April 01, 1991 12:00 PM

It was a rough morning aboard the 190-foot Lady Ghislaine moored at the East River yacht basin in the shadow of Manhattan’s skyline. But labor leaders emerging from conference with the yacht’s owner, Robert Maxwell, the brash 67-year-old British media tycoon who was in the process of taking over New York City’s foundering Daily News, weren’t pale from the wind and waves. What made them queasy was the relentless chop of Maxwell’s demands to save the once-mighty newspaper. Formerly the biggest and brassiest tabloid in America, with a daily circulation of 2.4 million, the News was about to be scuttled by its parent Tribune Company after a five-month strike, when Maxwell offered to step in earlier this month, provided the unions gave him a relatively free hand in cutting costs.

“He’s some piece of work,” muttered one negotiator, shaking his head at the prospect of losing 800 of 2,600 union jobs—just one of the many requirements (eventually agreed to by the unions) that Maxwell had listed in his deep, mellifluous baritone. Replacing his shoes, which he had to remove before entering Maxwell’s carpeted sanctum, the union negotiator forecast: “This city is in for a bumpy ride.”

Above deck, sprawled on a 40-foot horseshoe-shaped couch, the 260-lb. Maxwell, whose global empire includes book publishers (Macmillan among them), at least 10 European newspapers, the Berlitz International language schools and MTV Europe, was dispatching stewards and secretaries on an endless stream of errands. “I’ve told the labor leaders, let’s be partners,” he said.

There are those who would advise caution in making partnership with the controversial Maxwell, a man of such mercurial complexity that he can, at the same time, be both a committed socialist and an unapologetic billionaire. He has pledged his fortune to charity upon his death, yet he continues to enjoy the splendor of waiting helicopters, private planes and a sumptuous yacht, all attended by an obedient staff. He is a war hero who harbors an unresolved grudge over the 800 extended-family members he estimates that he lost in the Holocaust, and a onetime rabbinical student who still espouses spiritual values. Yet employees in Britain tremble at his displeasure. “He is famous for the cavalier manner in which he fires employees—among them his since-rehired son, Ian, dismissed for missing a business appointment.

What some see as a propensity for ruthless staff cuts, however, Maxwell describes as a “logical” approach to a major problem: the featherbedding and management chaos that has crippled the newspaper industry. “You have to make a profit,” he says. “That is the first requirement. But I am not heartless.”

In preparation for his purchase of the News, which he claims will be his last great project before he retires, Maxwell remained patiently in England while the long strike nibbled away at the resistance of the nine unions and the Tribune Company. “I had to wait until [potential buyer Mortimer] Zuckerman exhausted himself and both sides wanted me in,” he says, sounding like the expert chess player that he is. In the end, the Tribune Company offered him a reported $60 million to take the News off its hands, an arrangement that leaves Maxwell to assume $40 million in shutdown costs.

His critics, who accuse Maxwell of overreaching and being heavily leveraged, predict that under his stewardship, the News is doomed. “He is not good at producing newspapers,” says Ian Hislop, editor of the sly British humor magazine Private Eye (alluding to Maxwell’s failures at two British dailies). “I hope the Americans will see through him.” Maxwell, who did rescue the financially troubled London Daily Mirror in 1984, predicts he will have the News in the black within a year.

“If anyone can do it,” concurs a longtime acquaintance, “Maxwell can.”

Born Ludvik Hoch to Hasidic Jewish peasants in the Carpathian Mountains of eastern Czechoslovakia, Maxwell was one of nine children, and the eldest son. From his earliest days, he says, he saw all around him the trap of greed. “Property was valued above human beings,” he says. “That was very dangerous.” And he saw another looming danger. “At Easter time, the villagers would put on a pageant with masks and whips and try to frighten the Jews,” he says. “I always had great pride. I stood my ground. I was not afraid.”

But when the Germans marched across Europe in 1939, Maxwell joined the Resistance. He was 16 and lived in the forest. Five years later most of his family were taken away and murdered in concentration camps. Maxwell fought his way across Europe, serving in various Resistance and regular army units, then made his way to England. “I was offered a U.S. visa by an American diplomat when I was fighting in the French Army, but I wanted to kill Germans,” he says with a shrug. The Germans would have been eager to kill him too, as they would any captured Jew, so Hoch became Maxwell. He was wounded twice, in France and Germany, and promoted to captain. “The war, the army,” he says. “That was my education.”

During a leave in Paris in 1944, Maxwell met Elisabeth Meynard, a descendant of aristocratic French Huguenots who was working as a translator. They were married after a brief courtship, and Maxwell made three promises to his wife: that he would win the Military Cross, create a family to replace the one he had lost and become British Prime Minister. The cross came weeks later. “Two out of three isn’t bad,” Maxwell says now.

He returned to the front shortly after his marriage, and his wartime letters home suggest how his “education” was progressing. “I had a very amusing day,” he wrote Elisabeth on April 3, 1945. He had extracted a promise to surrender from the Mayor of a German village, he explained, and then come under fire from a tank. “So,” he added. “I shot the Mayor.”

After the war, through connections he had made while serving as a British Intelligence liaison with the German printing industry, Maxwell began assembling the parts for his media complex—befriending publishers and learning the trade. In 1949, with capital borrowed from his wife’s family, he launched Pergamon Press, publisher of scientific and academic journals and the bedrock of his empire. His wealth grew, but he always insisted he was retaining his socialist ideals. “The only reason I want property is for what it can do for people,” he says. (He believes that his companies do good by employing many people and promoting social causes close to his heart—the environment, health care and economic reform.) “We have undreamed-of wealth in this market economy,” he continues, “and yet we have an unsatisfied, lonely society. I intend, when I retire, to write a book about loneliness. I began it 30 years ago and never had time to finish.”

Nor did he have much time, acquaintances say, for his seven surviving children. (His eldest son, Michael, died of injuries from an accident in 1968; a daughter, Karine, died of leukemia at 3.) Yet his offspring, five of whom work for him, are by all accounts adoring and call him frequently at Headington Hill Hall outside Oxford. (“You never held me back from doing what I wanted to do,” daughter Isabel wrote in a tribute on his 60th birthday.) True to his socialist leanings, Maxwell does not own his home; he and Elisabeth hold a 99-year lease instead. “I have no paintings, no horse, no mistress—I couldn’t service them,” he says.

Gardens are another matter. In 1955, at the age of 32, a doctor told him that he had malignant tumors on both lungs and only a few weeks to live. “I wept,” Maxwell says. “And for the first time, I noticed flowers.” Part of a lung was removed, but the tumor proved benign, and Maxwell was left with several lessons. “Do not trust a single opinion, and notice the flowers,” he says. Wherever he goes now, the rooms are fragrant with blossoms.

Such romantic impulses notwithstanding, he has a reputation in Britain as a bumptious and slightly shady striver—he once lost control of Pergamon Press after he was accused of misrepresenting its worth to an American financier attempting a takeover. He is regularly lampooned in Private Eye, which runs a weekly cartoon called “Capt. Bob,” about a bumbling, overweight oaf. Fighting back, Maxwell won a $400,000 lawsuit against the magazine in 1986, when Eye accused him of trying to buy a title.

So far, his name has escaped such sullying in the States. As Maxwell walks through New York City, strangers shout congratulations and thank him for saving the News. Such gratitude has left him momentarily stunned. “I’m not used to this,” he says. “How do I capture the imagination of this city and hold on to it? I’m not used to this kind of honeymoon. What the hell do I do with it?”

Additional reporting by Margaret Wright in London

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