Since it was The Establishment Man, my 1982 biography of Canada’s quintessential Darwinian capitalist that first documented the deals that spawned his fortune, I’ve always laid claim to having invented Conrad Black—though it’s never been clear to me whether that should be a cause for blame or credit.
I’m even less sure after reading his autobiography, A Life in Progress (Key Porter Books, $32.95). It is a Taj Mahal to his ego, falling somewhere between Robin Leach and Machiavelli. Black recounts in chilling and sometimes devastating detail his life and times, never using a simple word when obfuscation will serve. Current wife Barbara Amiel, for example, is described as being “preternaturally” sexy, which according to The Gage Dictionary means “something above and beyond nature,” while former Ontario premier Bill Davis is chided for his “psephological” objections, which means having to do with elections.
There’s a self-revealing snippet on page 460, when Black refers to “the life I had earned as a London newspaper owner.” It’s entirely in character for Black to see himself as being entitled to privilege by dint of his own efforts, and certainly his corporate achievements have been impressive. His newspapers now boast a daily circulation of 4.5 million, a total surpassed only by Rupert Murdoch and the U.S. Gannett chain. The Greek philosopher Pittacus of Mytilene wrote more than a couple of centuries ago that “the measure of a man is what he does with power.” In that context, Black is at least honest: he enjoys the power he wields and if his quest has ranked him among the richest entrepreneurs of his generation, it’s because he outsmarted his competitors, never failing to decapitate them with the appropriate bon mot.
While he professes to still love Canada, Black complains that “virtually everyone except Anglo-Saxon, able-bodied, middle-aged, heterosexual, male, middle-class Ontarians is
This big mother of a book is a Taj Mahal to his ego, falling between Machiavelli and Robin Leach, revealing a life in progress
now the officially recognized bearer of a subventionable grievance.” All quibbles aside, this is a lively and rare chronicle of power seized and exercised. Black’s wit and irony illuminate every page as he both demystifies and mythologizes the power groupies who feel they have a mandate from heaven.
These are some of the other worthwhile business books of the season:
K. C.: The Biography of K. C. Irving
(Key Porter Books Ltd., $29.95). This commissioned biography by New Brunswick journalists Douglas How and Ralph Costello strikes a fair balance between praising its controversial subject, yet documenting some of the traits of that tin-pot corporate dictator. Kenneth Colin Irving built one of Canada’s largest business empires—he virtually turned New Brunswick into his fiefdom— without ever being aware that the age of feudalism was over. In his final days, when he had escaped to his Bermuda tax haven, K. C.’s heart was still in Saint John and he returned home as often as his exile status allowed. On one such visit, when he was asked by his own son (they really are a secretive bunch) whether the $8-billion estimate of the
family fortune published in Forbes magazine was correct, K. C. replied: “Is that all?”
Fireworks: The Investment of a lifetime (Key Porter Books Ltd, $29.95)— Andy Sarlos is the maker of the fireworks in question and in these high-spirited memoirs (to which I penned the introduction) he confesses the triumphs and mishaps of his controversial run on Bay Street. This book deserves to be read because hardly any investor (or speculator, as Sarlos prefers to call himself) has written such an intimate journal of life in Canada’s fastest lane. According to Sarlos’s investment philosophy, the stock market works more like a barometer than a thermometer, mirroring changes in sentiment before they become universally recognized, rather than merely reflecting the moods and quirks of the moment. He used his balls as much as his brains to make several fortunes and in this lively chronicle Sarlos explains why and how he did it.
Fade to Black: A Requiem for the CBC
(Douglas & McIntyre, $28.95)—At a time when the federal treasury is starved for funds, Canada’s public broadcaster has been a victim of financial cutbacks so often that it has lost its impact. Wayne Skene, a former director of Vancouver’s CBC TV station, documents what he describes as the institution’s death throes. His analysis is emotional but right on target. Under the faltering leadership of Gérard Veilleux and Patrick Watson, Mother Corp. has lost any sense of audience, selling out to the commercial marketplace and cutting off the regional programming that was once its lifeblood. The network’s decision to kill The Journal, its only compelling national public affairs show, for the inane and shoddily produced Prime Time News is the best example of CBC’s inability or refusal to respect its viewers. “The corporation’s first priority,” Skene rightly insists, “is to make programs Canadians won’t get elsewhere, and to enhance our cultural identity.” Amen.
The Glitter Girls: Chronicles of an Era
of Excess (Macmillan Canada, $27.95)— There’s something vaguely anachronistic about Rosemary Sexton’s surprisingly toughminded compendium of how Toronto’s glitterati get their jollies. The charity balls that spawned a generation of women who dedicated their energies and their husbands’ bank accounts to climbing social ladders seem, in retrospect, to have been symptoms of an age of plenty that never really was. The Glitter Girls’ vanities were consumed by the bonfire of the 1990s recession, so that this book by Sexton, a former Globe and Mail society columnist, reads more like the report of an archeological dig for a lost tribe than the lively recounting of a fun time. She’s done her research and caught the mood of the last waltz, but her tendency to trap all her social butterflies in the same net occasionally trips her up. Sexton’s chapter on the shrewdly observant Liz Tory, for example, doesn’t credit its subject with having a brain—as well as “a razor-sharp tongue.”
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