Within hours of Robert Maxwell’s death on November 5, 1991, tributes from world leaders began pouring in. An early caller to his widow Betty was US President George H. W. Bush.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also rang, as did Lord Goodman, a former adviser to Harold Wilson. He suggested a memorial service for Maxwell in Westminster Abbey might be appropriate. Prime Minister John Major is believed to have delayed his weekly audience with the Queen so he could write his tribute to the media tycoon. ‘No one should doubt his interest in peace and his loyalty to friends,’ Major wrote. ‘His was an extraordinary life, lived to the full.’
Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl was ‘very sad’, while Russia’s President Mikhail Gorbachev was ‘deeply grieved’.
Maxwell’s Daily Mirror was unstinting in its praise, marking his passing with the newsprint version of a 21-gun salute. ‘The body of Robert Maxwell, publishing giant and world statesman, was found in the Atlantic today,’ the paper’s front page announced. Readers who wanted to know more about this ‘Great Big Extraordinary Man’ were invited to turn to pages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 18, 19, 34, 35 and 36.
But the outpouring of adulation would be short-lived.
A month later, after revelations of Maxwell’s multi-million-pound raid on his newspapers’ pension funds, the headlines looked very different. ‘Maxwell Empire Collapses,’ announced the Evening Standard. The Mirror’s headline the following morning was stark. ‘The Lie,’ it read.
“His was an extraordinary life, lived to the full,” wrote Prime Minister John Major, who is believed to have delayed his weekly audience with the Queen so he could write his tribute to the media tycoon.
‘Four weeks earlier I had spent several days going from TV station to TV station telling everyone what a great man Maxwell had been,’ recalls Charlie Wilson, then editor of the Sporting Life newspaper. ‘Now I had to do the whole tour all over again saying what a swine and a disgrace he was.’
By the time Maxwell’s body had been pulled out of the Atlantic Ocean and airlifted to Las Palmas 20 miles away, Betty Maxwell was already on a plane from England to the Canary Islands. ‘There were no tears. She was quite composed,’ said Mirror reporter John Jackson, who flew with her. According to him, Betty had said: ‘I’ll tell you one thing. He would never kill himself. It’s not suicide.’ Jackson said: ‘She was very clear about that.’
In the opinion of Captain Jesus Fernandez Vaca, who had first spotted the body from his helicopter, Maxwell had been in the water for about 12 hours. Vaca told Jackson that when the body was winched up, no water came out of the lungs. ‘He said, ‘I have taken many, many bodies out of the sea and I can tell you for certain that he didn’t drown,’ ’ said Jackson.
“I had spent several days going from TV station to TV station telling everyone what a great man Maxwell had been. Now I had to do the whole tour all over again saying what a swine and a disgrace he was.”
At midday on November 6, three Spanish pathologists carried out a post mortem. Maxwell, they concluded, had died of a cardiovascular attack. The absence of water in his lungs was evidence that he couldn’t have drowned. Either he had suffered a heart attack on the deck of his yacht Lady Ghislaine – named after his youngest daughter – and fallen into the water, or he had fallen, then had a heart attack in the water.
A second post mortem, by British forensic pathologist Iain West three days later, noted that the muscles on Maxwell’s left shoulder were badly torn. Also, there was bruising on the left-hand side of his spine. This appeared to support the theory that he had fallen from the boat, and then hung on to the side for as long as he could until pain forced him to let go.
Across the world, speculation about the cause of Maxwell’s death ran amok. There seemed to be three possible explanations: accident, suicide or murder.
Supporters of the latter theory eagerly lit upon reports that his yacht had been shadowed by another ship as it sailed down the coast of Tenerife. Could a team of assassins have been aboard? Had they managed to board the yacht in the middle of the night, murder Maxwell, then slip away unnoticed?
At the time of Maxwell’s death, his wife is reported to have said, “I’ll tell you one thing. He would never kill himself. It’s not suicide.”
Next came an entirely new possibility. Could the body that had been pulled from the ocean not have been Maxwell? Had he faked his own death? According to former Daily Mirror foreign editor Nick Davies, Maxwell had often talked to his personal assistant Andrea Martin about ‘doing a Stonehouse’ – disappearing like the Labour MP John Stonehouse, who faked his own death in 1974 and travelled to Australia to start a new life.
‘I have thought it would be a wonderful way of ending one’s life,’ Maxwell had apparently told Andrea. ‘Living in a lovely house with a swimming pool in the middle of nowhere with not a worry, not a thought for all the problems.’
“The Crook of the Century”
As the conspiracy theories ran wild, an entirely different drama was unfolding in London. On November 17, it was reported that the Serious Fraud Squad was investigating the failure of Maxwell Communications Corporation (MCC) to repay its $78.6 million debt to Swiss Bank.
The next day, MCC shares opened at 46p (63 cents) – a fall of 17p (23 cents) from the previous Friday. On Radio 4’s Today programme, Maxwell’s son Kevin, MCC’s joint managing director, insisted that ‘the public companies’ finances are robust’. Could he assure investors that their money was safe? ‘Absolutely.’ But this did nothing to allay suspicions that there was something terribly wrong at the heart of Maxwell’s empire. The share price continued to plummet.
Gradually, as the investigations continued, the full scale of Maxwell’s financial deception became apparent. In all, more than $1 billion was missing, including $483 million from Mirror pension funds and $109 million from other Maxwell company pension funds. The debt was so large, according to one commentator, that it qualified for the Guinness Book Of Records.
On December 11, Maxwell’s New York Daily News filed for bankruptcy. The next day, his European newspaper closed. Six months later, Macmillan Publishers followed the New York Daily News into bankruptcy.
As casualties piled up on both sides of the Atlantic, the US Newsweek magazine was in no doubt about the extent of Maxwell’s villainy. He had been, it declared starkly on its cover, ‘the crook of the century’.
Body of Evidence
And yet the clues had been there for decades. In 1966, two years after being elected as a Labour MP during a short-lived political career, Maxwell was appointed chairman of the Commons catering committee, responsible for MPs’ taxpayer-subsidised food and drinks service. It was in total disarray with an $84,000 overdraft.
He set about introducing a series of reforms, infuriating MPs with a ban on foreign cheese and the introduction of powdered milk. The restaurants began making a profit.
But an article in the Sunday Times in February 1968 claimed it wasn’t just food that was being cooked in the Westminster kitchens. So were the books, suggested the newspaper. Apparently, Maxwell had used an unusual form of book-keeping, omitting to mention several significant expenditures.
Although it was later ruled that Maxwell had not been guilty of misconduct, the rumours rumbled on. According to Commons gossip, he had secretly balanced the accounts by selling much of Westminster’s wine cellar – reputed to be one of the best in Europe – to an anonymous buyer for a fraction of its market value. As the buyer was never identified, the mystery remained unsolved. But in years to come, few guests who dined at Maxwell’s home in Oxford went away without remarking on the outstandingly good wines that had been served with their meal.
His financial chicanery would not stop there. In 1984, on the day after he bought the Daily Mirror, Maxwell declared that to boost circulation, he was introducing a competition called Who Dares Wins. It would be the game of the decade, with a prize of almost $1.4 million – the highest in newspaper history. What could possibly go wrong? After all, his media mogul rival Rupert Murdoch had a similar competition in The Sun newspaper.
The debt was so large, according to one commentator, that it qualified for the Guinness Book of Records.
As Maxwell had hoped, people flocked to buy his paper. But several weeks in, nobody had won the prize – or, at least, no winner had been announced. In truth, there had been several who had theoretically scooped the jackpot. But Maxwell didn’t consider them worthy recipients of his money – being either too middle-class, or too unappealing.
Eventually he found one who ticked the right boxes. Maudie Barrett was an elderly widow from Harwich in Essex who had spent her entire working life as a cleaning lady. Having congratulated her on her win, Maxwell proceeded to lecture her on what to do with the money; essentially, this involved her giving it straight back to him. ‘Do you realise this is a tax-free sum and if you let me invest it for you, it will bring you an income of £1,000 a week?’ he told her.
Six years later he was at it again, introducing a Spot the Ball competition in the Mirror immediately after The Sun had announced its own version. But Maxwell baulked at matching their almost $7 million prize, settling for about 1.4 million. ‘Make sure this doesn’t cost me a million,’ he told the Mirror’s editor Roy Greenslade.
For the avoidance of doubt, he repeated: ‘I don’t want to pay out a million pounds.’ To avoid this eventuality, Maxwell drew up some rules of his own. Rather than correctly identifying the position of the ball on just one occasion, the winner would have to do so on five consecutive days. In another innovation, he told the competition’s adjudicators to wait until all the entries were in. They were then instructed to pick a position for the ball that nobody had selected. That way, there need never be a winner unless he created one.
‘He was a terrible man,’ said Murdoch many years later. ‘An absolute fraud and a charlatan.’
Mr. Murdoch v. Ms. Maxwell
Although almost 30 years have passed since Maxwell’s death, speculation about how he died shows no sign of waning. A number of commentators have insisted that he was murdered, possibly by the Israeli secret service, Mossad. In the absence of any convincing evidence of this, however, two possibilities remain: either his death was an accident, or he committed suicide. The people I have interviewed tend to divide down the middle.
Among those convinced that Maxwell killed himself is Murdoch. ‘I remember I got a call one morning saying that he had disappeared off his boat,’ Murdoch says. ‘I said straight away, ‘Ah, he jumped.’ He knew the banks were closing in. I can’t give any other explanation.’
Betty Maxwell, on the other hand, continued to insist that her husband would never have committed suicide, although privately she admitted to having doubts. Her children also believed their father’s death was an accident, with the exception of his youngest, Ghislaine, who has always believed he was murdered.
‘There is no evidence for homicide, but it remains a possibility because I am in no position to exclude it,’ said pathologist Iain West. ‘I don’t think he died of a heart attack. Without the background of a man who was in financial trouble, I would probably say accident. As it is, there are only a few percentage points between the two options, but I favour suicide.’
As far as the accident theory is concerned, it would have been easy to fall off the yacht. At the point where Maxwell is thought to have gone overboard, there was only a thin metal cable below hip-height. As well as being an extremely large man, Maxwell was top-heavy. Suffering chronic insomnia, he often liked to urinate over the back of the boat at night. Although the yacht had stabilisers, they wouldn’t have prevented it from rocking from side to side.
Yet none of this explains why, for the first and only time, Maxwell chose to sail on the Lady Ghislaine on his own, apart from the crew, for that final fateful trip. Normally, he took a substantial retinue with him. Nor does it explain why he locked his cabin doors, one apparently from the outside. The key to the locked door that led out on to the deck from his stateroom was never found.
“I remember I got a call one morning saying that he had disappeared off his boat,” Murdoch says. “I said straight away, ‘Ah, he jumped.’”
The simplest explanation is that a vastly overweight man lost his balance, possibly as a result of a sudden swell, and fell overboard. And yet. Looking at the escalating mayhem of the previous two years, there is a sense that he was killing himself whether or not he was aware of it.
Perhaps the inveterate risk-taker was somehow dicing with death. Half willing something to happen, while loath to take the final step himself. Maybe he had simply stopped caring.
Three decades on, the mystery is no nearer to being solved.
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