The New Yorker:
On the evening of November 5, 1991, a Spanish fisherman spotted the body of Robert Maxwell, a controversial British press baron, floating in the Atlantic Ocean near the Canary Islands. The crew of Maxwell’s luxury motor yacht had been searching for him all day, after he vanished, that morning, with no explanation. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories emerged. Maxwell, who came to Britain as an impoverished Eastern European émigré and turned himself into a larger-than-life figure and confidant of political leaders, hadn’t ended his own life: he had been murdered. The rumored perpetrators included agents of the K.G.B. or M.I.6, or a team of frogmen from the Mossad. In support of this theory, it was pointed out that Maxwell had long been rumored to have ties to various intelligence agencies, especially the Israeli one. Maybe he had been silenced to prevent him from spilling the beans.
Almost thirty years later, some people cling to these confabulations, despite the existence of a simpler and more convincing explanation for Maxwell’s death. When he set out on his boat, he knew that the debt-burdened business empire which he had spent decades building, Maxwell Communication Corporation, was on the brink of collapse. He also knew that, in a desperate and failed effort to prevent such an outcome, he and his associates had taken hundreds of millions of pounds from M.C.C.’s employee pensions and used the money to try to prop up the company’s share price. After the inevitable bankruptcy occurred, this illegal scheme would be revealed. Maxwell would be ruined, shamed, and, most likely, sent to jail. To a man who was eaten up by pride and insecurity even as he became a well-known figure on two continents—that year, he had purchased the Daily News—the prospect of financial ruin and public humiliation was too much to take. So he jumped overboard.
Having followed Maxwell’s career closely as a financial writer and editor for the London Sunday Times, I believed at the time, and continue to believe, this version of events. It doesn’t clear up all the mysteries surrounding Maxwell’s death, such as the lack of a suicide note and the fact that a team of coroners couldn’t agree conclusively on the cause, leaving open the possibility of heart attack or accidental drowning. But suicide is intuitively plausible, and it satisfies the principle of Occam’s razor, which says that when choosing between various theories we should choose the one that provides the simplest explanation and requires the fewest auxiliary hypotheses to be true.
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