By Geoffrey Mather
Newspapers attract erratic proprietors. Northcliffe once phoned the office to declare, ‘They say I am mad. Send your best reporter.’ Beaverbrook was mean, ebullient, outrageous, and always a force beyond reckoning. And so to Maxwell, a seedier man than these, the bouncing Czech, who bought the Daily Mirror, raided its pensions fund of £440m, left 30,000 pensioners in despair, and floated into an uncaring sea alone to die. Mourned by somebody, one supposes, but not by most.
His life recently unrolled on TV, compressed into an impossible 90 minutes, but not to the point where his principal characteristics were obscured: the bullying of his wife, his children, his colleagues, his business associates. He had a devious mind for creating obscure companies with shifts of money from here to there; he was a conjuror, a juggler, a manipulator, ultimately disgraced and left without respect or honour to be buried in Israel.
I watched the portrayal of all this through the actor David Suchet and was fascinated by what I saw. None of it unexpected - the moods, the Citizen Kane backdrops, the rants, the nonsense of the man - and I was glad to have had no part of him. Suchet managed, for me, the near-impossible: he exuded power, threat, irrationality in the way I had always imagined Maxwell. True or not, those closest to him will decide for themselves.
I came close to him only once, I am glad to say. I had arranged to meet him in London because it was rumoured that he was to buy Manchester United. I had a phone call from his secretary at 7.30 in the morning. He sent his apologies but he was already in conference and would be unable to make it. Perhaps as well.
Magnus Linklater, a journalist I had been more than pleased to work with, became one of his editors. He wrote about that experience in The Times. ‘... and my last meeting with him (was) after the (London Daily News) paper folded, as we all somehow suspected it would. I had gone to see him, bearing my watertight contract, which he had signed. ‘It’s been fun, Bob,’ I said, ‘but now I would like the money you agreed to.’
‘Mister,’ came the almost inevitable reply, ‘if you think I am going to honour your contract, then you don’t know me very well’.’
It was all very Citizen Kane, and there is ample evidence that newspaper proprietors as a genre are never short of, at the very least, eccentricity.
Henry Luce, of Time magazine, chastised a writer who complained that he did not have a desk, for lack of log cabin spirit. A satirical piece in, I think, the New Yorker describing Time contained the words, ‘Backward ran the sentences till reeled the mind.’ The descriptions of people were lurid. ‘Snaggle-toothed and pig faced’ was one.
As boss of Life magazine, Luce sent out an edict to all staff - ‘Let us bend our attentions to the Japanese beetle.’ And they did. At great expense.
Dorothy Parker wrote for the New Yorker, and told the editor she was absent from the office because someone else was using the pencil.
A New York man for the Daily Express once described for me a visit by Beaverbrook:
‘I was sitting in the office when I got a phone call from London. No 1 Reader arriving. Meet at airport. No, no, I said. I can’t. Deadline looming. Busy writing a story you want. Forget story, said London. Meet No 1 Reader.’
So off he went to the airport, late, having first ordered two large limousines - one to collect the old man, the other to be available round a corner should the luggage exceed the capacity of the first.
Enter Beaverbrook and secretary. New York correspondent missing so that the No 1 Reader was not smoothed through the arrival process. The New York man explained his dilemma of having to write a story and be at the airport. ‘That,’ said Beaverbrook, ‘must have been a very difficult decision for you.’
Second limousine required...
So the old man went to his hotel and began to send messages about share movements on the exchanges. And our New York man was hunting in the waste paper baskets for old envelopes in which to send the replies - since Beaverbrook would have complained about wasting new envelopes…
The old man invited him to breakfast at his hotel. The New York man began to study the very large menu with great anticipation. From the other side came the small voice, ‘I always think that at this time of morning, an egg and toast is enough...’
Beaverbrook rolled away and eventually returned for his flight home. He sat hunched at the head of his plane waiting, with impatience, for his secretary. He had bought a copy of Lolita. Finally she arrived, breathless, and thrust a present into his hands. He brightened. Then darkened once more as he unwrapped his present. It was another copy of Lolita.
Once he was walking, in the South of France, with several colleagues, all in black suits and homburgs, one very tall and wearing a black eye patch. They were surrounded by people in bright clothing, some in bikinis.
‘Why,’ asked Beaverbrook, ‘is everybody staring at us?’
Beaverbrook managed to form a strong, workable relationship with his editor, Christiansen, though it was never, I imagine, easy going. I was once in the London Express when a phone rang in the editor’s office. I had been left to wait there. A middle-rank editorial executive had joined me. We both stared at the phone.
Eventually, I said, ‘Aren’t you going to answer it?’
‘Not bloody likely,’ he said. ‘You answer it. Last time I picked up that phone it was the old man.’ Fear was abundant. When Beaverbrook walked into London office, the footsteps quickened in Manchester.
Once when the general manager, editor and Max Aitken were gathered in conference, Beaverbrook phoned from the south of France. ‘What’s the weather like?’ he said.
‘Snowing,’ said the general manager, his brow perspiring from the sunlight blazing through the window.
‘In that case,’ said Beaverbrook, ‘I think I will delay my return to London.’ All three were relieved, that editor told me.
So to Maxwell. He behaved like the others, but whereas they - particularly Northcliffe - had a feeling for newspapers, he appeared to me to lack it. He was all power, and seemed to impede editors around him who had great competence in their line of business. He reminded me of Joe Hyman, who once bossed Viyella. Hyman said he was interested in buying The Spectator.
‘What would you do with it?’ I asked.
‘I would have a headline - ‘Joe Hyman says...’ - on Page One.’
That, I imagine, would have killed off The Spectator in no time.
Journalists go through a long learning process. Proprietors tend to think they understand the business without the training because they know money. Murdoch at least had a go at being a journalist before tycoonery whirled him to his penthouse in the sky. Thomson rode the Underground to work and remained modest. Beaverbrook always paid well for the not-so-obvious reason that it put pressure on other papers.
As for Maxwell. Poor man to rich man, rich man to poor man, lost at sea. What an epitaph! Oh dear.
Former Daily Express assistant editor and columnist Geoffrey Mather publishes his own regularly updated web of comment and jottings about newspapers and current affairs, at: