In the summer of 1984, shortly after Robert Maxwell became the owner of the Daily Mirror, the newspaper’s then editor Mike Molloy bumped into a psychiatrist friend.
How, asked the friend, was Molloy getting on with his new billionaire boss, then at the height of his global fame and power?
‘He’s pretty eccentric,’ Molloy told him.
‘He’s not eccentric,’ replied the psychiatrist, Tom Pitt-Atkins. ‘He’s mad. I’ve got people inside who are less crazy than him.’
‘You actually think he is clinically mad?’
Pitt-Atkins nodded. ‘Does he have a group of executives who are bitter rivals and only answer to him directly?’ he asked.
Disgraced former Daily Mirror owner Robert Maxwell (pictured at a fancy dress party in Palais Mendoub in Tangiers, Morroco, in 1989) at was besotted by his PA, £1billion in debt and regressed into childlike behaviour that appalled his family in the months leading up to his death in 1991
Molloy said that he did.
‘Does he micro-manage trivial matters, but leave important decisions deliberately vague and then blame others when things go wrong?’
Again, Molloy admitted that he did.
‘How does he treat his family?’
‘The man’s off his head,’ said Pitt-Atkins. ‘He’ll end up bringing his whole empire down around him.’
As for Maxwell himself, Pitt-Atkins suggested: ‘He’ll probably die unexpectedly, perhaps in some sort of explosion.’
When Molloy mentioned that Maxwell had always said he wanted to leave a great heritage for his seven children, Pitt-Atkins offered a prediction of his own. ‘He’ll leave nothing to them,’ he said. ‘Just ashes.’
It was a prophecy of astounding accuracy.
Seven years later, Maxwell would indeed die unexpectedly, falling from his luxury yacht in circumstances that are still debated.
And, just as Pitt-Atkins had foreseen, Maxwell’s family – and thousands of his employees worldwide – were left facing financial ruin.
Robert Maxwell pictured at work with his assistant and confidante Andrea Martin in 1982
But as brutal and sudden as his death was, Maxwell’s spectacular downfall, I believe, had begun many years earlier.
Once the owner of a vast global media empire encompassing newspapers, publishing houses, TV stations, high-tech companies and even football clubs, his fall from grace had been a long time in the making – although hidden from public view behind the trappings of wealth.
Three decades after the world was rocked by his death, it is clear how the signs were there: how his doomed obsession with his glamorous personal assistant, along with his colossal debts and his increasing isolation from his family as he regressed into disturbingly childlike behaviour, would ultimately lead to the destruction of the man later to be dubbed ‘the crook of the century’.
At Robert Maxwell’s side as he headed for Berlin in his private jet in July 1990 was an attractive blonde 26-year-old named Andrea Martin.
Over recent months he had become increasingly dependent on her, making her his personal assistant and showering her with gifts.
‘In Maxwell’s eyes she could do no wrong,’ remembered the Daily Mirror’s former foreign editor Nick Davies.
Robert Maxwell pictured with his disgraced daughter Ghislaine at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987
‘He came to rely on her to run his diary, his business life, his office and his staff. He would make sure Andrea had what she wanted, and the butlers were instructed to provide her with whatever she wanted to eat.’
‘She was a good-looking blonde, well-dressed, cool, efficient and apparently unflappable,’ says former Daily Mirror editor Roy Greenslade.
As a bonus, in Greenslade’s eyes, ‘she had this slight injury to her lip which helped make her very fanciable’.
It wasn’t long before Maxwell had given Andrea his personal American Express card to use whenever she saw fit. And for one of her birthdays he presented her with a shiny new black BMW.
‘It was important to keep on Andrea’s right side,’ remembers the media mogul’s son Ian, joint managing director in the mid-1980s of one of his father’s enterprises, Maxwell Communication Corporation, with his younger brother Kevin.
‘She basically controlled access to him. She was the gatekeeper.’
Robert Maxwell in front of his yacht The Lady Ghislaine, the ship from which he is thought to have committed suicide in 1991
As his infatuation with Andrea grew, so did Maxwell’s vanity.
For many years, the chief barber at London’s Savoy hotel, George Wheeler, had been regularly visiting Maxwell’s palatial apartment at the Daily Mirror’s nearby HQ to dye the tycoon’s hair and eyebrows.
But Maxwell’s increasing pickiness took even Wheeler aback. If his boss saw so much as a stray grey hair in an eyebrow, he would go ‘berserk’, he remembered.
By now Andrea was accompanying Maxwell everywhere. When they travelled together on his Gulfstream G4 private jet, she would sit opposite him.
On transatlantic flights, they would even lie down together on the plane’s divan bed. As far as Maxwell’s butler Simon Grigg was concerned, ‘it was clear that he was in love with her’.
Maxwell’s wife, Betty, from whom he was semi-estranged, realised, too, that he was besotted. He would call Andrea last thing at night to wish her good night and first thing in the morning to check she had slept well.
Robert Maxwell is known as one of Britain’s most powerful media magnates and most notorious fraudsters
But unknown to Maxwell, Andrea and Nick Davies had begun a relationship. When he learned of the affair through the bugs he’d had installed in the Mirror offices, all hell broke loose.
One of the Mirror’s security staff tipped Davies off that he was now a ‘marked man’. Apparently Maxwell had ordered that he should be followed around the clock by a team of private detectives.
Another team had been instructed to follow Andrea. ‘Every detail of our movements had to be reported back to Maxwell within 24 hours,’ said Davies.
Maxwell ordered enquiries to be made about the flat next door to Andrea’s home in London’s Docklands.
‘The security staff were ordered to purchase it immediately, drill holes in the wall and install cameras to spy on her,’ said Davies. One evening, Maxwell asked Andrea to marry him.
‘Andrea was dumbstruck, just shaking her head and saying, “No,” ’ recalls Simon Grigg.
‘The wind had been completely knocked out of his sails.’
She quit her post soon afterwards. About a fortnight later, Davies was at work at the Daily Mirror when Maxwell phoned and asked if he would come up to his apartment.
Shown into his bedroom by a maid, he found his boss lying on his bed in a white towelling dressing gown, watching television.
First, Maxwell complained of having a cold which he couldn’t shake off. Then he stood up and walked over to a window. As he stared out on to the street, Maxwell started talking – more to himself than to Davies.
Robert Maxwell pictured with his son Ian (left), who was taunted mercilessly by his siblings, and youngest son Kevin (right), who became Britain’s biggest ever bankrupt when a £407million bankruptcy order was made against him
‘Sometimes I don’t know why I go on,’ he muttered. ‘Everything I try, people turn against me. I’ve got no friends, no one I can turn to, no one to share my life with.
‘Sometimes I think I should just end it all, throw myself out of the window. I sometimes feel I can’t go on.’
In the same month as Maxwell was flying to Berlin with Andrea, a short paragraph appeared in the Lex column of the Financial Times. The day before, Maxwell Communication Corporation (MCC) had published its annual report.
On the surface, it appeared to offer good news to shareholders. But the author of the column wasn’t convinced.
What the report failed to take into account was that interest payments on the company’s debts were continuing to rise far more quickly than MCC’s profits.
Nor were the profits all they seemed. In an attempt to nudge the figures as far as possible into the black, properties worth tens of millions had been sold.
If you took the debts and the property sales into account, the company barely had enough money to cover its dividend payments.
MCC’s shares, the column concluded, were basically worthless. Far from being in profit, the company was running at a considerable loss.
Maxwell was furious. But throughout July 1990 the share price continued to tumble. The start of an eight-month recession, combined with his relentlessly ambitious spending plans, were starting to take their toll.
Frantically, Maxwell began buying up MCC shares himself to increase their appeal – that month alone he spent more than £75 million. But nothing he did made any difference. By the autumn, MCC’s total debt had risen to £2.4 billion.
As things went from bad to worse, Maxwell announced in March 1991 that he was selling Pergamon, the hugely successful and profitable publishing company that he had founded decades previously and which had been his pride and joy, for £440 million.
A month later, Maxwell made another unexpected decision: he was going to float Mirror Group Newspapers on the Stock Exchange.
Maxwell owed more than £1 billion. Between them, Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs were owed £250 million. Swiss Bank – owed £57 million – was threatening to summon the Fraud Squad
By that summer he had taken to spending his nights in London casinos, often playing three roulette wheels simultaneously. The columnist Taki Theodoracopulos remembers seeing him one evening in Mayfair.
‘Maxwell was playing enormous amounts – £20,000 to £30,000 on each spin of the roulette wheel – and completely absorbed,’ he said. ‘He was obviously trying to recover something.’
The publisher Anthony Cheetham had worked for Maxwell during the 1980s. For him, Maxwell’s decision to sell Pergamon meant only one thing: ‘The moment I heard about it I had no doubt he knew the end was coming.’
In his final months, Maxwell spent most of his time alone in his London apartment.
Unable to sleep for more than two hours at a time, he whiled away the time by watching James Bond movies and gorging himself on Chinese takeaways – his greed was legendary, and he had by now taken to eating with his hands like a toddler, as if he could not get the food down quickly enough.
Before he got dressed, two maids would come in and tidy up.
Robert Maxwell (second left) with his wife Elisabeth (second right) and children Anne and Philip outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in 1971
As well as clearing away the empty takeaway containers and discarded papers, they had to pick up towels that had been left lying about – towels that Maxwell sometimes used instead of toilet paper, then tossed on to the floor.
It’s tempting to regard this as an extreme example of his lack of consideration for others.
Yet there are other ways of seeing it: as a reversion to the helplessness of babyhood; or the behaviour of someone who has abandoned any pretence of being civilised and given in to self-disgust.
Every weekday morning at seven o’clock, Ian and Kevin Maxwell would go to their father’s office to discuss the day’s programme.
‘Increasingly, he would be in a foul mood, partly because he’d hardly slept,’ Ian recalls.
Along with his ever-shortening temper, Ian noticed that his father was falling asleep more often, sometimes in the middle of meetings.
Maxwell was found dead, floating in the Atlantic Ocean, in 1991, having apparently fallen overboard from his luxury yacht Lady Ghislaine. Pictured: Robert Maxwell on his yacht Lady Ghislaine
‘It was quite obvious that something was going to happen to Dad physically sooner or later. I just couldn’t see how he could possibly sustain this lifestyle.’
‘I definitely think he had megalomania at that stage,’ says Maxwell’s daughter Christine. ‘For him, it was a real disease. Nothing was ever enough any more, and at the same time he just couldn’t stop.
‘He’d boxed himself into a corner that he couldn’t get out of. In the end, he pushed us all away.’
Of all his children, Maxwell remained closest to his youngest daughter, Ghislaine. Yet even here his devotion was starting to fray.
‘By this stage he tolerated Ghislaine rather than anything else,’ recalls his New York PA Carolyn Hinsey.
Even now Maxwell couldn’t stop spending money, as if one new deal, one new venture, might magically put everything right. In New York, he launched an American edition of his latest newspaper, The European, with a party for 600.
Robert Maxwell (left) meets South African Ambassador to the United States Piet GJ Koornhof in Washington, DC on September 25, 1990
Midway through the event, Maxwell disappeared. The European’s editor, Ian Watson, went to find him. ‘Eventually I came across him sitting on his own in a room. I said, “Bob, I really think you ought to come back to the party.” ’
By way of a reply, Maxwell pulled up the legs of his trousers. Watson was appalled. ‘His legs were all black and swollen and his ankles were literally hanging over his shoes.’
A doctor was called, who recommended an X-ray. Although this revealed that Maxwell’s heart wasn’t swollen, as had initially been suspected, medics believed he might have a blood clot, or even pneumonia.
To make sure, further tests would need to be carried out.
‘He couldn’t breathe,’ recalled his chauffeur, John Featley. ‘He couldn’t talk properly. He had a sore throat. If he’d been a horse, you would have put him down.’
It wasn’t only Maxwell’s physical state that was cause for concern. While in New York, he asked Jules Kroll, the head of America’s best-known firm of private investigators, to see him at his hotel.
Robert Maxwell and Ghislaine Maxwell pictured with the Milk Cup in Britain in 1992
During a two-hour meeting – which Maxwell insisted took place on the patio as he was convinced his suite was bugged – he repeatedly told Kroll that people were trying to destroy both his business and his life.
The meeting ended with Kroll asking him to compile a list of people who might want to ruin him.
Maxwell warned it was likely to be a long list. Back in London, when George Wheeler arrived for his fortnightly appointment to dye Maxwell’s hair, he found him in a maudlin mood, drinking port from a bottle.
‘He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You know, Mr Wheeler, you are my oldest friend.” ’
Wheeler was in no mood to be sentimental. ‘I replied, “Mr Maxwell, I am your only friend.” ’
Maxwell now owed more than £1 billion. Between them, Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs were owed £250 million. Swiss Bank – owed £57 million – was threatening to summon the Fraud Squad.
For many years, the chief barber at London’s Savoy hotel, George Wheeler, had been regularly visiting Maxwell’s palatial apartment at the Daily Mirror’s nearby HQ to dye the tycoon’s hair and eyebrows
Maxwell was caught in a trap from which there was no escape; the more he took from one part of his empire to prop up another part, the more he was hacking the ground from under his own feet.
On October 29, 1991, Mirror Group Newspapers’ director Sir Robert Clark informed Maxwell that there were grave concerns about unauthorised investments.
‘It’s all a mistake,’ Maxwell said airily. ‘I’m going away for a few days to get rid of this cold. I’ll explain everything when I return.’
Clark told him that the firm’s board wanted to convene an audit committee to investigate.
Maxwell seemed unperturbed, although he must have known that any investigation would reveal that he’d drained the Mirror’s pension funds dry. ‘Go ahead,’ he said.
The next day, Maxwell asked his press officer and general assistant Bob Cole to see him. Over the years, Cole had soaked up more punishment from Maxwell than almost anyone.
Now, to his astonishment, his employer embraced him warmly, kissed him on the cheek and thanked him for everything he’d done.
‘That was the last I ever saw of him,’ Cole recalled. ‘And looking back on that meeting, I can’t help feeling that somehow he knew it was to be our last.’
On October 31, Gus Rankin, the captain of Maxwell’s yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, received a call in Gibraltar to say that his boss would be arriving the following morning on his private jet.
The first thing Rankin noticed when Maxwell stepped off his plane was that he was travelling alone – normally he was accompanied by several staff, including his butler.
Pictured: Robert Maxwell (left) and Oxford United captain Malcolm Shotton in May 1986
Rankin was also surprised by how little luggage he had – just one suitcase and five boxes of files. After apologising for giving him so little notice, Maxwell said he would fit in with any plans Rankin might have. ‘I’m just here for the ride,’ he said.
Later that morning the Lady Ghislaine set sail, first to Madeira, then to the Canaries.
Over the following days Maxwell remained in the same relaxed mood as he’d been in when he arrived. ‘I would say he was very happy,’ Rankin recalled. ‘He seemed healthy. He ate and drank well.’
The only thing that struck him as odd was that Maxwell did almost no work while on board – usually he spent several hours a day poring over papers.
Instead, he passed the time listening to Mozart operas, watching James Bond videos and sitting on deck gazing out to sea.
On Tuesday, November 5, Maxwell and Kevin were due to meet the Governor of the Bank of England in London, where they were bound to face awkward questions about their solvency.
In his final months, Maxwell spent most of his time alone in his London apartment
That date was set to be a day of reckoning on almost every front: Swiss Bank was about to go public if its £57 million was not repaid, Goldman Sachs was going to announce it had been selling MCC shares after repeated delays to the repayment of its loans, while Maxwell was scheduled to meet MGN’s audit committee to explain a £38 million hole in the pension funds.
The evening before all this was due to take place, Monday, November 4, Maxwell dined alone in the Tenerife port of Santa Cruz before returning to the Lady Ghislaine at about 10pm.
At 10.45pm, one of the yacht’s stewards, Liza Kordalski, checked in on him. Maxwell told her he was fine. As Kordalski left, he asked her to lock the sliding door to his stateroom from the inside, then leave through the bathroom.
Half an hour later, Ian phoned Maxwell to report on a speech he’d made on his father’s behalf in London. ‘He was in a good mood,’ remembers Ian. ‘He wanted to know how a particular joke we had discussed had gone down.’
During their conversation, Ian referred to the fact that the next day was going to be a ‘big day’ with ‘important meetings’. The call ended with him saying: ‘See you tomorrow, then.’
‘You bet,’ said Maxwell.
After a couple more calls, Maxwell retired to bed. But he was later spotted at about 4.10am by a crew member standing by the stern rail. He was wearing a white dressing gown over his nightshirt and looking at the lights of Gran Canaria.
At 4.45am, Maxwell phoned the crew to report that his bedroom was too cold. The air-conditioning was turned off, and the yacht sailed on though the night.
At about 6am, Kevin Maxwell phoned his father. There was no reply. At 10.30am a banker from Rothschild’s in New York called and asked to be put through to Maxwell. Again, there was no reply. It happened again a third time.
Puzzled but not especially concerned, the crew went looking for him. There was no sign of him in the dining room, or the kitchen, or on any of the decks. Next, Rankin and the chef tried the main door to Maxwell’s stateroom.
It was locked. Trying the other door that led from the stateroom on to the rear deck, they found that this, too, had been locked.
Repeated knocking failed to get any response, but finally, the crew got a door open. ‘Mr Maxwell?’ Rankin called out. ‘Are you all right?’
By now, he was half-anticipating what he might find: Maxwell lying in bed having suffered a seizure of some kind. But the bed was empty. So were Maxwell’s dressing room and bathrooms.
At this point the whole crew, led by Rankin, searched the yacht from top to bottom. ‘We were even opening drawers, we were so confused,’ he said. They found nothing.
Even then, the truth was so hard to comprehend, so appalling in its implications, that they couldn’t quite believe it.
‘At some point it sank in that he was not on the boat,’ Rankin recalled. In a state of shock, he sent out an SOS to alert the authorities in port.
Shortly before six that evening, helicopter pilot Captain Jesus Fernandez Vaca, of the Spanish National Rescue Service, who had been at the heart of the subsequent search for the tycoon, was about to give up for the day as the light failed.
As he turned his helicopter round, he spotted a dark shape in the sea below. Unsure just what it was, Vaca descended for a closer look.
Directly beneath the helicopter was the naked body of a man. It was lying on its back with its legs spread-eagled and its arms stretched out on either side.
A rescue diver was lowered into the water. First, he checked for a pulse: nothing. He then tried to roll the body into a special basket.
But it was too big to fit in, and so a large nylon harness normally used to rescue cattle and horses from flood zones was lowered instead.
Even this proved difficult.
‘My initial reaction was utter disbelief,’ says Ian Maxwell, reliving the moment he first heard the news.
‘It just seemed too far-fetched to be true. I remember having a 30-second cry and it was accompanied by the most bizarre feeling, a combination of exhilaration and being scared.
‘Exhilarated to be free of this extraordinary alpha-male presence in my life and at the same time incredibly scared as to what the future would look like without him.’
He could not have known – and nor could anybody else – just how strange the future was very soon going to look.
- Abridged extract from Fall: The Mystery Of Robert Maxwell, by John Preston, published by Viking on February 4 at £18.99. To pre-order a copy for £16.71 with free UK delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before February 7.