Flamboyant Press Baron
TO an American, the story of a young East European immigrant who flees to the West to escape the Nazis, becomes a hero during World War II, founds a publishing empire, and serves several terms in government, would be an exciting but typical story - the American dream reenacted yet again.Skip to next paragraph
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But set such a story in Britain, and the story becomes rare indeed. There, the business and financial establishment - the City - has been far less ready to admit the newcomer or the immigrant, especially if he began as a poor Czechoslovakian Jew who had not attended the right schools and did not follow the City's rules.
Therein, according to biographer Tom Bower, lies the key to understanding the life of British press baron Robert Maxwell.
To many in North America, Maxwell burst on the scene in 1991, when he bought the venerable, if tattered, New York Daily News, "rescuing" it from a crippling strike. Or when, in November, his body was found floating in the Atlantic near the Canary Islands, an unsolved mystery. Britons, on the other hand, have known him as a flamboyant businessman and Labour politician for several decades.
This is a revised, updated version of Bower's 1988 "unauthorized" biography, a book that Maxwell spared no effort to suppress. He finally succeeded, because he owned Europe's largest publishing company, in intimidating most British booksellers into declining to carry the book.
In this gripping account, Bower traces Maxwell's behavior to his humble origins in an obscure shtetl in Carpo-Ruthenia, a poverty-stricken region of eastern Czechoslovakia later swallowed up by Stalin. There, he faced endemic anti-Semitism and learned Eastern European business methods - and ethics - from his cattle-trading and smuggling grandfather.
After the war, in which he won the Military Cross, Maxwell was a member of the military group that ran the British sector of Berlin. There, he made his first contacts in the publishing industry, forming alliances that later led to his successful scientific publishing business in London.
Maxwell experienced his first financial crisis in 1954, encountering the wrath of the City when he wriggled out of the collapse of book wholesaler Simpkin Marshall. Two decades later, his barely legal financial shenanigans involving one of his major companies, Pergamon Press, would result in a censure by the Department of Trade and Industry, which termed him "not in our opinion a person who can be relied upon to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company."
In the United States, such a finding by the Securities and Exchange Commission would have ended Maxwell's entrepreneurial career. Yet because corresponding British regulation is so lax, according to Bower, Maxwell was able to regroup, begin a bitter rivalry with Australian newspaper owner Rupert Murdoch, and end up with control of the popular Daily Mirror tabloid, a host of associated newspapers, several publishing companies in Britain, the US, and elsewhere, and finally the New York Daily News. Along th e way, Maxwell lived a life of luxury that reflected strangely on his political career as a Labour member of Parliament in the 1960s.