If this book becomes a Netflix blockbuster, as it surely must, Barbara Amiel presents us with an opening image. She describes, during a visit to see her husband Conrad Black in prison, watching a Monarch butterfly rise above roadside debris:
You couldn’t miss it in that bright early morning sunscape of trash cans and crumpled paper cups, so intense the colours and so large its wings as it did a parabola over a little triangular patch of wildflowers growing off to the side of the service area at Turkey State on Interstate 95.
Let me have a think about whom that might metaphorically represent. We find out later:
This book is simply an account of a woman’s life that, like a migrating Monarch,ran into a late autumn storm that continued with droughts and predators to this, the very last flight.
Her artfulness is one of her many winning qualities in this book.
It is described as a memoir, but it is more of an operatic reckoning. As ever, Amiel understands her enemies and she pre-empts criticism. Is she a femme fatale? Of course she is. She writes that she has ‘an inability or disinclination to walk into a room in any way but that of Lucia di Lammermoor at curtain call wearing her bloodstained dress’.
I first came to know her through the late editor of The Spectator, Frank Johnson, and better when I worked at the Daily Telegraph as deputy editor under Charles Moore’s editorship. My favourite vignette from Johnson’s East End childhood was that he was brought in as a child extra to the Royal Opera House and found himself on occasion wedged happily but suffocatingly in the bosom of Maria Callas. This is rather how I felt reading this book.
It begins in Hendon, but even in Amiel’s childhood there is glamour and peril. She adored her handsome father and did not understand why she had to be bundled off to Canada with her mother and her sister in 1952. It was the last time she saw her father: ‘He would kill himself just four years later, when I was 15 and he was 39.’ He had been embezzling clients’ funds and had run out of time and excuses. Her mother tells her that her father is dead and that he went mad. She added: ‘I expect you’ll go mad too.’ But Amiel does not go mad; she gets even. She moves away from home as
a teenager and supports herself by working in a drugstore; this is also, to raise the stakes, the start of her codeine habit.
She is a natural journalist and advances in the Canadian news media, becoming the first female editor of the Toronto Sun. She is beautiful but self-destructive. She literally cuts off her nose to spite her face, an early pioneer of cosmetic surgery. She also gets through several husbands — the first boring one; the second, George Jonas, her intellectual equal and friend for life; the third, handsome and unfaithful. In London, she was courted by her fourth, the owner of Telegraph newspapers, Conrad Black.
We really start to pay attention when she has an affair with the grand Jewish publisher George Weidenfeld. Amiel reveres his intellect and adds regretfully: ‘Unfortunately he was also very short, plump and with eyes that could protrude rather alarmingly, especially when upset.’ She approached sexual relations with him in ‘self paralysis of dread’ but got round it by offering ‘oral pleasure’. She is clever and cruel. Weidenfeld was besotted with her: ‘He even purchased a small basement flat next door to him, connected through a small tunnel arrayed with heating and plumbing pipes.’ I wonder if this is the basis of an apocryphal story that intrigued London journalists — that Amiel used to climb into the dumbwaiter system and serve herself to Weidenfeld through the hatch. Having read this book I believe anything is possible.
It is her marriage to Conrad and the rise and fall of his media empire which is the substance of the book. Her true self is a newspaper columnist; but she becomes best known as a society hostess, and her determination to keep up with the Mercedes Basses and the rest of Park Avenue proves her undoing. What she describes as the ‘deadly bog’ of corporate governance sinks her and Conrad:
In would come the grey men of administrative governance who in many cases would do little but enrich themselves at the cost of shareholders.
Conrad is convicted of fraud in 2007 and sentenced to six years imprisonment. He was pardoned in 2019 by Donald Trump.
If sex and the boardroom does not appeal, there is an alternating love story in the book, which is Amiel’s relationship with dogs. There is her Hungarian Puli dog Gogo: ‘I held her and I loved her and I kicked her hard, really hard in the stomach and groin.’ This is where a film version of Barbara’s life might need a little glossing over. Then there is the Fifth Avenue dog:
I complimented the owner, who was a tall Afro-American matching the dog in groomed perfection. We ended up in his East Fifties apartment and during the predictable course of events on his floor he unpredictably sprayed my nude self with a can of whipped cream…
The happy ending is that Barbara finds dogs for life, and her final Edith Piaf sign-off is an up-to-date photograph of herself, Conrad, ‘dog-lover Henry Kissinger’ (as if this is what he is best known for) and ‘my gorgeous Maya and handsome Arpad’, great white Kuvasz dogs.
But between whipped cream and Maya and Arpad, there is a Succession-style tale of media power, hubris and one of the great corporate court cases, followed by incarceration for Conrad Black. Amiel, who has by her own admission been Monarch- butterfly-like in her reluctance to settle, discovers in herself a resilience and, until hell freezes over, loyalty to Black. She rains down curses on their enemies. Some targets in the book, especially the Park Avenue set, are enjoyable. Elsewhere she turns her icy fury on some undeserving people, including the Daily Telegraph’s great Bill Deedes. She becomes a kind of Medusa figure whose stare is best avoided.
What made me start to love the Blacks was the way they fought back after the disgrace. Lord Black set about cleaning prison toilets, educating his fellow inmates and writing a book himself. When Barbara told Conrad, truthfully, that they faced ruin and oblivion he chided her: ‘Barbara, you have got to stop this Jewish pessimism.’ He was ready to rebuild his fortune and reputation, having been taught one lesson by his father: ‘No one laughs at a man with ten million.’ Doesn’t it sound like a line straight out of Arthur Miller?
There is a notable lack of mea culpa in this book. Amiel still regards the shareholders’ pursuit of her and Conrad as envy and malice. She compares their media reign to that of Lord Beaverbrook, with world leaders at their beck and call and the ability to make or break them. She adds, purringly: ‘But then, truthfully, wouldn’t you if you could?’
A more knowing Amiel later attends a party held by Evgeny Lebedev, who, incidentally, became my proprietor at the Evening Standard after I left the Telegraph. She looks at the young Lebedev with some sadness. ‘Should he lose his money, God help him. Birds of prey sit in wait.’ The cursed Callas bosom heaves.
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