The beast and his beauties: Robert Maxwell mesmerised and bullied women. But Betty, his wife for nearly 50 years, remained loyal. Her autobiography will be her first public breach of that loyalty. Sandra Barwick reports

How was it possible for one body, even one made of flesh as massive as Robert Maxwell's, to contain two such different personalities? When it came to women - and Maxwell often did - he came in two fairy-tale varieties: Prince Charming and monster.

The crude Caliban, breathing garlic from his fleshy folds, shouting, swearing: that was the man who fell so jealously in love with one assistant, Andrea Martin, that he bugged her phone and shouted at her till she cried.

Maxwell's crudeness was so extreme that he would sometimes leave the lavatory door contemptuously open in his private office suite so that anxious female visitors would be greeted by the explosions of his mighty digestive system.

Yet there was the war hero, courageous, generous, with stunning looks, a man, according to Elizabeth Maxwell, his elegant, highly intelligent French wife, who made 'all others seem insipid, all other destinies mediocre'.

Mrs Maxwell's controversial autobiography, describing her life with Captain Bob, is published this month. It should offer the most convincing answer we have had to one of the central questions about Maxwell: why did the monster need a regiment of women, and why were they so mesmerised by a man capable of such emotional brutality?

His private office was full of them. Men met the monster, but never quite the Prince Charming, the intense, vulnerable, impetuous pleasurer some women saw. Something in Maxwell needed women for solace as well as to exercise his talent to abuse.

In 1968, shortly after he became an MP, Maxwell gave a revealing interview to the Times. He was finding the unwritten rules of that male club difficult to grasp. 'I can't get on with men,' he said. 'Or it might be truer to say, men can't get on with me.' With chilling frankness, he explained why he preferred to have women near him: 'I tried having male assistants at first.

But it didn't work. They tend to be too independent. Men like to have individuality. Women can become an extension of the boss (my italics).'

Women were, in Robert Maxwell's peculiarly self-directed world, better tools. More submissive. More loyal, Maxwell's favourite virtue. Consider what type of man Maxwell was - the charm, the possessiveness, the sometimes powerful, but never predictable, kindness, the violence, the obsession with control, and the capacity for inspiring extraordinary loyalty in women he maltreated - and you are left with a description horribly familiar in women's refuges.

For almost 50 years of marriage, Mrs Maxwell was loyalty personified. She ran Headington Hill Hall like a hotel for his business interests, cherished his press cuttings. She took her doctorate in French Literature because otherwise 'One would be almost like a woman servant to a man.' That vehement loyalty, broken for the first time in her book, used to baffle those around her.

Nick Davies, former foreign editor on the Daily Mirror, ex-Maxwell aide and author of The Unknown Maxwell, said: 'He treated her quite disgracefully - he would be rude to her in front of people, say at official dinners.' When she fussed over him, Maxwell would not hesitate to tell her to 'fuck off'.

Maxwell's own mother, Hannah Schlomovitch, was intelligent, strong-minded, the dominating parent, whose ambitions were focused on her eldest son, for many years her only son. The boy grew up surrounded by many sisters in a close circle of women who adored him, and a curious mixture of hardship and spoiling. There was no issue, not even his early break with orthodox Judaism, on which Jan Hoch, as he then was, could not win his mother round.

From her, a victim of the Holocaust, he knew an undivided loyalty and attention which he won from women for the rest of his life.

Two characteristics in particular mark the abusive personality: jealousy, and unpredictable mood shifts between charm and rage. Maxwell displayed both. His jealousy was marked, particularly in his obsessive possessiveness over his children's marriages, and over the boyfriends of his daughter, Ghislaine. Potential husbands and wives were vetted by him: no one could be allowed to distract attention from him. .

'He resented Kevin having other demands on him,' said Pandora Maxwell, whose marriage to his son Maxwell opposed. 'Kevin was left with a conflict between love and duty. Bob believed duty to him was more important than other demands from the family, that duty came before love.'

Pandora's relationship with Robert Maxwell, she said, was peculiar. 'I didn't dislike him, despite my deep-seated resentment of his demands on Kevin. I was as charmed as anyone. He was charismatic, an irresistible force. I've seen him with tears running down his cheeks so he couldn't finish his joke. He was very good at giving his undivided attention, a very direct way of looking at you. And he could be very kind.'

But it was with the blonde, slight Andrea Martin, his assistant at Mirror Group, that Maxwell showed his jealousy and possessiveness at its worst, in a helpless infatuation which amazed those who saw it. 'Her effect was quite extraordinary.' said Roy Greenslade, former Daily Mirror editor. 'He used to be visibly uneasy when she was out of the room. 'Where's Andrea?' he would growl. And when she came in it would be 'Where've you been? What were you doing?'. It wouldn't be for anything important. He just had to have her there.'

Once her relationship with Nick Davies became known to him, Maxwell bugged her phone and sent Davies all over the world to keep him out of her way.

Maxwell was a man who could not let others choose their time of leaving.

'When I had a meeting with him,' said a female ex-employee, 'the only way to get away was to tell him it was his choice: 'You want me to go now,' I'd say, and then he'd let me leave.'

His children were not exempt from his unpredictability, not even Ghislaine, whose picture Maxwell kept on his desk at Headington Hill Hall. Davies recalled: 'She'd go in, give him a big kiss, say 'Hello, Dad', and Maxwell as often as not would say 'Bloody stupid woman - fuck off'. And she'd go off in tears.'

The bewildering charm was as powerful as his rages, even at the end, when his film-star looks had gone and flesh bubbled round his form. And, like many despotic men, Maxwell could be deeply sentimental. There was no boasting of sexual exploits. He could seem respectful of some women, even little-boyish in love, 'Almost,' one of his ex-employees said, 'as though he was living out a Barbara Cartland novel.'

'He was incredibly attractive,' said one young woman who worked for him for several years. 'I found myself being seduced by him in a very particular way. He was very aware of you as a woman. He always commented on what you wore. And he was very witty, he could pun in five languages, he liked to have secret jokes. He was a man to whom you couldn't say no.'

'If you looked at the team of secretaries at the Mirror,' remembered one former employee. 'The ones that made the grade were assured, solid, calm.

They weren't silly. They'd be elegantly dressed. They came across to me as powerful women, bossy even, but sexy at the same time.'

But the Daily Mirror remained a male-dominated preserve, tellingly, despite her status as favourite child, Maxwell did not choose Ghislaine as heir-apparent to his business empire. Women were, he believed, flawed. 'When they do have power,' he once said, 'they rarely know how to use it,' a sentence which comes a bit rich from Robert Maxwell.

Until Mrs Maxwell's confession this month, neither his wife nor his daughters had uttered a recorded word of criticism of their extraordinary husband and father, even when, in death, he abandoned them all to the storm.

According to Mrs Maxwell she raised pounds 500,000 towards her sons' legal costs by taking out a loan which has to be repaid. Her book seems to be one more attempt to earn money: one that has left her open to accusations of cashing in on the scandal, but her publishers have said that, on the contrary, she is now in personal financial need.

All Maxwell's desire for control and power over the helpless ended only in abuse, as hundreds of Mirror pensioners can testify. Prince Charming and the monster so many women glimpsed were never contradictory aspects of his personality. Both incarnations existed for the same purpose, that inexhaustible search for power over others that only fundamentally weak and -yes - that only fundamentally mediocre men desire.

(Photograph omitted)

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