House of Maxwell may have crumbled but our obsession with criminal tycoon remains intact

When he was alive it was impossible to avoid Robert Maxwell. His name and face of him were everywhere. There appeared to be nothing the publishing and newspaper proprietor was not involved in – such was his unquenchable thirst for publicity.

He would be linked, invariably, to any deal, any venture, seemingly to any issue. If there was a lull, he would ensure his picture of him and accompanying him, often non-story, would be given prominence in one of the newspapers he owned.

Today, for instance, he would be all over the war in Ukraine, speaking, opining, even flying there with cameras clicking. He was insatiable and the attention, much of which as I say, he generated himself, was relentless.

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In death, too. ‘Captain Bob’, as he was known, went over the side of his yacht in the Mediterranean on November 5,1991, but still he is omnipresent.

This week, the BBC has launched a three-part TV series, House of Maxwell. Meanwhile, his daughter Ella Ghislaine is attracting headlines after a judge upheld her conviction in New York on sex-trafficking charges. John Preston’s recent book, Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, on Maxwell’s rise and demise is a bestseller. On it goes.

Maxwell was a physical giant. I once interviewed him in his underpants and it was a sight to behold.

I’d been summoned to Maxwell House, his headquarters in central London at about 6.30pm. He was making an acquisition and, as ever, he wanted to boast about it. I was told to wait, then I heard his booming voice from him.

Is Mr Blackhurst here? Send him in.” I was ushered into a bedroom, his apartment by him. On the bed there was a dinner suit. Then he appeared in the doorway of the en suite, doing up an evening shirt. I sat on the edge of the bed, taking notes, while he stood there in the most voluminous pair of white Y-fronts, boasting of his commercial prowess from him.

Robert Maxwell hobnobbing with former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher.  Getty

Eccentric and affordable

An East European by birth, he would speak in the most florid, pompous English tones, frequently in a rage. His behavior could be appalling, like urinating off the side of his office building when he disembarked from the helicopter on the rooftop helipad. Yes, I really did.

And yes, he fired someone whose slovenly behavior in a lift offended him – he took the person to his office, asked how much they earned and wrote out a check. Only, they didn’t work for Maxwell, the sacked employee was not an employee at all but a visitor. But they walked off with a check for a tidy sum anyway.

Maxwell was never the biggest business player. To his fury at him, and our delight at his anger at him, Rupert Murdoch was more successful. Murdoch was global, he’d conquered America, he owned in The Sun the most popular UK newspaper. And compared with the titans of today – Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg – Maxwell was tiny.

He was though, more accessible. While Murdoch and the rest were distant, Maxwell could not help himself. There was fascination as well with Maxwell’s family, his loyal wife Betty and their high-achieving children, and lifestyle, renting a Palladian mansion on the edge of Oxford, “the biggest council house in England”.

There had been rumors that his empire was in trouble, that he was frankly trying to raise cash to keep afloat. Nothing, however, was sticking and if they did get close, journalists were warned off by his aggressive, threatening lawyers from him.

After he died, I was offered an interview with Maxwell’s son Kevin, who was boxing up his belongings. I helped Kevin pack books away, sitting on the floor of the executive suite and hearing how he was, truly, a great man.

Kevin Maxwell (R) celebrates outside the High Court, London, in 2001 after a judge ruled he should not stand trial for a second time on charges relating to the collapse of his father's media empire.  PA Images via Getty

The crooked tycoon archetype

Then, news broke that a major fraud had been uncovered, that the workers’ pension fund was raided to prop up his businesses. Everything altered and hardened. Kevin’s fawning adulation was hastily consigned to history.

Maxwell ticks every box of how we imagine a crooked tycoon to be. Critically, unlike other suspected fraudsters of his ilk, he is dead. He can’t sue for defamation. Unlike them, too, his illegality came from him. In many cases, wrongdoing is suspected but never properly exposed.

In the case of Maxwell, his lawyers were powerless to intervene. We thought he was bad but he could not say so and prove so. Now we could and we did.

In that sense, Maxwell was and is a rarity. Right now, I can list several tycoons who, rumor has it, are dodgy. But no one will go there. The system is stacked against the inquisitor. In the case of Maxwell, all those defensive barriers came down.

His expensively assembled legal team for once had to shut up. His PRs of him, booster senior colleagues and relatives of him were silenced.

A delinquent legacy

While his trickery was exposed, the circumstances of his passing remain shrouded. That, again, has fueled the intrigue – was he pushed, did he jump or was it natural causes?

Then came Ghislaine and her association with the late Jeffrey Epstein. Just as her father’s death de ella altered the perception of him, so with Ghislaine it is that “guilty” verdict.

Ghislaine Maxwell has continued her father's legacy of criminality.  AP

Together, they make an enticing duo, a casebook for psychologists, amateur and professional: the towering monster of a father and the wanting-to-please daughter.

It’s the stuff of fiction, except for once it is real.

Published: April 06, 2022, 10:19 AM

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