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From wooden shack to global media magnate: The rise and fall of Robert Maxwell

11 17 15

LONDON — When Robert Maxwell’s four-story-high yacht sailed into New York in early March 1991, he was seemingly at the zenith of his power and influence. With an estimated wealth of $1-2 billion, the British publisher was in the city to complete the purchase of America’s oldest tabloid, the New York Daily News, and thus realize his dream of matching arch-rival Rupert Murdoch in the global media stakes.

Over the coming days and weeks, the self-styled “Bob the Max” relished his moment of triumph to the full: entertaining New York’s glitterati aboard the Lady Ghislaine, schmoozing with the Washington elite at the annual Gridiron dinner and standing beside Gen. Colin Powell at a ticker-tape parade welcoming home American troops following their victory in the Gulf War.

Within months, however, Maxwell had fallen from the deck of his yacht in mysterious circumstances. His media empire swiftly collapsed beneath the weight of crippling debts; his reputation forever blackened by the revelation that in a desperate effort to keep the bankers at bay, he had looted millions from his companies’ pension funds.

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The story of Maxwell’s rise and crash — the subject of “Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell,” a brilliantly told and compelling new book by British author John Preston — is akin to a Shakespearean tragedy.

“It’s very hard to think of anyone in the 20th century who journeyed as far from his roots as Maxwell,” Preston tells The Times of Israel in an interview. Those roots were in the small town of Solotvino in the province of Ruthenia (then part of Czechoslovakia), where in June 1923 Maxwell became the firstborn son of Mehel and Chanca Hoch’s nine children. Anti-Semitism was rife and the family lived in grinding poverty. Home was a two-room wooden shack with earthen floors and a pit latrine at the back; in the winter, two children would share one pair of shoes. The Dancing Hare, previously known as the Lady Ghislaine, in January 2020. (Wikimedia commons/ CC-BY-SA-4.0/ Andrewrutherford)

Lies, half-truths and exaggeration

Jan Hoch, as he was then known, was studying at a yeshiva in Bratislava when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and handed Ruthenia to their Hungarian allies. Hoch cut off his sidelocks — a symbolic breach with Judaism which would not be healed for more than four decades — and left Solotvino three months later. He never saw his mother, father, grandfather, three of his sisters or younger brother again. All but one sibling perished at Auschwitz. His escape and their fate, Preston believes, haunted Maxwell for the rest of his life. John Preston, author of ‘Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell.’ (Photo by Justine Stoddart)

Much of Maxwell’s early life is clouded in mystery. The broadcaster Michael Parkinson remarked nearly half a century later that it “supports the theory that often truth is more exotic than fiction.”

In reality, as author Preston details, this supposed exoticism owed much to Maxwell’s penchant for lies, half-truths and exaggeration. After he left Solotvino, for instance, the teenager joined the anti-Nazi resistance but was captured, accused of spying and sentenced to death. Maxwell later claimed that he had managed to escape “relatively easily” after overpowering a one-armed guard while being transported to a court appearance. Hiding under a bridge, he recounted on one later retelling, he was aided by “a gypsy lady” who freed him of his handcuffs.

“Intriguing though this story is,” writes Preston, “it does beg a number of questions. However stretched the Hungarian prison service may have been at the time, it seems odd that they couldn’t rustle up a single two-armed guard.” The mysterious “gypsy lady” was also absent from Maxwell’s earlier accounts. “Why hadn’t he thought her worth mentioning before? Had she simply slipped his mind,” the author asks. Or, he wonders, had she “crept onstage… from some colorful corner of Maxwell’s imagination?”

“Maxwell created his own myths,” Preston says, “and one of the reasons, he created his own myths was a kind of smokescreen to hide behind.” ‘Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell,’ by John Preston. (Photo by Justine Stoddart)

This doesn’t, however, detract from Maxwell’s genuine wartime heroism. After escaping his “one-armed guard,” he managed to reach Britain via Belgrade, Beirut and Marseille. Three weeks after D-Day, he set sail for France and, after his first experience of battle, was promoted to an officer.

Maxwell — who by now had adopted an affected English accent perfected by listening to Winston Churchill’s speeches and went by the archetypally British name of Lance-Corporal Leslie Smith — was later awarded the Military Cross for rescuing a trapped Allied platoon. Bravery was mixed with cruelty: on one occasion, he cold-bloodedly shot dead the mayor of a German town to snuff out any resistance; on another, he turned his submachine gun on some German troops who had already surrendered.

Nonetheless, what Preston terms Maxwell’s “natural flair for subterfuge” — by the age of 23, he had changed his name four times — was clearly appreciated by his superiors. Fluent in French, German, English, Czech, Romanian and Yiddish, he was dispatched to Paris in October 1944 to gather intelligence on a feared communist uprising. As the war ended, he was sent to Germany and, in the ruins of Berlin, carried out espionage work for British intelligence. He also began to undertake undercover trips to Czechoslovakia which would continue throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Berlin and his relationship with the British secret service were to later prove the twin foundations upon which Maxwell constructed his media empire. Through his work for the occupying British forces, Maxwell met Ferdinand Springer, owner of the Springer-Verlag publishing........

© The Times of Israel

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