Fall: The Mysterious Life and Death of Robert Maxwell, Britain’s Most Notorious Media Baron by John Preston

Robert Maxwell was a big, fat bully who owned London’s Daily Mirror and the New York Daily News, who loved to humiliate his minions, who sweet-talked dictators, and who robbed his pensioners blind.

He was a monster who, in the words of his wife, Betty Maxwell, a woman who loved him for five decades, was “harsh, cruel, uncompromising, dictatorial … [taking] a sadistic pleasure in crushing and humiliating” the people closest to him. He damaged everyone who came into contact with him, especially his seven surviving children and the youngest above all. Ghislaine Maxwell, the one Robert loved the most, is currently detained in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, where she is accused of supplying under-age sex slaves to Jeffrey Epstein (charges she denies).

When her father died in mysterious circumstances, in 1991, Ghislaine found Epstein, trading in one monster for another.

The Nature of the Beast

In Fall, John Preston sets out the defense case for Robert Maxwell. It’s a testament to the quality of the writing that, incredibly, he goes a long way toward succeeding. No one does English ironic better than Preston, so much so that he should have his own font.

The author of A Very English Scandal, the skewering of psychopathic Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, adapted into a television series starring Hugh Grant, as well as the writer behind January’s The Dig, starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, Preston works his magic on Robert Maxwell, knocking out a love letter of sorts to the old monster.

It’s all fun and games until … Elizabeth Taylor and Maxwell at Malcolm Forbes’s 70th-birthday party, 1989.

At times I gasped in sorrow at the travails of the man who loved to be called “Cap’n Bob.” Robert Maxwell lost nearly all of his family in the Holocaust and then lost his oldest son to a terrible car crash. He lost his fortune, found it, then lost it again. In the end, he lost his marbles and never got them back.

Preston isn’t Robert Maxwell’s only sympathizer. Don Mackay, a legendary reporter on the Daily Mirror, once told me that “Maxwell was more fun than Montgomery,” the dour Northern Irishman who succeeded him as the Mirror’s big boss. Another Mirror hand said: “Maxwell was a monster, but he was our monster.”

Yes, he did routinely urinate off the roof of his helipad in central London, but Preston reports there was a gutter to catch the piss. Yes, he did wipe his bottom on cloth towels and leave them for his staff to pick up, but, Preston writes, you can put this down to a “reversion to the helplessness of babyhood; or the behavior of someone who has abandoned any pretense of being civilized and given in to self-disgust.”

“Maxwell was a monster, but he was our monster.”

Maxwell’s life story was no doubt extraordinary. He was born dirt-poor in a Ruthenian shtetl, got out to fight for the British Army, winning a Military Cross for his courage, then shot a German mayor in cold blood solely because the Germans were not surrendering quickly enough.

Maxwell struggled against British anti-Semitism in the 1960s: good on him. Who wouldn’t take Maxwell’s side against Rupert Murdoch, who bested him again and again?

Combat fatigue? Maxwell in postwar Berlin.

In the end, Maxwell vanished from his super-yacht, named after his most adored child, The Lady Ghislaine. Preston reports the reaction of Maxwell’s son Ian, who felt “exhilarated to be free of this extraordinary alpha male presence in my life and at the same time incredibly scared as to what the future would look like without him.”

One should note that the very first person named in the acknowledgments is Ian Maxwell. Fall isn’t quite the authorized family version, but it’s more that way than you would expect. Preston is too forgiving. There is not enough about Maxwell’s use of libel laws to cudgel honest scrutiny, or his long battles against Private Eye. And not enough about the damage he wrought, most of all on the people who loved him the most. At the top of that list would be his youngest daughter, currently rotting her life away in a prison cell.

John Sweeney is a British journalist and author. He is the host of the podcast Hunting Ghislaine