Robert Maxwell, Israel's Superspy: The Life and Murder of a Media Mogul

By Younes, Robert | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Robert Maxwell, Israel's Superspy: The Life and Murder of a Media Mogul


Younes, Robert, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Robert Maxwell, Israel's Superspy: The Life and Murder of a Media Mogul

By Gordon Thomas and Martin Dillon, Carrol and Graf Publishers, 2002, 368 pp. List: $27; AET: $20.

Robert Maxwell rose rocket-like into the stratosphere of international prominence, leaving a trail of sparks behind him as he burst brilliantly on the world scene. As his brilliance faded with the collapse of his business empire, and the world's attention turned to new events and crises, his name drifted into obscurity. The story of Maxwell's life, however, far transcends the brilliant flash of public display.

Authors Gordon and Dillon resurrect the life of Robert Maxwell, reconstructing this man who was born in 1923 to Jewish parents living in the obscure Polish village of Slatinske Doly. As a young man, he transformed himself into an English gentleman and World War II hero who was decorated by Field Marshal Montgomery himself with the Military Cross for bravery under fire. In Great Britain, Maxwell climbed to dizzying heights of power, wealth and prestige.

The authors' wonderfully detailed biography is based on multiple sources and interviews with 54 people who had intimate knowledge of Maxwell and his life. In addition, 21 other contacts supplied information that enriched the many details of Maxwell's personality, character, skills and foibles. The end result is a multi-faceted portrayal of a person with immense personal skills-and, unfortunately, many flaws. His biographers divide Maxwell's many lives-all of which he lived with consummate skill and supreme confidence-into four different and significant life trajectories: public, family, criminal, and spy.

His public life as a media baron paralleled the life of William Randolph Hearst in many of its details. At his financial apogee, Maxwell owned over 400 companies. From the ninth floor of Maxwell House in London, he directed his vast business empire, relishing his role as a potentate of publishing, communications, printing, technology, property, currencies, gilts, and shares. He bought companies and pillaged and sold their valuable assets piecemeal-always for a handsome profit. With his prodigious memory and his many minions, he managed to keep track of all his holdings, always manipulating them to his business advantage and the unfortunate disadvantage of his business partners, bankers and creditors.

Maxwell entertained with lavish abandon, sweetening his business proposals with ample doses of rich surroundings, women, vintage wines, champagne and abundant caviar. Using a combination of arrogance and charm, he met and successfully engaged in business deals with leaders in the rarified atmosphere of international finance and politics. He was noted for his obsessive and shameless self-aggrandizement via his London newspaper, The Mirror. Even his closest associates were astounded by Maxwell's personal vanity. Those who knew him intimately observed that he frequently played fast and loose with the truth.

Once his empire began to founder, his creditors discovered that Maxwell had used the same assets multiple times to serve as collateral for his prodigious debt. In the end, it became impossible for him to continue juggling his assets, and Maxwell's empire collapsed. Bankruptcy was finally declared, with debts amounting to more than $1 billion-the largest in British bankruptcy history.

Maxwell's family life, like that of many people deeply obsessed with making fortunes, was almost non-existent in his later years. In 1944, he married Elizabeth Maynard, the daughter of a French silk merchant, in Paris. Although he remained faithful for a while, he eventually became a flagrant philanderer, bedding a succession of leggy blonde secretaries whom he showered with expensive gifts and vague promises of marriage after his divorce (which did not happen). His wife, Betty, rarely saw him, instead spending her lonely days at their country estate, Headington Hill Hall, raising their nine children. …

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