Betty Maxwell: Widow of media tycoon who became a respected Holocaust scholar

She remained fiercely devoted in spite of her husband’s often appalling treatment of her

Betty Maxwell was the rock of stability that lay behind the Maxwell family for more than half a century and, even in the face of overwhelming anger and hostility towards the family following the untimely death in 1991 of her husband, the multi-millionaire media magnate and fraudster Robert Maxwell, she remained publicly loyal insisting that he was “not the degenerate monster” many claimed he was. She went on to have a successful career as a genealogist and Holocaust scholar promoting Jewish-Christian relations through conferences, lectures and books.

Married for 46 years, Betty witnessed the evolution of her husband from a displaced refugee fighting in the British Army to publishing mogul, and experienced at first hand his “Jekyll and Hyde” character. It was a roller-coaster life but she remained fiercely devoted in the face of her husband’s frequently appalling treatment of herself and their children, and refused to speak out against him when he died, baffling many around her. Although she did once say when considering an afterlife, “God forbid that I should run into him again.”

Betty had run the family home at Headington Hill Hall, Oxford, like a hotel for her husband’s business interests, been on hand at short notice for events, curated his press cuttings, helped him start and build Pergamon Press, a science publishing house that grew to such proportion it was sold in 1991 for £440m, and even in the last decade of his life, as her husband’s behaviour grew progressively more eccentric and cruel, she remained steadfast in the face of his prolonged absences, infidelities and repeated threats of a legal separation.

Robert Maxwell died in mysterious circumstances while sailing off the Canary Islands; his body was later found floating in the Atlantic Ocean, though autopsies proved inconclusive about the cause of death. An outspoken and, financially, a generous supporter of Israel, Maxwell was buried on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives and eulogised by then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Within a matter of weeks of his death, it emerged that there were huge discrepancies in his companies’ finances, including the Mirror Group pension fund, which Maxwell, the newspaper’s owner, had fraudulently misappropriated to the tune of £600m. Thousands of Maxwell’s employees either lost their pensions or saw them significantly reduced.

In the meantime, Betty, who is understood to have known nothing of the fraud, was left almost penniless as insurance companies believed that Maxwell had committed suicide and so refused to pay out, leaving her reliant on the goodwill of friends. In 1994,   she published an autobiography, A Mind of my Own: My Life with Robert Maxwell, a frank account of their marriage.

Born near Saint-Alban-de-Roche, south-east of Lyon, France, in 1921, Elisabeth Jenny Jeanne Meynard was the daughter of prosperous silk producers Paul and Colombe, both of whom had fought in the First World War and received the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. Her father was Protestant, her mother, originally Catholic, had been excommunicated on her marriage.

Educated for a short time in England at a convent school near Birmingham, Betty returned to France in 1932 and attended a number of schools, in Lyon and St Omer and finally the Lycée Sévigné in Paris. She then attended the Sorbonne University to read classics and philosophy but this was cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War. Much later – and perhaps in response to her husband’s taunts about her ignorance – she took a modern languages degree at St Hugh’s College, Oxford before gaining a doctorate in philosophy, aged 60. Her thesis, The Art of Letter Writing, 1789-1830, used her aristocratic French Protestant family background as source material.

Having completed her family’s genealogy, Betty was inspired to do the same for her husband’s and was shocked to discover that “some 300 of his immediate and extended family had been murdered by the Nazis” during the Holocaust. Maxwell referred to his wife as “the keeper of my Jewish soul.”

Betty met her future husband shortly after the Liberation of Paris in August 1944. He had been born Jan Ludwig Hoch into a poor Jewish family in pre-war Czechoslovakia, but was by then known as Sergeant Ivan du Maurier, serving in the Pioneer Corps of the British Army. They met at the French welcome committee, where Allied troops could socialise with French civilians. For him it was love at first sight. “The minute I saw her, I wanted her for my wife,” he later wrote. For her part, she was grateful he treated her respectfully: “He was the first member of the Allies I met who didn’t try to pounce on me.”

The couple got engaged and he duly changed his name to Robert Maxwell. After some initial misgivings from her parents about the handsome but lowly British-Jewish soldier, the couple married in March 1945. At their wedding Maxwell made three promises: he would win the Military Cross for heroism, would make a fortune, and would become British prime minister. Within six week, he received the Military Cross from Field Marshal Montgomery. He eventually made a fortune. His political career, on the other hand, got no further than six years in Parliament as Labour MP for Buckingham from 1964 until he lost to the Conservative William Benyon. In 1945, he received a commission and was promoted to Captain; he was posted to Berlin for two years, during which time Betty gave birth to the first of their nine children, two of whom died young.

In 1987, Betty started the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The following year she organised a conference called “Remembering for the Future”, the first of three, which drew academics and survivors from around the world to discuss issues posed by and following the Holocaust. Each yielded several books of essays. The New Statesman magazine called the three volumes from the 2000 meeting “frankly awesome”. In 2005, the Cambridge-based Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations held a celebratory dinner to honour Betty’s “outstanding contribution” to Holocaust studies.

Betty edited two books on Holocaust memorials and was an honorary fellow of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, which promotes the study of relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Elisabeth Jenny Jeanne Meynard, genealogist and Holocaust scholar: born La Grive, Saint Alban de Roche, France 11 March 1921; married 1945 Robert Maxwell (deceased 1991; three sons, four daughters, one son deceased and one daughter deceased), died Dordogne 7 August 2013.