February 22, 2021   5 mins

John Preston’s new life of Robert Maxwell is called Fall. But which fall? The moral one — he stole £460 million from his employees at the Mirror — or the fatal one, from the yacht named for his favourite child — now likewise fallen for helping Jeffrey Epstein in his crimes — the Lady Ghislaine? Or is it a more universal one, that took place in continental Europe in the 1940s — the Holocaust? I wonder if Preston is thinking of the last because Fall’s epigraph, from The Great Gatsby, could hardly be more apt for a Holocaust survivor: “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him
.” For the Holocaust survivor, memory itself is a burden. Maxwell would never be free.

Under Preston’s fair pen Maxwell is a clever, vulgar, frightened polyglot. In his heyday he was perceived as cartoonish — so inhuman that a guest at one of his parties at Headington Hall went through his cupboards looking for insights into his character. She told Preston she wouldn’t normally do this but it was Maxwell so who cares? (She found rows of salad cream.) His story is irresistible because it is barely believable. One reviewer called it “entertaining”.

Is it though? It is true Maxwell’s life was novelistic. He was a man of infinite possibility because he did not know who he was, and he could not bear to ask. He was a plutocrat who lived in a rented house. He was a sexual exploiter cuckolded by an employee. He was a father who appeared to hate his children. He styled himself, preposterously, as an English country squire and endured typical British snobbery for his trouble. (The Observer compared to him a Petticoat Lane market trader. The Sun called him a peasant.) He invented modern British scientific publishing but had fake book spines in his study. He was the first British passenger to fly one million miles, but he could not go home.

I do not find this story irresistible, or even very strange, but then I am a Jew. To me, Maxwell’s story is a fairly ordinary tale of Holocaust trauma, if not to Preston (but who wants to believe their subject is a type?). It is the story of a man who hated himself so much for survival he could not, for 40 years, admit to his Jewishness, or to his childhood name. It is possible he even forgot he was once called Ludvik Hoch. One of Maxwell’s sisters, Sylvia, was saved by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued her from a Budapest station as she was about to be sent to Auschwitz. He gave her, along with other Jewish children, Swedish citizenship, and she later came to England. Towards the end of Maxwell’s life Sylvia asked him why he called himself Jan Hoch. Maxwell replied it was his name. No, said Sylvia, he was named Ludvik. According to Preston’s account Maxwell looked “astonished” and asked: “Was I?”

He was born in what is now Ukraine, in 1923. “I remember how cold I was,” he said, “how hungry I was and how much I loved my mother.” His mother was adoring and his father abusive: Stalin’s family dynamic, precisely, one designed to cultivate suspicion in a child. He said he was once so hungry he ate a dog but that may not be true. He was not a reliable narrator. He was ever shifting. Perhaps that was why he became so fat. I wonder if he subconsciously sought to anchor himself to something, to anything, to this earth.

He was 16 when he left his family. He ended up fighting for the British against the Nazis. By the time the war was over his parents and all by two of his siblings were dead, some in Auschwitz, others en route. He had had nine brothers and sisters — he was the eldest son — and, with his non-Jewish wife Betty, he would have nine sons and daughters, as if to recover the lost family. Betty says he sank to his knees by a pool when they visited Auschwitz, pulled out some sodden splintered bones, and wept.

As Preston calmly relates, Maxwell’s criminality went far beyond the Man Who Saved the Mirror robbing its pension fund and treating his employees like serfs. (He particularly enjoyed tormenting the well-connected because they knew their place in the world.) That is the least of it. He was a killer. As a British soldier, he shot German civilians — he shot a mayor in the head in the town square — and German soldiers trying to surrender. (He could not understand why other British soldiers objected.) He robbed their corpses. His wife Betty, in her anguished memoir, said that even in the ecstatic early days of their marriage his own lips “depicted death and carnage”. He carried it with him to England, to the House of Commons — he was a much-mocked and talkative Labour MP — and to a publishing empire.

He gathered a robe of success around him, but it did not fit him. He learnt to stop changing his name after his bank manager told him he would close the account if he did not stop. (He had four different names before the age of 23.) He found it impossible to be intimate and walked around his parties with a PA system, so his voice would boom from nowhere. He had no friends, only employees. His most treasured possession was his passport, which was normal for Jews of his generation: the right passport could save your life. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs, he asked his family to choose the music. Who doesn’t have music? A man who either cannot hear it or feels he does not deserve it.

He returned to Judaism and Betty thought that this, and his growing belief that he betrayed his family by marrying a non-Jew, destroyed their marriage. She said everything changed when they visited SlatinskĂ© Doly, the town of his birth, to a hero’s welcome, though the inhabitants could, or would, not save his family. He didn’t divorce her, but he verbally abused her, ignored her and lived in a ludicrous London penthouse alone. In reply, Betty became a skilled historian of the Holocaust. It was an attempt to understand him. It didn’t work. He would say: “I know what loneliness is like.”

He deserved to be lonely, but when I read the exhausting lies, I wonder if Maxwell was a thief because he believed he had nothing. In the most revealing passage Preston writes: “He took the logo of Mirror Group Newspapers — a roaring lion — from the Hollywood studio MGM; the names of the headquarters, Maxwell House, from a brand of instant coffee; and the name of his parent company, MCC, from the Marylebone Cricket”. Once, he pretended to have been in a military hospital with Ronald Reagan, a memory he stole from the Reagan film The Hasty Heart. Another time, preposterously, he pretended to be Scottish. All this is material to those who found him ridiculous, but it is, again, a normal reaction, if to be yourself meant death.

He was not, then, a mysterious person, but another rational product of Nazism. Even so, the mystery endures. Myths fly around his death. Did he commit suicide as his financial crimes came close to exposure? (Did he lock his bedroom door behind him, so the absence would not be discovered?) Was he murdered by the Israelis, who sent a Mossad assassin to a yacht in the ocean, only to give him a state funeral days later? (Anti-Jewish conspiracy theories bookend his life. They give it structure.) Did he fake his own death; does a fake Robert Maxwell lie in a Jerusalem grave? It doesn’t matter. You can argue that Maxwell was dead in every meaningful sense by 1945. That is not the story of every Holocaust survivor, but it is his. The rest, through scornful laughter or not, is detritus.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.