Walking into Robert Maxwell’s bedroom late one night, his son Ian was surprised to see the tycoon bending down with his nose almost touching the glass of his enormous television. On the screen was a documentary showing newsreel footage of Jews arriving at Auschwitz on trains and then being divided into two groups – those deemed fit for work and those who were to be sent straight to the gas chambers.
‘What are you doing?’ his son asked.
Slowly, Maxwell straightened up and turned round. ‘I’m looking to see if I can spot my parents,’ he told him.
For Maxwell, the brutal loss of most of his family at the hands of the Nazis in the 1940s would haunt him for the rest of his life. It was only when the Second World War was over – after he, like many young men from his homeland of Czechoslovakia, had been away fighting for the Allies – that he discovered the shattering truth of what had happened.
His mother, two of his sisters, his brother and a grandfather had been rounded up with thousands of others, taken on a three-day train journey in horrific conditions to Poland and killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Another 19-year-old sister was arrested in Budapest in 1944 and never seen again. She probably suffered the same fate as other Jews: forced to strip naked, roped together, then thrown off a bridge into the Danube. Maxwell’s father didn’t get as far as the gas chambers. It is thought he was shot on arrival at Auschwitz.
Maxwell spent the rest of his life trying to replace the family whose loss had torn his world apart.
From Jan to … Bob
Born on June 10, 1923, in the small town of Solotvino to a young Jewish couple, Mehel and Chanca Hoch, he was given the name Jan. The family lived in a two-room wooden shack with earth floors. In one room, there were a couple of beds. In the other, they cooked, ate and washed. Outside, was a primitive latrine.
The Hochs eventually had nine children and, as the family grew, babies and toddlers slept in cots suspended on ropes from the ceiling. Maxwell was their third child and first son. Their oldest daughter had died in infancy, and another son later died aged two of diphtheria.
From the moment Maxwell was born, his mother doted on him, believing him to have extraordinary gifts. ‘My boy will be famous one day,’ she would say. He himself later claimed he had never really had a proper childhood. But there were three things he recalled about life in Solotvino. ‘I remember how cold I was, how hungry I was and how much I loved my mother,’ he said.
If Maxwell adored his mother, he was terrified of his father, who regularly beat him. The fear never left him – nor would the shame he felt at being so frightened.
At home, the Hochs talked Yiddish, but like most of their neighbours, they also spoke Hungarian, Czech and Romanian. To this impressive tally of languages, the young Jan Hoch added English while stationed in Britain during the war. It was at around this time he adopted the name Robert Maxwell because it sounded distinguished. Along with his old identity, he also shed his religion.
He adopted the name Robert Maxwell because it sounded distinguished.
Towards the end of the war, now a handsome officer in the British Army, Maxwell married the beautiful Betty Meynard, daughter of a Protestant French businessman whom he had met in a Paris bar. Shortly after their wedding, he wrote her a letter outlining his recipe for a perfect marriage.
‘Here are my six rules for the perfect partnership,’ he set out. ‘1. Don’t nag. 2. Don’t criticise unduly. 3. Give honest appreciation. 4. Pay little attentions. 5. Be courteous. 6. Have the utmost confidence in yourself and in your partner.’
Unfortunately, Maxwell was not to observe these rules himself. But in the early years, the marriage was an idyllic one. ‘Most of our time was spent in bed,’ Betty would recall. ‘We just could not stop making love. It was as if he needed to assuage all his pent-up desires… as if our carnal pleasure was the living proof that life had prevailed over death.’
Within a decade, the couple were happily settled in England. Maxwell’s business empire was taking off, they were the parents of six children – and they would have three more.
But in 1957, tragedy struck. At the age of three, their oldest daughter, Karine, was diagnosed with leukaemia, dying soon afterwards in her father’s arms. Then, in 1961, three days after the birth of the couple’s youngest child, Ghislaine, their 15-year-old son, Michael, was involved in a horrific car crash that left him in a coma for seven years and from which he never recovered. The effect on the family was catastrophic.
Always a draconian father, Maxwell became an even harsher disciplinarian, as if setting more rigid boundaries might minimise the danger of any other tragedies befalling his children. Any suggestion of slacking at school aroused in him a terrible fury.
‘We lived in mortal fear if we got a bad mark,’ says Ian. ‘Dad always beat us if we’d been lazy or inattentive, or if we’d lied. He would beat us with a belt – girls as well as boys – and then afterwards you would have to write him a letter saying how you were going to be different in future.’
Maxwell’s daughter Isabel remembers: ‘Every time we wanted to go anywhere, my father would ask, ‘Where are you going? How are you going? Do you have to go in a car?’
Once, several of the children went to the local cinema in Oxford. Halfway through the film, a notice appeared on the screen telling them to go home immediately.
The brutal loss of most of his family at the hands of the Nazis in the 1940s would haunt Maxwell for the rest of his life.
The Maxwells’ marriage, too, came under increasing pressure, with Betty constantly at the hospital bedside of the desperately ill Michael and her husband preoccupied with his publishing empire. At times, Maxwell referred to Betty as ‘Mummy’, and expected her to provide the comfort and uncritical devotion his own mother had given him. But at others, he plunged into extended sulks, blaming her for all his problems.
In 1965, she wrote to him, explaining her growing unhappiness. ‘I am so intensely miserable that I have decided to confide my thoughts to paper,’ she said. ‘We are both mentally and physically exhausted. Your use of uncouth language does you no credit, nor does your complete lack of respect for what I represent.’
In January 1968, Michael died of meningitis, aged 21. After the funeral, the family gathered in Maxwell’s and Betty’s bedroom. ‘I think he wanted us all to share our memories of Michael,’ Ian recalls. ‘But he couldn’t. He just burst into tears. We were all overcome, both by the funeral and by the sight of this big alpha male being so distressed. I’d never seen him like that before.’
Somewhere in the back of Maxwell’s mind must have been the thought that history was repeating itself in the cruellest possible way. He had set out to recreate the family he had lost by having nine children. Two of his siblings had died in childhood, leaving him with six brothers and sisters. Now only seven out of his own nine children had survived. He was, according to Betty, ‘shaken to the very core of his being. He could not believe that fate had dealt him such a cruel blow after all he had already endured’.
After Michael’s death, Betty’s attitude to her husband changed. She accepted what she regarded as inevitable. In 1969, she wrote to him: ‘For some years I have realised… that my usefulness to you has come to an end. I now understand that the only present that can prove my love to you after 25 years is, paradoxically, that I should give you your freedom.’
Although Maxwell showed no desire to go along with this proposal, he now rarely visited the family home, staying in London and having affairs with other women.
One was with Wendy Leigh, the author of several sex manuals. According to her, he was a considerate lover. ‘Wendy said he was always gentle, courteous, and despite lacking any manual dexterity, very dainty in his habits,’ says former Daily Mirror editor Roy Greenslade. What’s more, Maxwell could be unexpectedly old-fashioned, even prudish. ‘Apparently he was very shocked once when she started talking dirty to him, and asked her never to do it again,’ adds Greenslade.
However isolated Betty was feeling, she tried to keep her unhappiness from the children. At Christmas, she laid on a huge family celebration, ensuring that Maxwell always had more presents than anybody else, to compensate for the fact that he’d never had any as a child. ‘Mummy would give him new shirts, new shoes, a new watch, all kinds of things,’ Ian recalls. ‘He loved getting presents. Absolutely loved it.’
Present-opening would be followed by lunch. Despite the size of the Christmas turkey – often about 40 lb – there was another golden rule no one dared disobey: Betty always gave half the turkey to Maxwell, while everyone else had to share the rest.
Even after he had eaten his fill, though, the atmosphere could be tense. ‘Increasingly, Dad was in a terrible mood,’ Ian remembers. ‘Time and time again, Christmas Day was ruined because Dad was in a filthy temper for reasons that no one could work out. Everything had to be perfect. If, say, the turkey was a bit burned – then bam! That was it for the rest of the day.’
At times, Maxwell referred to his wife as ‘Mummy’, and expected her to provide the uncritical devotion his own mother had given him. But at others, he blamed her for all his problems.
The end of the Maxwell marriage eventually came a year before the tycoon’s death, after he furiously berated Betty one day for going to a party when he was at home ill with a headache. ‘After all I’ve done for you, you don’t even have the decency to stay with me when I come home sick and tired,’ he shouted at her. ‘You prefer to go out dancing. I’ve decided irrevocably to leave you.’
In all the time they had been together – almost 50 years – she had never seen him so angry. Betty later wrote: ‘I found myself alone, reflecting on what a ridiculous way this was to part and wondering what on earth had happened to the man I had loved so dearly, protected and slaved for all my life.’
In fact, the couple saw each other again, notably for a family reunion in the US to mark Ian’s wedding. ‘It was one of my last really happy memories of Bob, joking, relaxed and good company,’ Betty recalled. ‘I had almost forgotten how nice he could be. That day, we probably all had our last glimpse of the Bob of old.’
But for the couple, it was the parting of the ways. A financial settlement was reached and Betty moved to France, where she spent most of her time until her death aged 92 in 2013.
“After all I’ve done for you, you don’t even have the decency to stay with me when I come home sick and tired,” Maxwell shouted at his wife. “I’ve decided irrevocably to leave you.”
At her memorial service, Sir Colin Lucas, former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, speculated on what had made Maxwell turn against her. He spoke of Maxwell’s ‘Jewishness’. He said: ‘She felt he was full of guilt for marrying a Christian woman, and that he had not therefore created a Jewish family such as the one he had grown up in, and which had been so cruelly decimated.’
Was Betty right? She believed it was after a visit they made to his home town of Solotvino in 1978 that his feelings for her changed for ever. ‘He was convinced that had he stayed at home [in Czechoslovakia], he could have saved the lives of his parents and siblings,’ she later wrote.
‘Nothing he achieved in life would ever compensate for what he had not been able to accomplish – the rescue of his family. He took his distress out on me.’
But while he clearly blamed Betty for something, there is another possibility: that increasingly haunted by the death of his family – above all, by the death of the one person who had ever loved him unconditionally – what Maxwell really blamed her for was not being more like his mother.
From the book Fall: The Mysterious Life and Death of Robert Maxwell, Britain’s Most Notorious Media Baron, by John Preston. © 2021 by John Preston. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
John Preston is the author of numerous books, including Ghosting, Ink, and A Very English Scandal, which was made into a mini-series starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. His novel The Dig was adapted into a film starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, available on Netflix