A Year in the Life of Robert Maxwell: A Story of Labor, Lies, Losses, and Libel Suits
December 31, 1991
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 2, 2020
- Publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell becomes an instant celebrity in the U.S. by agreeing, in early March, to take over the Dally News. The paper’s unions, weary after a 139-day strike, hail Maxwell as a friend of labor. No one listens as a British union leader warns that Maxwell’s habit is “to make the workforce pay for his greed and ambition, while presenting himself as a white knight.”
- In early April, The New Republic runs a negative profile of Maxwell; he sues in Britain, despite the fact that TNR has only 136 U.K. subscribers. Maxwell sets the News on the comeback trail through promotions such as “Lucky Bucks.” Playing the role of civic leader, Maxwell makes grandiose pledges to various local institutions. The formula seems to work, as the News makes rapid gains.
- Quietly, Maxwell sells Pergamon Press and takes 49 per cent of Mirror Group Newspapers public in a frantic attempt to raise cash. On July 16 and 17, the London Independent does a two-part series, reporting that Maxwell’s debt, at $2.14 billion, is 150 per cent of his assets. Furious at the disclosures, Maxwell sues the paper for libel — despite the fact that he is a part owner.
- In mid September, The Wall Street Journal reports on the dubious nature of Maxwell’s empire. He calls the reporter “a creep.” Days later, Maxwell pledges $10 million to Brooklyn’s Polytechnic University. On September 25, Maxwell sponsors a race-relations forum. The News runs five photos of its boss in one day. Pleased, Maxwell pledges $750,000 to promote racial peace.
- On October 20, Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option is released, claiming that Maxwell and the Daily Mirror‘s foreign editor, Nicholas Davies, worked for the Mossad. Both men deny the charge and, on the 23rd, Maxwell flies yet another libel suit. Davies was later fired. In the early morning of November 5, Maxwell mysteriously disappears off his 180-foot yacht, the Lady Ghislaine.
- The British press goes ballistic over the Maxwell story, suggesting that the nude body found in the sea is not his. Later, Maxwell’s widow files a libel suit against The Guardian, for suggesting that she might have been part of a plot to fake Maxwell’s death. Sons Kevin and Ian seize the reins of the troubled empire, and are met warmly by News staffers — much as their father had been.
- After a month of media speculation about Maxwell’s disappearance, the Daily News files for bankruptcy on December 5. Its local deli refuses to accept News credit cards and creditors demand cash up front. Britain’s Serious Fraud office turns up massive improprieties, including the looting of pension funds and artificially propping up the price of Maxwell Communications stock.
- Kevin Maxwell is implicated in the pension fund scandal In Britain, and his passport and personal assets are seized by the British government. Kevin is put on a $2700-per week allowance, Ian puts his London house up for sale. Maxwell’s own papers call their former owner “a thief and liar.” As he walks through the newsroom with Sam Donaldson, Kevin Maxwell is pelted by a reporter.
- In mid December, authorities begin to investigate the pensions at the Daily News. Staffers bet on a horse named Pension Fraud. Press accounts claim Max asked a young female employee to call him “Mr. Maxwell” in bed and had a thing for midget Filipino prostitutes. Bankruptcy papers indicate that he did not make his charitable contributions, stiffing even Mother Teresa.