Francis Wheen

Mystery of Gargantua’s Top Secret Powder Puff

The Unknown Maxwell 

By Nicholas Davies 

Sidgwick & Jackson 346 pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

When Robert Maxwell bought the Mirror Group, in July 1984, no commentator gave him a more enthusiastic or reckless welcome to the Street of Shame than Paul Johnson. ‘I don’t care a damn about his early business record or what the Board of Trade said about him umpteen years ago,’ Johnson roared in his Spectator column. ‘That is all ancient history.’ He predicted, approvingly, that the new proprietor would soon oversee a mass eviction of the Mirror’s overfed, overindulged journalists. ‘Maxwell is a hard man, with a sharp nose for extravagance, waste and freeloading of any kind.’

As so often, old Ginger Johnson was as wrong as wrong can be. Maxwell had a ‘sharp nose for extravagance’ only in the sense that a cat has a sharp nose for fish: he was himself an emperor of excess, a grand vizier of gluttony – in short, a greedy pig. Nicholas Davies, the former foreign editor of the Daily Mail, witnessed extravagance galore during the years when he acted as Maxwell’s travelling companion. Here is his description of a typical lunch on the sun-deck of the Lady Ghislaine:

‘Masses of food would be brought up the two flights of stairs by three or four sailors whose job it was to keep the fridge replenished and the food trays full of delicacies. Vast quantities of seafood would be served, including salmon, lobster, crab, mussels, clams and other shellfish, lashings of caviar, pâteé de foie gras and delicious cheeses. All this Maxwell would consume, followed by ice cream and fresh fruit … Usually he would wash it all down with a bottle or two of iced pink champagne. Sometimes he would still drink a bottle of white wine …

And then there was also dinner. During the afternoon he was shown the menu for dinner with a choice of two or three first courses and a couple of main courses … Maxwell would drink a bottle of white Burgundy with the first course, a bottle of his favourite Petrus, which cost £250 a bottle, with the main course and perhaps another bottle with the cheese. Then he would finish with a couple of schooners of vintage port…

One night, findng himself in a Yorkshire town renowned for its fish and chips, Maxwell ordered his chauffeur to take him to the nearest chip shop. ‘What have you got?’ he asked the woman behind the counter. ‘Cod, haddock, plaice, rock salmon, scampi,’ she replied. ‘I’ll have two of each,’ Maxwell said, ‘and 50p worth of chips because I’m slimming.’ He then scoffed the lot. In a hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria, Nicholas Davies walked into the kitchen of Maxwell’s suite and found him in a feeding frenzy, ‘picking up five or six sandwiches at a time and cramming them into his mouth so that he could hardly chew the food. It was like watching a starving man, driven mad by hunger, unable to control himself as he forced handfuls of food into his mouth.’

Perhaps Maxwell was trying to catch up on all the meals he had missed as a boy. ‘I can remember going hungry when I was young,’ he told Davies. ‘No one should go hungry.’ One of the many revelations in this book is that, in December 1987, frustrated by his inability to lose weight, Maxwell had his stomach ‘sewn up’ for a few months by a Harley Street specialist. As soon as the stitches were removed, however, he returned to his old habits. If he felt peckish in the middle of the night, he would wander into the kitchen of his London flat and wolf down a whole cold chicken or leg of lamb, with half a whole cold chicken or leg of lamb, with half a loaf of bread and ‘loads of fruit’.

During the final months of his life, when he was in New York for much of the time, Maxwell’s appetite became ever more bowel-boggling. He ate chicken soup, fruit, cheese and chocolate more or less continuously through the day; for dinner he would buy himself $200 of Chinese food – enough to feed four people. As Davies observes, ‘Despite the fact that his empire was collapsing around him, that he feared the Mafia were threatening his life and he knew the KGB weren’t happy with him, Maxwell never stopped eating.’

Or, come to that, drinking. According to George Wheeler, his barber, in 1991 Maxwell sometimes drank ‘a bottle or two of vintage port’ during the ninety minutes that were required for the ‘chemical process’ of dyeing the great man’s hair and eyebrows.

Wheeler, a former hairdresser at the Savoy, attended his client once a fortnight; for, in spite of his vast girth and hideous clothes, Robert Maxwell was a man of boundless vanity. Nicholas Davies’s close observation of his former boss yields many telling little details. For instance, Maxwell believed that he had a shiny nose, and used to dab it surreptitiously with a powder puff before meeting anyone important. However, he was too embarrassed ever to mention the powder puff directly. ‘I haven’t got my, you know,’ he would say to his butler or valet, tapping his pocket. Davies and Maxwell’s other servants all knew his little secret, but none alluded to it. ‘Sometimes,’ Davies writes, ‘I felt embarrassed for him because he would apply so much powder that it was not only obvious but looked ridiculous, and yet because no one was meant to know, no one would point out that too much powder had been applied.’

What emerges from this accumulation of anecdotes is a vivid picture of an emperor showing off his non-existent new clothes to an applauding crowd of flunkeys who all too willingly suspended any disbelief they may have felt. The members of this clique – and I mean you, Jay, and you, Haines – have much to answer for. In an interview with the Independent on Sunday in 1990, Maxwell boasted that he had done no business with any country in the Eastern bloc until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was an obvious lie, and easy to disprove. Why did he imagine that it would be believed? Because, I think, he spent so much time surrounded by simpering yes-men that he was no longer accustomed to being contradicted. No courtier ever dared to gainsay Maxwell: if he said that the moon was the sun, or the day was the night, there would always be a chorus of sycophants to assure him that this was indeed the case. He came to believe that he could do whatever he liked.

Hence the audacity of his last and greatest fraud. Surely, people often say, he can never have expected to get away with it? Au contraire: I suspect that he had every confidence. Anyone who questioned his money-juggling would be bullied or charmed into submission. It was only in November 1991, when he learned that his empire was collapsing about him at unstoppable speed, that he entertained the possibility of defeat and disgrace; and, without further ado, he killed himself.

Nicholas Davies’s book was published at the end of 1992 but has gone largely unreviewed. He was, famously, sacked by the Mirror in 1991 for lying about a visit to Ohio, so perhaps his unfortunate reputation has frightened people off. If so, it’s a pity. His memoir of Maxwell may not be as thorough as Tom Bower’s justly acclaimed biography, but its cataloguing of the grotesqueries and rituals at the court of a doomed dictator reminded me strongly of The Emperor, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s brilliant account of the last days of Haile Selassie. Not so well written, alas, but still utterly riveting.

It leaves but one question unanswered. Davies was acutely aware of Maxwell’s cruelty, his greed, his revolting manners. Yet, according to this account, he continued to work closely with the old brute, without qualm or discomfort. Why?

Royal Shakespeare Company


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