At this point in the nation’s haphazard experience, most Americans know far too much about Ghislaine Maxwell owing to her connections with the conveniently dead sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But most Americans don’t know nearly enough about her rags-to-riches-to-scandal-ridden father, Robert Maxwell, who died under suspicious circumstances in 1991.
During the period of my employment in the late 1980s at UMI-Data Courier in Louisville, I abstracted magazine articles and became my department’s unofficial British writing and publications expert. Consequently I read quite a lot about Robert Maxwell, and on Friday his life story popped into my mind.
Ian Robert Maxwell MC (born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch; 10 June 1923 – 5 November 1991) was a British media proprietor, Member of Parliament (MP), suspected spy, and fraudster. Originally from Czechoslovakia, Maxwell rose from poverty to build an extensive publishing empire. After his death, huge discrepancies in his companies’ finances were revealed, including his fraudulent misappropriation of the Mirror Group pension fund.
Early in his life, Maxwell, an Orthodox Jew, escaped from Nazi occupation, joined the Czechoslovak Army in exile during World War II and was decorated after active service in the British Army. In subsequent years he worked in publishing, building up Pergamon Press to a major publishing house. After six years as a Labour MP during the 1960s, Maxwell again put all his energy into business, successively buying the British Printing Corporation, Mirror Group Newspapers and Macmillan Publishers, among other publishing companies.
Maxwell had a flamboyant lifestyle, living in Headington Hill Hall in Oxford, from which he often flew in his helicopter, or his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. He was litigious and often embroiled in controversy. In 1989, Maxwell had to sell successful businesses, including Pergamon Press, to cover some of his debts. In 1991, his body was discovered floating in the Atlantic Ocean, having apparently fallen overboard from his yacht. He was buried in Jerusalem.
Maxwell’s death triggered the collapse of his publishing empire as banks called in loans. His sons briefly attempted to keep the business together, but failed as the news emerged that the elder Maxwell had stolen hundreds of millions of pounds from his own companies’ pension funds. The Maxwell companies applied for bankruptcy protection in 1992.
You are encouraged to digest the entire Wikipedia entry, because Maxwell’s life reads so improbably as to suggest fiction. Just this alone: “Maxwell was born into a poor Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jewish family in the small town of Slatinské Doly, in the region of Carpathian Ruthenia, Czechoslovakia (now Solotvyno, Ukraine).”
Look at the map and you’ll see this town on the border with Romania. Go to Google street views and the aching melancholy sets in. The onset of World War Two assuredly cost Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch his entire family in the Holocaust, but if not for the chaos, would he have made it out of such a backwater to become Robert Maxwell?
Wealth, fame and notoriety; Maxwell had it all. It’s even possible he was a double-naught spy for the Israelis. However, by the time I became aware of him in 1988, Maxwell’s fiefdoms were unraveling, hence the many articles in the British press alleging financial malfeasance in his sprawling business empire.
As is so often the case, his sudden death left numerous questions. How could Maxwell fall off his yacht and drown? Well, possibly because he was fond of urinating naked into the sea at night. Did a heart attack cause him to plunge into the ocean prior to dawn’s early light, or was he pushed, or even jump? After all, the bills were about to come due. He’d already been compelled to cash in chips to service debt. It was so bad that a year after Maxwell died, his holdings were kaput.
What made me think of Maxwell was the death of Texas Roadhouse chain restaurant mogul Kent Taylor, a Louisville native. Evidently Taylor had been wracked by post-COVID complications, and he took his own life. The pandemic’s arrival in 2020 rocked Taylor’s profitable restaurants, but by his own account his companies pulled together, punched their way through it, innovated constantly, and affirmed the family feeling he’d always sought to foster, as well as the superiority of entrepreneurial capitalism itself.
Last fall, as with Maxwell long before him, Taylor sold a chunk of Texas Roadhouse stock, presumably to reimburse himself for cash he’d poured into the businesses during COVID’s peak traffic suppression.
I’m not drawing any conclusions, and while I’ve never grasped why owners of capital are feted like rock stars by business-for-the-sake-of-business fetishists, I never met the man and have no reason to believe anything about his death other than what has been reported thus far. It is both sad and ironic that as I write, pandemic deniers are seated in Texas Roadhouse locations throughout the country, bitching about science but pathetically unaware about what happened to Kent Taylor.
So it goes in this colossally stupid country.
Taylor’s passing made me think of Robert Maxwell, of whom is might plausibly be said that when something or someone seems too good to be true, they usually are. I keep thinking back to that Ruthenian village in the Carpathians, and the way that serendipity rules all.
There’s such emptiness amid affluence, isn’t there?