Barbara Amiel's doorstopper of a memoir, which recounts her life - including her 1992 marriage to Conrad Black - is published on the eve of her 80th birthday. Photo: Courtesy of Barry Swaebe
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Barbara Amiel’s Tell-All Memoir
Friends and Enemies is heavy on the latter, with a list of those who have slighted Amiel and Black / BY Shinan Govani
It was as much an end of an era as it was millennium. Conjuring up ghosts of a 2000 New Year’s Eve spent in the Dominican Republic lair of the late Oscar de la Renta, Barbara Amiel remembers how glamorous and how “cock-a-hoop” she felt then, amidst all the many one-name supernovas of the Manhattan ilk (women atop a fading old guard): his wife, Annette; Nancy Kissinger; Mercedes Bass; Jayne Wrightsman; the other Barbara, Walters — “all tarted in our long gowns, and paste tiaras that had decorated our dinner plates.”
Turning to her husband, Conrad Black, that night — both of them then at the Edmund Hillary summit of society (he the international press baron with a far-flung empire that included London’s Daily Telegraph, The Jerusalem Post and, The Chicago Sun-Times) but still some years from their slow raft ride to the isle of ignominy (after a sensational trial in Chicago — faced with 13 charges, Black would go on to serve nearly 42 months in a U.S. prison on counts of fraud and obstruction of justice), Amiel remembers saying, “We can’t go on like this.”
When Conrad peered quizzically, she replied with a sigh of social anxiety (one that inevitably becomes more persistent and ever clankier, the more rungs you climb). That is to say, as Amiel shares now: “We were always guests — guests in the Dominican Republic, guests in the Hamptons or Connecticut, guests at the charity tables that cost anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 a table.”
“What do we bring?” Amiel vexed.
“We add value,” Black clipped back.
And so it went — and still goes: one of the abiding scenes of a marriage, courtesy of a fresh tell-all that the Lady has written — that’s Barbara Joan Estelle Amiel, Baroness Black of Crossharbour, to you — mere months from her 80th birthday in December. Barbara, ever the catastrophist and pupil of Hobbes; Conrad, despite some of the ricketiness of recent years — that extraordinary court trial! that stint in jail! — still, somehow, a man of Lucy Maud Montgomery-like pluck.
The memoir, a doorstopper titled Friends and Enemies — heavy on the latter — covers it all, bringing to boil the life of a woman who has fascinated since she was on the cover of Toronto Life some 54 years ago. (The first-ever issue of the mag, did y’ know?)
Thinker. Columnist. International beauty. Scourge of the left. Hell-hath-no-fire protector-wife. The early years, in Canada, back when she was a Snow White gone wild — all alabaster skin, raven locks, intellectual firepower and sexual élan — and when she nabbed the role of editor of the Toronto Sun (the first woman to run a paper in Canada). The even earlier years, back to that hard scrabble childhood — born in London, England, and immigrating to Hamilton, with the mother who had all the bedside manner of Betty Draper. The fizzy middle years — with husband No. 4 by her side (having already shed lawyer Gary Smith, writer George Jonas and TV magnate David Graham) — during which time they hopped across scenes everywhere from New York to London to Palm Beach, hosting dinners in their home for Diana, Princess of Wales, one moment, tête-a-têting with Anna Wintour the next, nights on the town with Gianni Agnelli.
Asked to reflect on the gushing waterfall of nostalgia — something that any person writing a memoir of their life must consider — Amiel conceded to me on the eve of publication: “Nostalgia, something I expect all humans feel — I often wonder if animals do when they sense the loss of a member of their group — is not an especially dominant note in my mind. In general, I prefer to look forward rather than back although, of course, in a memoir by necessity you must recount earlier days. Most of us facing the end of our livest end to remember childhood a little wistfully because there’s no ‘going home’ anymore … !”
“I would have liked to be a good Trophy Wife although I don’t think Conrad would have given a fig. I simply didn’t have the necessary qualities.”
When I suggested to her she is a Failed Trophy Wife of sorts — a theme that comes up repeatedly in her memoir, as Amiel tries in vain to become a prima plus-one and hostess of note as the wife of a press baron in various world capitals — she was a good sport. “Actually,” she confirmed, “I would have liked to be a good Trophy Wife although I don’t think Conrad would have given a fig. I simply didn’t have the necessary qualities. I wasn’t young enough (best to be in that wonderful demographic late 20s to very early 40s). I never had quite enough time because I’ve been working on deadlines all through our marriage, which meant sometimes the seams of my stockings weren’t straight or my hair not done.”
“Key for a trophy wife, too,” she went on, “is a genuine enjoyment and skill in being a hostess or guest at social occasions, which I really couldn’t do, though heaven knows I really tried. But as my friends from early days will tell you, that was always a problem for me, so nothing new in my marriage, only the problem was writ larger. I think the fact that I was a successful columnist did provide a bit of an excuse to patch over my shortcomings.”
As far as other failings go, there was certainly no bigger than the Vogue profile she granted, in 2002 — the one that sprouted the single line that’s become synonymous with our Barbara, and later became a sandbag on her husband as allegations of financial malfeasance befell him thereafter. Back when she now-famously told the mag that her “extravagance that knows no bounds” — basically Amiel’s “Let them eat cake.” (The quote had the snake-bitten luck of going even more viral once photos emerged of her and Conrad dressed up as Marie Antoinette and Cardinal Richelieu for a fancy-dress party held at Kensington Palace in 2000.)
Giving a full tick-tock in her memoir of that momentous interview and shoot — Mario Testino took the pics, and her friend André Leon Talley styled the spread — she writes: “How many times have I regretted that line? … the words sounded melodic to me, and they were going to be the noose around my neck.”
About that moment in history, Amiel further ventures in the book, “social media and celebrity wardrobes had not yet taken hold … In terms of shallow display, I was ahead of my time and behind in the number of handbags.” Cue the passage that again reminds us of the cost of keeping up with the Joneses, the higher you climb: Those days in London, when their world becomes one of butlers, chefs, chauffeurs, footmen and guards (and where, when her wedding eventually does happen with Black, both Margaret Thatcher and Sarah Ferguson are on hand for the reception held at Annabel’s).
Asked in what ways Conrad has changed her and she him over 25-plus years of marriage, she told me: “I think Conrad is more ‘trusting’ in the sense he believes people have the same standards of loyalty and decency he has and quite often they don’t. I don’t expect much, so I’m rarely disappointed. We can’t really change one another. These sorts of attitudes are built into our life experiences and genes — and remember we didn’t get married until I was 51 and he was in his late 40s. We just laugh at one another’s views. He thinks I’m a terrible pessimist, and I think he’s a mad optimist. The truth is probably somewhere in between.”
A bittersweet stoicism certainly pervades at the close of the book, with Amiel writing, “I had stardust … but not enough.” That, combined with the reams and reams of pages in that final part dedicated to the two loyal Hungarian Kuvasz that had come into her life and toward which she radiates a Leona Helmsley-like devotion. (Sadly, one of her dogs died in June, she tells me.) It is a melancholia only tempered by the spiky list of gripes that keeps the pages of her memoir animated, as the author names names of all those whom she believes slighted her and her husband during their troubles — and after. To that end, I had to finally ask: “To get all Proust Questionnaire on you, which living person do you most despise?” to which Amiel had a more than ready response: “After what happened to my husband, I can’t single out the living person I most despise — the list is too long, and a fair number of people are tied for pole position.”
Translation: her enmity, much like her extravagance, knows no bounds.
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