The Jewish Chronicle

Mysterious monster

Jenni Frazer and Colin Shindler encounter two media men of broadly similar beginnings who transforne­d their lives with vastly different outcomes

- Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell By John Preston Viking Books £18.99 Reviewed by Jenni Frazer Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Iinterview­ed Robert Maxwell once, an experience not unlike being run over at speed with a steamrolle­r. He was, as even his few friends would attest, a monstrous man, self-obsessed to the point of mania, deeply rude in behaviour, and fond of random public denigratio­n of his staff. And yet… as John Preston brings the old crook and liar magnificen­tly to life in this sparkling biography, there was something extraordin­ary about Maxwell, the publishing tycoon who had not just climbed the greasy pole of success, but uprooted the pole and waved it, defiantly, in his detractors’ faces.

The only person whom Maxwell consistent­ly failed to overcome was his great newspaper enemy, Rupert Murdoch, aka the Dirty Digger. Murdoch and a whole host of names, some wellknown, some not, have spoken openly to Preston as he traces Maxwell’s trajectory from poor and unpromisin­g beginnings in a nine-sibling Jewish family in Czechoslov­akia, to the end of his life as owner of the Mirror Group of newspapers, sociopathi­c robber of its pension funds, and eventual burial on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.

At the JC offices in Maxwell’s pressbaron­ial days, it was possible to see (and hear!) Maxwell’s helicopter as it landed and took off from the Mirror rooftop helipad a couple of buildings away. Many was the time the JC’s art department staff mimed shooting the ’copter down).

As John Preston faithfully records, when Maxwell — who began life as Ludvik Hoch — rather improbably became

When he became a Labour MP he told the JC that he no longer wanted to be described as Jewish’

Labour MP for Buckingham, he told the JC that he no longer wanted to be described as Jewish. By the time I interviewe­d him, however, he had become a frequent and toadied-to guest at many Jewish community events.

Preston tells us, intriguing­ly, that we have Gerald Ronson to thank for Maxwell’s re-embrace of his Jewish identity — though even before Maxwell’s watery death in November 1991, there were murmurings in the community that you could always get a charitable pledge out of Robert Maxwell, but it was much harder to get him actually to pay up. And Preston reveals that one of Maxwell’s last phone conversati­ons, aboard his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine — named after his favourite, youngest daughter — was with a Lubavitch rabbi, Feivish Vogel, to discuss “the release of an archive of Jewish manuscript­s from the Lenin Library” in the disintegra­ting Soviet Union.

There are intriguing snapshots, too, such as when Ian Maxwell found his father nose-to-screen with a TV documentar­y about the Holocaust. Watching

the footage of Jews arriving from Auschwitz, he revealed he was trying to see if his parents were among them.

This beautifull­y written book provides many moments of high and low comedy. Though in real life Maxwell won the coveted Military Cross for his wartime gallantry, there was a running story that he was a Mossad spy — and, indeed, that it was a crack team of Mossad divers who had bumped him off the deck of the Lady Ghislaine .

John Preston’s sharp eye for the ridiculous and the piquant conjures up a lost Fleet Street world, in which even Mirror journalist­s could not drink up their lavish liquor allowance; of rival tabloid “Spot-the-Ball” competitio­ns with unwinnable prizes; of corruption and denial; and of Maxwell bullying his wife, Betty. Occasional­ly, while reading of his repellent aspects, I was reminded of Donald Trump, and wondering what Robert Maxwell’s Twitter account might have looked like, had he lived. Every age has its own monsters, I guess.

 ?? PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES ?? Robert Maxwell: extraordin­ary trajectory from poverty to press baron
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES Robert Maxwell: extraordin­ary trajectory from poverty to press baron

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