'The Dig' author excavates the life of Robert Maxwell
- Credit: PA
In November 1991, media tycoon Robert Maxwell's naked body was recovered from the sea after falling from his yacht The Lady Ghislaine.
It was a suitably headline-grabbing end to the life of the Holocaust survivor, war hero, ex Labour MP, and fraudster.
Born to a poor Czech family in 1923, "he changed his name four times by the time he was 23," says John Preston, whose book Fall charts Maxwell's mysterious life and death.
"He thought Maxwell had a Scottish baronial feel with no whiff of Jewishness," adds the author of The Dig and A Very British Scandal, about Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe.
"He fascinated me, this figure who was one part from an Italian comic opera, another from a Chicago gangster film - feared and ridiculed in equal measure. Thirty years after his death he is still regarded as the embodiment of corporate villainy, a pantomime baddie. I wanted to chip that off and see what lay beneath - a more complex and tragic figure."
Preston enjoys exploring lives which offer "a vivid contrast between the way we do things then and now."
In the case of Thorpe it was prejudice against homosexuality. For Maxwell "the way in which power is exercised."
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"In 1984 he and Rupert Murdoch became the two biggest power brokers in British political life, able to influence the outcome of elections. You don't find that any more. It felt like rich, dark territory to go back and have a look at. Murdoch had an ideological plan, Maxwell's was more self advancement. These enormously influential figures were locked in a titanic struggle to be the biggest media baron in the world. Murdoch won, and in trying to match him Maxwell set in train a chain of events that led to his physical and mental collapse and ultimately his death."
Few 20th Century figures had such an eventful early life.
"He leaves home at 16 in 1939 to seek fame and fortune and his parents, three siblings and grandfather die in Auschwitz. That's the prism you have to see Maxwell through. He was profoundly affected by what happened to his family. It gave him a desire to wreak vengeance. He was unbelievably combative - he had no idea of friendship - he wanted to lock horns with the world."
The man who was awarded the Military Cross in 1945 for the heroic rescue of fellow soldiers would raid The Mirror pension pot to shore up his overstretched business. His daughter Christine told Preston that towards the end he displayed signs of megalomania.
"He had driven everyone away and cut a lonely, beleaguered figure gorging on Chinese take-aways and watching old Clint Eastwood movies," says Preston who approached Maxwell's death with "an open mind". He thinks the popular theory he was "bumped off by Mossad" unlikely.
"There was no evidence and why would a team of hit men go to the middle of the Atlantic when it was much easier to do it on dry land?"
The first autopsy was "botched," the second conducted by the insurance company's pathologist with a "vested interest" in finding suicide.
"He was in bad health, knew his empire was a fiction built on lies, and there were firing squads lined up, from the Mirror pensioners to city banks. I don't think he would have been able to handle life in prison," says Preston who believes it was "somewhere between a suicide and an accident".
As for Maxwell's favourite daughter Ghislaine, he's wary of drawing comparisons between her father and disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. "They were both rich but completely different. Maxwell was a blow hard who had to dominate a room, Epstein more wily."
"It's true the children had led a gilded lifestyle and suddenly found there was no money. Maxwell was a draconian father and Ghislaine better at defusing his anger and charming him. It wasn't an easy upbringing."
John Preston is in conversation with David Aaronovitch at the Proms at St Jude's lit-fest on June 27.