Open Eye: First Thursday: on the anniversary of the death of an ogre -Wherefore art thou, Captain Bob?

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The Independent Online
Did he jump or was he pushed? The question surfaced again the other day when a friend's teenage daughter told me they had been discussing it at school.

In the glossy eateries that have succeeded Fleet Street it will doubtless be discussed more widely today, the anniversary of his death. You surely hadn't forgotten why we remember to celebrate the fifth of November...?

The point of doing Maxwelliana in the sixth form rather than, say, learning the structure of a sentence, is beyond me (except, of course, that it's easier to teach) but if they are going to tackle it at all as an educational project, they are coming at it from the wrong angle.

How long, one wonders, before Maxwell is the subject of an OU doctoral thesis, just as, years ago, was James Bond?

The question is not how he met his death: pounds 520m in debt, he jumped (or, precisely, he lowered himself over the side of the yacht Lady Ghislaine, changed his mind, was unable to pull his vast 23 stones back on board, and then fell into the Atlantic).

Anybody who had thrown him over the rails would have confessed by now, on the basis that thereafter he would never have needed to buy a drink.

But that is not at issue other than by conspiracy theorists who have proof that Cap'n Bob was topped by the CIA, the KGB, Mossad, MI5, the Mafia, or a consortium of all five. Why the Mirror's journalists and printers were omitted from the list escapes me.

No: the issue is not How, but Who.

Or rather, Wherefore art thou, Ian Robert Maxwell? It is a good question, because he was never really sure himself.

I was in his office once when someone mentioned his choice of first name - as Scottish as the other two, but never used.

Well, said the fat man, he had been born Jan Ludwig Hoch, and was always called Jan as a child. Ian was the anglicised version, and he wanted to retain it.

Not quite, said his sister, who happened to be in the room. We never addressed you as Jan. You were actually Ludvik (with a K).

So he should have been Lewis, then: equally Scottish-sounding? - No, said the sister. He wasn't called Ludvik either, nor even Lev (the local Slovakian usage). His family all called him Laiby, after his late grandfather.

Well, it was all a long time ago. But wouldn't you remember what name you had as a child? Especially if it was a name other than your own? Could it be that, whoever Bob Maxwell was, he was someone other than Jan Ludvik - call me Laiby - Hoch?

Towards the end of the Second World War - in which he, or someone, served gallantly - he changed his name several times (Maxwell was merely the latest change).

He appeared as Leslie Jones once, then as Smith and later - inspired, he said, by a packet of cigarettes - as Ivan Du Maurier. Because he was in Intelligence, it would have been vital that he remembered not only the name, but also the persona that went with it. And yet he had forgotten his own childhood name.

With the name-change went changes of appearance. He would appear here as a Polish cavalry officer, here as a French infantryman, in another place as a British squaddie, then again as a paratroop major.

He had a docket from the senior British officer in Paris to say that he could turn up anywhere he liked, in the uniform and rank of his choice,or in civilian clothes, as he wished.

A rare privilege, one might think, for a staff sergeant. In fact I heard that, while engaged to the beautiful French girl who was to become his wife, he never wore the same uniform twice. He married her, incidentally, as Du Maurier.

But what of the uniforms? His children found them in a chest while playing one rainy day and, not surprisingly, felt obliged to try them on.

The surprise was that they were in different sizes - according to son Kevin, quite remarkably different sizes.

Now, a person can change his name easily, his voice less easily and his appearance cosmetically, but his suit size? Well, it's a good trick if you can do it.

Unless, just suppose, Du Maurier, alias Smith and Jones, was not really Jan - or Laiby - Hoch. Or, to put it another way... Robert Maxwell, once a Member of Parliament, temporarily a swimmer, was not the same ex-soldier who was awarded the Military Cross in the field.

In which case, who was he? Could it be that he was never actually Robert Maxwell at all, merely someone else with the same name? Now, there's a project for discussion.

Revel Barker

The writer, Director of Alumni Affairs, was very briefly managing director of a Maxwell company.