By BERNIE BELLAN A few weeks back, during one of the weekly bike excursions that a group of men (and occasionally women) go on every Tuesday during the summer, I happened to be talking to one of the members of our group, the ageless Mickey Hoch. (I had profiled Mickey in the April 3, 2019 issue of this paper.)
Mickey asked me whether I knew that there was a new biography out of famed media tycoon Robert Maxwell? When I said that I didn’t know that, Mickey added: “He was my first cousin.”
Robert Maxwell a cousin of Mickey Hoch? Now that was something I just had to find out more about. So, in short order, I bought this latest biography of Robert Maxwell, which is titled “Fall – The Mystery of Robert Maxwell”, by journalist John Preston.
There have been reams of material already published about Robert Maxwell – and although it’s been 30 years since his mysterious death from aboard his yacht, the “Lady Ghislaine”(pronounced Gee-Layn), the escapades of his notorious daughter – the very same Ghislaine, have kept the name Maxwell in the news long after Robert Maxwell’s death.
But to think that Maxwell’s real name was Jan Ludvik Hoch and that he was a first cousin of Mickey Hoch, well – that was something I found so intriguing I just had to dive into this new biography to learn much more about a man who was larger than life in so many respects.
I’m not sure how much more Preston has uncovered in this newest biography of someone about whom so much has been written. Frankly, I had trouble keeping track of all the names that were mentioned throughout the book, often wondering just what was that particular person’s relationship to Maxwell again?
What intrigued me more than anything, however, was Maxwell’s discomfort with his Jewish heritage. For years he disavowed ever having been Jewish, but late in his life he seemed to have done a complete about face and was more than eager to associate himself with his Jewish heritage.
Apparently there were two seminal moments in Maxwell’s life that led to this grand reawakening: One was in 1984, when he was already 61 and was persuaded to go on a trip to Israel for the first time in his life. It was during that trip – and a meeting with then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, that Maxwell decided he was going to become a fervent supporter of the State of Israel. He told Shamir that he was going to become the largest individual investor in the state – and he did, actually investing $50,000,000.
It was also during a visit to Yad Vashem that Maxwell seems to have come to grips with the awful calamity that befell almost his entire family.
Here is how Preston describes that visit: “With his head lowered and his hands plunged into his jacket pockets, he walked through canyons of stone blocks bearing the names of communities that had been wiped out. Stopping in front of one of the blocks, he pointed at the lettering. ‘At the bottom is the shtetl Solotvino where I come from,’ he said. ‘It is no more. It was poor, it was Orthodox and it was Jewish. We were very poor. We didn’t have things that other people had. They had shoes and they had food and we didn’t. At the end of the War, I discovered the fate of my parents and my sisters and brothers, relatives and neighbours. I don’t know what went through their minds as they realized they had been tricked into a gas chamber. But one thing they hoped is that they will not be forgotten …’ Tears welled up in Maxwell’s eyes as he glanced towards the sky. Barely able to speak, he managed to add: ‘And this memorial in Jerusalem proves that.’ Overcome, he walked away.”
Later, Maxwell also paid a visit to his birthplace in Solotvino, which had been part of Czechoslovaki when Maxwell was born, but later became a part of Hungary. Maxwell described his childhood as so impoverished that he was hungry almost all the time.
That impoverished childhood, followed by his managing to escape Czechoslovakia while all but two of his nine siblings – along with his parents, were murdered in Auschwitz, also seems to have traumatized Maxwell for life, although he would never admit it.
And, while reading about Maxwell’s business exploits and his duplicitous nature is certainly interesting, it is the aspect of Maxwell remaking himself into a non-Jew, then making a 180 degree turn the other way that I think most Jewish readers will find most fascinating.
Not only was Maxwell able to adopt a different persona depending upon the occasion, and switch languages with ease (he actually spoke nine different languages), it also seems that he himself had difficulty knowing who exactly he was.
At one point Preston reveals that Maxwell changed his name to DuMaurier, pretending to be French. Why DuMaurier? Because he liked the cigarettes.
As well, Maxwell seems to have been quite fearless. He was decorated with the Military Cross by Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery in 1945 for, among other things, wiping out a German machine gun nest single handedly.
He was also very good looking when he was younger – and quite fit. As the years went on, however, Maxwell’s voracious appetite for food led to his becoming quite obese. As a matter of fact, he was so large upon his death that his coffin could not be fitted into his own private jet and a special plane that is designed especially to carry coffins had to be arranged to take him to Israel, which is where he had wanted to be buried.
Preston interviewed several individuals who described Maxwell’s insatiable appetite. One amusing anecdote is about a lunch that was served in Maxwell’s private dining room at his headquarters. The main course was leg of lamb. Maxwell’s guest that particular day was served first, and he asked for the knuckle of the leg, which was placed on his plate. That guest was momentarily preoccupied by discussing something with another guest who was seated beside him, but when he turned to start eating his meal, he saw that Maxwell had grabbed his own serving from his plate and was proceeding to devour it.
The author suggests that it was Maxwell’s impoverished childhood, when there was never enough food to go around, that led him to develop an insatiable appetite. In fact, according to those who knew Maxwell best, including his wife Betty, he would control himself for the most part when he was with guests in his own home, but later in the evening he would ransack the “larder”. Things got so bad that locks would be put on the larder, but Maxwell’s enormous strength didn’t prevent him from breaking down the door to get at the food.
While Maxwell was certainly a genius at business, helping to build many different companies, including book publishers, newspapers, and the MTV television network, it is not clear what drove him to want to be, as he himself would say, “the world’s richest man”.
Clearly there was an obsession with being accepted by the British Establishment which, while eager to benefit from his business deals, for the most part regarded Maxwell as an “outsider”. It doesn’t seem though that the antagonism that was so often expressed toward Maxwell had much to do with his Jewish roots as Preston does not refer to any antisemitic remarks directed Maxwell’s way.
Ultimately, Maxwell became a fervent supporter of a multitude of Jewish causes, especially the State of Israel. Preston describes a somewhat hilarious scene at Maxwell’s state funeral in Israel when two rabbis physically fought over who was going to be able to mount the podium to deliver a speech praising Maxwell as their prime benefactor.
Yet, there was something else that Mickey Hoch had told me about Maxwell that quite interested me – which was that Maxwell had reputedly worked for the Mossad. The book does reference Maxwell’s helping to arrange the departure of several Jewish “refuseniks” from the USSR, but Preston doesn’t indicae that this had anything to do with the Mossad.
Mickey Hoch (who, by the way, said that he had never met his cousin) also suggested that the Mossad had assassinated Maxwell. There has actually been a book published which makes that claim, but not once in Preston’s book does he even raise that as a possibility.
The book does discuss Maxwell’s incredible network of associates, including the leaders of a great many countries. And, while Maxwell did seem to have had very close associations with a great many dictators, especially behind what was then the Iron Curtain, the notion that has often been raised that Maxwell may also have been an agent for the KGB is given relatively short shrift. (Maxwell did have a close association with Mikhail Gorbachev, also with Boris Yeltsin. At the same time though, Maxwell was twice elected to the British House of Commons as a Labour MP, and seems to have been genuinely appreciative of Western democratic norms.)
Maxwell’s reputation was totally sullied following his death, however, when it emerged that he had ransacked the pension funds of his employees to the tune of £750,000,000. He may not have been the first crook to climb his way to the pinnacle of the business establishment, but he was certainly among the worst.
There has been so much speculation as to whether Maxwell actually jumped off his yacht or simply slipped (apparently he liked to urinate over the side at night, so it’s quite possible that he might have slipped doing that) that it will probably be fodder for more books for years to come.
Still, the question that intrigued me more than anything was the degree to which Maxwell’s impoverished childhood and surviving the Holocaust led him to becoming the legendary businessman – and scoundrel, that he ultimately became. If he hadn’t died under such mysterious circumstances, no doubt he would have spent the rest of his days fending off legal issues related to his brazen skullduggery.
This entire review, I haven’t even mentioned that, of all Maxwell’s nine children, his favourite was Ghislaine. How interesting is it that Ghislaine was the daughter of a financial rogue who was one of the greatest con men of all time, and that she ended up partnering with another notorious rogue, Jeffrey Epstein. No doubt the mysteries surrounding the deaths of both these scoundrels will haunt us for years to come.