Friends & Enemies – A Life in Vogue, Prison & Park Avenue by Barbara Amiel

Pegasus Books 2020

ISBN10 1472134214

ISBN13 9781472134219

RRP – $65.99 (hb)

– $34.99 (pb)

by Anne Henderson

Like its author, Barbara Amiel’s recently published Friends & Enemies – A Life in Vogue, Prison & Park Avenue is gutsy, candid, cutting, acute in its observations and an absorbing read of close to 600 pages.

The book is the autobiography of a woman who made her way to the top from a poor start in life with a father who abandoned her mother after the war, then committed suicide, and a mother who suffered depression and took little responsibility for her two daughters. Having reached the heights, both in journalism and, after three previous husbands, as the wife of newspaper baron Conrad Black, Amiel faced a decade and more as the partner of a disgraced and eventually imprisoned high flyer, albeit one who would prove his innocence years after losing his empire.

The trajectory of Amiel’s life story is astonishing and, with her talent for journalese, is now writ large and in technocolour. Summing up her life at one point, Amiel writes, “My life has no style; it has always been a precarious mix of gutter and ballroom, of intense work and absolutely unhealthy play.”

From the outset, it is clear Barbara Amiel, Jewish in an Anglo world and making her own way through her formal education from age fifteen in a rented room supported by menial jobs, felt she was an outsider. That she continued to feel this throughout her life explains her admission in an interview that she wrote the book to discover herself.

There is considerable self reflection along the way in Friends & Enemies as Amiel uncovers her story. A natural beauty, her fetish for good looks saw her, over her life, undergo all manner of treatments, the worst possibly a nose job at age 27 which left her without a real nose until it was reconstructed. Given that Amiel is assertive about her Jewish inheritance, ironically it was her insecurity about the length of her nose that sent her to the cosmetic surgeon.

Assessing her success early on in journalism, Amiel muses that her conservative outlook in left leaning Toronto got her attention, especially if she spiced up her opening with a controversial attack. She was known for an anti-feminist approach to cultural matters and a supporter of Israel in foreign affairs. Theatre director Leon Major had his own tag for her:

[T]he full phrase he uttered when I entered a room at some event was “the fascist bitch in a Givenchy frock”. I very much regretted I didn’t have a Givenchy frock at the time. I would get them by the trunkfuls later.

In her forties, Amiel reflects that she had hardly a female friend but a perfect life. Her reputation as a high achiever managed to cover over the anxieties and miseries she suffered living both with and apart from her third husband, cable television entrepreneur David Graham, who gave her back in spades her view of sex as okay wherever and however you please. With untold lady companions, he certainly did that.

Explaining her view of carnal relations in her chapter “Sexually Incorrect”, Amiel writes that “sexual manners and mores are a foreign language for me”. Not surprisingly, and indeed sexist by today’s standards, she was classified accordingly, with the magazine Us in 1978 offering:

A statuesque, green-eyed brunette, Amiel is a legendary beauty in Toronto, though one observer sniped that her charm lies in “knowing how to throw her body around”.

This was an unfair put-down of a woman in a man’s world. It was not Amiel’s  body that saw her become editor of Toronto’s Sun – the first female newspaper editor in Canada. But Amiel’s looks would dog her talents and their appraisal throughout her career. Taking her forward in notoriety and dragging her back in crude assessments.

As much as it is self-revelation, Friends & Enemies is also payback. As the title suggests, its targets are among the very best of the rich and famous.

Early on there is Barbara Frum who replaced Amiel as on-camera story editor for CBC Public Affairs. Frum went on to become an icon of Canadian broadcasting. Amiel describes Frum as a natural on camera:

Viewers adored her. Her predictable soft-left views were perfectly in tune with the times. (The interview in which Margaret Thatcher devours her is a classic.) Barbara came with a splendidly supportive husband, one son, one daughter and an adopted aboriginal child. Central casting couldn’t have done better.

The one sentence or sting-in-the-tail put-down is very much an Amiel trait.

Amiel moved into the billionaire ranks when, in 1992 she married Conrad Black then head of Hollinger International – the world’s third largest newspaper empire. Both from Toronto, they had become known to each other through Amiel’s journalist career.

As Barbara Black, and later Lady Black, Amiel found herself spending more of her time managing Black’s entertaining and social calendar, even competing for hostess with the mostest. Much of this was at the expectation of her husband whose ambitions were to match the achievements of Canadian Lord Beaverbrook who mastered the UK print and political world in the mid twentieth century. Given a peerage in 2001, Black’s formal title became Lord Black of Crossharbour.

Entertaining at the billionaire level was not Amiel’s flair. Not that it showed with the guests or the public where her profile was the stunning wife of a media baron who dined with world leaders, political and financial.

Back stage, however, Amiel’s anxiety levels (what she calls her “cold fear”) increased as she continued her lifelong codeine habit and a bit more. That she felt the need to keep pace with what she later described as people (ie wives) who were interested in tableware not table conversation is telling. Perhaps this was the reason Amiel found herself – in spite of her recognised columns at such outlets as The Sunday Times or The Telegraph and so forth – often between wealthy males who “talked over” her through dinner. On one occasion, Henry Kissinger and Donald Trump.

As a member of the “Group” from Park Avenue (ladies with whom she “lunched”) – namely Annette de la Renta, Mercedes Bass, Nancy Kissinger and Jayne Wrightsman – her insecurity grew as she purchased jewelry, clothes, antiques or redecorated a Fifth Avenue apartment. The crudeness of their snobbery was breathtaking – and these were friends.

Nancy Kissinger commented that the silver bracelets Amiel had given her as a gift after a Thanksgiving dinner had been passed on to Nancy’s nieces. Put in her place, Amiel “had agonised at Bergdorf’s” over a crocodile wallet – “was it too showy or was it the wrong part of the crocodile”. She was still the outsider. Stuck, Amiel tried desperately to get to Wrightsman for advice only to find they were never alone:

One of the Group would always be there, as if a witness was needed. I could hear the telephone conversation: “Darling Annette. Barbara Black is coming over for tea today. I’m at my wits’ end what to talk to her about, you know how she is. Can you come by?” All I really wanted to ask was where to find good silver antique chargers large enough to take twentieth century dinnerware. Or where did Annette find the wonderful hurricane lamps in her Manhattan drawing room.

Not surprisingly, Amiel found herself empathising with various of early twentieth century novelist Edith Wharton’s characters fighting for relevance in Manhattan’s society jungle. Nothing had changed, reflects a wiser Amiel, as she records her experiences. Noting the line from the Anna Wintour character in The Devil Wears Prada, “Everybody wants to be us,” Amiel looks back ruefully and admits, “I had a bit of that feeling.”

Half way through her memoir, Black begins the saga that would encapsulate most of her later life – Conrad Black’s downfall. She offers an extended metaphor which will be played out in reality over the rest of the book:

A rockslide begins in silence. The steep hills of granite sit, quite sure of their dominance. They stand firm even as water gathers deep below them. Gradually the erosion begins and the coming danger is manifest in a hairline crack or sometimes a little spray of pebbles. Pressure fights stability, and disaster waits patiently for some triggering event, ordinarily a rainstorm or some idle whim of the earth. Small rocks break off tentatively. Dust hangs about, suspended in silence. The calm is a ruse de guerre. Water defeats stone and the granite crumbles in a cumulative shift, rock upon rock, till the very landslide itself creates a second storm as it forces the air beneath it out. Nothing can stop it.

The story of Conrad Black’s downfall has been investigated and argued over many times in print. Yet, Amiel gives it new insights and in some detail. From the outset, her perspective is one of persecution and the Blacks’ war with the various legal advisers and institutions that saw Black in court for charges of financial malfeasance (misusing company funds), and eventually given a jail term of 78 months in July 2007.

After a successful appeal to the US Supreme Court, in July 2010 Black was released from Florida’s FCI (Federal Correctional Institution) Coleman prison to await the reconsideration of the charges he had been found guilty on. With a subsequent decision to uphold the charge that Black had received US$285,000 approved by the independent director and publicly disclosed, but where the company secretary had neglected, in what the trial judge considered to be a clerical oversight, to have it signed by the parties, Black served a further seven months in FCI Miami.

Amiel takes us through the highlights and downsides of this decade (and more) experience for a couple of what she labels “a pair of doomed marionettes”. From the outside, the fall of a colossus is global entertainment. The tall poppies brought low from their pedestals of clay. Two dimensional figures in the ring of political or financial sport.

Amiel’s account, of course, is partisan but through it her patches of self-deprecating humour and self-reflection, along with admission of flaws in judgement and naivety about their public profiles leading up to the assault on Black’s company Hollinger, allow the reader to follow the Black case with more than a modicum of sympathy.

Black had refused to support the corporate governance movement which he later realised opened him up to suspicion he was hiding something. They both flaunted their wealth as if it was a weapon in their business strategy – on the contrary this only added to the notion they were living beyond their justified means.

Whatever the truth, the Blacks were fair game. Conrad Black operated, as he should have known, in a greedy world of competition. Only after he had been exonerated of all but a small charge due to a missing signature on a document did Rupert Murdoch opine that “the entire prosecution was a disgrace and a sham”.

The Blacks made a host of bad moves before and after investigations started into Hollinger and their wealth was impounded. Amiel’s 2002 Vogue magazine interview became a millstone that damned her personality as a spendthrift.

With her public profile as the rich and beautiful lady of influence (too rich in many journalists’ opinion), Amiel agreed to be profiled for a Vogue article. For the interview, Amiel gave the apparently friendly journalist, Julia Reed, freedom to roam her house to gauge Amiel’s style, whatever. Amiel was at her honest best. And it rang bells in the article to follow which cast her as the fabulously rich owner of a multitude of designer clothes and accessories she just had to have. Spoilt, indulgent, the idle rich.

In Friends & Enemies, Amiel reflects on how differently current celebrities are viewed – their wealth and show taken for granted. “I was ahead of my time and behind in the number of handbags,” writes Amiel. The Vogue article would release Amiel’s signature identity in the media from then on, largely due to a throwaway line she had used of having an “extravagance that knows no bounds”. It was a joke she insisted but no commentator believed that.

In Friends & Enemies, having been on the rack for some twelve years, Amiel is out for revenge as much as self reflection. And, her acute observations are as good as the best Bollinger.

Walking with Ghislaine Maxwell at Palm Beach, Maxwell said to Amiel, “I bet I’m in charge of more bathrooms and lavatories than you.” Sharing their respective counts, Maxwell was certainly the winner. Reflects Amiel, “another Palm Beach abacus to gauge how rich one is.” In a few years, it would be Ghislaine Maxwell, unable to see her own downfall ahead of her, who went out of her way to avoid bumping into Barbara Amiel, wife of dishonoured Conrad Black.

Writing long after she and Black had sold their magnificent Palm Beach home, Amiel sees its beauty and private world as something of a sham:

Palm Beach then was like those shimmering mirrored balls that revolved overhead at high school dances in the late 1950s: a little world of dozens of beautiful surfaces reflecting absolutely no reality outside – no wars, no diseases, no poverty, hunger or dirt. Such a place is not good or bad; it is a confection of some imported icing sugar, sweet and complete and for the tables of the few.

Amiel confesses that she had “no concept of the brutal momentum of downfall”. As the press headlines grew, in the early days, invitations kept coming but nothing was said: “Everyone was too wonderful for words, which was the problem – no words. Perfect manners, air kisses, and not a word said about the huge headlines trumpeting our coming fall.” As the invitations fell away, so did the air kisses.

Sitting with George and Annabelle Weidenfeld in the tearoom of Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel, Lynn de Rothchild – who had just months earlier offered Amiel her support in an email – beckoned Annabelle and stood directly behind Amiel discussing de Rothchild’s plans for coming get togethers with the Weidenfelds. At no stage did de Rothchild acknowledge Amiel.

And so it went, leaving Amiel with scores to settle. A “friend”, the manager of Manhattan Manoo Blahnik, brusquely refused service when Amiel rang to purchase a new pair of shoes. “How poisonous must one be when even the New York vendeuses wish to distance themselves,” writes Amiel.

Of Marie-Josee Kravis, wife of KKR’s Henry Kravis (Forbes listing as 317th richest man), who had just made a cutting remark about Hollinger’s recently held big dinner, Amiel writes: “I do distrust people who can say unpleasant things without blinking, and Marie-Josee’s eyes remained perfectly expressionless.” Amiel adds that the remark was delivered with “a hauteur that matched her clothes”.

There are a lot of Marie-Josees in Friend & Enemies. So much so, it is not easy to discover often who the friends are. No doubt, this is why Amiel adds a list of who is in which category – friend or enemy – at the end of her book, apologising if her lack of memory has left anyone out.

Friends & Enemies is a remarkable work of biographical writing; its Whartonian touches expose the ugliness, narcissism and narrow, self serving interests of the many Amiel eventually lived among. It is also an astonishingly frank exposure of a life. A life that has, for all its flaws, a remarkable list of achievements in the face of a rockslide that took with it her husband’s wealth, livelihood and dignity. For all that, approaching a very young looking 80, Amiel’s final word is one of triumph:

I’m going to try to enjoy the remaining time left to me. And bugger off the whole damn lot of you. We’re still here. You lost.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.