Cover

Barbara’s World

Amiel made a career out of being outrageous—in print and in her private life

Peter C. Newman November 8 2004
Cover

Barbara’s World

Amiel made a career out of being outrageous—in print and in her private life

Peter C. Newman November 8 2004

Cover

PETER C. NEWMAN

Barbara’s World

Amiel made a career out of being outrageous—in print and in her private life

Peter C. Newman, Canada’s pre-eminent chronicler of Canada’s elite, reveals even more secrets in his autobiography, Here Be Dragons (Douglas Gibson Books, $42.99), to be published on Nov. 13. In the first of two adaptations from the 714-page book, Newman profiles Barbara Amiel, whom he hired when he was Maclean’s editor three decades ago, long before she married Conrad Black. Next week, Newman analyzes the rise and stunning fall of the former newspaper tycoon.

HAVING OWNED UP IN THE PAST TO INVENTING CONRAD Black, I might as well confess that I was also midwife to the journalism career of his future wife, Barbara Amiel. In 1975, during my stint as editor of Maclean’s, recognizing her talent, I rescued her from freelance hell and employed her as a feature writer and columnist for seven years. That was her first full-time writing job, and it provided a national launching pad for her fierce right-wing views, which I published because I believed, as she did, that freedom of expression means little unless eccentric views like hers can be aired and debated. It was due to my patronage that she moved from obscurity to prominence as the most articulate and opinionated Canadian polemicist of her generation.

While I abhorred her facile dismissal of the small-1 liberalism that was my own ideological bent, I admired the nerve of her contrarian views and her penchant for ad hominem attacks. Despite my itchy fingers, I never changed a word in any of her columns. She was a post-feminist polemicist for bizarre causes at a time when the word neo-con had yet to be coined, but I thought she would introduce some badly needed controversy into the magazine’s pages. Her first published Maclean’s article in 1966, “Let’s bring back debtors’ prisons,” set the tone.

I felt that a columnist unencumbered by conventional wisdom would provide the magazine with a counterweight to the prevailing orthodoxies of the day, and she did. Her essays found a ready if sometimes angry audience, and I never regretted the decision to hire her. In fact, I actively defended her whenever the forces of political correctness came calling, such as the time I protected her against militant groups of irate German Canadians who demanded a retraction of her use of the word “Hun” to describe the Teutonic belligerents in two world wars. Since we had both lost family members to the Holocaust, she had my public and private support. But when I suggested that she might have avoided trouble if she had referred to them as “Sauer Krauts,” she burst into tears. That was my first revelation about Ms. Amiel: she had not much of a sense of humour—and none about herself.

While I treasured her shock value, she left me with the impression that her opinions were I swallowed whole, undigested, I to be defended with unsheathed H claws instead of mental effort. I could never escape the feeling that, despite her claims to be a

Douglas Gibson Books; $42.99

champion of unfettered freedom, she stood mainly for the greater glory of Barbara Amiel. This was an impression I shared with nearly all those who watched her scratch-and-gouge climb up the journocelebrity ladder.

She was among the most difficult columnists Maclean’s ever had in its stable, which takes in a lot of territory. She was a misery for the editorial desk, a second-guesser of headline choices, a whining pest over each lost comma or adjective and a drama queen who made a point of milking every situation for its maximum emotional impact. She was the ultimate deadline rusher, literally staggering into the office, one hand at her afflicted head, the other tremblingly clutching her manuscript, arriving on the last minute of the last hour of her due date, dropping it on her editor’s desk in feigned relief.

What I didn’t count on was the extent to which Barbara would use her striking appearance to further her career. She was the sort of woman who kept spilling out of her dresses, then blamed the dresses. In her private life, she readily confessed that she had “run amok among many lives,” but desperately wanted to be taken seriously for her professional attitude. She was often the enemy of her promise. You don’t advertise your intellect by sashaying to work in thigh-high boots, a tight sweater tucked into tighter jeans held up by a heavy leather belt dripping with metal studs. She reportedly proclaimed that clothes were her “sexual armour,” which didn’t really justify her wardrobe, since it was a come-on instead of a deterrent.

“As a young editor there who she sort of liked but perceived as a lefty, I was hardly her intimate,” recalled my entertainment editor,

Anne Collins, who later became publisher of Random House of Canada. “Her marriage was breaking down and she was having a hard time writing. Whenever I asked her to back up her views, she’d accuse me of trying to censor her. She was either a nervous wreck in a sweatsuit with lank hair and a codeine painkiller habit, or an imperious beauty in a floor-length mink, streaming men behind her. I never knew which Amiel would show up in my office.” Fellow writers used to drop into my office to share her latest epigrams, like dispatches from the front. Somebody heard her confess brazenly that “sex is no good without pain.” Another report claimed that she poured eight spoons of sugar into her tea and announced, “If you want to get on, you must learn to frighten men,” which she did. In a profile of Amiel, senior writer Judith Timson described a memorable day in 1979 when Amiel sent the magazine’s writers, celebrating a birthday, into a tizzy: “She had walked into the room, accepted apiece of birthday cake and then promptly, before she could eat it, began retching, vomiting blood and bile into the

nearest wastebasket. Typical of the Amiel curse, at least one staffer thought she had staged it.”

Timson also recalled the time Barbara was walking along Toronto’s Bloor Street with a friend when a man passed by, smilingly acknowledging Barbara. “Who was that?” the friend asked.

“I’m not sure,” she replied, “but I think it was my first husband.” (That would have been Gary Smith, whom she left after seven months. Thirty years later, he still carried her picture in his wallet.)

While she kept insisting that it was her mind and not her body that merited attention, she was widely suspected of having acted as Mother Nature’s little helper. I did my best to discourage the office cottage industry that specialized in monitoring her nose jobs (comparing minute replications of Beak One with Beak Two), but other parts of her anatomy were more prominently discussed. She airily dismissed any mention of implants with the quip, “If I used silicone, my breasts would be twice as big; I don’t do things by halves.” This testimony was calmly but authoritatively contradicted by one of her early suitors, who informed me, without being asked, that when he had gone out with her, “she had no British accent and no breasts.”

W* âS DU to my patronage that Barbara Amiel moved from obscurity to prominence as the most articulate and opinionated Canadian polemicist of her generation

After marrying David Graham in 1984, Amiel moved to London where the charming and handsome son of the Ottawa Valley, Harvard graduate and wealthy owner of a Canadian cable system maintained a home. But the marriage didn’t survive. The saddest scene of their breakup occurred when Barbara was living alone in a Chelsea townhouse and returned home from bicycling to find one of her ground-floor windows had been broken. Inside was a distraught Graham, his

hands bleeding from the broken glass, jealously reading her diary to see who she was dating. Her new consort turned out to be Lord Weidenfeld, a talented, portly septuagenarian who is one of Britain’s leading publishers. When Weidenfeld, not a notably attractive man, was asked what had earned him the solace of so many beautiful younger women, he unabashedly replied, “I am the Nijinsky of cunnilingus.”

Then came Barbara’s astonishingly rapid personal and professional climb. She wrote a column in the Sunday Times that became a must read. At the same time, her outrageous behaviour fed the tabloids, rewarding her with instant notoriety. When Algy Cluff, chairman of The Spectator, invited her on a dinner date, she accepted, but warned him: “There’s one thing I have to tell you: I won’t be wearing any knickers.” On another occasion, asked about the attractive belt she was wearing, Barbara took it off, waved it and tauntingly announced: “Usually, I wear only this.”

She was Josephine to Conrad Black’s Napoleon, a middle-class

ethnic girl with matchless ambitions but limited hopes of entering high society, until she captivated a powerful man who would make her his empress, from which heights she could dictate fashions, organize literary salons and influence tastes and ideas. Conversely, he was the tactical genius who became a bumbling nerd when confronted by an alluring woman. Nearly four years older than Conrad, she looked 20 years his junior.

When Conrad began to woo her, Barbara was in her most kittenish, coquettish phase, living in a two-storey flat with its reception hall casually strewn with letters praising her accomplishments and an upstairs boudoir that featured a four-poster bed with a mirrored ceiling, while her negligees hung on a rail that circled the room.

Into this den stumbled Conrad, who had once confided to me that he found seduction “a Sisyphean task.”

FOR SO people,’ she wrote, emphatically including herself, ‘jewellery is a defining attribute, rather like your intelligence or the number of residences you have’

“I had known Barbara for a long time but had never made any sort of overture,” Black told me. “One fine day she invited me to the opera. I arrived early and ‘set out my stall,’ that’s a British expression for making professions of amorous intent. She was completely flabbergasted and suggested that I see a psychiatrist.

Not that she thought I was crazy but to make sure that what I was saying was indeed what I meant.” Being Conrad, a man of the world but not of the boudoir, he followed her advice, and went to call on a well-known analyst on Harley Street for a 45-minute session.

Why did Conrad marry Barbara? For several reasons, according to his most intimate confidants: for one, she was his intellectual soulmate; for another, she introduced him to the delights of oral sex. To watch them together at the height of their renown was to witness a mesmerizing ballet of sensuality and power. She moved inside Conrad’s field of force, trembling like a magnetic compass needle, her high spirits in harmony with his. She had his number; with her, he was reborn.

Years later, in a private conversation, Black confessed to me that his only serious ideological disagreements with Amiel were “over such issues as drug enforcement. She felt all drugs should be legalized and opposed gun control while I didn’t. She felt that speed limits were ridiculous. While I found them inconvenient, they didn’t bother me too much.”

Their 1992 wedding party was attended by the Duchess of York, Baroness Thatcher, Lord Rothschild, David Frost and all the usual suspects. At the time Amiel married Black, I was happy for them. It seemed a perfect match. Instead, their marriage detonated a frantic quest to amass luxury goods that extended beyond reason, even beyond compulsion. Their nouveau riche flamboyance, which was worthy of neither of them, reached an unimaginable scale, including

the acquisition of a quartet of permanently staffed luxury homes worth about $100 million. There was nothing they were prepared to deny themselves to prove that they had arrived. Barbara’s pathological spending habits were not learned or inherited, but instinctive: a defence mechanism against an inbred insecurity so profound that it took over her life. When she told Vogue that “I have an extravagance that knows no bounds,” it was not a boast but a fact.

Everywhere Conrad and Barbara travelled, a butler and maid preceded them to assure their comfort. His salary was $130,000 plus board, and on top of that there were under-butlers, chefs, chauffeurs, housemen, footmen and guards at each of their residences. With his first wife, Conrad had lived in a relatively modest house

in outlying Highgate, but when Barbara swept into his life, the newlyweds moved into London’s most prestigious area, purchasing a mansion near Kensington Palace, the royal residence of British sovereigns until 1760 and the home of Diana, Princess of Wales. Gold and real estate magnate Peter Munk, who had once considered moving into what became Black’s house, had inspected the premises and derisively dismissed the idea of ever living in what he called “the biggest house in London.” But the Blacks bought the elegant, seven-bedroom mansion, now valued at $40 million. It featured an indoor pool and an elevator.

Twice a year, the Blacks entertained at legendary parties. Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks come to life, the guests were not the “A” list, tending to include slightly shopworn characters such as Roger Moore and Joan Collins. But the scattering of peers and their aristocratic-looking wives made up for it. When I attended Black’s receptions and parties, I sensed an unpleasant element of courtiers being summoned to account. Speech patterns altered nearly imperceptibly as Conrad drifted into the room, checking out the lay of the land over the shoulders of the people whose hands he was shaking, to spot the most prized celebs. The couple’s most famous appearance was on July 1,2000, when they attended a costume ball at the home of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, with Conrad done up as Cardinal Richelieu while Barbara stayed in character, costumed as Marie Antoinette.

Just as Conrad’s troubles began to mount, Barbara wrote an article in FQ magazine, in which she described how her personal priorities had escalated into never-never land, ignoring her husband’s troubles. “For some people,” she wrote, emphatically including herself, “jewellery is a defining attribute, rather like your intelligence or the number of residences you have.” She boasted about owning “a fantastic natural-pearl and diamond brooch,” which languished in her safety deposit box because it was simply too big to wear. The contents of her London closets became common

gossip, including more than a dozen Hermès Birkin bags and 30 to 40 jewel-handled Renaud Pellegrino handbags. But it was her collection of Manolo Blahnik shoes that attracted the most attention. These are not boots made for walkin’. Their Spanish designer, who calls himself “a sculptor and engineer,” carves each last by hand out of beechwood, “giving special thought to toe cleavage.” They start at about $600 a pair, and Barbara had well over 100 in her London house alone, some with kitten heels. (“Buckingham Palace floors don’t like stilettos,” she explained to the uninitiated among us.) The arrangement they had was that Barbara paid for her off-the-rack purchases while the hubby sprung for her couture.

According to Richard Breeden’s special investigative report, Barbara was paid US$1,141,558 between 1999 and 2003, for which there was “no meaningful work in return.” That included her retainer for editorial advice to the Chicago Sun-Times where, employees claimed, she had not set foot for more than four years. On top of that, she received more than US$1 million through a company named Black-Amiel Management. Black has launched a libel suit as a result of the Breeden report, and Amiel has denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, on April 12,2004, Amiel cashed in options to buy Hollinger stock for nearly US$3.1 million, some US$2.25 million below market value. That meant she was profiting

from her husband’s downfall, since that’s what was driving the stock price higher.

investigation found that she was paid US$1 million for which there was ‘no meaningful work in return’

Once, when the Blacks decided they needed an extra female guest to fill the dinner table at one of their parties, Eleanor Mills, a 26-year-old features editor of the Daily Telegraph, was invited to attend. She rushed home to dress and primp, arrived excited to have been asked, and was enjoying herself when it turned out that the expected male guest had not appeared. Conrad went over to Mills and told her, “Finish your drink and skedaddle.” In front of the assembled guests she was escorted through the kitchen door to the servants’ entrance and told to wait for a taxi. Instead, feeling humiliated and insulted, she made her own way home,

but not before standing outside the Blacks’ mansion, shaking her fist and giving voice to her outrage: “One day you’ll be fucked, and it’s going to make me very happy!” This tale of rudeness without provocation struck me as the low point in the Blacks’ social climbing. Another time, when the golden couple was visiting fellow peers in the British countryside, Conrad left £30 for the chambermaid. On the way home, when he discovered that Lady Black had already tipped the maid, he phoned their host and demanded the return of his gratuity.

In a Sunday Times column published after she married Conrad, Barbara had written: “My husband is very rich, but I am not. I don’t regard my husband’s money as my own. Having married very wealthy men before my current husband, I can guarantee that I parted from them leaving both their fortunes and my opinions intact. I have been a bitch all my life and did not need the authority of money to be one. My detractors were calling me a ‘fascist bitch’ long before I had a penny. I am a north London Jew who has read a bit of history. That means I know this: in a century that has seen the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, British and Soviet empires, reversal of fortune is this rich bitch’s reality. One might as well keep working and have the family’s Vuitton suitcases packed.” That was a good idea, because the orgy of her spending habits had attracted the attention of minority shareholders’ groups.

Their accountants costed out her closet and calculated that the wife of the chairman of a company that had shrunk to three major dailies from 500 papers and was losing serious money could not possibly afford her self-advertised lifestyle. It was her boasts about her wardrobe, which some SEC investigators assigned to the case had learned to recite by heart, that provided the catalyst for the allegations that followed. Not since the Edwardian Age had anyone so blatantly dropped their inhibitions about showing off their material possessions. It was almost as if they believed the “lower orders” would enjoy the spectacle, instead of being disgusted, while London society shuddered in embarrassment. lui