Remembering Maxwell

The political journalist Julia Langdon presented a fascinating programme on BBC Radio Four this morning about the late and unlamented Robert Maxwell, the media tycoon and fraudster. She was Political Editor of the Daily Mirror during the period when Maxwell owned the paper, and travelled a lot with him. The programme contained some intriguing reminiscences of others who had worked for the monster, including Peter Jay, who had been his ‘Chief of Staff’.

As it happens, I was a columnist on a short-lived paper — the London Daily News — which Maxwell founded (and then wrecked by arbitrarily switching it to a 24-hour paper). Shortly before the launch, Maxwell invited some of the editorial staff and writers to lunch in ‘Maxwell House’ — his penthouse apartment at the top of the Mirror building. It was an amazing experience, rather like wandering into an Evelyn Waugh novel — and of course I wrote it up afterwards. But when I showed the results to the Editor of the Press Gazette (for which I also wrote a monthly column at the time), the colour drained from his face and he advised me to either burn the piece or lock it in a safe and throw away the key. The reason was that Maxwell was extraordinarily litigious and always had several defamation suits running at any given time — which is how he managed to silence media coverage of his business swindles. Needless to say, I kept the piece (there’s a copy here if you’re interested), and a version was published in a book that came out after Maxwell’s death, with royalties going to a fund set up to support the Mirror pensioners who had been defrauded by the publisher.

Maxwell was a gifted psychopath who spoke 11 languages. He spoke a curiously pompous kind of English, as if he’d learned the language from a book containing phrases like “the postilion has been struck by lightning”. When we were on our way into lunch, he was standing in a corridor giving instructions to two besuited underlings. As I passed I heard him say “We should issue proceedings forthwith”.

Ms Langdon’s programme reminded us of how Maxwell specialised in humiliating those who worked for him. Peter Jay, for example, recounted how his boss would phone him at 4am and ask “What is the time?” A Mirror staffer recalled being summoned to Maxwell House when the boss was organising a Mirror campaign to feed victims of a famine in Ethiopia. Maxwell lay prone on a chaise longue (“like a beached whale”) stuffing himself with mountains of caviare, which he was eating with cream crackers, fragments of which lay all around. “We should not forget”, he intoned, solemnly, “that even as we speak, children are dying of starvation in Abbasynia”. The incongruity of the moment did not occur to him.

The programme did not resolve, however, the greatest mystery of all — which is why Peter Jay signed up for such a demeaning position. He is — or at any rate was — one of the most cocksure and arrogant men in Britain. (When he was Economics Editor of the Times, a sub-editor once complained that he could not understand one of his op-ed pieces. “My dear boy”, said Jay, “that piece is addressed to three people in the country, and you are not one of them”.) Later, he was appointed Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to the United States by his father-in-law, Prime Minister James Callaghan. He returned to Britain after the Labour government fell and could, one assumes, have had lots of interesting and lucrative jobs. Yet this elitist grandee chose to work for Maxwell, who often treated him like a serf.

Why? The only explanation I can think of is that he needed the money. When he was in Washington, Jay’s wife had a very public affair with Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) which was later entertainingly portrayed by Bernstein’s ex-wife, Nora Ephron, in her hiss-and-tell novel, Heartburn. Perhaps the resulting divorce was expensive? Deep waters, eh Holmes?