One of the great curiosities of the late 20th century is why publishing magnate Robert Maxwell was accorded what amounted to a state funeral on the Mount of Olives attended by a posse of rabbis, the then Israeli President Chaim Herzog and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. After all, for much of his life, Maxwell abandoned the orthodoxy of his childhood – including a stint at yeshiva – and was comfortable with the Christianity of his French wife, Elisabeth.
As a student of Maxwell’s business affairs,
I was hopeful John Preston’s new biography, Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, would provide answers. My interest in the late proprietor of The Daily Mirror and founder of Pergamon Press dates back to my early days in financial journalism at The Guardian in the 1970s.
It was then that Maxwell had his first run-in with the authorities over ‘window dressing’ of Pergamon’s accounts. Department of Trade and Industry inspectors concluded, after investigation, that Maxwell was unfit for the ‘stewardship’ of a public company. That did not prevent the entrepreneur from going on to head two quoted enterprises, Mirror Group Newspapers and Maxwell Communications Corporation (MCC), and lead a media empire spanning the Atlantic.
My Guardian colleagues and I played a role in the tycoon’s after death disgrace in February 1991, when we uncovered and confirmed that Maxwell had looted the Mirror pension fund to make good on a black hole in MCC’s finances.
Preston does shed light on how Maxwell reconciled himself to his blotted out Jewish identity and fell in love with Israel. The conduit for this reboot was property and petrol station tycoon, community leader and philanthropist Gerald Ronson.
As Maxwell remade himself as a media proprietor, Ronson encouraged Maxwell to throw out his ill-fitting cheap clothes and introduced him to his own tailor and to abandon his bashed up Rolls-Royce in favour of a new model befitting of someone of his status.
In 1984, Ronson (just before Maxwell bought The Mirror) arranged for the media tycoon and his wife Betty to accompany him on a trip to Israel to meet Prime Minister Shamir. They travelled to Tel Aviv on Ronson’s private jet and were surprised to see Maxwell (who lost almost all his family in Auschwitz) sobbing and repeating the words ‘I should have come here years ago,’ soon after they landed. The next day, the two men visited Shamir, and Maxwell declared he wanted to invest one quarter of a billion dollars in Israel. Preston recounts that, within four years, he became the biggest single investor in Israel.
Among Maxwell’s investments was a big stake in the emergent Israeli pharma giant, Teva. When his empire was untangled after his death, the Teva stake, then a valuable asset, played a part in paying down the debts.
The basis of Maxwell’s early fortune was Pergamon, which published scientific papers from the Eastern bloc in the Cold War years, as well as laudatory autobiographies of authoritarian leaders. He became a great favourite in Moscow. After the USSR’s leaders allowed the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel, it was Maxwell who organised the first official airlift.
When in 1991 Maxwell’s body was released from Canary Island custody and flown to Israel to be buried, Betty and accompanying members of the family were disquieted when Israeli fighter jets met the chartered plane carrying his body over the Med. They feared being shot down. The financier, despised in Britain, was receiving the honour of a military escort.
On arrival, the casket was draped in an Israeli flag. A surprising hero of the Jewish people was to be laid to rest among the nation’s martyrs.