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Last Updated: Friday, 4 May 2007, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
The strange allure of Robert Maxwell
Robert Maxwell

By Jon Kelly
BBC News

Ruthless newspaper tycoon, football club owner, Labour MP, dead for 16 years and now the subject of a primetime drama. Why does Robert Maxwell retain a hold on the public imagination?

To those unfortunate enough to have worked under him, he was a monster - a bully, a demagogue, and, worst of all, a thief.

Robert Maxwell, the Daily Mirror owner who plundered his own workers' pension fund, is portrayed at his paranoid, blustering worst by David Suchet in a new BBC One drama.

He lowered an entire bunch of grapes into his mouth, then pulled it out again minus the fruit
Mirror journalist
In many ways Maxwell was the classic rags-to-riches story, a Jewish immigrant who escaped extreme poverty and Nazi persecution in eastern Europe, fought with the British Army across Europe and became one of the most powerful men in British publishing.

Despite his reputation having been under assault for more than a decade, many in journalism still feel a sneaking nostalgia for the days of big characters like Maxwell - not to mention the extremely generous wages he paid his staff.

It was the tycoon's force of personality which both propelled him to the top and guaranteed his slot in the Fleet Street hall of shame.

One journalist employed by Maxwell recalls being summoned to a Brighton hotel suite during one party conference season to find the boss reclining in his chair like a Roman emperor.

David Suchet as Robert Maxwell
David Suchet captures the ambiguous character

"I entered the room to see Maxwell in his dressing gown, his pale bare legs shining like porcelain," the reporter remembers.

"He lowered an entire bunch of grapes into his mouth, then pulled it out again minus the fruit, with only the stalks remaining.

"Certainly, he could be intimidating. But if you managed to stay on his good side you felt like you'd really achieved something - you'd tamed the beast."

Despite his misdeeds, Maxwell benefited from a curious and long-standing phenomenon in British public life - a fascination with rogues. Whether it is a peccadillo of the personal life or a criminal record, the misbehaviour of an Alan Clark or a Ronnie Biggs can only add to their mythos.

Even with the ruination of his workers still relatively fresh in the mind, Maxwell's reputation remains ambiguous because more moral leeway seems to be offered to those who are charismatic, and still more latitude to those who are powerful.

Strange loyalty

Maxwell kept his staff in a constant state of terror. One journalist was working at his desk when he felt a sharp blow to the back of his head. Turning round, he was horrified to see Maxwell looming over him.

Born Jan Ludvik Hoch in 1923
Grew up in former Czechoslovakia
Bought Daily Mirror in 1984
Died 1991
Left debts of 400m
Left 30,000 pensioners without life savings
Maxwell peered at his victim. "Oh," he said, before walking away. "Mistaken identity."

Famously, a man who enraged him by smoking in a lift was sacked on the spot, with a 250 pay-off thrust into his hand by Maxwell, to send him on his way. It was only later Maxwell found out the man was not in fact one of his employees, but a courier who had been delivering a package to the building.

Yet the man who styled himself "The Publisher" inspired a strange kind of loyalty from his staff before his plundering of the pension fund was revealed.

His paper's front-page splash the morning after his death was "The Man Who Saved The Mirror". And the Mirror's then-political editor Alastair Campbell, later Tony Blair's director of communications, famously punched a journalist on another title who mocked the tycoon's demise.

Roy Greenslade, an editor under Maxwell, suggests the publisher was more than just the tyrant of popular imagination.

"What he did to the Mirror pensioners was terrible, and there's no doubt that he ruled the office by fear," he says. "But there was much more to him than that. Even if he treated you badly, you still recognised that. He could also be very funny, albeit unintentionally.

"He was a charismatic figure, a massive presence - literally, because of his huge frame."

Maxwell was 6 ft 3in and weighed 22 stone.

Lonely at top

There is a certain grudging respect for those who "get away with it", walk the tightrope and get out of scrapes because of the sheer power of their charisma.

Alastair Campbell
Alastair Campbell was Maxwell's political editor
And while he may have ruled the Mirror's Holborn office with an iron fist, there was also an almost childlike quality to Maxwell. One reporter was alone in the Mirror office in the early hours working a night shift when he appeared at his shoulder.

Slumping into a chair, Maxwell ordered flunkies to bring him a constant supply of food while he chatted until dawn. "It was only then I realised how lonely he was," the journalist recalls.

Perhaps the most telling anecdote of Maxwell, recounted by one Mirror reporter, sees his seven children coming downstairs to open their presents one Christmas morning, only to find their father sat under the tree surrounded by discarded wrapping paper.

"He was unable to resist opening them himself, just like he was unable to resist helping himself to the pension fund," the reporter recalls.

The very ruthlessness that drove him to the top may be explained by the extreme poverty from which he managed to escape. Born Jan Ludvik Hoch in Slatinske Dolt, Czechslovakia, on 10 June, 1923, Maxwell claimed he did not have a pair of shoes until he was seven.

His orthodox Jewish parents were eventually victims of the Nazis, and Maxwell himself was fortunate to have escaped to Britain in 1940.

Maxwell holds a copy of the New York Daily News
Maxwell dreamed of power
But the sharp business practices of the man labelled "Cap'n Bob" and "the bouncing Czech" by Private Eye were apparent long before he took over the Mirror Group in 1984.

A 1969 DTI inquiry concluded Maxwell was "not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company".

And so it transpired. Two weeks after Maxwell was presumed to have fallen to his death from his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, in November 1991, it became apparent that he had taken money from pension funds to keep his companies afloat and boost their share price.

The man who could not resist opening his children's Christmas presents had truly left his mark.

The BBC Two drama Maxwell starring David Suchet is on BBC Two at 9pm on Friday 4 May.

A selection of your comments appears below.

The husband of my cousin (already passed away) grew up with him in Kosice, today Slovakia, and he told me many stories as they were friends during war time in London. As many like him he came out of misery with the ambition to get rich no matter how.
Sinn Hans, Savosa

The fact is. Many people are inspired by Robert Maxwell.
David, London

Do we pay homage to a ruthless brute who robs one old lady of her home and savings... Why then, would we do so for a ruthless brute who has robbed thousands of virtually the same thing?
George R Broadhead, Brooklyn, New York, USA

I believe he honestly felt the money from the pension fund was merely an internal loan that he would re-pay from on-going cash flow. We're too fast to judge him a crook when in fact, there was a lot of good to consider as well. That's the main reason so many still like him after so many years.
Andre (Canada), Quebec, Canada

Lest we forget, he also almost ruined Derby County and Oxford United as well. I remember singing my heart out along with all the other Derby County Fans the weekend after he died for the entire game. I also remeber the "Have I got News for You" after he had died, Ian Hislop finally got to say what he thought of the man without fear of litigation, extremely funny.
Simon, Solihull

Maxwell's dishonesty and unpleasant behaviour was legendary to anyone involved in publishing or journalism. However, my late father regarded him as a hero and when I mentioned the allegations of Maxwell's various frauds and theft, known to most people who were working in the media, my father became extremely upset. Dad didn't talk to me for weeks, reminding me that 'Captain Bob' had begun with nothing and was a hero and had fought hard in World War II (as Dad served in the Royal Navy I think it was unlikely he met Maxwell). Eventually we were reconciled, although Dad never changed his opinion on Maxwell. Fortunately, my father died in 1989, well before Maxwell was exposed. At least, 'Bob' BJ Mannion went to the grave still regarding Maxwell as the hero he admired so much from the war.
Rob Mannion, Bournemouth Dorset

I think what is missing from this assessment is Maxwell's extraordinary international character: fluent in most of the major European languages, he moved across countries, almost accepted as a native in each, as he was almost accepted as a native English personality. An impostor everywhere, but certainly brilliant and unique in his way.
Christopher Lord, La Chapelle, France

I worked in the in-house design studio at Pergamon Press in 1979 and 1980. One day he wandered into the studio and appeared behind my shoulder while I was pasting up the title of a book cover. He barked at me to replace an "and" with an "&" and then moved on. Confused by this contrary-to-general-practice request, I went to the studio boss and asked him what to do, and he said to just ignore it and do as the studio had always done. It struck me that Maxwell was not good at delegating, he liked to think he had a hold on things at every level of his vast empire.
SD, Modena, Italy

We are not still captivated. Only the media is.
John B, Woking Surrey

Please, please let us not make this man out to be funny or a hero in any form or manner. He is simply a thief that ruined many thousands of lives. That is how he MUST be remembered.
Phil Smith, Madrid, Spain

What I liked about Maxwell was that he was, in my experience, a good employer, one who was seen periodically on the shop floor, approachable, and he listened to ideas. He rewarded good service and loyalty in ways that I haven't experienced before or since. The pension fund stuff was really bad. But I've always felt many people had it in for him, and made an ogre of him to cover their own backsides. He wasn't a conventional capitalist, supporting quite a few progressive causes. A mixed bag, but I suspect judged to be worse than he actually was. Let's also look closely at those who slated him.
Palden Jenkins, Glastonbury, UK

Maxwell's fascination was that he combined power and charisma, along with an extraordinary journey from such humble and difficult beginnings. The public don't always take kindly to these charismatic rogues, most of us had long lost admiration for Jeffrey Archer, before his final downfall.
Graham, London

Shortly before he died he bought the market research company AGB for which I worked at the time. After a glossy video presentation exhorting us to place our future moneys in his safe keeping, I opted to go private instead. A decision I am hugely grateful for. We used to have the radio on during the day in the office. When the news about his death came on, we all cheered.
Jane Vincent, Surrey

Does anyone really believe he died? Do we not all imagine him sharing a drink with Lord Lucan somewhere? I'm keeping an eye out for him in Prague just in case. No luck yet, though.
Jim Willetts, Prague

I must differ from other Brits as I do not feel any secret admiration for these "loveable rouges". Although I was not affected by this fraudster, I feel very sorry for the poor hard-working employees who contributed to his pension fund and who I am sure have had a less than happy 16 years.
Jo, Edinburgh

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