Robert Maxwell, Not Rupert Murdoch, Was the Real-Life Logan Roy

Archrival to Rupert Murdoch, father to Ghislaine and a timely reminder of what happens when wealthy men level their sights on the media

February 25, 2021 5:55 am
robert maxwell
Maxwell plotting his next salvo, circa 1969
Barrette/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

When Bruce Springsteen sang “Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything” in 1978, he could have been singing about Robert Maxwell. By that point in his life, the man born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch in Czechoslovakia to Jewish parents who were killed during the Holocaust had lived 10 lives. He’d made a fortune, lost one, and by 1974, regained it, as John Preston writes in his new book, Fall. Maxwell, who had been ousted from the board of Pergamon Press a few years earlier, walked into the canteen of the main office, surprised all of the employees by walking into the room and proclaiming, “I’m back,” and then continued his quest to get everything he wanted. 

The “everything” Maxwell was after was a media company. Preston outlines the ways Maxwell tried in vain to acquire a newspaper before his unceremonious expulsion, how his attempt at buying The News of the World was acquired by his lifetime rival Rupert Murdoch, who would also end up buying another paper Maxwell wanted to own, The Sun

Maxwell was a complex man whose story is well-known by now. Eastern European-bred Jew who made it out of his homeland after a few close calls only to reinvent himself as something of a British war hero known as Lance-Corporal Leslie Smith. He claimed in those days that he learned English in less than two months. Preston paints a picture of a man who always wanted more, but he also shows how that obsession was born out of tragedy. For lack of a better term, childhood messed Maxwell up. It doesn’t take a lot to understand how, exactly. And it’s with that knowledge that Maxwell can be seen as something of a sympathetic figure. 

But sympathy can run thin, and in the case of Preston’s book, it’s easy to be on empty by about page 28. He goes from Dickensian to Faustian right before our eyes; all he cares about is power, and how to consolidate it.

Of course, the entire story is intriguing, especially given the fact that Maxwell’s most famous legacy these days is his daughter, Ghislaine Maxwell, and her relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. Preston obviously doesn’t ignore that, although it’s really a small part of his book, limited to a scene from 1991 where Ghislaine tells a newspaper reporter that she’ll be back in the spotlight: “Watch this space,” she says. Maxwell’s mysterious death — he was found in the waters after falling off his yacht, Lady Ghislaine, in that same year — and the official but debated coroner’s ruling that he had a heart attack and drowned is also part of the story. Preston dives into the possible conspiracy theories surrounding the somewhat murky circumstances of Maxwell’s passing, but doesn’t put one on top of another, or claim any one has more validity than the reported cause of death. 

Fall ultimately is a fascinating study in character. It reminds us that every powerful person has a rival, one that might be more cunning and ruthless than even they are. In Maxwell’s case, it was Rupert Murdoch. Throughout the book, the two can be seen as a kind of Roadrunner and Coyote of new media, with Maxwell playing the disconsolate latter. While serving as a Labour MP and Chairman of Pergamon Press, Maxwell believed he was primed to get the best of Murdoch via a potential partnership, but he wasn’t totally honest about the worth of his company at the time, and eventually, it proved his demise.

the fall maxwell
The Fall, out now on HarperCollins

Maxwell’s rivalry with Murdoch touched on obsession; that is, Maxwell was obsessed with showing one person, and one person only, that he could keep amassing power. As Maxwell’s former chief-of-staff notes at one point, “a particular note came into Maxwell’s voice” when he talked to Murdoch on the phone. “Maxwell would sound almost matey; it was as if he wanted Murdoch to be matey with him. The really odd thing was it was like listening to someone who craved acceptance.” 

That quote takes me back to the Springsteen line, and the idea of the rich and powerful wanting to rule everything. Nobody can have everything, and those who embark on the sort of quixotic quest that Maxwell seemed to fall victim to all show the same trait: an emptiness inside of them they’ll likely never fill. Maxwell was at points a war hero, a billionaire, a politician and, eventually, a media mogul after acquiring the Mirror Group in 1984. And that’s where the larger question about not just Maxwell, but every rich man who wanted “everything” but chose the media, reveals itself: Is the closest some people get to owning “everything” simply owning the means by which people get their information?

Reading Fall, a few things kept swirling around in my brain. Two real-life people whose names you will likely see multiple times on a daily basis, in Donald Trump and Jeff Bezos. The other was a television show: Succession. The latter is fiction, often said to be based somewhat off Murdoch and his media empire. But reading Fall and seeing the ways each of the Maxwell children live and work under their father, it almost feels like the Roy clan has more in common with the Maxwells. You see another comparison to Maxwell in what is considered the “real” Succession source material, in Shakespaere’s King Lear. While there has always been discussion of Murdoch and the part his children play in the present and future of his empire, Maxwell’s descent and eventual death feel like they were foretold by The Bard. 

But in the real world, we also have Trump and Bezos. When Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013, the question a lot of people asked, simply, was “Why?” What did the man who routinely tops the world’s richest list and owns one of the biggest companies in the world want with a newspaper? As for Trump, one of the ideas you heard some of his opponents try and comfort themselves with was the idea that he didn’t really want to be president. Even back before he won the 2016 election, there was the theory floating around that the whole idea of his candidacy was to help him get enough influence in the political world that he could start a Trump Media Company all his own. And even now, his former office vacated, the idea still follows him around like a shadow. His main goal, as one person told Axios, is to “wreck Fox.” He dreams of usurping the Murdoch throne. 

What the future holds for the former president, who turns 75 this summer, remains to be seen. Whether he’ll run for president again or start the media company that people have been claiming has been in the works for years is probably a decision he’ll just wake up and make while he drinks his Diet Coke one day. And if his reason is because he’s a rich man who wants more, who wants “everything,” then his media endeavor might be a success. But if his motivation is going up against — and taking down — Murdoch, he might want to read Preston’s Fall. It shows what can happen to people who consider such ambitions to be their everything. 

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