Printing Ink and Sea Water


November 08, 1991|By GEOFFREY W. FIELDING

The death at sea of the British publishing magnate, Robert Maxwell, recalls an earlier occasion when printing ink and sea water proved an unhappy mix. Some 60 years ago a similar fate overtook the publisher of this newspaper. But first, Mr. Maxwell.

His death was natural, authorities announced, and foul play is not suspected. Still, the precise cause of death has not been revealed, and other questions remain unanswered. Mr. Maxwell apparently had joined his 430-ton yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, named after one of his daughters, in Gibraltar on October 30. Five days later, on November 5, to be precise, the yacht, cruising off Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, reported that he was missing. Later that day an air-sea search recovered his body from the water.

Though he was a light sleeper, ''often up and about throughout the night,'' the mystery is how he landed in the water. He was seen pacing the decks alone in the pre-dawn light, but none of the 13 crewmen on the yacht heard anything else of him, apart from a call he made to the bridge at 4:45 a.m. to have the air conditioning in his cabin turned down. At mid-morning, when he didn't answer his cabin phone, they discovered he was gone.

The 68-year-old Mr. Maxwell was a big man -- 6 feet tall and tipping the scales at 290 pounds. It is unlikely that anyone could have tossed him overboard without a struggle that would have alerted even the most sleepy-eyed member of the morning watch. If he had suffered a heart attack, he would more likely zTC have dropped dead on deck than fallen into the sea. If he didn't fall and he wasn't pushed, then he must have jumped, or as it is known in the business, ''taken a deep six.'' But Mr. Maxwell's associates scoffed at the possibility of suicide.

In the case of Van-Lear Black, chairman of the board of the A. S. Abell Company, which until recently published The Sun, it will never be certain whether he fell or was pushed. Most likely he fell, but the mystery remains.

In August 1930, Black had been to Newport, Rhode Island, to see his daughter who had just borne twins. He returned to New York and boarded his yacht, Sabalo, for the journey back to Baltimore. The Sabalo was a bit of a Jonah, for it had taken Franklin Roosevelt to his vacation home on Campobello Island, where he had then contracted polio.

Harold A. Williams, in his history of The Baltimore Sun, 1837-1987, notes that the Sabalo was a few miles south of what is now the Twin Lights lighthouse below Sandy Hook at the entrance to New York harbor. Black had gone on deck after dinner and, as was his wont, sat on the taffrail with his feet hooked under a lower rail, and his hand on a stanchion. About 10 p.m. his valet reported him missing. The yacht put about and with searchlights scanned the dark waters. The only thing ever found was a yachting cap which might have been Black's.

A body washed up on the New Jersey shore days after the tragedy. It could have been Black's, according to Charles W. Maxson, the Sunpapers medical director who was sent to identify it, but he wasn't sure.

But there's another story, according to Mr. Williams. Black on several occasions had said that he would like to start life all over again without the responsibility that wealth entails. Among those who had heard this was Louis J. O'Donnell, a Sun political reporter noted for his meticulous work.

A few years after Black's disappearance O'Donnell was on an assignment in Hartford, Connecticut, when he saw a man bearing a striking resemblance to Black. He stopped and extended his hand, but the man sidestepped him, winking as he did, and hurried on into the crowd where he disappeared.

+ And so the mystery remains.


Geoffrey W. Fielding is a Baltimore free-lance writer.

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