Former press magnate Conrad Black (R) and his wife Barbara Amiel leave federal court where he was resentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison on June 24, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

Memoir of a troubled woman

Friends and Enemies by Barbara Amiel is an extraordinary work of self-revelation

Barbara Amiel struck me as a troubled woman when I first met her thirty years ago. If her autobiography is anything to go by, she still is.

Conrad Black’s declaration of love to Barbara Amiel – like the speeches he gave when he was head of Hollinger, the group which owned The Telegraph – was grandiose, on the long side, and contained several classical allusions. This “god- awful torturous speech,” as Amiel describes it in Friend and Enemies: A Memoir, included references to Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Heloise and Abelard, relationships that, to put it mildly, did not go swimmingly well.

Black’s words were delivered before the couple had exchanged even a kiss. Amiel assumed that the newspaper proprietor wanted an affair. When she made it clear that this was not on the cards, Black explained that his speech was in fact a proposal of marriage. She replied that he should either seek a younger woman – she is four years older than Black – or see a psychiatrist.

Her husband to be was apparently not discouraged by the suggestion that he might be of unsound mind and, according to this richly comic account of this episode, promptly made an appointment to see the chief psychiatrist at the Tavistock Clinic.

One tends to be well-disposed to beautiful women who dispense champagne and insist on paying the bill

As it happened, the psychiatrist was familiar with Amiel’s newspaper columns and, having seen her on television, advised that there was actually nothing insane about his wanting to marry her. Marriage quickly followed. Among those at the post-wedding dinner at Annabels included Margaret and Dennis Thatcher, Lord Weidenfeld, Max Hastings, the Duchess of York, David Frost and US Secretary of State Richard Perle as well as two of Barbara’s old friends. The list reflects the company they were to keep in London, New York, Palm Beach and Toronto as well as their attitude to socialising.

Friends and Enemies: A Memoir by Barbara Amiel (Little, Brown Book Group, £25)

When a highly ambitious thrice-married woman marries a multi-millionaire, her motives are bound to be impugned, as predictably turned out to be the case. But there is no doubting the strength of the love between them that developed.

When the prison doors slammed shut after Black was found guilty of fraud and the obstruction of justice in 2007 the couple’s numerous critics took evident satisfaction from the thought that Barbara’s well-shod heels would not be seen for dust. She had paid a high price for her husband’s alleged crimes, losing all her work as a journalist as well as luxurious homes in New York, Palm Beach, London and Toronto as legal fees mounted, but she made unfailing weekly visits to him throughout his prison sentence and did everything in her power to demonstrate his innocence. Certainly, few wives can have devoted as much thought to the right thing to wear for prison visits.

In part, her book is a detailed refutation of the accusations levelled against an act of revenge on those who snubbed them once Black found himself in trouble, aims in which are achieved with a considerable measure of success. I am less convinced that the book has helped her recover her life and make sense of it, which she says was the main reason for writing it. She evidently believes this objective required that she should tell all. Not just the high spending and conspicuous consumption for which she became famous, and which, as she acknowledges, lent credence to the case against her husband, but the details of three broken marriages, the fact that she was raped, an abortion, a suicide attempt, a colourful and eventful sex life, periods of clinical depression, a near-lifelong dependency on codeine, shoplifting sprees as a teenage girl and even the beatings she gave to her dog.

She also describes fellating the publisher George Weidenfeld. She did so because while she adored his company, she found him physically repugnant and did not wish to marry him or fully submit. On the other hand, she did not want to risk losing invitations to his fashionable soirees and access to the cabinet ministers and public intellectuals who attended them.

No aspect of her life is concealed, no bad deed or word goes unmentioned. Likewise, no score remains unsettled. Should she ever decide to convert to her husband’s catholic faith she will have no need for the confessional; a signed copy of her book should suffice.

I knew little about Barbara Amiel when she telephoned me in 1991 after coming to London as a columnist for The Times. Anxious to extend her range of contacts, she suggested lunch. She arrived late, as on subsequent occasions, but rang ahead to ensure that I was poured as much champagne as I cared to drink. One tends to be well-disposed to beautiful women who dispense champagne and insist on paying the bill. She purred her way through lunch with intelligence and humour.

Amiel’s pessimism is easy to understand

A little later she asked me whether I would propose her as a member of the London club to which I belong. I was pleased to help, but unprepared for subsequent telephone calls expressing deep anxiety that she would have to be interviewed by a member of the club’s general committee prior to her election as a member. “You have no idea how terrified I am by this sort of ordeal,” she said. In the event, no doubt encouraged by tales of her good looks and growing fame, five middle-aged male committee members turned up to interview her looking like naughty schoolboys. Barbara showed no sign of nerves: within minutes they were eating out of her hand.

The same repeated expressions of anxiety and lack of confidence preceded a lecture – on feminism – which I asked her to give under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Studies, of which I was then director. Although she appeared somewhat nervous the lecture was a model of clarity and rigour.

At the time I was inclined not take her expression of anxiety very seriously, attributing them to a tendency to self-dramatization. Having read her book, I realise that along with the self-dramatization there was real awareness of just how badly and suddenly life can go wrong, coupled with a steely determination to go on fighting.

I was disappointed that Amiel had not found new moorings for her life or overcome her anger

Amiel’s pessimism is easy to understand. Prosperous businessmen from the New World like Conrad tend, on the whole, to be optimists. For him the glass was always half full; for Barbara it was invariably half empty. Barbara had been born into a middle-class Jewish family living in Hendon. As a small child, she was parted from her father, Harold, whom she adored, following her parents’ divorce. The separation became total when her mother took her and her sister to settle in Canada. Four years later, Harold, a solicitor, shot himself after embezzling his clients’ money. No attempt seems to have been made to cushion the deep hurt this must have caused his daughters. Barbara’s mother, a highly neurotic woman who made repeated attempts on her own life, conveyed the news bluntly: “Your father is dead. He shot himself. He went mad. You will probably go mad”.

In describing this chapter of her life there is no display of self-pity; Barbara merely comments that it was cruel of her father to have chosen to take his life in the home of his mother, rather than in a hotel room. Even before her father’s death life had not been kind: her mother was an inattentive and incompetent parent. At the age of 14, Barbara was asked to leave home after which she slept where she could.

Given her upbringing and early life it is perhaps no surprise that she should have suffered from low-self-esteem and came to display a deep pessimism. But high ambition, intelligence, hard work and striking looks ensured rapid advancement in life. After working her way through university, she made rapid progress as a journalist becoming a highly regarded columnist and broadcaster. She then became the first female editor of a Canadian daily newspaper before arriving in Britain where she worked as a columnist first for The Times and Sunday Times, subsequently for The Telegraph.

Today Conrad Black gives the impression of having come to terms with what happened to him. He is apparently successfully engaged in business. He writes well and authoritatively for US and British publications. Although displaying a deep contempt for the US and Canadian legal systems, his interest in public affairs seems unabated and his life has assumed an even course. Barbara, it seems to me, remains troubled. I did not expect her to express forgiveness for those who prosecuted the claims against her husband or the hyper-rich wives of New York with whom she had hung out but who later snubbed her – indeed she says that she would happily do to them what was done to her.

As I approached the end of this extraordinary work of self-revelation, I felt I was on her side. But this feeling diminished by my disappointment that she had not found new moorings for her life or overcome her anger. Her final chapter concludes: “Having got this off my genuine chest, I am going to try and enjoy the remaining time left to me. And bugger off to the whole damn lot of you. We are still here. You lost.” It’s an odd way for a writer to address her readers.

There is one other oddity. As the book’s title implies it is about friends as well as enemies. Both are listed. There are approximately 600 friends named, many of them famous. Does anyone have that many friends or is this just name dropping?

One suspects that many are simply acquaintances who did not join the chorus of criticism which the couple faced after Black’s arrest or with whom relations were of a largely transactional kind. The principal exceptions seem to be the writer Miriam Gross, a staunch friend throughout, the late George Jonas, her first husband who remained a source of advice and support, and Elton John, who at the height of her troubles took her dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant where he presented her with an expensive gift of jewellery. Amiel expresses herself “mystified” by this act of generosity because, as she says, there was nothing in it for him. But that, dear Barbara, is the essence of friendship.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover