Forget murder and suicide (or banana skins), Maxwell died of natural causes

FAREWELL: The Maxwell family at the funeral in Jerusalem in 1991


Unaccustomed as I am to quoting the late Queen but I feel her words are appropriate after reading accounts by my old chums Barry Gardner and Mike Hellicar about the demise of Robert Maxwell.

Recollections may vary!

I was the Mirror man who flew to the Canary Islands with widow Betty Maxwell on Guy Fawkes Day, 1991 – to initially find the body which had been lost overboard, then transport it to Jerusalem for what verged on a State Funeral.

I would love to believe Barry’s conclusion that a banana skin sent the old rogue to his death in the cold Atlantic Ocean. But after four nights on the Lady Ghislaine with Betty, eldest son Philip and youngest child Ghislaine, I can assure you it was a different story.

Of course, Maxwell was then a good guy and I answered calls from around the world, including Margaret Thatcher and President Bush Snr, all heaping praises. I ghosted Betty’s tribute to her husband, and wrote the speech Ghislaine read out to Barry, Mike and all my other Fleet Street mates standing on the quay door-stepping the yacht.

How did Robert Maxwell die? For me, disregard murder and suicide – it was natural causes. The pilot who pulled the body from the sea told Betty and me: “He did not drown. There was no water in his lungs”.

In the middle of what was a rough night he walked out, naked, to the spot on the deck behind one of the lifeboats, to have a pee. He was a grossly overweight, sick man with mega worries. As the yacht lurched in the wind he fell, tried to hold on to the protective chain, failed, and died of a heart attack when he hit the freezing water. Or he had a heart attack, tried to hold on and was dead when he hit the water.

This theory stood up when I escorted Betty into a side room at Las Palmas Airport to view the body. His fists were still clenched, similar to the way a baby often sleeps.

And as for the arrival in Jerusalem? From the very start Betty pulled out all the stops to ensure we got the body to Jerusalem before sunset on Friday, November 9. Arrival on the Sabbath, Saturday, was not possible.

The plan was to use the Maxwell Gulfstream jet which had flown us from England and around Spain. The problem was the size and weight of the coffin. Massive Maxwell had been lain in a zinc lined coffin, total weight around 32-stone (203 kilos).

Betty said: “He won’t care if he flies upside down, on his side or upright. Just get there”. The pilot gulped and said that if we actually got off the ground we would fall like a stone. So Ian Maxwell was alerted in London to hire a larger jet, which flew from Switzerland to collect us at Las Palmas.

En route Betty, Philip and Ghislaine squeezed into the ample luggage bay and had a few moments together as Ghislaine laid a flower on the coffin. At the small Jerusalem airport I remember an easy removal of the coffin, supervised throughout by Ghislaine.

And as for booking a hotel room for Lord Stevens – he would have hated the wonderful American Colony in east Jerusalem as it is the year-round home for international journalists. He would have preferred the King David, and joined the Maxwell clan and South African President de Klerk, who was the floor below.

To read the full story I recommend everyone read my memories Reflections of a Mirror Man (Amazon, Kindle £5.99, paperback £9.99).


30 January 2024