Robert Maxwell, 'Superspy': A historic scandal, overtold

I first met Robert Maxwell in 1990 in London, where I was working as executive editor of the Sunday Correspondent, a smart startup national weekly paper that was gunned down in the crossfire of an advertising recession and ferocious competition. There was talk of his investing in it, but his well-established notoriety as a sleazy financial operator and an arrogant tyrant blocked that.

I next met him in New York, when at the end of a brutal, violent strike, the Daily News -- of which I was editorial page editor -- collapsed financially and was sold, for essentially nothing, to Maxwell. He arrived in the newsroom -- all 6 feet, 4 1/2 inches of a body weighing almost 300 pounds, with a 52-inch waist and a 21-inch neck -- and took charge. His swiftness and elusiveness led me to describe him to friends as a 300-pound hummingbird.


Knowing a lot about Maxwell, I could not work for him.

He claimed that he was worth 4.2 billion pounds, about $6 billion. After his death, less than a year later, it became clear he was abysmally in debt -- more than 2 billion pounds owed to banks after liquidation. The collapse took with it pension funds he had stolen from 24,000 employees.


A great deal has been written about him, before and since. Now comes Robert Maxwell, Israel's Superspy: The Life and Murder of a Media Mogul, by Gordon Thomas and Martin Dillon (Carroll & Graf, 368 pages, $25).

In it, the authors conclude, "Newspapers were not the only place where he ruled by aggression, cruelty and ruthlessness. His obsession with money and power had bought him factories, businesses and properties, and those who were employed in these worked under his fear. It was a living, vibrant thing that extended across the globe. For them all the normal rules of right and wrong, good and bad, were suspended from the moment he acquired them."

That, my experience dictates, puts Maxwell in rather kindly light.

Thomas and Dillon are one-man book factories. Thomas has written, alone or with partners, more than 40 previous books, nonfiction, fiction, screenplays and plays. Dillon has turned out 16 earlier works. Much of both author's work has been about espionage, international intrigue and war.

They credit an impressive list of British, American, Israeli and other experts in international intrigue, many retired government officials, a substantial number of them now dead. They provide a lengthy outline of interviews and sources. They make a convincing case for the thoroughness and responsibility of their research.

Their book uses infinite detail to establish a voice of persuasion -- Hebrew language terms to describe the minutiae of spy craft, precise dates, times, tangential incidents related in sharp specificity.

The authors weave time lines back and forth artfully -- sustaining a narrative of Maxwell's childhood in a dirt-poor Czech village, his courageous British Army service in World War II, the early days after the war as he began building a financial empire, his marriage, his first contacts with important international figures in the 1970s, including top Israeli and Soviet figures. They report he was recruited by Mossad in 1983 and soon became "Israel's top spy." Intertwined is a narrative of the period that led to the end of his life.

This is a big and ambitious book -- probably too big. I found it, finally, flawed by excess -- by exaggeration of narration and, more fatally, of conclusions that are overdrawn, insufficiently elaborated or substantiated.


The Maxwell the book presents is often more than superhuman. He's cited, for example, as "an authority on Goethe" in 1946, when he was 23 and had been on the run or at war since age 15. The tone of the book leans heavily on that sort of hyperbole: "On 6 August [1991], the anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima by atomic bomb, Maxwell returned to London to find himself in a mushroom cloud of his own troubles." A lot of directly quoted colloquies could not possibly have been recorded. The weakness of this is that the factual foundations of some vitally important matters are skimmed over without convincing explanations.

This is particularly the case as the authors present a major element of the book, a computer program called Promis, which the authors declare Maxwell stole. They write that it had immense capacities to track and trace agents and criminals and others, though there is no comprehensible explanation of how the program did its work.

They report that Maxwell sold the program to most of the important government intelligence organizations of the world, at a personal profit of more than half a billion dollars. Into the program, they write, Israeli technicians collaborating with Maxwell implanted an electronic "trap door" that allowed Israeli intelligence to tap many of the highest state secrets of the Soviet Union, Britain, the U.S. and other nations. This portrays the world's top intelligence agencies as feckless fools.

By the late 1980s, they write, Maxwell had became deeply involved with the crime leaders of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, who remained his partners until his death.

That involvement, the authors write "would grow into one of the most powerful crime syndicates in the world, embracing the Russian Mafia, the crime families of Bulgaria and, far away across the Atlantic, those in New York and, on the other sided of the world, the crime families of Japan and Hong Kong."

This amalgam of fact and insinuation, converging without distinction, suggests coining a new category of prose. How about infoendo?


The conclusion that suffers most acutely is the cause of Maxwell's death.

The authors say Maxwell was "a powerful figure in the activity of Mossad" for more than two decades, but that as he became desperate for capital, he began to threaten its leaders, and thus the State of Israel -- trying to blackmail them into a one-time 400-million-pound payoff. They describe a process through which the highest levels of Israeli government and intelligence ostensibly decided Maxwell would have to be killed.

And in intricate detail -- not supported by sources I can believe -- they relate an impressively professional job of assassination on the fantail of Maxwell's yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, before dawn on Nov. 5, 1991, off the Canary Islands. Post mortems ultimately detected no evidence of the poison the author's credit. The autopsies, though bungled, concluded he died of heart failure.

I have never believed Maxwell was emotionally capable of suicide -- which many contended was the true cause of his death. A massive coronary more likely sent him overboard. I do not know. But after a careful reading of Israel's Superspy, I am convinced that Thomas and Dillon cannot surely know either.