Robert Maxwell as Lord Copper
March 24, 2013, 06:44 PM
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The death of one of the Russian oligarchs in England, Boris Berezovsky, reminds me of the startling life and death of a similar personality, Robert Maxwell, who was a huge figure in the English-language media and marketing industries a quarter of a century ago. Since everybody knows that conspiracy theories aren't true, but since Maxwell's entire life was one giant conspiracy after another, his entertaining memory has largely been forgotten.

"The Bouncing Czech" had, apparently, been some kind of Soviet agent off and on, and the basis of his fortune was the Soviets giving him the copyright of all their scientific journals for publication in English.

Maxwell also seemed to be some kind of Israeli spy. Wikipedia explains:

Shortly before Maxwell's death, a former Mossad officer named Ari Ben-Menashe had approached a number of news organisations in Britain and the United States with the allegation that Maxwell and the Daily Mirror's foreign editor, Nick Davies, were both long-time agents for the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad. Ben-Menashe also claimed that in 1986 Maxwell had told the Israeli Embassy in London that Mordechai Vanunu had given information about Israel's nuclear capability to the Sunday Times, then to the Daily Mirror. Vanunu was subsequently lured from London to Rome by Mossad, where he was kidnapped and smuggled to Israel, convicted of treason and imprisoned for 18 years. 

No news organisation would publish Ben-Menashe's story at first but eventually the New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh repeated some of the allegations during a press conference in London held to publicise The Samson Option, Hersh's book about Israel's nuclear weapons. ...

The close proximity of his death to these allegations heightened interest in Maxwell's relationship with Israel, and the Daily Mirror published claims that he was assassinated by Mossad after he attempted to blackmail them.[22]

Maxwell was given a funeral in Israel better befitting a head of state than a publisher, as described by author Gordon Thomas: 

On 10 November 1991, Maxwell’s funeral took place on the Mount of Olives Har Zeitim in Jerusalem, across from the Temple Mount. It had all the trappings of a state occasion, attended by the country’s government and opposition leaders. No fewer than six serving and former heads of the Israeli intelligence community listened as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir eulogized: "He has done more for Israel than can today be said" (Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad, St. Martin's Press, 1999).[23]

Or, maybe Shamir was talking about something else. Who knows?

Back in 1994, I watched a C-SPAN Booknotes interview by Brian Lamb of Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson promoting his book about his misadventures as a writer trying to fit into the business world after he left politics and got an MBA at Stanford. Lamb asked him about how he got personal job interviews with Steve Jobs, Rupert Murdoch, and Robert Maxwell:

Robinson: And so Bill Buckley was a friend of Robert Maxwell, the British media baron, and Bill was kind enough to write a letter of introduction to Maxwell on my behalf. Actually, a business school classmate's father did business with Rupert Murdoch and was kind enough to write a letter to Rupert Murdoch on my behalf. And then a classmate was dating Steve Jobs and has since become Mrs. Steve Jobs ... 

Lamb: Who's Steve Jobs? 

Robinson: Steve Jobs — that's right — at his company ... 

Lamb: Who is he? 

Robinson: Who is Steve Jobs? Steve Jobs is the founder, in 1977, of Apple Computer Company. ... 

That was a classic Brian Lamb interview technique. My assumption is that Lamb assumed that viewers, even of C-SPAN, don't know anything about anything, so he asked all these Man-from-Mars questions that frequently rattled his subjects who were used to being interviewed by people who liked to show off how much they already knew, much to the bafflement of viewers. Lamb, instead, would ask the author of, say, a new Lincoln biography:

Lamb: "Who was Abraham Lincoln?"

Author of new Lincoln biography [Baffled]: "Who was Abraham Lincoln?"

Lamb: "Who was Abraham Lincoln?"

Author [Unnerved, but rallying]: "Well ... that's a very insightful question. I'm glad you asked that because that really gets to the heart of what my new biography of Lincoln is all about. We all think we know who Abraham Lincoln was, but do we fully grasp what it was to like to be Lincoln, to be a son of the prairie suddenly —"

 Lamb: "Who was Abraham Lincoln?"

Author [Finally sort of catching on]: "He was the President. ... During the Civil War."

I was particularly interested in Robinson's meetings with Robert Maxwell, who jumped off his yacht not long afterwards, about a month before Maxwell's embezzlement of many hundreds of millions dollars of his employees' pension funds was uncovered. I like this long segment because I'd dealt with Maxwell's company, and because Robinson's story sounds so much like how William Boot is hired as a war correspondent by Lord Copper in Waugh's Scoop. (Presumably, Robinson had read Scoop too, and thus his story of his meeting with the press lord is refracted through his delight in literature coming to life.)

Robinson: I had an interview — in fact, two interviews with Robert Maxwell ... I met him in New York, and he had a suite at the top of the Helmsley Palace Hotel, which was the biggest hotel suite I have ever seen. I buzzed at the door and a little man came, opened the door, in a suit. It was a butler, a real butler, and he bowed to me from the head and said, “Good afternoon, sir.” And then a huge voice from around — “Ah, that would be Robinson. Show him in. Show him in.” And this gigantic man — Maxwell must have weighed 300 pounds if he weighed an ounce — came padding around the corner in khaki trousers and a checked shirt and bare feet. 

He motioned me in, and I was now in a room that was two stories high. A curving staircase went up to the right, and off to the left was a kind of two-story bank of windows looking out on the Manhattan skyline with a grand piano, and if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had come high-stepping down those stairs, it wouldn't have seemed out of place to me at all. Maxwell was — I had been warned that he was abrasive, he was difficult, he liked to humiliate people. He was, in fact, during that half-hour or so, absolutely charming, wanted to know all about me, where was I from, and we just chatted. ... At the end of the conversation, he said, “Well, I would not be averse to continuing this discussion. You must come to see us in London. See so-and-so and she will make the arrangements.” So ...

Robinson then explains why he changed the name of Maxwell's personal assistant to "Wilkes." (Poor Wilkes sounds like the forlorn and battered Mr. Salter, who works for newspaper baron Lord Copper of the Daily Beast, in Waugh's Scoop.)

Robinson: Robert Maxwell was a difficult enough man to deal with, and so I felt some sympathy for this fellow ["Wilkes"]. He was American and I was the one who was in need of a job, but he was trying very hard to sell me. He said, “Oh, Maxwell is — he's a genius. This company is growing. What would you like to do here?” He just asked me what I would like to do. And then it was clear he kind of would give me any job I asked for, and it suddenly clicked that Maxwell must have told this person to hire me no matter what. 

As we were talking, the windows started to shake — huge “whoop, whoop, whoop” sound — and this fellow said to me, “Well, the helicopter's landing. He's here. We'll give him five minutes and go up and see the great man.” Waited five minutes; upstairs we went in the elevator. And there — the anteroom or hallway outside Maxwell's office was this sort of cavernous place with a huge Maxwell logo, which was a map of the world with a gigantic M imprinted on it. And I noticed in the carpet — this logo was repeated all through the carpet, stretching off into — sort of into the distance. And the secretary said, “He's waiting for you.” So this fellow, Wilkes, as I call him in the book, opened the door. Just a gigantic room again — tall windows looking out on the London skyline, Maxwell seated at a desk, and he stands up and he's wearing an electric blue suit, a hot pink bow tie, a bright blue shirt. He comes padding over to us. “Mr Robinson” — shakes my hand — “take a seat,” and he motions to a kind of conference table. 

... And his hair — I'm sensitive to this. I'm getting gray myself now. His hair was absolutely jet black — shoe-polish black — as were his eyebrows. ... He was just a huge, bizarre, colorful figure. And my first impression was this kind of circus bear. 

And Maxwell turned to the fellow I had been dealing with and he said, “Well, what are we going to do with this young man?” And Wilkes said, “Well, Mr. Maxwell, Peter and I have been talking about his career” — of course, not true. We hadn't been talking in any serious way at all. And he spins out this story about how I should start with the media group — or the television group — and after a year or two I could be running a chunk of the business on my own. I thought, this sounds remarkably good — in fact, surreal. It can't be that good.

I was now 33 years old with not a whit of business experience. 

And Maxwell listens to this, and pauses for a moment and he says, “No. Wrong use to make of Robinson entirely.” Then he said that I would be his personal assistant. Maxwell said, “For example, this weekend I am flying to Moscow. Mr. Wilkes will accompany me. When Robinson joins the company, he will accompany me instead. He will sit in on the meetings, take notes — notes on the negotiations — return to the firm, and tell you and others what actions need to be taken as a result of the decisions I have reached.” This is almost exactly the way he talked. And this fellow turned ashen. Suddenly not only was I being brought into the company, I was, in effect, being made his superior. 

And [Wilkes] tried to object and Maxwell said, “No, no, no. Negotiate a starting date with Mr. Robinson and a salary. If he wants to join the firm, good, and if he doesn't,” waved his hand again. And just then the secretary walked in and said it was — Ariel Sharon was on the line for Maxwell. So he got up and walked back to his desk and I heard him say, “Aric, how is the weather in Tel Aviv?” as we then went out of the office. Now he had flown me to London and he had spoken exactly five words to me: “Robinson, take a seat,” and then discussed me as though I was a kind of side of beef hanging in a shop window, and I decided that whole experience was just a little bit too bizarre. 

Oh, Mr. Wilkes — we got out and down the hallway we went, and he kind of called me over to an alcove and he said, “You don't want this job. You don't want this job. Why don't you say it right now: ‘I don't want this job.’ Go ahead, say it.” 

Yes, he did. He said, “Maxwell is a madman.” I mean, he took back everything he had told me half an hour before. “Personal assistant — he'll leave you on a runway in Moscow.” And I had subsequently found out stories — someone was hired for a similar position by Maxwell, given a two-year contract, and Maxwell fired her the first day, gave her two years' salary, but said he didn't want to see her again. So he was just very mercurial. That was my experience with Robert Maxwell.

Lamb: By the way, the Maxwell estate turned out to be — what? — bankrupt? 

Robinson: I don't know that it's ever been decided clearly and for certain. What happened was that Maxwell — it became clear that he was facing huge debts and it also began to become clear that he had effectively stolen about a billion dollars from his company's pension funds to pay off debts elsewhere in the corporate structure. And he retired to his huge yacht and one night — it's still a little bit unclear, but it now seems as though he jumped into the ocean. He either fell into the sea or jumped into the sea, and that was the end of Robert Maxwell.

Robinson then had a job interview with Rupert Murdoch:

... And finally, I realized he'd offered me a job. I said, “Well, thank you very much.” He said, “I'd be tempted to make you my personal assistant,” and my heart sank. I thought, “Oh, no, back into the Maxwell problem.” “But,” he said, “I think that would be a disservice to you. I'd like you to come here and learn the company, and I'm hiring some young people to learn various aspects of the company, and in 10, 15 years they'll move up into management positions.” It all seemed very, very plausible to me. And then at the end he said, “By the way, I understand you've also talked to Robert Maxwell. Go to work for anybody else other than me if you want to, but don't go to work for Robert Maxwell. He chews people up and spits them out, and I've seen it again and again.” So that seemed to me the sanest alternative, and I went to work for Rupert Murdoch.

You'll notice that Rupert Murdoch, unlike Robert Maxwell, is still around.

Maxwell is about as forgotten as Armand Hammer, whose great-grandson Armie is now a movie star.