‘A Very English Scandal’ author turns his attention to disgraced media tycoon Robert Maxwell in new biography
By all accounts thus far, this is the definitive – and possibly the last? – biography of the garishly compelling media titan, Robert Maxwell; father to Ghislaine, resident at Oxfordshire’s Italianate mansion Headington Hill Hall and proprietor of the Daily Mirror and New York Daily News. John Preston, author of A Very English Scandal – the book on the Jeremy Thorpe affair – is widely considered the best man to handle the riotous subject. In the Sunday Times author Robert Harris writes that it ‘slips down as richly, easily and pleasurably as a tablespoonful of Beluga caviar.’
The book is roughly the 12th biography of Maxwell, the majority of which were largely published in the 1990s (one, a quite touching memoir, A Mind of My Own, by his long-suffering widow, Betty, who died in 2013). But, as Duncan Campbell in the Guardian writes: ‘Preston comes to his subject with the advantage both of hindsight and his great skill at exposing hypocrisy and subterfuge.’ It hits bookshops at a time of Maxwell mania; when two podcasts dedicated to the subject are knocking around the top of the iTunes charts (John Sweeney’s Hunting for Ghislaine and Tara Palmeri’s Power: The Maxwells) and his youngest daughter, the famous Ghislaine Maxwell, is incarcerated in a Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and ricocheting in and out of the papers every time new information materialises.
Fall charts Maxwell’s jaw-dropping – a word so widely used as to be a cumbersome cliché but that seems highly apt here – meteoric rise to his calamitous fall. Born an Orthodox Jew, he escaped Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, fought in the Second World War and was decorated for his heroism with the Military Cross; he became a Labour MP, fathered an expansive family of nine children (two of whom died young) with wife, Betty, and became a phonomentally successful businessman.
Harris is full of praise for Preston’s account: ‘He has a novelist’s eye for the grotesque, a journalist’s inside knowledge of newspapers, an effective deadpan style, and has done plenty of original research, interviewing scores of witnesses, including three of Maxwell’s children (Ian, Christine and Isabel) and Rupert Murdoch.’ It’s interesting to remember that Maxwell and Murdoch were for a period neck-and-neck rivals, both bigwig proprietors of their respective media empires who would compete for the lion’s share of Britain’s newspaper business. Preston questions: ‘What went so wrong? How did a war hero and model of society become reduced to a bloated, amoral wreck?’
Regarding globally-notorious Ghislaine – Prince Andrew’s friend and the alleged madam for Jeffrey Epstein (a charge she fiercely denies) – Harris writes: ‘One can imagine how much the old man would have hated to be eclipsed, even in notoriety.’ Filled with colourful details and anecdotes, readers discover that Maxwell’s startlingly dark hair and eyebrows were in fact dyed weekly, with L’Oreal Crescendo, by the Savoy’s chief barber; that towards the end of his life he was ‘besotted’ (in the words of his wife) with his young PA, Andrea Martin, and that the Lady Ghislaine (the yacht from which he fell and died) was sold for $15m to Anna, the former wife of Rupert Murdoch.
When it comes to his death, Margaret Thatcher and President George H. W. Bush were swift to offer their condolences – it was very shortly after that it came to light that he was not only bankrupt but a fraud (on a multi million pound scale having plundered the Mirror’s pension fund). By all accounts, this book is definitely worth reading.
‘Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell’ by John Preston (Viking, £18.99)
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