Telling man from myth
He’s larger than life, more fictional than human. But what’s behind the legend?
The cracks in the self-mythology of Conrad Black were visible if fleeting last week. First, on Tuesday, his sockless arrival at the Chicago courthouse—not cause for the absurd dissection it received, true, but still a careless sartorial choice for a man who appears to have been born in a pinstriped suit. On his exit, there was the defiant middle-finger thrust, the mute rebuke of the powerless when cornered. Then, after the verdict, his ashen, uncharacteristically silent departure from the courtroom.
All signalled a departure from Black’s bombastic confidence of the preceding weeks and months. It was a glimpse into his seldom-seen human aspect, a side rarely on display. The Conrad Black we know is a grandiose, mythic figure, his trial imbued with epic meaning: this isn’t yet another guy found guilty of stealing from his company but rather a modern morality tale; his plight is viewed as either karmic comeuppance or colossal injustice. To his critics, Black is the embodiment of capitalist evil. To his remaining supporters, he’s the victim of a bogus American show trial. Either way, he’s pure symbol, denuded of humanity.
Black has long been framed as a largerthan-life character. In his memoir Best Seat in the House, former Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford writes of meeting Black in 1987 after the businessman bought the magazine: “His personality had a staged, directed feel to it. It was also oddly familiar. Where had I seen it before, a large, handsome man with a supercilious and condescending manner and a baroque vocabulary? Of course: Orson Wells in Citizen Kane.” When Black owned the Daily Telegraph, employees would debate which literary character he more resembled: was he Augustus Melmotte from Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, a bloated
swindler and social climber who, before his downfall, was “magnificent in his expenditure, powerful in his doings, successful in his businesses”? Or Lord Copper, the tyrannical press baron in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, who believed the world was flat, prompting his minions to respond, “Up to a point, Lord Copper”? Even Black’s friend George Jonas described Black in the National Post last week as “projecting a persona out of Ayn Rand.” Black’s propensity for droll, Oscar-Wildelike epigrams furthered his identification as a literary figure, and imbued his utterances with the illusion of moral rigour. “Greed has been severely underestimated and denigrated—unfairly so, in my opinion,” he once told Peter C. Newman. “Humility is a good quality, but it can be overdone,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
“Conrad is very quotable because I think he’s living in a book,” his first wife, Joanna, told author Richard Siklos in Shades of Black. “Conrad had written his life and he had it all planned out.” In his 1993 autobiography, A Life in Progress, Black writes of rebelling against the beige, under-the-radar Canadian establishment to which he was born: “All my life I had sought a more distinguished, varied and eventful life than the milieu in which I had been brought up.” Characters in Black’s story were renamed to fit the narrative. Joanna, born Shirley, was rechristened with the more upmarket moniker at her husband’s behest after the couple moved to London in
AT HOME HE WAS NOT PRONE TO POLYSYLLABICS. ‘TO ME HE’D SAY “LET’S GET A PIZZA,” ’ HIS FIRST WIFE RECALLS. HE’S A VULNERABLE, VERY SHY PERSON.
the 1980s. His own identity was recalibrated mid-story when he married Barbara Amiel, herself the product of many reinventions, both ideological and physical. He changed nationalities, renouncing his Canadian citizenship to become a British lord. Lord and Lady Black of Crossharbour delighted in their provocative public profile, dressing as Cardinal Richelieu and Marie Antoinette for a costume party and posing for Vanity Fair in 2005 at their Palm Beach estate, with Amiel posed coquettishly at her husband’s feet.
Even the most generous retelling of his story by others infuriates Black. After reading The Establishment Man, Peter C. Newman’s largely flattering 1982 biography of him—Black was described as “a Roman candle among the wet firecrackers littering Canada’s business landscape”—Black fired off an angry letter to Newman. “What is particularly irritating,” he wrote, “is that it is not open season on me, but upon a largely fictitious image that you created for me of a chillingly ruthless and rather conceited person, obsessed with materialism, pontificating endlessly, and viewing the world through the prism of a reactionary proprietor.” Only Black could write such a concise précis of his public persona.
He was chagrined when his friend Lord William Rees-Mogg wrote an impassioned defence of him in the Times of London after criminal charges were laid. Rees-Mogg compared him with Gatsby. “They have the same energy, the same liking for hospitality, the same big romantic illusions, the same virtues and some of the same flaws.” In a letter, Black responded: “Gatsby was an amiable charlatan who ended up being murdered in his own swimming pool. Lord Rees-Mogg seems to imagine that . . . my world has somewhat imploded, like Gatsby’s. I don’t think so.”
His fondness for issuing libel writs has
proved effective in inhibiting critics. A cowed media was reduced to recycling prêviously published lore such as the apocryphal tale that Black washed dollar bills as a child. No one called him on his early bluster regarding Massey Ferguson when he was chairman and the company was going down the tubes. “We took the roller-coaster ride all the way down with Massey and we plan to ride it all the way back up,” he said in 198O. Within six months he’d given up his stake. Indeed, Black’s criticism of journalists as “ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequately supervised” was never more true than in the hands-off and deferential treatment once accorded him.
And until relatively recently, Black’s career
choices abetted the telling of his version. As a press baron overseeing what was once the world’s third-largest newspaper company, Black was like his hero William Randolph Hearst—less interested in reporting news than in shaping it. As a gentleman scholar, he churned out corrective biographies of men he believed to be misunderstood by their times. In Duplessis, published in 1977, Black argued that much of what former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis’,critics “decried as dictatorship and corruption was really a puckish love of farce.” His acclaimed 2003 biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt recast the former U.S. president as capitalist hero whose New Deal saved the economy in the 1930s during its worst crisis. His recent Nixon biography, The Invincible Quest, written after criminal charges were laid against him, is a bold, rehabilitative portrayal of the disgraced president as brilliant, brave, and mistreated. One need not be a Freudian to see Black holding the mirror to Nixon and seeing himself.
Black retold his own past in heroic terms, taking history’s lesson that heroes are allowed to break the rules enforced by the mediocre. The stealing and selling of exams that led to his expulsion from Upper Canada College he described as “a systematic campaign of harassment and clerical sabotage of the regime.” In a speech he gave to the Fraser Institute days after his induction into the House of Lords, he said his renunciation of his Canadian citizenship was not a trade-off for a peerage but “my gesture against the condition Irving Layton described 35 years ago as the Canadian political and intellectual communities’ tendency to regard ‘cowardice as wisdom, philistinism as Olympian serenity and the spitefulness of the weak as moral indignation.’ Surely we, or as I must now say, with some regret, you, can do better than this.”
Black presents as an anachronism, a man out of step with his time who feels greater comfort with 19th-century rules of governance and discourse. While other teenage boys in the 1950s were furtively ogling Playboy, Black combed Who’s Who. His adolescent rebellion consisted not of blaring Elvis at high volume but a recording of FDR speaking at Madison Square Gardens. In Duplessis, Black writes admiringly of gentlemanly conduct: “a gentleman could allow himself almost no informality, that all manner of bygone proprieties had to be maintained.”
Such bygone proprieties are sorely out of sync with a confessional age in which feeling trumps thought and public and private are fused. If Black has dark nights of the soul, they are not publicized (though the presence of a chapel on his Toronto estate suggests Black, a convert to Catholicism, has a preoccupation
IF BLACK HAS DARK NIGHTS OF THE SOUL THEY’RE NOT PUBLICIZED. BUT HE DOES HAVE A CHAPEL ON HIS TORONTO ESTATE, SUGGESTING HIS BELIEF IN A SOUL.
with the health of his). His autobiography glosses over his reaction to the death of his depressive alcoholic father, believed to be a suicide. It reveals a man who took time to find his way in the world and experienced discomfort when he did. He writes of experiencing terrifying anxiety attacks for years beginning in the 1970s, but is indeterminate about their cause and can’t resist referring to his first one as “reminiscent of descriptions of historic death throes like those of Henry VIII or Alexander VI (Borgia).”
His first wife says she fell in love with the person behind the bluster: “underneath that arrogance was a wonderful, vulnerable, very shy man,” she says in Shades of Black. At home he was not prone to polysyllabic proclamations. “To me he’d say ‘Let’s get a pizza,’ ” she recalls. His first marriage has no hint of social engineering to it; he married Shirley Walters, his former secretary, after getting her pregnant with the first of their three children. (Though Black has called it a love match, his canny side was never totally absent; he didn’t put his name on the birth certificate initially, concerned it would affect his business dealings.) In his autobiography, Black describes the period after his wife walked out on him, fed up with the London social swim, as “leaden with fear, self-reproach, heartaches and loneliness.” Of Amiel, a long-standing friend to whom he proposed after two dinners and one lunch in a 10-week span, Black is in thrall. At the now-infamous birthday dinner for her at La Grenouille, he bragged
of his “Little Woman,” waxing lyrical about her ability to confound the aging process— and her stunning figure: “I’ve seen her naked and it’s all natural—she looks better with her clothes off than on.” He was more discreet at the Maclea?Ls Christmas party last year, serving himself at the buffet, chatting amiably with anyone who approached, and dutifully holding his wife’s handbag when she hit the dance floor.
It’s telling that Black summons the greatest disdain from strangers. Among friends and staff he inspires loyalty—David Radler the notable exception. Despite his corrosive remarks about journalists, he is fondly regarded by many to whom he offered opportunities. He can be gracious—when the stakes are small. In January he issued an unsolicited apology for his review of Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon in China in the Literary Review of Canada, expressing regret for his “inadvertent condescension” and “the slightly patronizing tone of several sentences.” One person close to his legal defence team in Chicago speaks of him with great affection, recounting his ceaseless optimism and pep talks when morale was flagging.
His inability to broker criticism is viewed as proof of
Black’s bully ways but, more, it reveals his vulnerability to what others think of him. After the historian Ramsay Cook wrote a critical review of Duplessis, Black went on the rampage, saying Cook was a “slanted, supercilious little twit” who possessed “the professional ethics of a cockroach,” a rebuke later echoed in his scornful put-downs of the “Nazis” and “pygmies” who prosecuted him in the American courts.
As a biographer, Black is sensitive to human frailty. He recognized Nixon “was often his own enemy, because of his complex personality.” Of his hero Napoleon he said: “I always felt it was the compulsive element in Napoleon that drew him into greater and greater undertakings until he was bound to fail.” Yet he appears oblivious to his own shortcomings. The public posture he adopts—never retreat, never surrender, and above all, never apologize—may have won other men wars but it has created his losing battle with the U.S. justice system. His refusal to show any contrition or remorse stands to affect his sentencing.
Even now, Black continues to cast himself the embattled hero in a three-act opera. As he told the Guardian during his trial: “Stage one were the ululations of joy at the so-called downfall. Stage two is the big battle. The press like a big battle... so they had to resuscitate me to some degree, because you can’t have a big battle with a corpse. And then stage three is where I win.” He refuses to concede defeat, telling reporters he is an innocent man about to embark on “the next phase of his long war.” Black has always thrived in combat; one wonders how he will fare when the battle ends.
Incarceration has no place in the plot, though Black clearly has considered it. When a Guardian reporter pressed Black on whether he could be resilient in prison, he answered, “I don’t expect to get there. But yes, I would be. You know, Nixon said some of the best writing’s been done in prison: just think of Lenin and Gandhi. Two writers with whom he was not in great sympathy!” Still, he sees himself as he presents Nixon—emerging unscathed, even victorious, contrary to prevailing evidence: “He fought successfully all his long life, and when he died he was acknowledged to be a unique, and in his way, a great American. His enemies fell away, and he slipped the surly bonds of mortal conduct and became the embodiment, the allegoration, of generally well-intentioned determination, not less than human in his failings but almost superhuman in his strengths. And he had begun to gnaw at the conscience of a nation.” It would be easy to say that Black the myth has finally consumed Black the man. But human narratives are never so neat. M