Ian Robert Maxwell (born 1923)
Robert Maxwell, who died today after going overboard from his yacht off the Canary Islands, fled the collapse of Czechoslovakia in 1939 to become one of the most powerful publishers in Britain and the world, presiding over a multibillion-dollar empire he assembled with brass and bravura over 40 years.
An avowed socialist whose newspapers here supported the Labor Party, the 68-year-old publisher ran his businesses with legendary ruthlessness and attention to earnings, paring by the hundreds the staffs of the companies he acquired and instantly dismissing editors of his newspapers when they disagreed with him.
As a global businessman with interests in scores of countries, he borrowed money on a heroic scale, but kept his bankers, executives and staffs toeing the line by the power of his physical presence and his insistence on having his way.
Despite his physical size -- he was about 6 feet tall and weighed about 290 pounds -- Mr. Maxwell was compulsively active. With his beetling black eyebrows and his booming baritone, he had a talent for self-dramatization and knew how to skirt the edge of scandal. Even after taking large parts of his empire public this year, he kept his own financial affairs well hidden in a multinational web of holding companies, the most closely guarded of them a private family trust in Liechtenstein.
Once described by British Government fraud investigators as unsuited to run a public company, he lost his seat on the board of his first company, Pergamon Press, but eventually won it back. "I have never worried about what the Establishment believes about me or doesn't," he said a few years ago. "I don't give a damn."
5 Family Members Die in Auschwitz
This complex figure who sought and cultivated political and government connections in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Israel as well as in the United States, was born on June 10, 1923, into a Hasidic family called Hoch in the Ruthenian village of Slatinske Doly, then part of Czechoslovakia and now in the Soviet Union, and was given the name Ludvik. He was selling trinkets on the streets of Bratislava in March 1939 when Hitler's allies in Hungary occupied his homeland as the Nazis marched into western Czechoslovakia.
His mother and four other members of his immediate family died in the Auschwitz concentration camp, and his father is believed to have been shot either there or during transport to the camp. Only two of Mr. Maxwell's sisters survived it.
Though Mr. Maxwell never made much of his religion, he was an outspoken supporter of Israel all his life. He escaped the Holocaust by making his way to France and joining a group of Czechoslovak volunteers in the French Foreign Legion in March 1940.
After the French defeat that year, he escaped again, being evacuated with other Czechoslovak troops to Britain. He later claimed he learned English in only six weeks. Soon after his arrival he joined the British Army as a volunteer and earned a battlefield commission as lieutenant. His talent for languages then led him into intelligence work.
It was on such an assignment to Paris, just after its liberation in July of 1944, that he met the woman who would become his wife, a French Huguenot named Elisabeth Meynard. Proposing to her in December, he promised that he would win a Military Cross, re-create a family, make a fortune, and become Prime Minister of England. "And I shall make you happy until the end of my days," he said.
The first promise, at least, he kept in 1945, winning the Military Cross for "heroism in the face of enemy action" at the Dutch-German border. When the war ended, he was discharged as captain, a title he insisted on using in civilian life for 20 years afterward. He also acquired his name, Ian Robert Maxwell, at the suggestion of a Scottish officer friend.
Company Is Lost In a Scandal
For the next two years he served in occupied Germany with the British Foreign Office as head of the press section in war-ravaged Berlin. There he would make business contacts that led to the purchase of his first company, a publisher of scientific journals and textbooks that he bought from its German and British owners and renamed Pergamon Press.
With a bank loan and money borrowed from his wife's family and from relatives in America, Mr. Maxwell built it into a thriving company by 1964, when he took a step toward fulfilling his political ambitions by winning a seat as a Labor Party Member of Parliament for the rural constituency of Buckingham, north of London.
His political and business fortunes took a turn for the worse in 1969, when he lost Pergamon in a financial scandal after trying to sell it to Saul P. Steinberg, the New York financier. Mr. Steinberg contended that Mr. Maxwell had misled him about the company's worth, and pulled out of the deal.
The principal shareholders then angrily ousted Mr. Maxwell from Pergamon's board. The next year, Labor lost the elections to the Conservatives, and, embroiled in the scandal, Mr. Maxwell lost his seat.
A protracted British Government investigation concluded in mid-1971 "that, notwithstanding Mr. Maxwell's acknowledged abilities and energy, he is not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company."
"Not true," Mr. Maxwell responded with fury. Ultimately he recovered, going heavily into debt to buy back Pergamon privately in 1974 after reaching an out-of-court financial settlement with Mr. Steinberg and his investment partners. He sold the company again to a Dutch publisher, Elseviers, last March for $:440 million ($770 million).
He would never again run for public office, but as a newspaper publisher --- one of the few, in the past decade, to back the Labor Party instead of the Conservatives -- he exercised another kind of political influence. He also helped revolutionize the newspaper business in Britain, ruthlessly eliminating the ancient practices of overstaffing and the overlapping jurisdictions that had given Fleet Street unions a stranglehold over management and allowing Conservative publishing rivals like Rupert Murdoch to follow his example.
Newspaper Payrolls Are Slashed
When Mr. Maxwell bought the British Printing and Communication Corporation in London in 1980, it was nearly bankrupt. He told the unions that the only way to save any jobs at all was to cut the payroll from 13,000 to 7,000 workers. Later, as Maxwell Communications Corporation, the company came to be regarded as a model of efficiency.
So, too, was Mirror Group Newspapers, which Mr. Maxwell acquired as a privately owned company in 1984. There he found typesetters earning more than assistant editors and many people working four-hour days and four-day weeks. His arrival as chairman came at 3 A.M. the morning after the sale.
Told that the entire staff of The Daily Mail and The Sunday Record in Glasgow was holding a meeting to decide whether to work for him, Mr. Maxwell replied, "If they don't return to work I will close down their papers and they won't open again."
"Forward with Britain," the Mirror proclaimed under his leadership, and it and its sister papers in Scotland increased their circulation from three million to nearly four million last year, though it fell this year by about 300,000. Mr. Maxwell sold 49 percent of Mirror Group Newspapers to the public this year for $:245.5 million ($421.8 million), more than twice what he had originally paid for them.
His editors would soon learn that having him as publisher was an entirely new experience. "When I fire someone it is like a thunderclap," he told Sebastian Faulks of The Independent, not one of the newspapers he owns, last year. "My primary duty is to hire and fire editors. I treat them like a field marshal."
Magnus Linklater, one editor who worked for him, said, "Balance is not something usually associated with Robert Maxwell." He had a habit, Mr. Linklater said, "of suddenly appearing out of the blue, and woe betide the person who is not at his desk and doing what he's expecting them to be doing."
Mr. Linklater was hired to run a new afternoon tabloid, The London Daily News, that Mr. Maxwell launched in 1987. Asked at the time by a reporter from another newspaper whether he would dismiss Mr. Linklater if he wrote editorials supporting the Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, instead of Labor's leader, Neil Kinnock, Mr. Maxwell paused briefly and then answered:
"He would have my permission to do so. I would have him certified. But he would certainly be able to do it."
Mr. Linklater survived, but the newspaper did not, and the flop cost Mr. Maxwell the equivalent of $50 million. Later, he said, "I made certain that never again would I launch a paper and leave it in the hands of the professionals."
A Weekly Paper For All of Europe
The publisher, who at the end claimed to be able to speak 11 languages, launched a European-wide English-language color weekly newspaper, The European, in May of last year. Visiting its offices one weekend and finding that he had no office in the newsroom, he took the nameplate off the door of the one used by its first editor, Ian Watson, and took over that room on the spot.
Last winter, he replaced Mr. Watson as editor, easing him upstairs to the board of directors. The weekly has reportedly lost money since its inception, and Mr. Maxwell kept it as part of his private business operations.
In recent years, he turned his business eye toward the United States, acquiring the publishing house of Macmillan in 1989 for $2.6 billion and Official Airline Guides for $750 million. The acquisitions came at a price of a heavy debt load that later forced him to sell Pergamon and part of the Mirror Group, but Mr. Maxwell's real interest soon became The Daily News in New York City, which he acquired from the Tribune Company of Chicago last spring, ending a long and costly strike from which the tabloid has not yet recovered.
Mr. Maxwell always insisted that The Daily News was "in danger of becoming profitable" by early next year, and promised to spend most of his time running it. At first, he did, parking the yacht that took him on his last voyage, the Lady Ghislaine, named after a daughter, in the East River off 30th Street and holding court. Hailed at first for saving two-thirds of the paper's jobs, he was made an honorary Grand Marshal at the Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue. But later he seemed to fade from public view and to spend more of his time in London.
To the members of the sedate British Establishment he said he despised, Mr. Maxwell was regarded as an upstart outsider, the piratical financier the satirical press weekly Private Eye called "Captain Bob." An American author, Seymour M. Hersh, contended in a recent book, "The Samson Option," that he had close ties with Israel's top leadership, and that Nicholas Davies, the foreign editor of The Daily Mirror, was buying and selling arms in partnership with an Israeli intelligence operative.
Mr. Davies denied the charge last month, but later, confronted with evidence that he had met an arms dealer in Ohio despite his denials, he acknowledged that he had not told the truth about the trip and The Mirror dismissed him. But Mr. Maxwell maintained his lawsuit against Mr. Hersh, who has filed a countersuit.
New Interests In Eastern Europe
Mr. Maxwell's critics have often made fun of the fawning biographies he published of Eastern European Communist leaders like Erich Honecker of East Germany, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria.
After they fell, he pirouetted neatly around and acquired interests in newly democratic newspapers in Hungary and Eastern Germany, and last year formed a $250 million fund to invest in joint ventures in the region. Prime Minister John Major, paying tribute to him today, said he had offered useful advice at the time of the failed coup in Moscow last August.
Mr. Maxwell never took a car when a helicopter would do, and roared in and out of his London headquarters --called, naturally, Maxwell House -- by helicopter every day from the Headington Hill Hall estate he rented from the city authorities in Oxford.
An ardent soccer fan, he owned clubs in both Britain and Israel at various times, but controversy attended his every attempt to buy another one. Last year, he was said to be growing disillusioned with the sport in Britain, saying it "could not be in a sorrier state," and put his interests in four clubs on the market.
Mr. Maxwell is survived by his wife, three sons and four daughters. Two of the sons, Ian Robert Charles Maxwell, 35, and Kevin Francis Herbert Maxwell, 32, are directors of the publishing company. Another daughter died of leukemia in infancy, and another son, the eldest, died in 1968, seven years after an automobile accident.
Correction: November 8, 1991
The obituary of Robert Maxwell on Wednesday misidentified the afternoon newspaper he began in 1987. It was The London Evening News, not The London Daily News.
Robert Maxwell was being investigated for war crimes and was to be interviewed by police just before he mysteriously drowned 15 years ago.
Revelations that Maxwell, a captain in the British Army, knew he faced a possible life sentence for murdering an unarmed German civilian in 1945 lend support to the theory that he took his own life in 1991.
A Metropolitan Police file released to The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act shows that, weeks before he died, detectives had begun questioning members of Maxwell's platoon and were preparing a case for the Crown Prosecution Service.
Maxwell would have been told about the inquiry and knew that, if found guilty, he would be the first Briton to be prosecuted for war crimes. The War Crimes Act 1991 was enacted just six months before Maxwell's body was found floating in the Atlantic on 5 November after disappearing from his yacht, the Lady Ghislane.
No one has been able to explain how he came to die. But the police file shows that, by that time, officers had been able to establish the location in Germany where Maxwell was alleged to have killed an unarmed civilian. The shooting, which is said to have happened on 2 April 1945, was first disclosed by Maxwell's authorised biographer, Joe Haines, in 1988. Maxwell is quoted in the book describing how he tried to capture a German town by threatening the population with a mortar bombardment, a tactic that had proved successful on a nearby village hours earlier.
In a letter to his wife, published in the book, Maxwell recounts how he asked some Germans to fetch the mayor. He ordered the mayor to go back to town and tell the soldiers defending it to surrender or face destruction. One hour later the mayor returned, saying the soldiers had agreed to his demands. "But as soon as we marched off a German tank opened fire on us," Maxwell wrote. "Luckily, he missed, so I shot the mayor and withdrew."
The Met's file says: "The reported circumstances of the shooting gave rise to an allegation of War Crimes. To some extent, the reporting of the shooting incident was confirmed by Mr Maxwell in an interview he gave in 1988 to the journalist Brian Walden [30th October 1988]."
But the police could do nothing until Parliament had enacted the war crimes legislation which had been specifically designed to prosecute Nazi war criminals living in this country.
It was only when a member of the public made a complaint under the new legislation that an official investigation could begin. Two officers from the Met's historic war crimes unit began tracing members of his platoon but had been unable to find a witness to the alleged shooting of the mayor.
Maxwell is presumed to have fallen overboard from Lady Ghislane, which was cruising off the Canary Islands. The official verdict was accidental drowning, though many people, including members of his own family, believe he took his own life. It did not emerge until after his death that he had plundered the Mirror Group pensions' funds to bail out his ailing media empire.
Shortly after he was buried in Jerusalem, the police passed the conclusions of their investigation to the Crown Prosecution Service. The file obtained under the Freedom of Information Act says "it was determined that the case could be progressed no further, and it was closed in March 1992". The file also shows that although a lot of work had gone into the case the police had not been able to find a reliable witness to corroborate the account in Haines's biography. They had also raised concerns about having to rely on the quotes attributed to Maxwell in the book. But Maxwell would not have known this and he may have felt that the net was closing.
Maxwell was immensely proud of his war record. He fought his way across Europe from the Normandy beaches to Berlin, winning the Military Cross in January 1945. He had a hatred for Germans that stemmed from his earlier life, most of his family in Czechoslovakia having been killed by the Nazis. Later in life, he was reported to have said that the two things he hated most were Germans and taxes.
Robert Maxwell was born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch into a poor Yiddish-speaking orthodox Jewish family in the small town of Slatinské Doly (now Solotvino, Ukraine), in the easternmost province of (pre-World War II) Czechoslovakia. His parents were Mechel Hoch and Hannah Slomowitz. He had six siblings. In 1939, the area was reclaimed by Hungary. Most members of his family died in Auschwitz after Hungary was occupied in 1944, by its former ally, Nazi Germany, but he had already escaped to France. In Marseille he joined the Czechoslovak Army in exile in May 1940.
After the defeat in France and the retreat to Great Britain, Maxwell took part in the protest against the leadership of the Czechoslovak Army, and with 500 other soldiers, he was transferred to the British Pioneer Corps, and later to the North Staffordshire Regiment in 1943. He was then involved in action across Europe, from the Normandy beaches to Berlin, and achieved the rank of sergeant. He gained a commission in 1945, and was promoted to captain. In January 1945, he received the Military Cross from Field Marshal Montgomery. Attached to the British Foreign Office, he served in Berlin during the next two years in the press section.
In 1945, he married Elisabeth "Betty" Meynard; a French Protestant, with whom he had nine children, with the goal of "recreating the family he lost in the Holocaust". Five of his children were later employed within his companies. His three-year-old daughter Karine died of leukemia and his eldest son, Michael, was severely injured in 1961 (at the age of 15), after being driven home from a post-Christmas party when his driver fell asleep at the wheel. Michael never regained consciousness and died seven years later.
After the war he used various contacts in the Allied occupation authorities to go into business, becoming the British and United States distributor for Springer Verlag, a publisher of scientific books. In 1951 he bought three quarters of Butterworth-Springer, a minor publisher; the remaining quarter was held by the experienced scientific editor Paul Rosbaud. They changed the name of the company to Pergamon Press and rapidly built it into a major publishing house.