Critic’s Chair: They were once rivals, but while one is long forgotten the other remains an indelible presence. Guy Somerset reviews two examinations of the lives and legacies of Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch.
One of the more unnerving afternoons of my life was spent in the genteel sitting room of a home in suburban northwest London. It was 1994 and I was there to interview Sylvia Rosen, who together with her biophysicist husband had just written a guide to the city’s places of scientific interest.
Nothing to spook anyone there, you might think. But as we sat over a cup of tea amid middle-class lounge furnishings that wouldn’t have been out of place in the home of one of my aunts, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head: you are the sister of Robert Maxwell and you look just like him.
Maxwell was the international media and publishing tycoon – a rival of Rupert Murdoch – who was posthumously disgraced after dying in mysterious circumstances three years earlier having embezzled his companies and their pension funds of more than £750 million.
He had lived extravagantly and been courted by the great and mighty, not least presidents, prime ministers and other political leaders in the US, UK, Eastern Bloc and Israel. Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush Sr had all paid court in one way or another, humouring him for the power he wielded through his newspapers, connections and apparent wealth.
Behind his back, people would mock him for his crass excesses, ever the absurd arriviste, but to his face they would play along with his grandiose sense of himself. (Example: he couldn’t believe Boris Yeltsin could have climbed on that tank outside the Russian parliament and called on rebel soldiers to lay down their guns – “Don’t you think Yeltsin would have called me before making a speech like that?”)
And here was that face sitting in front of me, such was the strength of familial resemblance, combined with a force of personality that lived on after death and continued to eclipse those associated with him so they could not escape his taint.
Nearly three decades later, however, Maxwell is all but forgotten, a lesson in the limits of hubris. If his name is mentioned at all today, it is in passing as the father of Ghislaine Maxwell, currently in jail in New York accused of procuring underage girls for Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse. Some legacy.
Maxwell’s story – Robert’s, that is – is told in the new book by John Preston, author of A Very English Scandal about the Jeremy Thorpe affair, which was adapted into a successful TV mini-series starring Hugh Grant as Thorpe. In a less darkly humorous register, Preston also wrote the novel The Dig, recently filmed for Netflix.
Preston enjoys further tragi-comic pickings in Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell. The tone will be familiar to those who have read Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret. A mix of revulsion at, and revelry in, the grotesqueries of a monster. A human monster, though. With pity in the picture too.
The business world is littered with so-called self-made men, but Maxwell really was. A complete self-invention.
He was from a dirt-poor Jewish family in a rural town of the former Czechoslovakia.
Born in 1923, he entered the fog of World War II as Ján Hoch and emerged several years and names later as Robert Maxwell.
Some of the heroic war exploits of which he spoke may or may not have been tall tales, but not all of them, because he received a military cross from Field Marshal Montgomery and there is a photograph of him doing so.
The svelte, dapper figure in this and other photographs gave way after the war to rampant obesity as he satisfied his gluttonous appetite for not only food but also acclaim, wealth and the trappings that go along with them.
The media and publishing empire he built sat from the beginning on foundations of sand: dodgy deals, exaggerated claims, downright lies.
Maxwell was a bully – to staff, wife and children alike; to anyone who got in his way – and was in most ways despicable. But Preston traces the humanity within him, not least the childhood and wartime sources of so many of his pathologies.
He grew up in poverty and lost most of his family to the Holocaust – including his parents, three sisters, his brother and his grandfather, all but one of them in Auschwitz..
You can’t help but think at least part of the disdain the British establishment felt for Maxwell was fuelled by, yes, the usual class snobberies, but also anti-Semitism, a prevalent presence in post-war British culture.
I recently watched a 1993 episode of Inspector Morse in which Robert Hardy played a figure clearly modelled on Maxwell – except in this case a concentration camp survivor, later revealed to have in fact collaborated with the Nazis and been a camp guard.
This is a particularly repellent calumny when you read the most moving passage in Fall, the one through which you come to reconsider the entire book.
It recounts the time Maxwell’s son Ian found him bent down with his nose almost touching the glass of an enormous television screen showing a documentary about Auschwitz.
What was he doing? asked Ian.
“I’m looking to see if I can spot my parents.”
If Maxwell was always larger than life, Rupert Murdoch has always seemed smaller than it – mousy, non-descript, what those British snobs would call provincial. But what need for vulgar showboating when you can quietly get on with controlling a large part of the world’s media and by extension the politicians reliant on it?
Murdoch’s story – and, as the title suggests, that of his family – is told in the BBC’s three-part The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty. Maxwell doesn’t warrant even a footnote. So much for that rivalry.
To be fair, the documentary is really only concerned with the post-1990s period, the one where the dynasty – i.e. offspring Lachlan, James and Elizabeth – are jockeying for position, the family is brought low by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, and then brought high again by the pivotal role Fox News played during the presidency of Donald Trump. Brought high in terms of power, anyway; but lower still morally.
The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty owes a debt to Jesse Armstrong’s brilliant media mogul family satire Succession. There’s not much of Maxwell in Succession – his story would have been too outlandish, too broad in its comedy. But there is a lot of the Murdochs, and there is a lot of Succession in James Roberts’s documentary, from the extravagant scoring and cinematography (lots of aerial shots of New York and London at night) to, wonderfully, a scene of Rupert and his black limousine motorcade returning to the family’s roots in Scotland, à la Logan Roy.
Not that the documentary is played for laughs. You don’t get to be the last man standing by being the butt of the joke. (Dallas fans will appreciate that Robert Maxwell was always Cliff Barnes to Rupert Murdoch’s JR Ewing.)
The Murdochs themselves are, naturally, absent, but otherwise the contributors are impressive: former foot-soldiers of the empire, including Piers Morgan; the reporters who put hacking into hack; higher-minded journalists from the New Yorker and Vanity Fair; Alastair Campbell, Nigel Farage, Steve Bannon.
The nexus of media and politics is hardly news but it is helpful to have it laid out in one place and in such forensic detail.
And it is always nice to see playwright Dennis Potter again, telling Melvyn Bragg in his final, valedictory interview in 1994: “I call my cancer, the main one, the pancreas one, I call it Rupert, so I can get close to it, because the man Murdoch is the one who, if I had the time – in fact I’ve got too much writing to do and I haven’t got the energy – but I would shoot the bugger if I could. There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press, and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life.”
I do miss Dennis Potter.
Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston (Penguin/Viking, $40); The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty (TVNZ OnDemand)