Late publisher's shady life is a 'comic-bloody-opera'

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

February 03, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The life of Robert Maxwell, the strange, vain, bullying media tycoon who was widely alleged to be an international fraud, is being turned into a West End musical, and he's paying for it, posthumously.

Maxwell dropped naked from his yacht Lady Ghislaine Nov. 5, 1991, and died in the warm waters off the Canary Islands.

He took his vast media empire down with him. His death revealed an incredibly complex and rickety debt structure that was propped up by more than a billion dollars in his employees' pension funds.

At his peak Maxwell controlled a $3 billion financial and media colossus that included the Mirror newspaper group in London, the Macmillan publishing company and the New York Daily News in America and such odds and ends as the European newspaper and European MTV.

"Anything is true about Maxwell," says Evan Steadman, the former Maxwell executive who is producing "Maxwell, The Musical."

"These ridiculous stories!" he says, "These incredible happenings! You can believe them. They're not necessarily true, but they could well have been true."

Born in a small Czech town, Maxwell was the oldest son of a penniless Jewish laborer and his wife who both died with four of their children in the Holocaust.

Maxwell escaped to become a tough and courageous officer in the British army. He launched his media empire just after World II. He had wide connections in the Soviet sphere before the fall of communism. He was believed to be "involved" with the KGB.

"He single-mindedly built up an extraordinary empire," Mr. Steadman says. "He is a man far larger than any other man of his period in business and in life."

(Maxwell was well over 6 feet tall and weighed over 300 pounds.)

"When he died," Mr. Steadman says, "by a series of ludicrous circumstances I was the last person on the deck of the Titanic as it was going down."

Mr. Steadman ended up chairman of Maxwell Business Communications Group as the empire crumbled and nobody else was around to sit behind the desk.

"I was part of the chaos. I was engendering chaos as I tried to sort it out.

"There were no answers to the questions that were suddenly coming out of the woodwork: Where's this 100 million pounds? Where's that 100 million?"

Mr. Steadman had been the head of his own communication firm when Maxwell "made me an offer I couldn't refuse.

"The offer was three times more than the company was worth," he says. "He tried to cheat me. He said he'd give me money in Maxwell bonds.

"Better than money," Maxwell growled.

"Just give me money," Mr. Steadman said.

"I had a very good time," he says, "because my money was in the bank."

So he's producing "Maxwell" with Maxwell money: "I'm revealing Maxwell for what he was with his own money."

"When I joined Maxwell, in five minutes it became apparent the whole empire was comic-bloody-opera."

Sitting at his desk he began transposing Maxwellian actions into Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics: "He's the very model of a modern megalomaniac."

"Maxwell, The Musical" used "14 of Arthur Sullivan's most memorable melodies," Mr. Steadman said.

"We're showing in our show he was a crook, a mega-crook," Mr. Steadman says. "We're showing who and we're showing why."

But Maxwell will get to argue his case in the show:

"If you could press a button and one more person will die in Bosnia and you get a million dollars from your bank, which of you wouldn't press the button? The answer is none of us would -- unless we really needed the million.

"That would be Maxwell's defense," Mr. Steadman says. "We must argue against that. But we must let him argue it."

It takes two actors to play Maxwell. The mature tycoon will be John Savident, a veteran actor who used to be a police officer. He's not 300 pounds, but he is a "well-rounded person." The younger Maxwell is Harry Burton, a good singer who's not 300 pounds either.

The show opens Feb. 21 at the Criterion theater, "10 yards from the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus."

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