The Maxwell I Knew


The unexpected demise of Robert Maxwell shocked the international community. After his body was found floating in the Atlantic Ocean off the Canary Island, the media reported ceaselessly on his background, habits, lifestyle, business activities and finances. Naturally, speculations abounded as to the cause and circumstances of his death. My own modest response, as a person who believes that she has seen almost everything before in another version, and that there is nothing new under the sun, was to reflect on a case that I witnessed many years ago. A case that in a way may be very similar to that of Robert Maxwell.

Several years ago, while I was traveling in Europe, I made a special trip to Frankfort, Germany, where I had lived many years ago with my parents, to spend exactly one day there. The sole purpose of this particular trip was to visit the graves of my parents, a beloved aunt, and two uncles. Afterward, I was to join my husband who was on an organized tour in another part of Europe.

After an overnight flight, I get off the plane with my small carry-on bag. Following an elaborate encounter with the duty inspectors, who are not accustomed to seeing visitors from the USA without much luggage, I leave the airport and summon a taxi. On our way to the cemetery I stop at a flower shop to buy five big bunches of autumn flowers. Upon our arrival, I pay the fare and enter the cemetery. Although my relatives had died at different times, they were all buried within close proximity of each other.

I go to my family's area and tidy up the gravesites, placing the fresh flowers and removing the wilted plants. I read the inscriptions on their respective tombstones as if it's possible that I have forgotten them, and meditate a little. There are some regrets, some things that should have been done or said earlier, and some things that should never have been said. As in every family, there was some unfinished business, too late to attend to now. Still, I try to explain on this late date, hoping that they will hear, understand and forgive.

While making my way amongst the graves, I get lost. It has been more than ten years since my father's death -- my last trip to this cemetery. To my great astonishment, I stumble upon a very new grave. So new that the gathered dirt is still fresh and the flowers and wreath upon it are still alive. In midst of the flowers is a wooden post with a name handwritten on it: Mr. B. It is a temporary arrangement that will be changed within a few weeks. The burial must have occurred only days earlier.

Mr. B's name is quite familiar to me. He had once been a very close friend of my father, and I had known his family well. As is custom in my religion, I place a stone on his grave.

I leave the cemetery and take a taxi into the city, to the district where my father and Mr. B. conducted their businesses as fur merchants. I meet one of their fellow merchants, who does not recognize me any more. Thirty years ago he had been our next door neighbor. I reintroduce myself, inquire about his family's well being, and share with him news of my family. Soon our conversation turns to the recent death of Mr. B.

No, Mr. B. was not ill; I am told he was struck by a truck. Apparently just prior to his death, Mr. B. had suffered some very serious financial setbacks, as well as family troubles. I learned that the entire fur industry, which had once been very prosperous, had been devastated in the recent recession, and that Mr. B., who had his entire fortune tied up in the business, had lost everything.

We finish our chat, and I go back to the airport. Since there is still some time before my flight, I call Mr. B's wife to express my condolences.

Mrs. B., who was known for being very private and very proud, engages me in a long conversation. She tells me that Mr. B. had indeed lost his entire fortune before his death. Her relationship with her daughter is strained. This daughter had married one of her father's employees, apparently a gold-digger. The daughter does not believe that the family's money is gone and now she is demanding her share.

Mrs. B. tells me things that one does not tell a stranger: that Mr. B. was not a good and faithful husband (which we knew), that he severed his relationship with his daughter before his death, and that Mr. B. had told her that he would be happy to leave both his daughter and his son-in-law penniless.

Mrs. B. offers even more information, which is quite unlike the Mrs. B I once knew. It is obvious that she is lonely and very distressed. I offer my sympathy again, and it is time for me to board the plane. Once we are airborne, I take time to recuperate from the shock of the trip and the unexpected news of Mr. B.'s passing. I close my eyes, try to sleep, and a part of my youth unfolds before my eyes.

It is 1954. I am in my early twenties when I meet Mr. B. I have heard about him almost daily from my father, who describes him as a very powerful and brilliant businessman. My father has taken me to Mr. B.'s family's home for dinner. Although I am young and not very experienced, I can see immediately that something is not right.

It is an elegant household, with a maid and a governess, both of whom have better manners than the host. Mrs. B., who seems more fancy and sophisticated, seems detached. She carries herself grandly, but she is obviously not appreciated by her husband.

There is also a beautiful baby girl, who is the center of both parents' attention and apparently their only connection to one another. Finally, there is Mr. B., a man in his fifties, who slurps, eats loudly, and pays no attention to table etiquette. He is physically unattractive, with long arms, hunched over, almost ape-like. Throughout the dinner he dominates the conversation. The only topic discussed is international business. I have difficulty following him since his language is full of slang. In contrast, his wife is quite attractive, impeccable in both her looks and her manners. She is visibly uncomfortable. My father is very impressed with Mr. B.'s business abilities and encourages me to befriend Mrs. B.

And so I strike up a friendship with Mrs. B., even joining her and the baby on vacation, although we have little in common. I am young, single, and have different interests.

One afternoon I meet my father in a coffeehouse. My father has been eating with Mr. B., who is practicing signing his name on paper napkins. On our way home, my father tells me that Mr. B. is illiterate and is only now learning how to read and write. The two men have become close friends. Mr. B. is impressed with my father's education and worldliness and my father is impressed with his friend's innate business abilities.

I learn that Mr. B.'s parents starved to death during World War I. He survived miraculously and was raised by his grandmother in a small village where they earned a meager living growing radishes, tying them in little bunches and selling them at the market. He never attended school.

At the age of ten he caught a rabbit, skinned it and sold the hide. This little incident started him on his way in the fur and leather business and he eventually got a job in a tannery. After World War II he became one of the biggest furriers in the world.

Mr. B. was a natural. Whatever he touched turned a healthy profit. He had branch offices in most of the major cities in Europe, North America, and South America. My father once witnessed a meeting between Mr. B. and a president of one of the largest banks in Europe. After Mr. B. presented his business plans for the next year, the president was greatly impressed. "Where," the president wondered, "did you get your education?" "I have none," Mr. B. replied to the president's considerable surprise.

After his penchant for business, Mr. B.'s next greatest passion was for women. He had many brief affairs, with a wide variety of women: young, not so young, pretty, ugly. As long as the woman wore a skirt, she was attractive to Mr. B. He picked them up at his business, at bars, railway stations, airports, on the street, virtually anywhere.

Yet he had married a woman of class, an impoverished maiden, who aspired to a fancy style of living. They each lead their own lives, sharing only one thing in common: their love for their little girl. While his wife stayed at home, attending to the household and the child, Mr. B. traveled around the world on business, having many affairs. He continued to be fabulously successful and his dealings became legendary.

The years passed and, in his pursuit of money and pleasure, Mr. B. did not realize that his luck was changing. His chief accountant, who was also one of his many mistresses, married one of his managers. They started their own business. Many tongues wagged, "From where did they get all this money?" Mr. B., with typical over-confidence, claimed that they had merely learned their trade well from him. Yet others attributed it to the not-so-honest accounting practices of these former employees.

Mr. B.'s own business practices had become ruthless. On one occasion he blackmailed one of his colleagues, who owed him money, into sharing his girlfriend. Many similar incidents followed and Mr. B. became more isolated and hated. He did not seem to notice his first small failures, which would be followed by larger ones. He was oblivious to the fact that some of his biggest customers were on the verge of bankruptcy.

There was yet another reason to be concerned. His daughter was spending increasingly less time at her fancy finishing school and more time hanging around her father's business. She came in first merely to get money from daddy in order to buy trinkets. Soon the girl had lost all interest in her education. She then spotted one of her father's employees, a charming, good-looking womanizer who saw in her an excellent opportunity. Although this man was already on his third marriage, he could not resist the prospect. And so, an affair began.

As usual, it was known to all except Mr. B who, not having a male heir, was merely pleased that his fancy daughter showed so much interest in his beloved business. After their brief affair, the couple eloped. Mr. B., who knew the young man only too well, had had much different plans for his only daughter. Needless to say, the couple demanded "their share" of his money, which had begun to dwindle away.

Mr. B.'s famous luck was failing and the entire fur industry was floundering. His customers were going bankrupt, leaving their debts unpaid. His creditors demanded payments. It was all too much for an aging mogul like Mr. B. Suddenly he found himself all alone, with no peace on either the home or business fronts. Being so isolated, no one really knew what was on his mind. His carefully built empire collapsed like a house of cards, and all of his problems were now an open secret.

And so, on a gloomy autumn morning, he left his office to get a cup of coffee. It was on a dead end street with very little traffic, only the occasional trucks picking up and delivering merchandise, Mr. B. managed to find a truck to run him over. There was no end to the speculation but perhaps, as in the case of Robert Maxwell, the true story may never be known.

April 20, 1992