Ian Robert Maxwell

views updated May 23 2018

Ian Robert Maxwell

A refugee from eastern Czechoslovakia, Ian Robert Maxwell (Ludvik Hoch; 1923-1991) eventually became one of the richest men in Great Britain and the head of a powerful publishing empire.

Robert Maxwell promised his wife Betty, "I shall win an MC. I shall recreate a family. I shall make my fortune. I shall be Prime Minister of England. And I shall make you happy until the end of my days." Joe Haines, in his book Maxwell (1988), suggests that only one of those promises—prime minister—remained unfilled in the early 1990s. That the promises could have been made at all in December of 1944 by a penniless, recently created officer of the British Army who was a refugee from the Carpathian mountains says a great deal about the character and career of Robert Maxwell.

Maxwell was born on June 10, 1923, in the small village of Solotvino in the Carpathian mountains of what was then eastern Czechoslovakia. This was in an area sometimes known as Ruthenia that was variously held by Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, and, most recently, the Soviet Union. His birth name was Ludvik Hoch, and his parents were part of the Orthodox Jewish community of Solotvino. Maxwell maintained that his early memories of the grinding poverty of Solotvino, an area dominated by forests and salt mines, influenced his socialist sympathies. He had limited early education, possibly only three years at a national school. By 1939 he joined the Czech resistance to fight Nazi Germany, and after Czechoslovakia fell he made his way to France to join the French Foreign Legion and then be transferred to the 1st Czech Division of the French Army. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Maxwell was among 4,000 Czechs who made it to England. He joined the British Army and eventually changed his name to Ian Robert Maxwell. He rose from private to the rank of captain, eventually winning the Military Cross for heroism.

At the conclusion of World War II in 1945, Captain Robert Maxwell, by this time an accomplished linguist, was assigned to Berlin. By 1946 he was involved in the publishing of Der Berliner and in the process of re-establishing the postwar German economy. As a result of these experiences, he gained an understanding of international business, publishing enterprises, and the new importance of scientific research and publishing. By 1947 Maxwell had returned to England and became instrumental in disseminating scientific and technical information in journals and magazines. By 1951 Maxwell held the controlling interest in Pergamon Press, a publishing concern dedicated to scientific journals, textbooks, and papers.

Pergamon Press became the basis for Maxwell's fortune. He gained a virtual monopoly on scientific publication, especially Soviet scientific publications, at that point when such publication became of critical importance. During the 1950s he was concerned with other business ventures and was particularly involved with the trading concerns of Dr. Kurt Waller. Maxwell also purchased Simpkin Marshall, an almost defunct wholesale book selling company. The eventual failure of this company added to the controversy surrounding Maxwell, since many of his critics blamed the failure of the concern on his aggressiveness.

In 1958 Maxwell entered British politics. He joined the Labour Party, and in 1959 stood as candidate for Parliament from Buckingham, finally winning in 1964. Maxwell presented an anomaly as a parliamentary member of the Labour Party. He was an enormously wealthy man in the party of the working class. He was an employer who was sometimes at odds with the trade unions seeking to represent the party of trade unionism. No one could doubt his history of poverty and hard work, nor could his efforts on the battlefield fighting for Britain be diminished. But the idea of a rich foreigner representing working-class Britain provided severe paradoxes.

Despite Maxwell's pledge to become prime minister, his political career lacked the spectacular success of his business career. He never achieved distinction in Parliament, his main achievements coming from clean air legislation and a reform of the parliamentary food services. While he fully participated in his party's arguments and questions, adding to vigorous parliamentary debate, he never became a cabinet minister. He lost his seat in the election of 1970 and did not return to Parliament, even though his continued career in publishing and journalism kept him at the center of British political life.

By 1969 Maxwell was mired in a bitter dispute over the resale of Pergamon Press. This was ultimately resolved through a series of civil suits, but it tarnished Maxwell's reputation and held back the advancement of his publishing interests. Despite these setbacks, in 1981 Maxwell acquired the British Printing Corporation, at the time the largest printer in Britain but a company that had serious personnel and equipment problems. In 1984 Maxwell purchased his first newspapers, the Mirror Group, including the Daily Mirror. This launched his involvement in journalism.

Throughout the 1980s Maxwell's interest in and influence on journalism increased. His efforts clearly revitalized the Mirror Group, and he sought to update the technological side of British journalism. He also invested heavily in British cable television, had a controlling interest in European MTV (Music TeleVision), and invested well over $500 million in publishing and journalism interests in the United States, chiefly the Macmillan book company and Official Airline Guides. The Maxwell Communication Corporation was the second largest printing concern in the United States. The chief executive serving under his chairman father was son Kevin (born 1959).

In 1990 Maxwell added three U.S. tabloids to his holdings—the Globe, Sun, and National Enquirer, copies of all three sold exclusively in supermarkets. Then in March 1991 he bought the zesty New York City tabloid the Daily News. Meanwhile he launched the European, an English-language weekly designed to cover all of Europe, despite a mounting debt in his media corporation.

Robert Maxwell was also devoted to his family. He and his French-born wife Elisabeth had seven children, most of whom worked for his companies. He expected his children to make their own way without benefit of inheritance. On November 11, 1991, Maxwell died at sea off the Canary Islands, falling overboard from his yacht, Lady Ghislaine. He was buried on the Mount of Olives in Israel.

Further Reading

The best work on Robert Maxwell is Maxwell (1988) by Joseph Haines. The only significant additional information comes from lengthy articles in Economist (November 1986); Forbes (October 1987); New York Times Magazine (May 1, 1988) and Business Week (July 29, 1991). □

Maxwell, Robert

views updated Jun 11 2018


MAXWELL, ROBERT (1923–1991), British publisher. Maxwell was born Jan Ludvik Hoch, son of a poor Jewish farm laborer, in Solotvino in the Carpathians, then part of Czechoslovakia. Although his family was Orthodox, he appears to have abandoned Judaism at about the time he left his native village and traveled to Budapest. Maxwell later stated, "I ceased to be a practicing Jew just before the war… I certainly do consider myself a Jew. I was born Jewish and I shall die Jewish." After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Maxwell made his way to Hungary where he was arrested at the end of the year. He escaped and made his way to southern France where he joined members of the free Czech forces with whom he was transported to Britain in 1940. After a spell in the Czech Legion and the British Pioneer Corps, he joined the North Staffordshire Regiment in 1943 and served with distinction during the campaign in Northern Europe. He was decorated with the Military Cross in 1945 and had risen from the rank of corporal to captain by the end of the war. He served with the Allied Control Commission in the British Zone of Occupation in Germany in the department of Public Relations and Information Services Control. At this time he also engaged in commercial activities and following his demobilization in 1947 he entered business, specializing in import and export between Britain and Eastern Europe where he established extensive connections. He first entered publishing by way of an agreement to distribute German scientific periodicals in 1947. Two years later he acquired Pergamon Press, although he lost control of the company for a time in the early 1970s when his business activities were subjected to a critical report by the Department of Trade and Industry. In 1981 he bought the British Printing and Communication Corporation, of which he was chairman, and in 1984 acquired Mirror Group Newspapers (mgn). As chairman of mgn he became the publisher of several mass-circulation titles. Pergamon Press was the world's largest distributor of scientific periodicals. Between 1964 and 1970, Robert Maxwell was Labour Member of Parliament for Buckinghamshire. By the 1980s, Maxwell had acquired a major international business empire, which included The Daily Mirror and The People newspapers in Britain, the New York Daily News, and the famous publisher Macmillan, as well as a range of firms in Europe. In 1990, Philip Beresford's Book of the British Rich, the predecessor to the Sunday Times' "rich lists," claimed that Maxwell was then Britain's tenth richest man, worth an estimated £1.1 billion. He was active in various philanthropic causes and was chairman of the National aids Trust. In 1986 he was involved in the financing of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and had an interest in several football clubs, notably Oxford United and Derby County. Most of his own family perished in the Holocaust and in 1988, he provided £1 million to fund the major international conference on the Holocaust, "Remembering for the Future," which took place in London and Oxford. Maxwell had business interests in Israel – Pergamon Media purchased a 45% stake in Modi'in Publishing House which owned the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv – and invested in Scitex, Keter Publishing House, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.

Maxwell's downfall apparently came through unwise expansions and, unusually for a successful tycoon, overly generous payments for the acquisition of new assets, together with a secretive operating style in which no one but Maxwell himself understood the complexities of his business empire. Components of his business empire ran into difficulty in the business downturn of the late 1980s, and he was accused of raiding the assets of others to support them, including the mgn's pension fund. By the second half of 1991 the British Fraud Squad had compiled a lengthy dossier on Maxwell, and rumors of his true position increasingly surfaced in the press. On 5 November 1991 Maxwell disappeared from his yacht near the Canary Islands. His death caused a worldwide sensation. It has never been ascertained whether his death was caused by suicide, accident, or murder, and many conspiracy theories later came to the fore, especially those in which various intelligence agencies (including the Israeli Mossad) were responsible for his death. At his death, his debts totaled at least £400 million, with some estimates putting his total debt as high as £2.2 billion.

Like many self-made tycoons, Maxwell was widely regarded in a negative light. Consequently, his very notable record of charity and the scale of the business empire he briefly organized have largely been forgotten.

add. bibliography:

odnb online; T. Bower, Maxwell the Outsider (1988); idem., Maxwell: The Final Verdict (1995); R. Davies, Foreign Body: The Secret Life of Robert Maxwell (1995); W. Donaldson, Brewer's Rogues, Villains, and Eccentrics (2002), 446–47; G. Thomas, The Assassination of Robert Maxwell: Israel's Superspy (2002).

[David Cesarani. /

William D. Rubinstein (2nd ed.)]

About this article

Robert Maxwell

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic