This extraordinary memoir sees Barbara Amiel, wife of Conrad Black, laying into everyone from brain-dead trophy wives to herself
Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. Barbara Amiel, who never had much of a mother so never learned to cook, serves hers over 600 pages boiling with rage at the people she believes betrayed her husband, Conrad Black.
The former media tycoon and Telegraph proprietor was jailed for misusing company funds to support a Doge’s lifestyle and a wife with a codeine-and-couture habit, who once foolishly told Vogue, “I have an extravagance that knows no bounds!” It is greatly to the credit of the author that some of the most lethal barbs in this fabulously furious, frequently jaw-dropping book are aimed at herself. Say what you like about Amiel, there aren’t many autobiographers who are prepared to include a scene in which they bump into an African-American and his equally gorgeous dog, and return to his flat where “he unpredictably sprayed my nude self with a can of whipped cream. The dog very carefully started licking it off me while his owner retreated to the sofa to watch.”
There was a good deal of gossipy gloating back in 2007 when Lord and Lady Black came a cropper. Overnight, they lost hundreds of millions. Conrad had been born into wealth in Canada so there was a wary respect for him, in case the titan resurrected himself. The most savagely gleeful demolitions were reserved for Barbara, the north London Jewish girl, who had lived by her pen – the first female editor of a Canadian newspaper, she later became a star columnist in Britain – and by her Siamese-cat beauty.
Amiel’s transition from flat-renting hack into all-powerful society hostess was not a source of unalloyed joy to those stuck in the former category. When the fall came, the stilettos (Manolos, darling!) were out for her. To her critics, Amiel was Madame Bovary, a provincial woman ruined by dreams above her station; she was that childless raptor of ambition, Lady Macbeth; she was Vanity Fair’s amoral ascentress Becky Sharp. “Was I really as horrible as everyone was saying?” Amiel wondered. “I have become a misshapen piece of work that is either the object of derision or of indifference.” Friends and Enemies, she claims, is an attempt “to set the record straight”.
Well, up to a point. I’m not sure someone as sinuous as our author – she once slithered through a dining hatch at Lord Weidenfeld’s house – could ever do anything straight, even if the truth were still discernible in the cobras’ nest of claim and counter-claim. What she can do superlatively well is take the lid off high society.
After marrying her fourth husband, Barbara was welcomed (in an icy, Park Avenue way) to a New York set she calls The Group, a coven of phenomenally rich girlfriends, like Nancy Kissinger and Mercedes Bass, who amused themselves ordering “patio jewellery”. These are the super-thin “social X-rays” satirised by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities, but Amiel’s first-hand account is the more dazzling.
There is an omerta amongst the super-rich to protect them from the hatred of ordinary people (which, historically, ends at the guillotine). After The Group turned their backs (often literally) on her beloved husband, Amiel no longer gave a damn. Instead of being a socially insecure trophy wife, she was, once again, the eagle-eyed reporter from Hendon. Mercedes Bass, who shamed Amiel, she claims, for wearing white high heels (“white is for salesgirls”) is “tediously opinionated and spiteful to boot. I couldn’t really believe that she had an internal organ or that she actually digested food and excreted it like the rest of us being so constipated in her manners and being determined never to return to her former heavier self.” Miaowtastic!
She was born Barbara Joan Estelle Amiel on December 4 1940, and her apprenticeship as an enchantress of men started young. When her parents separated, Barbara was instructed to please her film-star handsome father on custody visits “with my school marks, my appearance, so that he would send us more money”. All the women in the family worked; they had no choice, “which is why later on I found the incessant whining of North American women about glass ceilings so tedious”. Barbara’s mother decided to emigrate to Canada with her new husband and two daughters. Aged 11, waving goodbye atop a London bus, “Babar” had no idea it was the last time she would see her darling Daddy.
In the unlovely industrial town of Hamilton, Ontario, it wasn’t too long before Barbara was kicked out of the house to spare her neurotic mother angst. She lived alone in rented rooms, babysitting and collecting pop bottles to save money for a return fare to England. “I daydreamed in a perfect technicolour fantasy starring myself as a sapphire and emerald-green wonder of imponderable beauty. My father was demanding this magical child be returned.”
I don’t suppose the steely survivor Amiel has time for psychoanalysis – she’s more of a Ferragamo than a Freud girl – but it’s hard not to detect the source of later patterns in this painful early history. Her father shot himself at 39 after embezzling funds from his law firm. Her mother rang to break the news. “He killed himself, he went mad. I expect you’ll go mad too.” Barbara was 15. She took herself to a river and wondered about jumping in (there is a similar scene 50 years later when, at the nadir of the Blacks’ fortunes, she lay in the snow for hours). The next day, she wrote a note for her teacher: “Dear Mr Lewis, Barbara was away from school on Tuesday because her father died. Signed Barbara Amiel”.
Would the two Barbaras – the child who suffered the unbearable loss of the person she loved best and the old-before-her-time waif who wrote the note – forever be dissociated? Amiel admits as much. “My way of dealing with difficult moments was automatically to observe rather than feel.” That chip of ice in the heart became her strength, and her weakness. She always travelled light in her operatic, fractured life, but she never forgot to take the photograph of the beautiful man whose smile and eyes were his daughter’s best inheritance.
It is not easy to feel sorry for a woman who once admitted to having 39 bathrooms. Fortunately, Amiel doesn’t want our pity. What this book demands instead is a fair hearing for the man with whom she has been to Hades and back. Under the tormenting layers of subpoenas and repossessions lies a wonderful love story. “I am going to try to enjoy the remaining time left to me,” says Amiel, who will be 80 in December, “And bugger off to the whole damn lot of you! We’re still here.” So they are. The book ends with The Lists, naming all her “Friends” and “Enemies”. It wasn’t necessary. This raging, splendid, defiant, crazy tigress of a book said it all.
Friends and Enemies is published by Constable at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop
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Barbara Amiel, Conrad Black
World news – CA – The savage columnist who tore the mask off the super-rich American elite