Barbara Amiel didn’t always live the high life. Long before the British-born journalist became Lady Black of Crossharbour—the title bestowed upon her when her husband, the former media mogul Conrad Black, was granted a peerage in 2001—she endured a rocky childhood marked by her parents’ bitter divorce when she was eight years old and her father’s suicide when she was 16. But although her early years included family trauma and financial hardship, the ambitious Amiel went on to make a name for herself as a highly opinionated (and very visible) writer and editor for such magazines and newspapers as the Toronto Sun-Times and the Times of London.
In 1992, Black—a business titan whose holdings included the Chicago Sun-Times and the Jerusalem Post—became her fourth husband. The pair cut a glittering swath through the international jetset, keeping homes in London, New York, and Palm Beach and moving in circles that included Henry Kissinger, Jayne Wrightsman, and Joan Collins. Their world came crashing down in 2003, however, when an internal investigation of fees and executive non-competition payments at Black’s company, Hollinger International, sparked a chain of events that would find him jailed for more than three years on a range of charges including fraud and obstruction of justice. The couple were treated maliciously by the press—including papers they once owned—and frozen out by their fabulous, if fair-weather, friends. Black has always maintained his innocence, and in May 2019 he was granted a full pardon by President Trump, but the damage done to both Black and Amiel was irreversible.
In this excerpt from her new memoir, Friends and Enemies, Amiel recalls the season when her world began to crumble.
The lead-up to the awful day, October 29, 2003, when my husband and I would be cast headlong into 16 years of torment, had us quite routinely observing the social rites of a Manhattan autumn. I had no notion of how we were being viewed, but a pair of doomed marionettes might cover it.
We’d done the opening of the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall, courtesy of the customary generosity of the Basses. Everyone was too wonderful for words, which was the problem—no words. Perfect manners, air kisses, and not a word said about the huge headlines trumpeting our coming fall. Agreed-upon social manners dictated no reference be made to looming icebergs. It was unnerving, almost spooky.
Through September, October, and even some of November, we were still on the regular invitation lists. We sashayed out to dinner with a slightly reserved Jayne Wrightsman, who admired the little black outfit I was wearing. “Who did that darling suit?” she asked. “Donna Karan,” I replied, and her interest noticeably waned. A Madison Avenue shop. Not Paris. Not dear Oscar.
Earlier in the year I had been roped into a speaking engagement: an old flame and friend, Hungarian-born filmmaker Robert Lantos, was being feted at a huge fundraising dinner in Toronto for Canadian athletes going to the 2005 Maccabiah Games in Israel. “You’ll hate me,” said Lantos, “but I’d be so grateful if you’d be the keynote speaker.” Back in July, thinking it a good cause, I replied in a one-word email: “Okay.”
The usual fears before making a speech to more than a thousand people who have paid a lot of money to hear you (or more likely to be seen doing good while wearing great outfits) began as I crossed the Sheraton Centre Hotel lobby toward its Grand Ballroom. Usually, I rather liked the little frisson that came from being the night’s keynote speaker and wife of Conrad Black. But now a quite different feeling crept over me. Although the sound of hundreds of participants has a pretty high decibel count, for me there was a sense of parting the Red Sea, and not for any Promised Land.
Bubbles of silence excluded me as I walked past guests. I was an oddity, a kind of Elephant Man: I had grown tumors, and onlookers were nudging each other. I was unaware at that point of quite how heavy the exclamation-point headlines and newspaper coverage of the accusations against Conrad were. A day later, October 29, I returned to New York.
A late fall day in New York is the perfect time for walking. This one had everything: blue sky, crisp sunlight, and, lifting my spirits, the prospect of poppyseed palacsintas on East 79th Street in Little Hungary. John Ruskin named the association between mood and weather a “pathetic fallacy” because, he wrote, it was a false feeling. Still, I was flooded with a happiness I wanted to share. I telephoned Conrad.
From that moment, those short seconds of drained words, following which I returned to our apartment, where I saw my husband’s gray-faced despair and half listened to the background wail of sirens in the streets below, idly noting that my so-called walking shoes were pinching, nothing could stop the landslide that had begun. A planet can take billions of years to form, but it can shatter in an instant, when something veers off course and the collision destroys it.
Conrad was 59 years old, and 37 of those years had gone into building his publishing empire and his private company. Both would splinter in days and be a memory in a month. This is not a mystery novel; readers will probably know the formal end to these events, even as today my husband, 76, like the legendary phoenix of the ancient Greeks, rises again from ashes. So what I now say is no spoiler.
Except, then, no one wanted to know the one essential detail: the truth. Who, after all, wants to go backstage and ruin the make-believe? Why should they bother, anyway? And what you can’t predict when calamity overtakes you is human character, about which one had written so much: how friends and enemies will behave, and who those friends and enemies are. How I hated that effing phrase I was to hear so often: “You’ll find out who your real friends are.” Nine times out of 10 it sure as hell wasn’t the person spouting this bit of polluted redundancy.
In late September the first arrow: Hollinger’s special committee was claiming everything on my computer for their investigation; they would be taking away my hard drive and, for good measure, cutting our high-speed T2 lines and access to the servers. My heart absolutely cratered. What did any of these Hollinger business beefs have to do with me? I held no shares, took no non-compete payments. How could some ad hoc group of unknown sticky-handed investigators take away 15 years of work, my writing, columns, research, all my email correspondence.
The game had begun in which the target is slowly stripped naked and then cut inch by inch. We were informed in stiff-as-starch terms that our server was Hollinger property and we could not copy or remove anything on it. In movies, people just type in some code, preferably at night, holding a flashlight, and everything is copied and downloaded in a minute or two. But in 2003 I had absolutely no idea what to do.
The whole thing hit like a personal weapon of mass destruction. At this point what you need, frantically, is pots and pots of money. Cash. A Daddy Warbucks. Lawyers have to be hired, U.S. lawyers as well as Canadian ones. The American lawyers will require up-front payments of millions, because, unlike us, they knew this could become a battle of many years and they needed to make sure they had a paying client. The Canadian lawyers had lower fees, but they too want to see the color of your money.
“We are going to attend,” Conrad said when I tentatively asked if perhaps this was a reason to skip the Library Lions dinner on November 3. He was back in fight mode. And unlike in good times, when I could easily absent myself, to do a no-show would be akin to being Benedict Arnold. All I could think was that we were about to be thrown to the lions, never mind how well read they were.
The dinner is an annual event put on by the New York Public Library to raise funds and honor a few authors. Importantly, it imparts a touch of intellectualism to the charity gala circuit and is considered the highlight of the cultural life of New York. As far as I could see, it gave a lot of people who had no idea what the inside of a library looked like a chance to see it, although that night, thanks to the exquisite decoration of socialite-cum-decorator Susan Gutfreund, there was nothing so deadly as shelves of books.
Conrad had been recruited as a donor by HRH Princess Firyal of Jordan, who was co-chairing the evening with Annette de la Renta. She had gotten him to pledge $100,000 as a “benefactor.” Just what we needed. Firyal was not your common fundraiser, with sensible shoes, an earnest heart, and a mission. She had married the brother of the late King Hussein of Jordan and, after delivering herself of two sons, divorced him. Whatever else she did or did not get, she managed to keep her HRH title. (Titles from royal marriages are bitterly fought over, rather like family pets, and their owners need the claws of Bengal tigers to keep them—vide the ex-wives of two of Queen Elizabeth’s children, Sarah Ferguson and Princess Diana, both of whom lost their HRHs on divorce.)
Firyal’s next beau was the legendary Greek shipping multibillionaire Stavros Niarchos, rival of Aristotle Onassis. The story is that Stavros, in trying to win Firyal’s affections, started off sending her insultingly small gifts, like a sable coat, which she returned cut into tiny pieces. As this is a family publication, I won’t give the details of the doubtless apocryphal story of the gift that won her over, but I will mention her genuine affection for Stavros. Getting Conrad to pledge $100,000 for the New York Public Library was small stuff for Firyal. Paying it turned out to be more major for us, and the subject of vicious gossip—but it was paid.
All I remember of that evening, apart from thinking how dark and crowded it was as I advanced into the bower of flowers and vines that Susan Gutfreund had created, was the bright white fox stole draped over Marie-Josée Kravis’s back. I remember it because the previous season, YSL Haute Couture had featured that white stole, together with a black version. “It’s so Hollywood in white,” I dismissively told my vendeuse, Virginie, at the salon, thinking she would admire my refined taste as she pointed out its merits. “I’ll take the black.”
Now I saw that the black one I had was boring, the white, spectacular. Damn it. This was always happening to me: spending a fortune to be ordinary. That night I was wearing a sleeveless store-bought gown from Carolina Herrera’s Madison Avenue boutique. I remember this not because, like some of the ladies, I kept a diary of what I wore so as not to repeat at any public event, but because I got an email from the psychiatrist monitoring my medications: “Saw your picture in the paper for the library benefit. You definitely need to drink some protein shakes. Hope the Wellbutrin is kicking in?”
Some memories leave paths, scars where they have touched the fleshy cortex; others pass over without a mark. Sometime in 2004, as the cold winds were buffeting, I sat with George and Annabelle Weidenfeld in the tearoom of the Carlyle Hotel. There’s a rosy feeling in that small room just outside the formal restaurant, as if you are encased in deep burgundy velvet, far from worldly grit and grime. Me, my dearest friend Annabelle, and George brimming with his anecdotes. The taste of a good cup of Earl Grey.
Then the moment fractured into shrapnel bits, each piercing flesh. First came the unmissable, six-foot-seven Mathias Döpfner, the brilliant star of Germany’s Axel Springer publications, which include Die Welt. Conrad and I were fond of him. He manages his ambitions with principle and without malice. He smiled at me and then motioned to George, who rose from our banquette and followed him into the bar. Mathias was in town to talk to Hollinger about Springer’s possible purchase of the Telegraph.
Almost on his heels came Lynn de Rothschild, with her throaty giggle at her own wit or good fortune. It is not unpleasant, but even at the best of times it’s a bit unnerving. I needn’t have worried. Not half a dozen months earlier she had sent me a caressing email—I had a number of these from various people; they appeared to be requisite before dropping us—“This must be hell for you,” Lynn wrote, “but know I am thinking of you. Remember, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Call if I can do anything.” I looked up and smiled at the woman who had sent those supportive words, but I must have been wearing the Tarnhelm, the magic helmet from Wagner that renders one invisible.
Lynn beckoned to Annabelle, who rose, and the two of them stood talking directly behind me in full voice about their evening plans, and dinner parties later that week, and the upcoming schedule for London. Lynn departed in a sand-and-beige waft of giggles and goodbyes to half the tearoom without even a nod to me. Perhaps there was no awareness on her part, only the selective vision of the socialite: Where Fifth Avenue leads, as Edith Wharton wrote, Lynn followed. She really didn’t see me.
Reprinted from Friends and Enemies: A Life in Vogue, Prison, and Park Avenue by Barbara Amiel. Published by Pegasus Books. © Barbara Amiel. Reprinted with permission.
This excerpt appears in the October 2020 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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