Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge, by Tom Bower

When hubris met nemesis
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The Independent Culture

At this moment Conrad and Barbara Black, co-stars in Tom Bower's latest book of villains, are sitting in their enormous house in Toronto, protesting their innocence. In American legal circles, the betting is not that Black will go to jail - but for how long. Reading this book, the wonder of it all is how he avoided jail for so long. According to Bower, who knows a thing or two about these things (he has written books on Robert Maxwell - his best - on Tiny Rowland and Mohamed Al Fayed), Black has been a baddie all his life.

His father, an old-style Canadian businessman, thought nothing of ill-treating his shareholders, and Conrad imbibed the culture from birth. He began modestly, by stealing exam papers, but soon moved on to greater things. There was the Hanna Mining episode in 1962, which took him to the brink, then the investigation by Canadian police, who drew up nine charges against him, and, according to Bower, a lifetime of abusing just about every company he ever had any involvement with, including the once-venerable Daily Telegraph.

It is an extraordinary tale, more amazing even than the downfall of Maxwell. The difference is that Maxwell never had a Barbara in his life. With the Blacks, you get two amazing characters for the price of one.

Long before Black ever met the beautiful, clever and neurotic Barbara Amiel (as she then was), he was, according to Bower, taking advantage of newly widowed old ladies and perfecting his dubious financial skills to pay for a lifestyle he could ill afford.

Once he fell under the spell of Barbara, he had no chance. In the next seven years, Bower estimates that he "pocketed" another $400m, which disappeared into the great maw of his huge debts and Barbara's lifestyle.

Everyone knows Barbara's famous quote that "my extravagance knows no bounds". Here are a few others: after being forced to entertain some of her husband's advertisers, she disdainfully described her guests as "potential underwriters for next spring's wardrobe"; and, on the launch of a new national newspaper in Canada, she remarked that "I'm hoping my husband's income from it will subsidise my obscene dress bills". Black was soon forced to close it with a loss of more than $100m.

Barbara publicly welcomes the comparisons with Marie Antoinette, but there are big differences. She had, in her own words, "been around" before she met Black, a fact that in her disarming and brazen way she talked about. She was legendarily experienced (and good) in bed, whereas poor Black, although in his late forties, was a relative novice. Both acknowledged openly that he soon learnt a lot.

Bower set out to excoriate Black but soon fell under the spell of Barbara, who fascinated him as much as she did the rest of us. I had the task of negotiating her salary once a year on The Sunday Times, not easy when confronted by the most visibly charming embonpoint on Fleet Street. It was she who drove Conrad's natural tendencies to live well into the stratosphere.

Bower relates two episodes, one of which I can testify to, when she wheeled on her husband to complain bitterly of how humiliating it was not to have their own plane. Black, besotted by her, bought two.

Behind all of this, there is an intriguing mystery to those of us who have followed every nuance of the Black story since he hove into view on the London scene 20 years ago. It is this: Black inherited a decent fortune from his father. He then met the widows and made another fortune. Then he bamboozled Lord Hartwell out of control of The Daily Telegraph for a pittance before the poor old man even noticed.

After that, he received another £84m from investors when the Telegraph was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1990, and another £200-£300m profit when the Barclay Brothers bought it a few years ago for £665m, many times what he paid. Then he sold his newspapers in Canada for a couple of billion and his American papers for several hundred million. This adds up to serious money. Where did it all go?

His social status rose in line with his (apparent) fortune. Once he had acquired one of the great newspapers of the world, he and Barbara were invited to every party and everyone wanted to attend his. He became Lord Black of Crossharbour, controversially abandoning his Canadian citizenship to do so. He dined with the Queen at Windsor, had tea at No 10, appointed Henry Kissinger, Lord Carrington and other eminent men to his board (they would later be the first to desert him). Truly his success, along with Barbara's extravagance, knew no bounds.

How, then, did he descend from those giddy social heights to become the sad, lonely, penurious figure he is today? There were debts, of course - it was only after Maxwell died that we realised his assets of £1bn were balanced by debts of £1.1bn (Bower had tumbled to it earlier). Black had arrogantly dismissed the whole trend of corporate governance, including (fatally) the inquiries of Tweedy Browne, one of America's most unforgiving fund managers.

Bower, absorbed in the detail of the tale, which he sets out superbly, never fully explains the suddenness and scale of the downfall, among the most spectacular in corporate history. Somewhere deep in Black's psyche there is a fatal flaw that caused him to self-destruct, just when he had everything. One would love to know more of that.

And Barbara? What happened to Barbara? She emerges as the real subject of the book, easily outshining her pompous and verbose husband. After a million articles and three previous books, we know a great deal about Black. But we can read any amount of words on the glamorous Barbara.

Now 66, and suffering from the auto-immune disease dermatomyositis, how will she make out? Her past record suggests that she will not be a regular visitor to Black's prison cell if he's convicted - and she will write a book about it all. What a story that will be.