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The ballad of Conrad Black

The media proprietor was always fond of the sound of his own voice, and with good reason: he often had interesting things to say

Conrad Black, who was jailed in 2007 for fraud and obstructing justice, has been pardoned by Donald Trump. Here Peter Oborne profiles the former media mogul and his wife Barbara in an article published in The Spectator in 2004:

A few weeks ago executives were endeavoring to bring home to Conrad Black the full horror of his personal and corporate predicament, when a sight met their eyes. His wife Barbara, clad only in a leotard and shades, had swept into the room. For a moment nobody spoke. ‘Oh Conrad,’ Barbara Black proclaimed: ‘Let’s just get out of here. They hate us.’

Barbara Amiel was born in Watford, and she enjoyed the kind of childhood that, if survived at all, instils resilience through life. She wrote her first autobiography — it is greatly to be hoped that another will follow — as early as 1980. Amiel was only 39, but there was already plenty of ground to cover. She chose the same title — Confessions — as the French romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and her story was every bit as moving. Her parents had separated when she was very young, and her mother moved to Canada, and remarried. In due course came the news that her father had committed suicide. She moved out of her mother’s home when she was 15 and, according to Conrad Black’s biographer Richard Siklos, ‘spent the next year boarding with strangers in basements and working odd jobs in chemists, canning factories and dress shops while attending school’.

Intermixed with an erratic career in journalism were a number of husbands, of whom Conrad Black was the fourth. When the newspaper tycoon became romantically involved with her 14 years ago, he still had about him the air of a man who had won the pools. His purchase of the Daily Telegraph for £18 million in 1986 had unexpectedly made him quite rich, and enormously influential. But he did not yet know how to make full use of his newly acquired status. Black’s first wife Shirley, with whom he had attended Barbara Amiel’s third wedding — to the cable TV magnate David Graham in 1986 — was not interested. Black was distraught for many months when she left him.

Charming, clever and quite ravishingly beautiful, Barbara Amiel showed Black how to conduct himself as a great newspaper proprietor should. She dispelled much of the stolidity, clumsiness and provincialism which still lingered around him. He had a gift, perhaps particularly marked among Canadian business leaders, of stating the obvious in an especially portentous way. Introduced to Mary Soames, daughter of Winston Churchill, Black informed her in his low, steady transatlantic tone: ‘Your father was a very great man.’ Lady Soames told friends that Conrad Black was ‘London’s biggest bore unhung’, a remark which found its way into the posthumous Woodrow Wyatt diaries. Amiel leavened this heaviness. She did not drop Black’s old, clubby friends — Rupert Hambro, David Metcalfe. She simply added other layers. She made sure that her husband stayed in touch with the jeunesse dorée — A.A. Gill, Nicola Hornby, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Santa Palmer-Tomkinson, Andrew Roberts all entered the Black circle and became embedded. So did numerous others.

Every year the Blacks threw two parties, one at Christmas and one summer event, at their double-fronted 11-bedroom mansion in Cottesmore Gardens. Everybody who mattered at the time went: Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Goldsmith, James Hanson, Arnold Weinstock, Jacob Rothschild, royalty, the playwright Tom Stoppard. Some of these, injudiciously as it turned out, agreed to join the main Hollinger board. The luckier ones — Peter Carrington, Robert Salisbury — got away with being made directors of the Telegraph. As the Tories faded out, Labour ministers started to arrive, the indefatigable Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett and other ministers eager to ingratiate themselves with the Tory press. Prince and Princess Michael of Kent were assiduous in attendance. In London, the Nineties belonged to the Blacks. They were London’s most glamorous power couple.

Black became the kind of newspaper proprietor whom Evelyn Waugh’s Lord Copper would have respected as a social and business equal. He had an undeniable physical presence, with hairy knuckles and paddle-like hands which he would use expressively. Conrad Black was always fond of the sound of his own voice, and with good reason: he often had interesting things to say. When he met Tony Blair in Downing Street or elsewhere, he would dominate the conversation, the Prime Minister indicating glassy acquiescence while the tycoon expounded the merits of the transatlantic alliance, the virtues of low taxation, the lessons to be learnt from Napoleon’s career as a war leader, and other matters of equal consequence.

At one stage, when Black’s peerage was blocked by the Canadian government and matters hung in the balance, he took to telephoning Downing Street almost daily. During this stage of his career he was known within No. 10 as the ‘great commoner’. Happily, a solution was found and Black, whose fondness for ceremony and dressing up was pre-modern in its profound lack of irony and unabashed vulgarity, was soon covered head to foot in ermine.

Black took the view, usual in newspaper tycoons, that he counted for more than, or at any rate every bit as much as, international statesmen. He once traveled to visit Gerhard Schröder in Germany. An advance party, led by Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore, was already installed. Black strolled in 45 minutes late, breaking into the faintest trot, the fastest he was ever seen to move during the 15 years he owned the Telegraph, as he approached the German Chancellor’s office. Whatever his private view on Black’s punctuality, Schröder did not air it. He coolly expressed dismay at British attitudes towards Germany. ‘Mr Chancellor,’ answered Black, ‘I want you to know that the Daily Telegraph believes that Germany is a wonderful country. I want to put that on record.’

As his power and influence grew, guests would listen with ever-increasing interest to Black’s special routines: recitations of British prime ministers since Walpole, or the exact disposition of Napoleon’s generals at the battle of Waterloo. He always spoke very slowly, so that whatever he said gave the impression, by no means entirely misleading, of having been well thought out. He enjoyed public dispute, and would write lengthy letters to his own newspapers taking issue with their editorial line. He was as close to perfection as a newspaper proprietor can get, choosing his editors with great care and skill, then letting them get on with their job. They all liked and admired him. Max Hastings’s account of his years at the Telegraph, Editor, gives an informative, rather moving and ultimately affectionate account of Conrad Black the proprietor.

There was something of Beaverbrook about Conrad Black, likewise a Canadian with murky business origins who made it big in Britain. Beaverbrook was content to become a legend in London, creating mischief and playing high politics. Conrad and Barbara Black were unwise enough to try to conquer America as well. This soaring transatlantic ambition caused their downfall.

High society in New York, where the Blacks owned an apartment, or Palm Beach, where they owned a house, is grander and more expensive than can be readily grasped in Britain. This was Scott Fitzgerald territory, and as Scott Fitzgerald once remarked, ‘The rich are different from you and me.’ Ordinary people send thank-you letters or at most flowers after dinner parties. In Palm Beach, expensive pieces of pottery or gifts of jewelry worth thousands of pounds are the rule. Conrad Black had a house in Palm Beach, but felt it was too modest. So he traded up to a 17,000 sq ft mansion complete with cinema, library, exercise room and countless bedrooms. A ceramic-tiled tunnel stretched down from the house to a private
beach. It is now on the market at $36 million.

In America the Blacks were friends with, among others, the Kravitzes, Mrs Jane Wrightson (after whose family a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is named), the Alfred Taubmans and Sid Bass, an oil billionaire said to have spent $200 million paying off his first wife so that he could marry one Mercedes Kellogg — a transaction that caused The Spectator columnist Taki to quip, ‘It’s the first time anybody has paid $200 million for a used Mercedes.’

The Blacks had entered a world where private jets were commonplace, so they arranged to have two, one purchased and one leased. ‘It’s always best to have two planes,’ explained Barbara, ‘because however well one plans ahead one always finds one is on the wrong continent.’ Barbara Amiel was determined not to be outspent by her new super-rich friends. ‘I have an extravagance that knows no bounds,’ she declared. In retrospect, she was unwise to invite a Vogue magazine reporter to visit her at home in Kensington. Amiel showed off to the wide-eyed reporter her collection of shoes, bags, clothes: 100 pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes, each costing about £500, a dozen Hermes Birkin bags worth more than £100,000, 40 jewel-handled handbags, jewelry beyond computation, a collection of designer dresses to die for. This article was read, and noted closely, by the investment company Tweedy Browne, which was beginning to take an unwelcome interest in Conrad Black’s business dealings. Tweedy Browne was alarmed by the amount of cash Black and other directors were taking out of the company: some $300 million since the mid-Nineties, so they claimed.

There had been a time when both Blacks had kept their feet on the ground. This ceased to be the case. One evening Barbara Black rang Charles Moore panic-stricken from her Kensington home. There had been a last-minute drop-out from one of the famous Black dinner parties. ‘I’m short of a woman,’ she told Moore. Moore surveyed the newsroom. His gaze alighted on the journalist Eleanor Mills, by chance the stepdaughter of the Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell. An hour later, hastily groomed, made-up and brushed, Mills was sipping pre-dinner drinks in Cottesmore Gardens. Then disaster struck. A male guest, Max Fisher, dropped out. Mills was approached by Conrad Black. ‘Finish your drink and skedaddle,’ he told her. Barbara Black then told her to go to the kitchen and out through the servants’ door, where the driver would pick her up and take her home.

This episode was not by any means the Blacks’ finest hour. There are numerous counter-balancing examples of generosity and kindness. Nevertheless during this heady period of her life, Barbara Black was capable of a definite grandeur of approach. She once remarked to a fellow newspaper mogul after he had lost an editor: ‘I do so sympathize with you: one does have such trouble with one’s help.’ At other times, she could be quite enchanting, pretend that it was all a game and that she was on your side. But then, says a friend, ‘she could suddenly get very frosty indeed if you got too close.’

Though things now look grim, the Blacks do not for a moment accept that they have done anything wrong. ‘Since when has greed become a criminal offense?’ he recently remarked rhetorically to a friend. Black saw himself as the founder of a great business, and thought his investors were lucky to have him. It was not a view they shared. ‘There has not been an occasion for many months,’ declared Black in an email to a Hollinger executive, ‘when I got on our plane without wondering whether it was really affordable. But I’m not prepared to re-enact the French Revolutionary renunciation of the rights of the nobility. We are proprietors after all, beleaguered though we may be.’ This attitude is either very splendid, or hopelessly foolish, or criminal, depending on your point of view.

The Blacks are proprietors no longer. They have left the world of the Kravitzes and the Basses. Terrible times may lie in wait. The student of Napoleon is about to embark on his metaphorical journey to St Helena. But Barbara Amiel continues to file copy efficiently down the phone to the Daily Telegraph, at about £500 for 1,000 words, and of very high quality too. The latest piece went in on Monday.

Conrad Black will always be thought of kindly by those who worked for him. Whatever sins he may have committed, he ran the Telegraph well. Whatever the future holds in store, he will always have an honorable as well as a colorful place in the magnificent history of that famous newspaper — and of The Spectator too. He stands full square and all guns blazing in the tremendous tradition of great Fleet Street barons.


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