Barbara Amiel: Farewell, my lovely

She ruthlessly seduced him, then blew much of his wealth on lavish parties and private jets. Now, many expect Barbara Amiel to abandon her fourth husband Conrad Black when he is sentenced for fraud in 12 days' time. But, says her former editor Sarah Sands, that is to ignore the lessons of Lady Black's extraordinary life

Sunday 18 November 2007 01:00

As autumn turns imperceptibly to winter in Florida, Conrad and Barbara Black pass their days in a routine of gracious simplicity. Settled in their grand colonial-style house in Palm Beach they entertain old friends, watch films, drink good wine, look out at the Atlantic Ocean, write their respective columns for Canadian publications, Conrad for the National Post, Barbara for the news weekly magazine Maclean's. Conrad has been reading Cardinal Newman, the 19th-century priest whose conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism shocked Victorian England. His wife has begun to extol the virtues of intellectual and spiritual pursuits above earthly comforts.

The intrusion into this enlightened environment is what Lord Black calls the 800lb gorilla in the room; his sentencing by Judge Amy St Eve on 30 November in Chicago. In July, he was found guilty on four charges of defrauding his publishing company Hollinger and one charge of obstruction. His attempt to declare the trial invalid on the grounds that the jury had not understood the evidence was thrown out by the judge earlier this month. He is likely to serve between seven and 15 years, although he could theoretically face 35. The Palm Beach house could be seized by the US government and is collateral on his $21m bail. Barbara Amiel, a lifelong insomniac, has no peace of mind.

An old friend who visited the couple last month described the 63-year-old Black as vigorous, excited about the American launch of his book, The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon, and determined that he will prevail – although this is surely mere bravado. Black has seized on an unguarded comment from one of the jurors – that they convicted him on four counts of fraud because they felt they had to nail him for something after a trial lasting four months (another juror, quoted in Men's Vogue, said, on the contrary, that it could have been far worse).

And what news of Amiel? The friend replied that she was "hanging on in there". The 67-year-old has been convicted of nothing, but has been accused of a great deal by her critics, including monstrous vanity and love of power. Those who believed she was a "nitrogen to Black's oxygen", destroying him and his Hollinger empire with her social ambition and spending, also predicted she would scarper once her husband was behind bars. "This is where people such as Tom Bower [who wrote Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge] have been wildly wrong in their predictions," says the historian Andrew Roberts, a loyal friend to the couple. "Barbara and Conrad are a genuine love match." Indeed, if one looks at Amiel's romantic history, it veers between her need for security, sex and, most potent, intellectual stimulation.

In 1952, Amiel, a bright Jewish girl,was uprooted from her smart school, North London Collegiate, after her father left her mother. With her sister and half-brother, she was then taken to Ontario, Canada by her mother and her stepfather, where she faced more upheaval. When she was 14, Amiel arrived home one day to find all her possessions packed in boxes. "My mother was very apologetic," she wrote. "'Your stepfather and I can't cope with you any more, so you have to move out.'" Her father in England then committed suicide in 1956. Fortunately, Amiel looked like Charlotte Rampling and was strong-minded, so turned this Dickensian scene to her advantage in her life and in her writing. "After the hurt had passed and I had cried a bit, after I got over the fright of sleeping in cellars underneath the furnace pipes, I came to cherish my freedom..."

Amiel described herself in a recent Maclean's column as a "nester" by nature. She has always had a romantic view of domesticity; when I was deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, she would often phone at weekends to discuss her column and would speculate about the home-and-hearth scenario she feared she was interrupting. She once confided that her life's great sadness was not having children of her own. At the time she was mostly travelling between properties in London, Toronto, Florida and New York. Her routine was to rise at about lunch time and write late into the night. I am sure she would have found the messy demands of family life nerve-shredding, but it never stopped her from presenting herself as the beautiful match-girl, face pressed at the window. At the age of 44 she wrote, "I so loathe the permissive, promiscuous society and so long for fidelity, stability and monogamy, but it is always just out of my reach."

She married her first husband, Gary Smith, in 1964 while still a student at Toronto University, leaving him within a year for the right-wing intellectual journalist George Jonas. (whom she married in 1974 and divorced five years later).' In the 1980s, another husband came and went – a Wasp businessman called David Graham – but Jonas was her intellectual soulmate. This dishevelled, likeable character was present for much of Black's trial in the summer and remains part of the inner sanctum. So there was nothing socially ruthless about Amiel's romantic trajectory. She alternated between security and excitement, and it happened that Black satisfied both.

Her columns for The Daily Telegraph were mostly about the Middle East, but she would sometimes give an insight into her insatiable, even if self-mocking, ability to spend money. She once languorously mentioned a fixation with jewels and wrote about a diamond exhibition, "It is one thing to make a mistake with a wrong choice from Prada, but quite another to buy the wrong piece from Graff..."

The parties became grander. The Chicago jury were non- plussed by the account of Amiel's 60th birthday, held for her by Black at La Grenouille in New York. The cost of $62,000 included 1993 champagne at $320 a bottle. Hollinger shareholders may have grinned bitterly when Black remarked that Amiel did not like parties, but he is partly right. I was at a party in her Kensington home at which she pleaded with a waitress to shield her from her guests. "I hate parties," she winced to me. "I prefer sausages on a stick." Of course she was being disingenuous, but she was never the Leona Helmsley figure of tabloid fiction.

There was a certain comedy about her transparent seduction of Black in London, when he was proprietor of the Telegraph and she was a columnist on The Sunday Times. Her rapacious concentration on her subject and her breathy, confiding manner were delicious to watch. "If you leave Conrad alone in London, you will lose him," she growled at Black's first wife, Shirley, from whom he separated shortly before marrying Amiel in 1992. Most of her prey struggled for no more than a few moments. To her annoyance, two Telegraph editors got clean away: Max Hastings declared that Amiel frightened the life out of him; Charles Moore found her too exotic and highly strung.

But Black was stricken from the start. They had been married for three years when I first dined with them in 1995. I was seated next to Conrad, at Barbara's instruction, because she wanted me to join The Daily Telegraph. Black politely ran through my CV, before praising his wife's beauty, her writing style, her wit, her qualities as a hostess. He asked me which columnists I admired and I rattled off a few. "None is a patch on Barbara," he replied, slightly reproachfully. Sure enough, she soon brought her Sunday Times column to The Daily Telegraph, where she wrote for nearly a decade. Even after Conrad resigned as chairman in 2004, to face the gathering legal charges against him, Amiel determined to continue her column. Writing was her life's anchor. When the sympathetic then editor of The Daily Telegraph, Martin Newland, was finally forced to sack her, she did not argue but was tremendously hurt.

Amiel was more than 50 years old when she married Black, yet he was besotted by her sexiness. One of his early proprietorial interventions at The Daily Telegraph was to ask the fashion pages to endorse miniskirts for women of middle age. Yet Amiel, part Ann Fleming hostess, part little sparrow, was always insecure about her husband's attention. A London-based female friend remembers Amiel turning to her in distress at a drinks party. Black had been talking to a clever, striking-looking writer across the room for more than 15 minutes. "Why is he talking to her, why won't he stop?" she asked agitatedly.

One reason for her bouts of listlessness was that she suffered from the blood condition lupus, which affected her immunity. She had to have regular blood transfusions and could be laid low for months. I asked how she was coping after a particularly serious hospital spell and she said, with a tone of wonder, that Black had been "staunch" about her affliction. The word has an interesting connotation, as if he somehow sought to prevent the loss of blood. Amiel used a blood metaphor again in a recent Maclean's column, talking about the death of her friend, Richard Bradshaw, general director of the Canadian Opera Company. "The blood in our veins carries not only the vital elements for physical existence but also the oxygen for our souls. Losing Bradshaw is akin to losing pints of blood or being struck down with pernicious anemia."

There is something of the Lady of the Camellias about Amiel: beautiful, tricksy, doomed, ultimately loyal and brave. While always proclaiming her belief in Black, she does not share his faith that all will be well in the end, tending instead towards a melancholy stoicism. "He'll be back. I'm not so sure about me," she said obliquely to the Toronto Sun.

She returns to the leitmotif of her life, the Wandering Jew. "I'm Lady Black of no fixed address," she quipped darkly. Her sense of being rootless, driven from location to location, is a deep dread within her. She is free to travel as she chooses, unlike Black, but where should she go? She wrote recently of feeling "dizzyingly happy" to be back on Canadian soil, and "turned into an artesian well of tears" at a kind word from the immigration officer. Yet she added bleakly, "Our home in Toronto is not quite itself without Conrad." The sight of his abandoned model ships was "heart-rending".

Amiel has a flair for the tragic dramatic flourish, heightened now by her genuinely bleak predicament. In one column, she watches a delicate, weightless butterfly undertake a long and difficult journey and compares it to herself fluttering back to Florida to join her "beloved husband".

When Amiel was a "right-wing bitch" columnist on the Telegraph she had scorned the "victim" society. "This is a grievance society and if you want to get into its leading age you pretty well have to become a victim," was one of her aphorisms. Yet she was more complex than the Fox News pin-ups such as Ann Coulter. Amiel has an operatic sense of her own tragedy, setting her own "persecution" in the context of Jewish history rather than the more recent past of corporate governance investigations.

I emailed the Blacks' PA to see whether Amiel would speak to me for this article. In response I was directed to a recent article in the National Post by Danielle Crittenden, the writer and wife of David Frum, the former adviser to President Bush. Crittenden wrote of Amiel: "I've not read a column or a profile of her yet ' that conveys her extraordinary presence and achievements." Crittenden is pretty, intelligent, witty and mischievous. Now that the mighty figures who attend Davos summits have turned their back on the Blacks, it is good to know that the couple still have the convivial company of family and journalistic pals. Amiel, who so longed for family, sat alongside Black's beautiful daughter, Alana, from his first marriage to Shirley, and praised her to the skies during her father's trial.

Yet the loyalists, such as former George W Bush speechwriter Frum, Crittenden, journalist Mark Steyn and Ken Whyte, former editor of the National Post and now editorof Maclean's, lack objectivity. Crittenden writes that, "The Roman crowd could at least acknowledge dignity and courage in those mauled for its entertainment." The Blacks have been treated as villains and some of the gloating over Conrad's fate has been horrible – but one has to acknowledge their former imperiousness towards company accounting, if not outright theft, from Hollinger.

As an old Telegraph colleague said sadly, "All this could have been avoided if they had just been a bit more polite to people." Shareholders who were told that the way the company ran was none of their business; Canadians who were affronted when Conrad renounced his citizenship for the sake of a British peerage in 2002; jurors who disliked the way Conrad talked down to them.

Amiel was clearly upset by the death of Bradshaw, but I winced at her concluding observation: "All around is a lifeless brew of the mediocre and the bland, of politically correct people and cowards." There is something of the Ancient Greeks about the couple's disdain for ordinary people and their belief in the entitlement of the elite. Amiel was capable of many small acts of kindness towards people, but she could also be wildly insensitive towards her domestic staff.

A Telegraph columnist and friend of Amiel remembers sharing a car with her from Kensington to the newspaper office at Canary Wharf late one afternoon. The driver spoke excitedly of how he was going to take his son to a big football match after he'd dropped them off. The traffic was bad and the driver looked anxious as he approached east London. Then Amiel said, "Oh, and would you mind going to pick up a dress for me now in Bond Street." The columnist whispered to the driver to do no such thing; he would fetch the dress himself.

What specifically provoked the investors' pursuit of the Blacks was the private plane. This was a billionaire's toy, a gleaming symbol that they were overreaching. Amiel certainly had a presidential affection for it. I was in New York on 9/11 and a couple of days later received a message from her. She kindly offered me use of the company Manhattan apartment if I needed it. She continued that it was extremely vexing that their private jet was not being given air space, but that they were lobbying the relevant authorities (at that time only military aircraft were cleared to fly).

Comfortably imprisoned at Palm Beach, the couple are demonstrating a sort of humility. Amiel, for instance, has apologised for using the words "slut and vermin" to describe a female member of the press during the trial. Black has made an extraordinary appearance on a Canadian television show with his "celebrity tip" on how to wax a maple leaf. Filmed at their home, he proceeds to place the leaf between his biographies of Nixon and Roosevelt. "Here we have a perfectly waxed maple leaf, a great solace to everyone and especially to those who, for complicated reasons, cannot at first hand observe the changing of the season this autumn in Canada." According to Andrew Roberts, the appearance has endeared him greatly to Canadians. This may be a step to a much- sought rapprochement. In his email interview with Men's Vogue, Black admits, "I do regret giving up my Canadian citizenship – but I always said I would take it back."

Should Canada offer Black new citizenship, a possible prison sentence there would be much more pleasant than in the US, for Canada takes a more lenient view of white-collar offences and offers parole sooner. Amiel, too, has started to praise Canada. In Bower's biography, her emigration to Canada as a child was seen as a blow to her, leading to the terrible rows with her mother and stepfather. Amiel and Black were always infatuated with America as the seat of power. But now Canada's kinder, gentler attractions are more appealing.

Amiel writes about her childhood arrival in Canada with new clarity in Maclean's. "After emigrating from the UK we moved to an Ontario low-income housing estate. There sat the newly built house, a marvel to my eyes and painted eggshell white. After bomb-damaged London I had not seen anything quite so pristine."

Black, meanwhile, even defends his old adversary Jean Chrétien, the former prime minister of Canada, against fellow Canadian journalist Peter Newman. Reviewing Newman's collection of writing in the National Post, he bears down on him like the Soviet Army. It is vintage Black, a commanding assault of facts and scorn. He concludes: "Newman's principal comment on my legal travails has been to regale Canadian television viewers with predictions that I will spend many years being sexually assaulted in US correctional institutions. I think not, but I will leave that one also to the psychotherapists."

Amiel may admire her husband's fighting spirit, but hers is gloomier. Discussing the future with a friend last year she burst out that, "Conrad could be wearing an orange jump- suit." There is a self-preserving logic to Barbara going as far away as she can. Last year, there was gossip about her returning to London, re-establishing herself in a central London house and writing her memoirs. Now there are suggestions she may make her home in Israel. This attributes a shameless chutzpah to Amiel that is not in her character. Highly intelligent, highly strung, disdainful and insecure, she is not the opportunistic bolter painted by biographers. She has always looked for a harbour and has found one, even if it looks a little like Dunkirk at the moment.

Those of us who enjoyed the grand parties at the Blacks' home at Cottesmore Gardens, Kensington, remember Amiel's ironic smile on the balcony and her sweeping glance across the room. "Where is my husband?" she would ask. "I must find Conrad." A Telegraph journalist who once left a party only to return after it had finished to collect a bag, stumbled upon Black and Amiel standing on the pavement in a passionate embrace, quite oblivious to the world. Of course she won't leave him now. This is her final love match. *

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