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Flamboyant Press Baron

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Bower sees Maxwell's career as the embodiment of his craving for acceptance by a society and City that worked constantly to exclude him; hence the book's title. The author notes, for example, that while Maxwell was censured in 1971, none of his City-based auditors, brokers, or financial backers received the same treatment, even though they must have been aware of some of the accounting tricks he used to make companies appear more profitable or solvent than they really were.

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Maxwell operated from more than 400 privately held companies and a few publicly held firms. He would shift money around as necessary to make this or that company look profitable - often through "purchases" of the books or shares of a public company by a private one. Since some of the private companies were in Lichtenstein, which has rigorous privacy rules, it was often impossible for accountants and investigators to find out what was really going on. This allowed Maxwell to mislead some of the best inves tment firms in the US and Britain, including Goldman Sachs, Shearson Lehman Brothers, and Salomon Brothers.

Although Maxwell always skated on the edge of illegal dealing, Bower does not see him crossing the line until his 1988 purchase of Macmillan Publishing Company and the later buyout of the Daily News ran him out of money. Thus began Maxwell's final gamble - taking money from his various companies' pension funds to get the cash to keep operating.

In the last year of his life, Maxwell was outraged by American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh's claim that he had operated as an agent for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. Bower heaps scorn on this allegation, which rested on apparently flimsy evidence, and on Mr. Hersh for printing it. But he raises allegations of his own. Maxwell, Bower claims, actually operated as an agent of influence for the Soviet KGB for decades, perhaps going as far back as his Berlin days. He cites Maxwell's stran ge and unprofitable deals with Soviet and other East-bloc publishers. Nonetheless, Bower rejects claims that Maxwell was murdered.

While the book makes fascinating reading, it can be rough going for the reader who does not understand something about the way shares are traded and annual reports audited. Bower has a confusing tendency to skip around in time, sometimes making it a bit difficult to remember in exactly what year the events he relates occur. A chronology of Maxwell's career at the end of the book would have been most useful. And while Bower often footnotes exactly where he got certain information, other assertions he make s regarding Maxwell and his associates are maddeningly undocumented.

Despite this, readers who can wade their way through the material will find both an exciting review of the life of one of Britain's most eccentric - and influential - characters of the 20th century and a searing indictment of the postwar British financial community. It is sobering stuff.