Elisabeth Maxwell, widow of British media tycoon, dies at 92

August 10, 2013

Elisabeth Maxwell, a leading figure in educating the public about the Holocaust but whose life was largely spent in the shadow of her husband, British media tycoon Robert Maxwell, died Aug. 7 in the Dordogne region of France, where she had lived in recent years. She was 92.

The Telegraph, a London newspaper, said she had a heart ailment.

The French-born Dr. Maxwell, as she liked to be known after receiving a doctorate at age 60 from the University of Oxford, spent 46 years as the dutiful wife of her hard-charging husband. She bore him nine children — two of whom died young — and accompanied Maxwell, a onetime member of the British Parliament, to glamorous gatherings around the world.

She claimed ignorance of her husband’s financial dealings, which eventually led to the collapse of his business empire after he was found dead in November 1991, floating near his yacht in the Atlantic Ocean. Three years later, she wrote an autobiography, “A Mind of My Own: My Life With Robert Maxwell,” as a way to reclaim her identity and to generate money after her husband’s downfall plunged her into poverty. Reporters noted that she had been reduced to a single maid.

“I was left with colossal debts,” Dr. Maxwell told London’s Sunday Times in 1994. “Everything he had given me was taken away.”


Billionare Robert Maxwell and his wife, Elisabeth Maxwell, attend a dinner honoring King Juan Carlos of Spain in New York in 1991. (Associated Press/Associated Press)

At the time of his death near the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, the Czech-born Maxwell owned the Mirror group of British newspapers, the Macmillan publishing company and the New York Daily News, among dozens of other properties. He was juggling so many financial interests that it was inevitable, many observers believed, that everything would come crashing down. The British press dubbed him the “bouncing Czech.”

Two autopsies were inconclusive, and rumors swirled about whether Maxwell died by murder or suicide — or whether the 290-pound press baron simply fell overboard, perhaps after a heart attack. A London tabloid owned by his rival, Rupert Murdoch, pointedly asked, “Did he fall . . . Did he jump?”

After Maxwell’s death, his various businesses were sold off, and it came to light that the mogul had looted his companies’ pension funds of more than $1 billion. Two of his sons, who worked with him, faced fraud charges but were cleared after a trial.

Dr. Maxwell did not receive a settlement after her husband died, she wrote, because insurance companies suspected he may have committed suicide.

In any case, Dr. Maxwell saw her husband as many people did: often charming, always demanding and sometimes tyrannical. He belittled his wife in front of others, correcting her grammar and calling her ignorant.

Yet, in her autobiography, she still seemed besotted, describing her husband in the extravagant prose of a romance novel: “He was next to me, powerful, extremely seductive, persuasive, piercing me with those blazing eyes of his which in turn coaxed me and cut me to the heart.”

In interviews, her appraisals were more nuanced.

“He loved me to the end in spite of all the ups and downs,” she told the Associated Press. “But if I’d left, he would have respected me more.”

Elisabeth Jenny Jeanne Meynard was born March 11, 1921, near St.-Alban-de-Roche, France. Her father owned a silk-weaving factory and was a small-town mayor.

She studied for two years in England, then attended Sorbonne in Paris before teaching school. She met Maxwell in 1944, when he was working for the British intelligence service.

His name at birth was Jan Ludvik Hoch — or, by some accounts, Abraham Leib Hoch — and he grew up in a Jewish family in a region that was part of Czechoslovakia. As many as 300 members of his family died in the Holocaust, including his mother, brother and three sisters.

When the couple met, he was known as Ivan du Maurier. He spoke nine languages and later went by Leslie Jones before settling on Robert Maxwell. They were married on March 14, 1945.

Maxwell served in Parliament from 1964 to 1970, amassed a fortune and settled his family on a vast English estate. After raising their children — a daughter died in the 1950s, a son in the 1960s — Dr. Maxwell enrolled at the University of Oxford, graduating in 1974 with a degree in modern languages. She received a doctorate in 1981.

She wrote a thesis about her French family, then turned her attention to her husband’s Jewish heritage and the Holocaust. Robert Maxwell called his wife, who was born of French Huguenot Protestant parents, “the keeper of my Jewish soul.”

For many years, however, he would not discuss the Holocaust or his family’s past.

“I know that until the end of his life,” Dr. Maxwell said in 2000, “it choked my husband to actually talk about his mother’s and his siblings’ deaths.”

As her husband became preoccupied with business and spent more time away from home, Dr. Maxwell devoted herself to Holocaust studies.

“What saved me,” she said in 1995, “was my work on the Holocaust.”

She organized international conferences, gave lectures, edited scholarly papers and established Holocaust and Genocide Studies, a scholarly journal now published in conjunction with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

In 1988, Dr. Maxwell founded Remembering For the Future, a Holocaust education organization that she directed for 12 years. She was the first female vice president of the International Council of Christians and Jews and worked on a project to create a database of interviews with Holocaust survivors.

Dr. Maxwell was often credited with encouraging her husband’s support for Jewish causes and his efforts to help Soviet Jews settle in Israel. She retained her Christian identity throughout her life and raised her children as Christians.

“It occurred to me very often to convert, but I didn’t find it to be a solution,” she told the Jerusalem Post in 2005. “The work I did as a Christian was more powerful than if I would do it as a Jew.”

Survivors include seven children and 13 grandchildren.

Summing up life with her mercurial husband, Dr. Maxwell said in 1994, “He could do some terrible things, but you still liked the bloody man.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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