Meanwhile, for Lady Black a fate worse than imprisonment looms: obscurity

Andy McSmith
Tuesday 11 December 2007 01:00

Lonely times lie ahead for Barbara Amiel Black, the gifted, driven, and much-reviled wife of Conrad Black, whose love of luxury was one of the most diverting subplots of her husband's trial.

She has had setbacks before in her long journey from Watford, but this must be the worst. At the age of 67, she may have to celebrate her 70th birthday quietly, alone, having spent the intervening time arranging prison visits and waiting by the phone for when her husband calls.

It is thought likely that she will return to London, where she has a better chance of picking up the threads of some sort of social life. In this country, she was already famous as Barbara Amiel, an acerbic columnist for The Times and Sunday Times before she married Black, her fourth husband, in 1992. In the USA, she is known only as Mrs Black, wife of the disgraced tycoon.

"Of course she'll come over here and see her friends," her friend, the writer Leonie Frieda, told the London Evening Standard. "I've been shocked at how quickly people in the US have dropped Barbara, but she has a much bigger bunch of people who support her over here."

But if she comes back, it will not be to the couple's former plush home in Cottesmore Gardens, London, which was sold to pay legal bills. Alternatively, she might choose to settle quietly in Canada, where she spent her teens and first made her mark as a journalist.

The contrast between that and the 30,000 surprise party Lord Black threw to mark her 60th birthday could hardly be greater.

One obvious parallel would be with Mary Archer, who stuck by her millionaire husband, Jeffrey, during the two years he spent in prison, except that the women have not much else in common, apart from being the wives of rich, titled convicts. Lady Archer was a deceived wife who chose to believe her husband's lies, and who maintained an icy cool detachment at the trial. Mrs Black is a more tempestuous character, who benefited rather than suffered from her husband's dishonesty.

The prosecution case against Lord Black was that he robbed his firm to fund a lifestyle that he and his wife craved but could not afford. In 2002, she told Vogue magazine that her "extravagance knew no bounds" a failing that is assumed to have been a reaction to a hard childhood. Her father abandoned the family when she was eight, and later committed suicide. Her mother remarried and emigrated to Ontario when she was 12.

She notoriously lost her cool early in the trial, and called the correspondent of the Canadian Broadcasting Company a "slut". She then turned on two other female journalists who had had the temerity to share a lift with her and her husband, and said: "You're all vermin. I'm sick of it. I used to be a journalist and I never door-stepped people."

Details of the Blacks' lifestyle were set out in a 500-page report submitted to US regulators by Hollinger International, the group that Lord Black once headed. It accused him of thinking "there was no need to distinguish what belonged to the company and what belonged to the Blacks. In Hollinger's world everything belonged to the Blacks."

Lady Black held a corporate post for which she was paid $1.1m (550,000) which "did not require her to do anything", the document alleged. She was paid separately for pieces she wrote for papers her husband owned. The company also picked up the bill for her office equipment.

The Blacks' luxury New York apartment, their Gulfstream jet equipped with more than 1,700 worth of silverware, Lord Black's Rolls-Royce, the entertainment they laid on, their opera tickets, and even Lady Black's handbags were paid for entirely or in part by Hollinger.

Then there was the famous "Happy Birthday Barbara" party in New York's La Grenouille restaurant when she reached 60, in December 2000. More than two-thirds of the bill, which came to more than 30,000, was charged to Hollinger.

But how many of the 94 illustrious guests who drank the expensive wine that night will want to know Barbara Amiel now? Most of the flash friends will vanish, along with the private planes and other luxuries. Even the career she built as a journalist is over. Her last column was in The Sunday Telegraph in June 2005. It concerned Michael Jackson, who she said was "being fed, piece by piece, to the lions". She could have been describing the way she must now feel.

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