions made him a deeply divisive figure in the Labor Party, and when he lost his seat in 1970 his political career seemed to be over.

Instead, he turned his attention to sports, saving cash-strapped Oxford United football club from extinction in 1982. But his popularity was short-lived. Months later, he alienated the entire fan base by proposing a merger with his rivals from Reading. In a typically combative style, he called Oxford fans “yobbos” and threatened to put the club into liquidation if he didn’t get what he wanted. When the merger plans collapsed, he quelled the controversy and led Oxford to the former First Division for the first time in its history.

He sparked even more outrage in 1987 when he bought out top rivals in County Derby, bypassing restrictions on individuals from controlling more than one club by giving his son Kevin responsibility for Oxford . And if that wasn’t bold enough, Oxford then sold star striker Dean Saunders to Derby, prompting the furious resignation of Oxford manager Mark Lawrenson.

But perhaps it was his obsessive feud with Murdoch that led to his ultimate downfall. It is said that Maxwell made an enemy of Murdoch in the 1960s, when he tried unsuccessfully to rob the young Australian by selling him a worthless possession. Murdoch got his revenge in 1969 when he defeated Maxwell in the race to buy News of the World in 1969, and repeated the feat a few months later when he also bought The Sun – then a large-format newspaper in difficulty – under Maxwell’s nose. In 1981, Murdoch scored a hat-trick by beating Maxwell to buy The Times and The Sunday Times. In 1984, Maxwell finally realized his ambition to own Fleet Street when he bought the Mirror Group for £ 113million, setting him on track for a high-stakes game of one-upmanship with Murdoch.

Murdoch’s Sun had overtaken the Mirror to become the UK’s best-selling newspaper in 1978, but Maxwell quickly took the battle to his nemesis by slashing the price of the Daily Mirror and embarking on what now appears to be a war of Rather quaint bingo with the tabloid rival.

Stories of how Maxwell treated his staff were the stuff of legends. One of the most infamous anecdotes involved a delivery driver Maxwell caught smoking in the elevator at his publishing empire’s headquarters in Canary Wharf. When the man ignored Maxwell’s order to put out his cigarette, the mogul asked the driver how much he was being paid, took two weeks’ wages out of his wallet and informed him he had been fired. The driver wasn’t too upset by this, however. He didn’t really work for Maxwell, he was doing a delivery from a supplier.

Maxwell – whose favorite daughter, Ghislaine, is now awaiting trial accused of procuring young girls for disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein – was famous for the extravagant parties he threw at Headington Hill Hall, the Oxfordshire Stack which he had rented from the local council. But the one he held to celebrate his 65th birthday in 1988 overshadowed them all, even his faithful wife Betty convinced he had gone too far. More than 3,000 guests were invited to the three-day shindig, the captains of industry took turns giving the homily. The proceedings ended with a fireworks display, in which the night sky was lit with the words “Happy Birthday Bob”.

But not everyone stayed to watch. Mike Molloy, his editor in chief of the Daily Mirror, decided to go snooping in the Maxwell mansion, which his boss had described as “the best city council in the country”. Looking around his living rooms, he noticed something strange about the books lining the shelves.

“When I looked closer, I saw that these weren’t real books. They were made of cardboard,” he said. And with these few words he perhaps summed up the life of this most remarkable figure, who has managed to deceive the world with his swashbuckling bravado.


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