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MONDAY 4 MARCH 2024

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The morbid moment that six rabbis struggled with Maxwell’s massive coffin

TIGHT FIT: Maxwell’s coffin is finally eased out of the plane’s hold in Jerusalem as his daughter Ghislaine, bottom right,  looks on

BY MICHAEL HELLICAR

Further to Barry Gardner’s fascinating account of how Robert Maxwell may or may not have slipped on a banana skin on the deck of his yacht, I, too, was on the story for the Daily Star, reporting from Jerusalem where inexplicably Maxwell was being given a state funeral in all but name and a prestigious grave on the holy Mount of Olives.


My brief from editor Brian Hitchen was clear: ‘Don’t write anything negative about Maxwell because he’s a pal of little Lord Stevens [chairman of Express Newspapers]. And find him some suitably grand hotel accommodation because he wants to go to the funeral’.


This was no surprise. Hitchen had asked me on the day Maxwell went missing to write the obituary but not to include any stories about his reign of terror ‘as the chairman thinks he’s a good guy’. So writing a piece about Maxwell as Mr Nice was a bit of a challenge.


When photographer Frank Barrett and I got Jerusalem, we found chaos. Nobody seemed to be in charge, a lot of extremely sinister looking Eastern European characters were arriving by the planeload and pushing people around and  the local police were keeping well out of sight.


Maxwell’s body arrived from Tenerife by private plane which landed at a remote corner of the airport and six rabbis pulled up in a mini van to unload it.


The coffin was huge, as you might expect, and the trouble was, although it had been somehow wiggled into the tiny hold to be despatched from Tenerife, getting it out again in Jerusalem in a respectful and dignified manner was a major problem.


They pushed and shoved for an hour, but couldn’t get the coffin past a strut at the hold door.


Eventually, two of the rabbis climbed in, levered the coffin almost on its side, and kicked it clear of the strut. When  they finally dragged it into the back of the mini van, they found another problem.


The coffin was so wide that the rabbis couldn’t all reach their seats.  So two of them perched themselves on top of it while the other four squashed up beside it for the journey to the funeral home where Maxwell was to be prepared for his burial.


I called Hitchen and suggested he warn the chairman that this was going to be a shit show and to make matters worse there wasn’t a hotel room to be had for the fastidious Stevens, let alone the grand suite that he was apparently demanding.


I didn’t tell him that Frank and I had taken for ourselves the last two suites available at the best hotel, the American Colony because Hitchen, who prided himself on being Stevens’ Mr Fixit would certainly have insisted that we give one to the chairman.


Next day, we watched the arrival of several Fleet Street grandees, including the Mirror hierarchy (none of whom seemed to be grieving though: funny that).   But Stevens was a no-show. Hitchen told me later that Stevens had eventually decided to ‘show his respects privately’.


As it turned out, this was a wise move by His Lordship. A few days later, news broke of  Maxwell’s pension pillaging and the breathtaking fraud he had carried out in plain sight.  


Attention inevitably turned to those who had been in Jerusalem to show their respects and a couple of City figures who had been there found themselves having to explain away their association with him.


No doubt they had been at the funeral for the best of business reasons, as would Stevens. But, as Hitchen later reflected to me, ‘you don’t know who your friends really are until they’re dead’.


29 January 2024


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