Comfortable in Her Skin

At 51, Isabel Maxwell is at peace with her unusual childhood, the mysterious death of her father, Robert Maxwell, and her own financial escapades.

Yehoshua Sagi
Mary Sagi-Maydan
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Yehoshua Sagi
Mary Sagi-Maydan

PALO ALTO, CA - Isabel Maxwell is convinced that her late father, Robert Maxwell, did not kill himself. In 1991, he drowned under mysterious circumstances and his body was discovered floating in deep water near his yacht in the Caribbean. He left behind debts in the billions of dollars and was accused of appropriating funds from employee pension funds to prop up his failing businesses. The file is still open on his death, which could have been murder, suicide or accident. The insurance companies ruled it a suicide and have refused to pay compensation.

"There are a lot of theories about my father's death," says Isabel Maxwell. "There's a whole little industry in books about his life and how it ended. I read the autopsy report, which was very hard to read, and became convinced that it was an accident. I base that on a comment in the report that his right hand was bruised and injured. That could reasonably occur when someone tries to hang on to a ship with one hand. When someone jumps, I'm sure he doesn't try to hang on. And I'm not surprised, by the way, that Dad wasn't able to hang on. I know the boat. We've all been on it. Hanging on is impossible when it's traveling at 18 knots."

From her perspective, it was an accident. She has no interest in other explanations: "I don't intend to spend the rest of my life trying to rehabilitate his reputation or find out who killed him, if it was murder. Delving into the past won't help anyone. My father lived in the present and the future, and I'm the same way. Not stuck in the past."

In love with America

Isabel Maxwell is an attractive woman of 51. She wears her hair short, with gel. She speaks rapidly, with assurance and fluency, radiating a lively energy. Last Christmas, she arrived at a few decisions about her life, she confides. One was to work only on things involving Israel. Even the failure of CommTouch, the Israeli Internet company she headed, hasn't deterred her: She still believes in the medium, and she still believes in Israel.

At the moment, Maxwell is organizing a fund-raising event in San Francisco on behalf of the Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva. Her home phone rings off the hook, and she is swamped with e-mail. Asked whether she doesn't find it difficult to bring people together for dinner, when everyone in Silicon Valley is involved in one cause or another, she replies that Soroka is also something special: It aspires to serve everyone, she notes - Arabs, Jews, Christians. Aside from which, she isn't fond of the word "difficult."

"I'll get 170 people," she says. "The tables will all be full." And that's a promise.

At home, they taught her to aim high, she notes; her father was a man who set his sights high and achieved his goals. "I saw, with my own eyes, that anyone can do it. My father did it, and he never even went to school."

Robert Maxwell, a Czech-born Jew who found refuge in Britain at the start of World War II, established and ruled over a global communications empire. His intensive involvement with Israel began at the end of the 1980s. He bought shares in Scitex, Teva and the daily Ma'ariv newspaper. People drove around Israel sporting "Maxwell - Buy Me!" bumper stickers on their cars. He was a tall man with a magnetic presence. World leaders pursued him. After he landed somewhere in his private jet, heads of state and reigning monarchs came and went at his hotel, chatting in the corridors and sometimes meeting one another for the first time in his suite while awaiting their turn to see Maxwell.

He married Isabel's mother, Elizabeth Meynard, a Frenchwoman, when both were in their twenties. They had nine children, including twin girls, Isabel and Christine. "I had a happy childhood," recalls Isabel, "although there were two tragedies. When I was six, my sister died of leukemia. And when I was 11, my oldest brother died after seven years of suffering - his and the whole family's. He was injured in an accident that left him a vegetable."

Her mother, Elizabeth, sat by his bedside all those years, devoted to his care. He didn't open his eyes even once, nor did he even smile at her. In her autobiography, Elizabeth writes that the influence on the whole family was severe. Isabel and her twin sister, Christine, were very close, and they comforted one another.

"If I poured my heart out to anyone, I guess it was Christine," says Isabel now. "My dad was almost never around. He was always traveling. My mother was there, but she was busy. She had nine children."

People imagine your childhood differently.

Isabel Maxwell: "People imagine all sorts of things. My father always brought home guests from a variety of backgrounds: aristocrats, businessmen and politicians. When Christine and I were 11, he brought home a guest and we played with his children all afternoon. It was fun, but in the end, the guests said: We're so disappointed - you're really just like us."

In the United States, no one expects her to be different, especially not in Silicon Valley where she makes her home.

"The name `Maxwell' isn't all that famous in Silicon Valley," she says. "It's a young industry, the people are young. Most of them hardly remember my father's accomplishments. At most, the name Maxwell evokes a vague memory."

When she came to the States in 1981, Isabel Maxwell wasn't running away from anything; it was for love. She had a degree in law and a master's in history and modern languages from Oxford. Having never worked as an attorney, she had accrued seven years of experience in television production when her "significant other," and later her husband, Dale Djerassi, decided to produce a film in America - and she went along. They lived together for eight years and had a son, Alexander, now 17.

"We made an action film that wasn't a success story like `E.T.,' but it repaid the investors and it wasn't a bad film," she recalls. "After that I got a divorce, and got out of films, because it's a difficult line of work, involving a lot of travel, when you have a small child. I moved to Berkeley and started working with my sister in her data company. They did market research."

Money on paper

The next three years turned Isabel Maxwell's world upside down. She remarried, discovered high-tech, and lost her father.

"I will never forget how I learned that he was missing," she says. "My brother, Kevin, called me at home at 5 A.M. to tell me that Dad was missing at sea. It was very surrealistic. We had a lot of people staying with us and had to wake everyone up. My cousin and my brother Ian's wife were visiting; my sister, Christine, and her family were living with us because their house in San Francisco had burned down three weeks earlier. Dad was wonderful at the time. He helped her get the insurance and was very sweet. It was more or less our last link with him.

"When we got the news, we immediately started making arrangements to fly over. For a whole day we didn't know what was happening, and then I heard on the radio that they had found his body. Not for one second did I think it was suicide, in spite of what the insurance companies said. They have every reason in the world to declare it a suicide. That way they don't have to pay anything. My mother has not gotten one cent. She was left without anything. I visit her in England, but she rarely visits me. She hasn't the means. My mother is 80 now and has no money. She has to work for a living, and survives on the income from the books she wrote, from working as a tour guide, things like that.

"The tragedy didn't end with his death, and criminal charges against my brother went on for years. In the year following his death, I made nine trips to England to help my mother. Cameras followed us everywhere. I used to carry a tennis racquet and wave it around to fend off the photographers."

She and her sister dealt with the collapse of the family business by deciding to set up a family business of their own - the McKinley Group. It offered clients one of the first Internet search-engines for the general public, alongside Yahoo! and Lycos.

"I started the McKinley Group with my husband and my [twin] sister, on my credit card. I owed a sizable amount on that card, and still do. Not that I came from Calcutta, but there are also a lot of other people who have started companies who don't come from Calcutta. I don't know what it is to be hungry for a whole week, although in 1975 when I was traveling in Ecuador, my wallet was stolen and we ate nothing but bread and chocolate for four days, and I've never forgotten it.

"People sometimes ask me," she discloses, "what made me go into business, since whatever I earn will be insignificant compared with the family fortune. That's just not true. I did come from a relatively rich family, but I'm 50 years old, and my father wasn't rich when I was born. He built what he had by himself. I went to public school with the children of garage mechanics, as they say. I had an allowance like anyone else. We lived in a nice house and went on nice vacations and I had a nice bicycle, but I didn't have the kind of wealth that people dream about.

"The legend of our wealth doesn't match the reality. My father's fortune was in the businesses he owned. He had an enormous fortune on paper, but that's different from having billions in the bank. After my father died, the whole empire was wiped out. Not that we were left with nothing: We were left with a minus."

High-tech for peace

The McKinley Group, like many start-ups, had a rough time at first, barely surviving, and was sold in 1996 to a competitor, Excite, for $4.5 million. While all that was going on, the relationship between Isabel and her twin, Christine, suffered.

"When McKinley didn't make it, our relationship changed," says Isabel. "And I changed, in terms of my relationship with my family. Before then, I was completely in sync with the family. When something got to them, it got to me, too. I don't do that any more. I love them as I always have, but my heart is my own now. I don't have that need to be in touch all the time, but that doesn't mean that I've separated from the family or that I don't care."

After the chill in her relationship with her sister set in and her second marriage ended, Isabel began a new chapter. She had a few job offers, but she decided to take the CommTouch presidency. She enjoyed the people, the idea, and the chance - as she puts it - to continue her father's involvement in Israel. "Choosing CommTouch was from the heart," she likes to say.

"I've been working with Isabel for five years," says Gideon Mantel, managing director of CommTouch, "and I'm constantly amazed. There's no evil in her. She's always cheerful, affable, trying to help. She is not cowed by anyone, and she never gives in. I'll give you an example: Once we wanted to meet with Compaq. We tried to get to the CEO, but weren't able to. So I had to ask Isabel to try. Shortly thereafter, she met the guy at some conference or other, and got his personal e-mail address. I saw her putting together an e-mail with flowers and stars all over it. I said to her, `Isabel, what is this?! He's a serious guy.' She told me, `You watch, it'll work.' I needn't add that we had our meeting.

"She got all that at home," Mantel goes on. "They taught her to go after things and not give up. She told me that her father once sent her to interview a very senior British politician. When she came back with the article, he said it wasn't good enough, that she hadn't gotten anything out of the man, and he sent her to do the interview again. Even now, she won't rest until she gets results."

Maxwell's reputation as a sharp, talented businesswoman precedes her. "She has more ideas in a single day about how to help a company get ahead than most other CEOs have in an entire quarter," says Ron Weissman, a partner at APAX Fund, another of her interests. In "the Valley," where everyone is always negotiating, making presentations, cooking up deals, strutting their stuff, her style is straightforward. She promises only what she can deliver. After a meeting, she sends precisely worded e-mails, makes clarifications, never leaves things vague.

When CommTouch got into trouble, she was its honorary president. She was still in close touch with Mantel and tried to help, but was making her living elsewhere - among other things, as a consultant to APAX, mainly in connection with Israeli companies. This month she joined the board of BackWeb, an Israeli company providing proactive portal technology. With the downfall of CommTouch, she was glad of the chance to not be actively managing a public company because it eats up every spare moment. She wanted time to do philanthropic projects close to her heart, especially involving Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

While her younger sister, Ghislaine, makes the gossip columns after breakfasting with Bill Clinton or because of her ties with another close friend, Britain's Prince Andrew, Isabel wants to show photos taken of herself with the grand mufti of Egypt, or with Bedouin in a tent, or of visits to a Gaza refugee camp or to Tul Karm, where she tried to set up a CommTouch branch office.

"In my view, it's all part of the same vision," she says. "High-tech isn't an end in itself, it is a means to improve communication. My involvement as a director of the Peres Peace Center, or at Soroka - they are all a means toward a goal. The goal is to contribute to bringing peace to the region, and to enable people to live normal and flourishing lives in this world."


When your father was alive, you were part of a very wealthy and powerful family. After his death, the family became a kind of punching bag. How did you cope with that?

"When I was with him, I felt power. Like being at the White House. But I lived far away, so I felt it less. Beyond that, it was a collective power, not my personal power. I was part of this unit and I didn't yet feel that I was standing on my own two feet. It's true that if you're rich, you're rich, but it wasn't my money. I always earned my own living and I had to do it all alone. I never expected there would be much money left for us, because he always told us that he wasn't going to leave us his fortune."

Was that traumatic for you?

"No. It was his money. He could do what he wanted with it. But I remember that I did think about it. I thought that it might be nice if he had left us something, but I had no expectations."

Will you do the same thing with your son?

"I don't think that when a child is 21, you have to put money on the table and tell him: Here's X million dollars for you. It's important to me that my son should have values and a work ethic, but if he has that and he's mature, I'll be happy if he has money. I don't feel that my son shouldn't inherit what I have. One can't help but wonder why my father decided as he did, but there's no one to ask. Maybe he thought that since he didn't inherit anything, his children shouldn't, either. I'm only guessing."

Did you look for qualities similar to your father's, in the men in your life?

"Apparently I did. I thought they were very different, but there was a resemblance with both my husbands. So the relationships in my marriages were about control and power. Now, I've stopped giving my power away to the man in my life, or to anyone else. It doesn't mean that I have to be in control. Not at all. It just means that I respect where my boundaries are. If I let go of them, it is because I want to, not because they've been taken away from me."

Do you want to get married again?

"I don't have to be married. There are people who feel that if they're not married, the world will end. This image of the woman as needing someone to look after her, to be her man, doesn't exist for me, but I believe in marriage very much."

Your mother once said in an interview that she should have left your father a long time ago.

"I understand her. She was from the old school, and saw marriage as much more binding and obligatory. Not that that's bad, but it meant she didn't have the ability to make the decisions that she said she would have liked to have made. It is sad to find this out in hindsight, but there's no point in torturing yourself about why you didn't do something 20 years ago. Why you didn't leave, or why you didn't sell your shares when they were high.

"I, for example, don't feel bitter about my marriages. I'm happy about all of it, even the hard parts, because I want to be who I am now. Today, I wouldn't marry either one of my ex-husbands; but then I wouldn't have my son Alexander and all kinds of other experiences. It's not black and white. You're the sum total of what you are because of what you've lived and so I'm grateful for all of it."

Were your parents a model?

"They were my model. They had great love and a sense of responsibility and all the things my father valued most, to the point where he demanded that she forgo her individuality. Because he was so strong, there was almost no room left for anyone else. For me, that's not a good model for how to be a woman as part of a couple." n



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