Bob and Betty

Jenny Diski

  • A Mind of My Own: My Life with Robert Maxwell by Elizabeth Maxwell
    Sidgwick, 536 pp, £16.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 283 06251 7

Those given to hasty judgments might find the title of Betty Maxwell’s autobiography something of a logical contradiction. Even leaving aside the strangeness, to feminist eyes, of the title’s construction, just a passing knowledge of the dynamics of Robert Maxwell’s ego would seem to preclude the possibility of having the one while being with the other for 47 years. Yet, when one has read the book, it becomes clear that the colon is, after all, perfectly placed between the two propositions, and that the initial judgment turned on a very narrow and possibly rather transitory definition of having a mind of one’s own. If living with Robert Maxwell provides satisfaction, however specialised, then to do so is perfectly in keeping with having a mind of one’s own.

Betty Maxwell got her heart’s desire from the start of her relationship with Robert Maxwell, and, what is more, she kept on getting it, in her fashion, for the duration of the marriage. Some desires over-ride the independence modern women assume to be the sine qua non of a free spirit. Indeed, some are inimical to a strict definition of independence, and who is to say that such desires are not to be satisfied?

There was a curious novel published a few years ago by Robert Coover called Spanking the Maid. It was a slim volume, because essentially it dealt with only a single scene in the life of a master/narrator and his maid. He calls her in to clean his room and make the bed. She does so, but some careless or clumsy detail – a wrinkle in the sheets, a drop of water spilled on the floor – spoils her efforts. The master is obliged to punish her before ordering her to begin again. Each plays their part with consummate awareness of the requirements of their role. The effort to make immaculate, the inexorable failure, the ritualised punishment are repeated, word for word, sentence for sentence, unvarying except for the nature of the maid’s error. The tone of the narrator and the demeanour of the maid are dull and despairing since they understand the necessity for error and punishment and the terrible circle of banality and repetition in which they are both caught up. Not that I’m suggesting for a moment that spanking had any place in the relationship between the adults in the Maxwell family, but there is something about their married life, as it is described by Mrs Maxwell, that brings to mind Coover’s book on the structure of domesticity and desire.

Robert Maxwell had very firm ideas on how a wife ought to behave.

He would constantly revert to the same old theme – that I did not look after his material needs to a standard he considered acceptable and was therefore incapable of ensuring his happiness. Sometimes there would be a button missing on a shirt, or I would forget his evening shirt studs or black tie when I packed his bag. He would complain that his cupboards were not impeccably tidy or that I hadn’t got his summer clothes out early enough ... What he wanted me to do was ‘assist, bolster and serve him and the children’.

This was not just a man demanding that all his physical needs be attended to. Right from the beginning of their marriage, domestic detail is inextricably linked to love and loyalty. Letters stating their intent and reiterating the themes of their passion fly back and forth between them throughout their long marriage.

Betuska my love.

You most certainly have made big strides towards becoming the perfect partner through the things you have done like washing my clothes, or darning my socks ... Although by themselves they may seem trivial and matter-of-fact, do not be deceived by that because they constitute the demonstration of the love which we have for each other, and to me they are of the highest value, for without them our love could not live.

Betty, like Coover’s maid, clearly understands that his wishes are not trivial, that her domestic attentions are central to their mutual desire.

I want to live for you, I want to drown my soul in your desires. This requires all my attention and all my strength, there is no time to do anything else. You will only need to say what you want and it will be done, or to express a desire and I will satisfy it. Perhaps you will discover that the half-flayed creature you have stripped naked still deserves to be loved.

For all the berating on his part and the grovelling on hers, Betty Maxwell comes across, not as a domestic doormat, but as a fully collusive partner in a very complicated relationship, which, right from the start, is powerfully sexual. But the power is not, as it appears or as it is portrayed, entirely one-sided.

The key to this kind of partnership is not actually the dominant member’s demands, but the submissive one’s power to elicit those demands while seeming to remain docile. ‘I never felt belittled by deferring to his authority ... He was forever searching for that indefinable “something” which he sensed I was holding back. For my own part, I was convinced it was precisely that very chasse au bonheur – the chase for love so clearly depicted in Stendhal – that would keep him interested in me.’ Holding back is exactly what Coover’s maid does in failing every time to perform perfectly. Every slip-up she makes is essential to the fulfilment of the narrator’s happiness, and a gift she freely brings to the relationship. She is the only one who can break the contract by performing her duties in such a way that no punishment is called for. Betty Maxwell, not tied to Maxwell for want of alternatives or money, is perfectly correct in attributing to herself a mind of her own.

She was a virgin when they first made love. ‘Although he was ablaze with desire, he did not rush me. I was ready for love, eager to be at one with him ... But despite my readiness, it was a painful first experience. He was in tears at the thought of having hurt me. Nothing was ever to move me more than my husband’s tears.’ If you are disturbed by the mental image of Robert Maxwell in the throes of love, it might (or might not) help to bear in mind Betty’s description of him as a young man. ‘There was an overwhelming impression of dominance and masculinity, reinforced by the resonant speaking voice from deep down in the diaphragm, confident and self-assured. When he spoke, his swift-moving lips, thick and red like two ripe fruits, evoked luxury and youthfulness; yet sometimes, thin as filaments of blood, they depicted death and carnage.’

In addition to the nature of the hankerings, the prose style holds an important clue to Betty Maxwell’s character. There is a marvellous mixing of respectability and libido. She is the perfect suburban lady honeycombed with dark subterranean desires. She loves to remember the sparkling, bourgeois social life and travel opportunities afforded to the wife of a tycoon (‘people tell me that my dining room was rather like one of those celebrated Parisian salons’) and shares them with us in prose similar to her description of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes: ‘of a deep, rich velvety purple’. Istanbul is encased in its geographical surroundings like ‘a jewel in lapis lazuli’; the Taj Mahal, ‘one of the Seven Wonders of the World’, she saw ‘at dawn, when the main dome was iridescent in the pink rays of the sun, then at midday in golden sunshine and beneath the most glorious blue sky and finally at midnight ... when the full moon was at its brightest and picked out the marble of the dome and four minarets in a translucent pearly white’. On the other hand, the land and people of Australia were found to be ‘too vast, too rough, too brash, too uncouth, too wild’ for her refined taste. She is vaguely conscious that there are some who are unaccustomed to her way of life. ‘All but the uninitiated will be well aware that in foreign waters, most yachting transactions take place in cash.’

It looks to me as if we can expect Betty Maxwell to climb out of her financial difficulties with one of those monosyllabically titled best-sellers filled with fashion tips (‘The Queen would not agree to extravagant expenditure on her clothes and neither did I’) wine-dark prose and exotic settings, as others on their uppers have done before her. She writes to Bob in 1981 after their final flare-up: ‘You have always refused to recognise my deeply creative instincts, the poet, dreamer, writer, storyteller within me ... when by preference I would have liked to write, draw and make music under the warm Mediterranean sun, breathing in the scented fragrances of the garrigue and pinewoods.’

Poetry, refinement and good manners are essential qualities for the French-born Mrs Maxwell and in some way they seem to help her when the old animal threatens to break out. It was only by her side and under her tutelage that Maxwell managed to pass himself off socially: ‘Sadly, in the last few years of his life, when I was no longer at his side to remind him constantly that “manners maketh man,” he tended to overlook this aspect of social intercourse.’ Discovering that her husband and his personal assistant were having an affair, she comforts herself with the knowledge of her own impeccable propriety. ‘Nor could I understand how a girl would allow herself to fall in love with the father of six children under the age of eight, whatever the circumstances. It was not the kind of moral code I had been brought up on, and I can say in all honesty that I have never allowed myself to fall in love with a married man.’ In 1969, 20 years into their marriage, a solitary safari provokes the two strands of Betty’s sensual and straitlaced character into expressing themselves. In a tented hotel at the foot of Mount Kenya, with guards around them for protection, she sat ‘beneath the starry African sky’ and explained to the curious hotel manager and guests why ‘a white woman like me’, finding herself alone in ‘darkest Africa’, wasn’t afraid. She told them she could ‘call on God who could see me, as he now saw them talking to me. My words seemed to impress them and gave me confidence to go back to my tent, reasonably sure I would not be raped, but I must confess that the Ashantis [sic] guarding that camp frightened me much more than those herds of elephants poised to charge the car a few days before.’ She was alone because Bob, anxious to be back in the world of commerce, had upped and offed, leaving her to complete their holiday alone.

The next day she wrote a long letter to Bob. ‘For some years now, I have realised, at first with bellicose sadness, then with hurt pride and at last with victorious serenity, that my usefulness to you has come to an end ... As a supreme act of my love for you, I will make no more demands on your physical and mental love and I relieve you as of now of any sense of guilt that might creep in.’ Luckily, Maxwell still wanted his buttons sewn on, so their final separation was to be postponed for another 20 years.

Throughout the Eighties they grew further apart, with Maxwell spending more time in his London flat and behaving outrageously when he was in Oxford – increasingly it looked as if he had had enough of family life. Even then, Betty found something positive about their relationship. ‘Yet the separations also helped our relationship to survive: as soon as we were apart, we would both forget reality and recreate in our minds the love we had first known.’ Until 1990 there were regular reconciliations with Maxwell writing: ‘I love you, only you, I adore you for ever my untamed, wild but fascinating creature.’ It wasn’t until July 1990 that he announced that he wanted a legal separation and that it had to be advertised in the Times. (It wasn’t.) ‘I don’t want to see you again, I don’t want you to phone me, I don’t want to talk to you any more. I no longer love you,’ he told her, which was, that time, four decades into the marriage, as definite as it sounds. By then the financial panic had started, and press baron status had inflated his ego to gigantic proportions.

A passionate dyad is perhaps not the best basis for a happy family life. The relationship between the two of them was all-consuming and it seems odd that they chose to have so many children (there were nine in all, of whom seven survived) to clutter their self-absorption. Perhaps hostages are necessary in such a relationship, so that notable sacrifices can be made as test and proof of sincerity of intent. When a choice was to be made between her husband’s overweening needs and her children, there was never any contest. When Maxwell wanted her to campaign with him in his Parliamentary period, the children were packed off to the grandparents in France for six months so that Betty could devote her time and energy to canvassing for her husband. She feels now that he might have gone too far when he persecuted his children, as he did every Sunday, reducing them to tears, each in turn, week by week. But although ‘my own heart was torn to shreds ... I felt it was important to maintain a united front before the children.’ Still, she was not above a little disciplining herself. After he had misbehaved, she offered Ian, at 15, the choice of taking ‘three of the best’ from herself or waiting till his father came home. ‘After momentary reflection, he decided to take the beating from me ... I hated doing it and needed all the courage I could muster to perform such a hated punishment with the twins’ riding crop.’ However, ‘from that day on ... Ian always showed me the utmost respect, never once ventured a word of insolence and we have remained the best of friends.’ Betty could play the dominance/submission game from either end of the pitch.

Betty Maxwell’s account of her life with Robert Maxwell is not the best place to look for a description of Maxwell the businessman or Maxwell the crook. For a detailed account of the wheeling and dealing and finagling (or is it finessing?), you are better off going to Tom Bower’s biography of her husband.[*] As she sees it, Maxwell made mistakes because he was ‘rash’, a word she uses repeatedly about his trickier business dealings. His faults are essentially over-enthusiasm and naivety. Whether she really believes this or is merely distancing herself from the taint of his dishonesty is unclear. In her book she has it both ways: Maxwell carries on his business outside the house, but when the chickens come home to roost, Betty stands by her man.

Her considered opinion about the Leasco scandal is that Saul Steinberg and his wife (guilty of working on a tapestry during lunch with ‘Nicole de Bedford’ at Woburn Abbey) were ‘self-opinionated and ill-mannered’. The failure of Simkin Marshall, the book wholesaling business that crashed under Maxwell’s ownership, was due to publishers ‘stabbing the new enterprise in the back’. The report of the DTI into the Pergamon mess which concluded, ‘he is not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise a proper stewardship of a publicly-quoted company,’ is dismissed as ‘merely an opinion’.

You have the feeling that Betty was always out, or having her hair done, when the most scandalous and illegal events took place. When she expresses pity for the Maxwell Group pensioners whose retirement income was stolen by her husband (‘the loss of financial security in old age is cruel indeed’) you suspect she is reminding you of her own newly-straitened circumstances. They are not the only ones who suffered, she seems to be suggesting; she, a pensioner too, is reduced to living ‘temporarily’ in a two-bedroomed house in London, although her interior decorator, loyal to the last, has loaned her ‘some of his own furniture to add a touch of the elegance to which he knew I was accustomed’. Actually, although she mentions the losses the pensioners have suffered there is no precise reference to the fact that her husband embezzled the money during the last months of his life to keep his tycoon dream afloat. A Martian might conclude the pensioners had been careless with their funds and left them on an omnibus.

Curiously, while Maxwell tried to sue the socks off Tom Bower, it is his book that provides the more sympathetic picture. If Mrs Maxwell’s longings and evasions preclude much sympathy, her husband is another case altogether. Maxwell seems to me to be the businessman capitalism deserves, and I have to confess to a certain pleasure at his vulgarity in the clubbable world of bankers. As an innocent in the world of high finance, I have trouble seeing why the financial games he played were any worse than the games played by those he was dealing with. Almost everything he did (with the exception of the overtly illegal appropriation of the pension funds) was within the incredibly elastic rules of making money out of money. Even the pension fund fraud was financed by the banks, who were falling over themselves to make a packet out of a man they despised. In fact, he lost most of his takeover battles because he was too emotional a player when pitched against the cool-headed likes of Rupert Murdoch. And, of course, he wasn’t English. You might say that Rupert Murdoch isn’t English either, but for all Betty Maxwell’s distaste for things and people Antipodean, the English understand that an Australian is more nearly one of them than an upstart Jew from somewhere unpronounceable in Mittel Europe can ever hope to be. In a world of commerce where ambition and greed for more than is necessary are essential and admired qualities, he just wanted to shine. But he didn’t understand the underlying rules that require ambition and greed to be overlaid with acceptable evidence of breeding. When he was out-manoeuvred by Murdoch and the money-men in the News of the World takeover, he complained of the Norwich Union boss who switched sides: ‘Mr Watson threw a googly at me.’ Mr Watson replied: ‘Every Englishman knows you “bowl” a googly.’

There seems to have been enough of that sort of thing to have driven Maxwell’s, ambitions to manic extremes. Doubtless the boy from the shtetl had a burning desire to belong. He loved shaking hands with the rich and famous and cavorting ludicrously on the pages of his own newspaper, bought, very likely, because he knew he’d never get a respectful press from anyone else. He was a monster, of course, consumed with avarice and the desire to be in control, but he had help in the burgeoning of his monstrousness. He was, by any account, extraordinary, and perhaps, in another place, might have been something quite different.

Betty Maxwell believes he was driven by a need to atone for his survival. ‘He was convinced that had he stayed at home, he could have saved the lives of his parents and younger siblings’ – who died in concentration camps. ‘Nothing he achieved in life would ever compensate for what he had not been able to accomplish – the rescue of his family.’

His Jewishness was not just a problem for the English establishment, but for Maxwell himself. Betty Maxwell suspects that in marrying out of the faith he felt he betrayed his family. In consequence, she devoted herself to working ‘towards Jewish-Christian reconciliation’ and bringing the knowledge of the Holocaust to the attention of the world. ‘In some ways,’ she writes, this ‘brought us together, in others, it widened the gulf between us as I gradually became more recognised in my own right.’ The Maxwell tensions remained taut right to the end.

Ever one to make the best of a bad business, in her time of trouble after her husband’s death when people were riffling through her bank accounts, she found comfort in what she learned of Maxwell’s family history. ‘Through all of this I was sustained by my respect and love for the memory of Bob’s mother, this woman I had never known but to whom I felt so close ... She and her family had gone through far worse, along with all their fellow Jews, who had been humiliated, vilified, degraded and finally murdered. How did I dare complain, even to myself? I felt supported by sharing vicariously, even in a small way, an appalling fate and being punished for alleged deeds I had neither committed nor been aware of.’ Thank God, it wasn’t all in vain.

[*] Maxwell: The Outsider is available from Mandarin at £6.99. A new book, Maxwell: The Final year, will be coming out from HarperCollins on 23 May (320 pp., price not yet determined, 0 00 255564 6).