Memoirs can make for tedious reading: the minutiae of someone else’s life, the juicy tidbits left out, the worthy commentary left in. But then along comes Barbara Amiel, the wife of the former media tycoon Conrad Black, with Friends and Enemies: A Memoir, 608 gloriously indiscreet pages of elegant vitriol. It could equally well be called Sex and Spite in High Society, a cautionary tale of lavish lifestyles, failed marriages, half-hearted suicide attempts and oral sex with an aristocratic pensioner.
Mostly, though, she’s taking a very public revenge on the friends who deserted her after the downfall of her husband, and she’s clearly enjoying it. Nancy Kissinger is depicted as rude and ill-mannered; the wife of a billionaire philanthropist is spiteful and opinionated. And don’t get her started on what she thinks about grasping lawyers, unscrupulous art dealers and faithless hairdressers.
Age has not conspicuously mellowed Amiel. “For me,” she writes, “soon to be 80, the only revenge would be to see our persecutors guillotined. I have worked out 1,001 ways to see them die, beginning with injecting them with the ebola virus and watching.”
On the Up-and-Up
Amiel was born in Watford in 1940 and brought up in north London in a respectable, lower middle-class family. When she was eight her father left her mother. Her mother later remarried and relocated Amiel, her sister and half-brother to Canada with their stepfather. When she was 14 Amiel arrived home to find that her mother had packed Amiel’s bags and was telling her to move out. Neither she nor her stepfather, she said, could cope with her any more.
“After the hurt had passed and I had cried a bit,” Amiel remembered, “after I got over the fright of sleeping in cellars … I came to cherish my freedom.” She lived in dodgy boarding houses, worked nights in factories and studied to get the grades to read philosophy and English at Toronto University. She was a student there when she married her first husband, Gary Smith, in 1964. Within a year she had left him for a journalist, George Jonas, who remained a friend long after they divorced after five years of marriage in 1979. She became a journalist and married for a third time, to a businessman called David Graham, whom she depicts as serially unfaithful.
By now working as the editor of a Canadian newspaper, she gave it up to move to London with him. He traveled frequently and Amiel found herself unemployed, knowing hardly anyone. She eventually found work as a columnist for The Times and launched herself into London society. Beautiful, clever and charismatic, she captivated the 68-year-old Lord Weidenfeld while she was still married to Graham and to the consternation of Weidenfeld’s friends, who, she writes, feared she was a heartless Jezebel causing him great unhappiness.
“George was funny, informed and fascinating. That, together with the circles in which he moved, made him irresistible. Being with him, I thought rather calculatingly, gave me access and some status.” Weidenfeld knew everyone who was anyone, from intellectuals to artists, and threw great parties. “I was trying to hang on to the social advantages he gave me without incurring the payment required sexually,” Amiel writes. “The only way I could deal with it was to avoid actual body-to-body contact and pleasure him orally.”
Matters came to a head when a New York tabloid reported that she was going to marry him, causing Graham to file for divorce. They reconciled a year later when he was also dating a 6ft blonde American plastic surgeon who once dispatched him to his London lover with a condom glued to his penis. One night, after a string of upsetting transatlantic phone calls, Graham suggested, she writes, “that I kill myself, a not unreasonable suggestion given my tiresome repetitions of an inability to live without him”. (He called the police in London, who took her to hospital.) Amiel was by now nearly 50, “female and all but penniless in London”. What she describes as an “awkward” situation was resolved when she met the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, who on two occasions paid her $128,670 for the pleasure of her company while he gambled in a smart London casino. She used the money to buy a flat.
“Being with [Lord Weidenfeld], I thought rather calculatingly, gave me access and some status.”
By the late 1980s Amiel was a well-known columnist about town. She started bumping into Black, the proprietor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, at parties. The way she tells it, he pursued her. His friends thought it was the other way round. Either way, “he was always friendly and appeared to seek me out”, she writes. His marriage broke up soon after, as did Amiel’s relationship with a screenwriter in New York. Black, she writes, made her feel taken care of, and it was “an intoxicating feeling”.
Her life so far had been turbulent and marred by tragedy. Her father committed suicide when she was young. She was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease, and depression. She told her former editor, Sarah Sands, that her life’s great sadness was not having children of her own. In turn, Sands described her as “highly intelligent, highly strung, disdainful and insecure. She is not the opportunistic bolter painted by biographers.”
According to Amiel, Black asked her to marry him before they had even shared a kiss. They did so, having since shared rather more than a kiss, in 1992, at Chelsea register office. The bride wore demure green and white, the groom wore an enormous smile, and the reception was at Annabel’s in Mayfair, where Black sat between Margaret Thatcher and the Duchess of York. He was 47, and Amiel was 50, now the wife of a businessman and media mogul. Life was one long round of dinners in the Belgravia townhouses of people who hung a Hockney next to a Picasso. The couple moved by private jet between interior-designed houses in London, New York, Toronto and Palm Beach. She invited Vogue to look round her enviable closet, with its 100 pairs of Manolo Blahniks, a dozen Hermès Birkin bags and racks of couture clothes, and confided that her extravagance knew “no bounds”. They socialized assiduously and entertained lavishly.
“I began to enjoy making entrances and seeing heads turn,” Amiel writes. “I was somebody; it was fun. You get used to it very quickly and I positively swished.”
Not All Manolos and Birkins
Yet the so-called friends sound ghastly. The wife of a billionaire philanthropist told her reprovingly that only salesgirls wore white clothes. Nancy Kissinger told Amiel that she had given the silver bracelets she had sent as a thank-you gift to her nieces. None of the women ate bread, butter or pudding, Amiel writes, only salad. She didn’t think they liked her, and they didn’t think she was thin enough. “Bread,” one of them told her as she reached for it, “is not the stuff of life.”
It didn’t take long for jealous sniping to start. In an interview in 2004 Black said that an attempt to portray his wife as Marie Antoinette and him as a “supine love-struck spouse … is a complete fiction”. Even friendly commentators such as Sands weren’t blind to their flaws. “She has an operatic sense of her own tragedy,” she once wrote of Amiel. “There is something of the ancient Greek about the couple’s disdain for ordinary people and their belief in the entitlement of the elite.”
For his part, Black told the interviewer Alice Thomson last year that the power was more intoxicating than the money. “You can get awfully tired of these rich, dumb Americans in Palm Beach who had made $1 billion in birdseed.”
None of the women ate bread, butter or pudding, Amiel writes. “Bread,” one of them told her as she reached for it, “is not the stuff of life.”
Their gilded life came to an end on October 29, 2003, when Black was forced out of his company, Hollinger, and told Amiel: “It’s finished. This is the worst day of my life.”
The trial in Chicago was a sensation. The verdict was guilty on four counts of fraud, reduced to two on appeal. The sentence was 78 months in a federal prison. Jurors were regaled with stories of holidays in Bora Bora and a birthday party that cost $62,000. In the wake of the verdict Amiel, now 63, lost her job as a newspaper columnist and writes that even her hairdresser and the manageress of Manolo Blahnik in New York refused to have anything to do with her.
“These nightmares,” she writes, “do actually happen to innocent people.” Her new circumstances brought with them a new dress code: what to wear for prison visits. Clothes could be “neither provocative nor enticing”, a challenge for a woman who had spent a lifetime perfecting both.
“The only revenge would be to see our persecutors guillotined. I have worked out 1,001 ways to see them die, beginning with injecting them with the ebola virus and watching.”
Today she writes of Black, “I still can’t help thinking that marrying me was a disaster. Just because his circle in New York and Palm Beach wore couture, why did I have to wear it?” Friends dropped them and some even laid into them. Yet one of the saddest insights into her life comes thanks to Elton John, who took her out for dinner and gave her a diamond necklace. Why would he do that, she wonders, when her own star was descending? “There was absolutely nothing in it for him.” The idea of a friendship that isn’t transactional, that’s based on affection, seems not to occur to her.
The couple now live quietly in Canada. In 2019 President Trump issued Black with a full pardon. For her part, Amiel has seen off the haters and the doubters who said the marriage would never last. After he was sentenced, Black told her: “I wouldn’t blame you if you left me now.” Instead, the marriage is, one friend wrote in 2007, her final love match. And for the lawyers who pursued him, the justice system that convicted him and the friends who turned on them, the book is her final revenge.