In our first extract from her blistering new memoir, Barbara Amiel, wife of media tycoon Conrad Black, recalled how she and her husband — once the toast of London and New York society — became social outcasts after Black was jailed by a U.S. court for fraud and obstruction of justice.
In today’s gripping and deliciously candid final instalment, she explains how, after their marriage, she struggled to make the transition from jobbing journalist living on ready meals to the socially cut-throat world of billionaires.
As she reveals with mordant self-deprecation, no matter how much she spent, she never fitted in and found herself mocked for everything, from having the wrong jewellery to misunderstanding the etiquette of what to give the man — or woman — who has everything …
Back in the late Eighties, I was a journalist living in a rented London flat on a diet of ready-bought roasted chickens, which I alternated with two packs of Lean Cuisine chicken à l’orange.
Occasionally I would see the multimillionaire newspaper proprietor Conrad Black and his wife Joanna at parties. I already knew him a little from a lunch and a dinner party in Canada, where I’d spent most of my working life, and he was always friendly and appeared to seek me out.
Then one evening, at a cocktail party at the American ambassador’s residence, Winﬁeld House, in Regent’s Park, he beckoned me. ‘Is Joanna here?’ I asked. ‘We’re separated,’ he said. ‘She will not be coming back to live in London. Our marriage is over.’
I had no idea of the reasons for the break-up but I suspected — correctly, as it turned out — it would not have been Conrad’s idea.
Having it all: The Blacks step out as hosts of a society party in 1996. In our first extract from her blistering new memoir, Barbara Amiel, wife of media tycoon Conrad Black, recalled how she and her husband — once the toast of London and New York society — became social outcasts after Black was jailed by a U.S. court for fraud and obstruction of justice
‘I’m usually in New York for weekends,’ I told him, ‘but in the unlikely event you ﬁnd yourself lonely with the children gone, I’d be happy to accompany you to a movie.’
In the meantime, I was enjoying a relationship with the Oscar-winning screenwriter and novelist William Goldman, who lived in Manhattan and paid for me to fly over to spend weekends with him.
God, I’m practically Joan Collins, I’d think as I sashayed into the Concorde Lounge, becoming a regular. Best not get too used to this.
One Sunday when, for some reason, I was not in New York with Goldman, Conrad took me to lunch at Arnold and Netta Weinstock’s country house in the Shires. Weinstock was still in charge of General Electric, the enormous company he had built, but our talk was of a shared passion — opera.
Driving back to London — being driven back by Conrad’s chauffeur Sid — Conrad worked on various memos and lists. His briefcase was open on his lap and it was, I noticed, incredibly neat, with a fountain pen set in the little round leather holders of the cover. I had never seen anyone actually use those holders. He turned to me: ‘Are you all right?’ he asked conversationally.
This is scarcely a passion-packed line, and the enquiry is a routine enough question. The words were voiced, however, in a way that made it sound as if he actually wanted to know if I was tired or thirsty or needed anything.
I knew that for the duration of the drive, inside the world that was the back of a Bentley on a Sunday afternoon, I would be taken care of — aspirins, coffee, doughnuts. It was an intoxicating feeling.
‘I’m doing the seating for the Hollinger International dinner,’ he said, referring to the annual top-drawer shindig he threw. ‘Is there anyone in particular you’d like to be seated next to?’
‘Yes, actually. Could you put me next to Robert Maxwell?’
‘I could. But why?’
‘Well,’ I explained, ‘I’m planning to live with William Goldman in New York. When I last saw Maxwell he mentioned that I could work at the New York Daily News, which he had just purchased, if I ever came there.’
‘Mmm.’ Pause, pen taken out of holder and something scratched. ‘Done,’ said Conrad.
Later he told me this was the moment he decided he had better corner me before I got married again.
As it worked out, I didn’t sit next to Maxwell because he didn’t turn up, so there was an empty seat to one side of me.
In today’s gripping and deliciously candid final instalment, she explains how, after their marriage, she struggled to make the transition from jobbing journalist living on ready meals to the socially cut-throat world of billionaires (pictured: Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel’s palatial home in Palm Beach)
Conrad’s appearances multiplied. I managed to snooker a pair of opera tickets for a performance with Plácido Domingo, and I asked him if he would like to go. He turned up to my ﬂat early, which I thought was incredibly rude.
After I quickly got ready, he led me to my sofa. Then came the most god-awful torturous speech in haute Conradian style. I was completely ﬂummoxed. He seemed to be asking me to have some sort of relationship, but he might have been describing his relationship with the great literary ﬁgures with which his speech was peppered — Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Héloïse and Abelard.
Perched on the edge of a cushion, I tried to get a handle on what the hell was going on. I began to grasp that he wanted to start taking me out romantically, which was simply not on my radar.
Put in my place by Ghislaine Maxwell
Pictured: Ghislaine Maxwell
One day, Ghislaine Maxwell and I were walking along the sand in Palm Beach, me glancing enviously at her youthful ability to wear short shorts and look super with no make-up in the full white sun.
She had a relationship with financial adviser Jeffrey Epstein at the time, although the nature of it was a bit foggy. What I did know was that they inhabited a rather exclusive world, filled with billionaire toys like Epstein’s huge properties — an island here, a mansion there — and his private planes that included a Boeing 727, a helicopter and a Gulfstream IV jet.
Anyway, this was several years before Epstein was accused of procuring sex with underage girls. Ghislaine and I were kicking pebbles like normal people do, and out of the blue she said: ‘I’ll bet I’m in charge of more bathrooms and lavatories than you.’
Although an unexpected question, I realised this was a Palm Beach abacus to gauge how rich one is.
‘You haven’t counted?’ she asked.
‘You can count planes as well,’ she said. ‘Choppers too.’
Mine came to an astonishing 39.
‘I win,’ said Ghislaine.
The rich person’s version of Monopoly, I suppose.
‘Look, Conrad,’ I said, ‘I’m really not in the market for an affair.’ After all, he knew I was involved with William Goldman.
‘I’m not asking you for that,’ he said. ‘Don’t you understand? I’m asking you to marry me.’
We had not exchanged so much as a kiss in all the time I had known him.
‘This is displacement,’ I told him. ‘You’re on the rebound from your broken marriage and I feel comfortable to you. You should be going out with younger women. Or see a psychiatrist.’
Conrad called me a day or so later. ‘I have been to see the head of the Tavistock Clinic and he is a reader of your columns and has seen you on television. He asked me to tell you that there is absolutely nothing mad about my wanting to marry you.’
The snag obviously was that while having two eligible and highly accomplished men interested in me, I did not love either of them, which even to me felt a bit thick. Conrad was undeterred.
Gradually, I began to view him through a different lens. The more I looked, the more I enjoyed myself. God, he had me in stitches, and he had that great smell — a man’s natural scent either turns you on or is in deadly need of lashings of Acqua di Parma.
After I ended my affair with Goldman — who reacted with explosive fury because he assumed I’d been conducting a clandestine affair — action was required. The simple solution was to ‘quickstart’, as my treadmill button puts it, my relationship with Conrad.
Once he had fully appraised my 50-going-on-51-year-old body sans the camouflage of clothing, the glamour would vanish rather quickly. This appraisal was a step I felt I should take with all due haste. If it didn’t work in bed, what was the point?
I drove apprehensively to his house in Highgate the day before he was leaving for a trip to Australia.
My conversion to witless and in love was sudden, swift and horrible. Now that the impossible had happened, the notion of being in reciprocated love with a man who, at 47, was younger than myself by four crucial years and was funny, kind, tall, rich and armed with massive brainpower, was worrying.
Conrad’s courtship was not quite your standard date, dinner and a movie — and not in a good sense. We’d go to dinners at exquisite London homes of families who decorated their houses with items of a quality I normally saw in museums.
Frankly, the whole thing was a waft of wealth, fascinating to inhale but in large portions rather queasy-making.
Hanging out with [financier] Gilbert de Botton and his wife in Belgravia — where, going upstairs, you passed directly next to huge canvases by David Hockney and Picasso, only to sit with a live Bryan Ferry darkly glowering in person — was pretty extraordinary, but frankly not so much as my utter disbelief that the first Mrs de Botton had put revolving racks for her clothes in their several heated mews garages across the way.
Each outfit was numbered and could be viewed on a closed-circuit video system together with the appropriate accessories.
Conrad and I got married in 1992 at the Chelsea Register Office. All auguries pointed to a life of unbridled happiness. But the price tag for true love was about to catch up with me: Conrad’s world revolved around the stomach-churning need for ‘us’, i.e. me, to give dinner parties.
At 51, I had managed to avoid this disease and manoeuvred through life giving only two. To say I would have preferred working in a salt mine may be a little over the top, but not much.
There was no transition, not a whisker, between the days of heating up Lean Cuisine dinners for myself to those of entertaining a prime minister, HRHs, industrialists, celebrities and aristocrats of all sorts, society ladies and attached husbands, Great Thinkers and film stars.
The set pieces of our entertaining were the summer and Christmas drinks parties —with summer’s being the most important. Out went the invites on gold-bevelled cardboard stiff enough to be used as a diving board. ‘Mrs Conrad Black At Home’ the card announced with more conﬁdence than Mrs Black felt, who prayed she would be out.
As she reveals with mordant self-deprecation, no matter how much she spent, she never fitted in and found herself mocked for everything, from having the wrong jewellery to misunderstanding the etiquette of what to give the man — or woman — who has everything (Pictured: Conrad Black with his wife Barbara Amiel)
On the other hand, some of the social compensations of being Mrs. Conrad Black were terrific. I began to enjoy making entrances and seeing heads turn. I was somebody: it was fun. You get used to it very quickly, and I positively swished.
As I settled into my new position, I began to get oxygen deprivation at the thought of the steep domestic mountain in front of me. I was consumed by fear of not doing it right. I was no bloody savage, but now I was gathering up homes of monumental size in London, Palm Beach and Toronto, all requiring ‘decoration’.
Having not decorated one room in my entire life, this would all have been hilarious had I not taken it so seriously. Like a homing pigeon, at the suggestion of new friends, I found my way to Léron linens in New York.
The trouble was, I never asked the prices — I mean, how much can sheets be? I just saw their exquisite designs, handmade sheets to fit your antique four-poster. They saw me coming.
‘Shall we look at the colour schemes and furnishing in your bedrooms and fix a motif for each one?’ asked the clever saleslady/design consultant, who quickly summed me up as a brand-new wife with wallet and no experience, alone, stumbling and without guide dog.
Then came the invoices for tens of thousands of dollars per set. With a minimum of two sets per bedroom, sometimes three sets, every bed a different size thanks to our decorators, and about 12 bedrooms, the cost was colossal. And the invoices didn’t arrive until the work was done.
‘Great beds,’ said every guest, consisting almost exclusively of people who had never known much more than drip-dry sheets.
I practised the talk with the interior decorators. At ﬁrst they trod carefully, an initial parry in which a killer word lurked.
Barbara Amiel is pictured at Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair in June 2002
‘Yes,’ they might muse thoughtfully as we talked about a new room. ‘How do you see that corner?’
I did not ‘see’ corners.
‘Perhaps a directoire tôle peinte in ormolu and enamel with snuffer on a gueridon? That could be pretty,’ they might venture.
They watched your face, and if you couldn’t respond knowledgeably they knew they had you, hence another 60 per cent on your bills.
There were so many new unwritten rules. Once, I was chastised by the wife of billionaire investor and philanthropist Sid Bass for wearing white high-heeled shoes. ‘You don’t ever wear white,’ Mercedes told me. ‘It’s for salesgirls.’
The Basses were important members of the small number we saw regularly on our visits to New York and who I unoriginally termed ‘the Group.’
If you wanted to pal around with the Kissingers — which Conrad did — and the philanthropist Jayne Wrightsman — which he enjoyed — you had to take the whole package, which included the spiteful and opinionated Mercedes.
In Manhattan, we bought a $3 million apartment on Park Avenue. One of the first things I did was apply for credit cards — Saks, Bergdorf’s, Lord & Taylor, Bendel’s, Bloomingdale’s. I did this largely because it was fun to go into the customer service office and, when asked for my address, say ‘635 Park Avenue’ very casually.
Worse, I followed this up by offering a Palm Beach and a London address if they wanted: this was like name-dropping, only better.
We slotted into the Group, which was headed by Jayne, had its nucleus in Mrs Henry Kissinger (Nancy) and Mrs Oscar de la Renta (Annette), and included TV interviewer Barbara Walters.
At one Manhattan charity dinner with them, I reached for the bread. ‘Barbara,’ Jayne rebuked, ‘bread is not the staff of life.’ They all thought I weighed too much.
Thinness crept up on me. Perhaps it was the mimicking of the Group’s attitude to bread, butter and desserts —items that were the outer circle of hell and never to pass lips —while salads, which I personally hated, were rejoiced over.
Just why I so keenly wanted to be part of this lot is a mystery, although looking at it pragmatically, not. This was my shortcut to becoming ‘known’ to restaurants and photographers, which seemed important at the time.
Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel attend the George Christy Luncheon during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival
‘Just bring patio jewellery,’ Texan philanthropist Lynn Wyatt once suggested perfectly seriously when I flailed helplessly about packing for the South of France, where she and her husband had an exquisite villa above Monte Carlo. Patio jewellery, it turned out, meant huge, perfectly spherical and polished turquoise beads alternating with full-cut diamonds.
‘Pretty, isn’t it?’ said the fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg, at a private dinner in the Metropolitan Museum. She extended her wrist delicately, turning it as her head tilted, appraising it. She was referring to her bracelet, which looked about three or four inches wide, of perfectly cut, seemingly flawless diamonds gleaming with furious intensity.
Fine, I know it’s barmy to react to such exchanges, but rise to them I did. If only, instead of endless rows of bottled supplements for strong nails and creams to stop acne, I had something to kill, contain or heal my acquisitiveness, competitiveness and characterlessness.
My own jewellery purchases fell in the $4,500 to $35,000 range, and since I was embarrassed to tell Conrad, I was forever worrying about payment.
Journalists were still being paid well in those times before the internet killed us. With my Times contract, my Maclean’s columns bringing in $2,400 a piece, plus features and columns here and there in American publications, and with no rent, telephone or food bills, I had some money.
I thought the pavé diamond heart earrings I bought for $35,000 were gorgeous and, for the money, they were; the Giovane emerald drops were more so. I tossed my hair back to show them off and longed for the day when I could afford a $75,000 emerald bracelet.
The rot began one day at lunch in London. We were five at Mosimann’s, sitting down for a pleasant interlude.
‘Your earrings,’ said John Gutfreund, known as the ‘King of Wall Street’, ‘did you buy them? They’re the wrong colour.’ His tone of voice left no room for any other interpretation than derisiveness. I squirmed.
‘Probably a lot of oil in them and it hasn’t done much good,’ continued John.
Every Christmas the gifts would arrive for me. So exquisitely wrapped. You can’t imagine the ribbons and paper and satin and silks that were lavished on a box. While I wrote a note of thanks for Jayne’s knitted sable stole and the box of Manolo Blahnik shoes in absolutely my taste and size (Lily Safra’s gift), I had a feeling I just wasn’t getting it right
I looked up this business about oil in the encyclopedia when I got home and supposed that, yes, given their price, they must have been heavily treated with oil to give them a better appearance. I won’t wear them any more, I thought.
I didn’t stop to think that getting upset by this was something of a flaw in me slightly deeper than any fissure in my emeralds. I should have laughed, or passed Gutfreund off as an unpleasant idiot, which he clearly was, but it cut.
The fact is I became a caricature of the Group.
Socialising with them meant you got photographed for the New York Times social pages or the glossies rather a lot, and I quite liked that. It came with baggage, though — more concern about my appearance, as if that were possible given my total immersion in myself already.
Meanwhile I gushed and played the social game with enthusiasm, even when my attempts to reciprocate a season of invitations to the opera or a country house by sending extravagant gifts (in my terms) went unremarked or, worse, remarked.
‘I gave the silver bracelets you sent me to my nieces and they loved them,’ said Nancy Kissinger of the two Angela Cummings braided silver cuffs I’d sent her after a Thanksgiving dinner. My fault for asking if she had received them after a month of agonising silence and my fear that someone opened the package and thought they were napkin rings.
Less humiliating was the dead silence I didn’t break: the crocodile wallet I had agonised over at Bergdorf’s for one of the ladies — was it too showy or was it the wrong part of the crocodile? — and the Lana Marks gold lizard evening bags together with the Hermès washbag for someone’s husband.
Both must have been received but never commented upon, even as they profusely thanked one another for a book on planting bulbs.
Every Christmas the gifts would arrive for me. So exquisitely wrapped. You can’t imagine the ribbons and paper and satin and silks that were lavished on a box. While I wrote a note of thanks for Jayne’s knitted sable stole and the box of Manolo Blahnik shoes in absolutely my taste and size (Lily Safra’s gift), I had a feeling I just wasn’t getting it right.
Jayne can help me, I thought. Since she was about 20 years older than the others and an old friend of Conrad’s, I rather looked on her as a sympathetic ally in my new world. The straws a drowning person clutches.
Jayne was the Group’s deity, an infallible source of knowledge about high-society life as lived in the thinnest of its ozone layers. She had nothing to lose, I reasoned, and would help a newcomer. After all, in her life before marriage to [oil executive and art collector] Charles B. Wrightsman she was a salesgirl, albeit with a good private school education and at an elegant shop. She must have had to learn the ropes herself.
But I simply could never get Jayne alone for that heart-to-heart. It was on par with arranging a private audience with the Pope.
I would arrive at her apartment after we had arranged to have a little lunch or a cup of tea, ‘so just the two of us can have a real chat,’ Jayne would say, and be shown happily into one of her sitting rooms to enjoy a warm greeting from Annette. Or Nancy.
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?’
I must have been an entertaining sight, thrashing about looking for harbour, gussied up with a hook in my mouth.
‘Nancy asked me to tell you, once again,’ said my staunch husband, ‘that you shouldn’t be so insecure. They really like you.’ Certainly everyone professed love for everyone in the Group. But this was American pro forma social courtesy.
The rudeness was in not professing — at any opportunity, privately or out loud and emotionally, and preferably in a fulsome but joyless toast — love for every damn person with whom you interacted socially.
However, I tied up my shoelaces and invited Jayne and Annette to lunch at my apartment — an agonising prospect for me and obviously too agonising for them. They accepted and then, on the morning of, cancelled. ‘So sorry, can’t make it.’
Like a series of vivid tableaux vivants, the memory of those women standing in one another’s homes, just out of my reach, remains locked behind my eyes.
And the legs of the women, always thin; they stood like storks in slender black high-heeled shoes of classic simplicity. Limousine legs. Though I had spent as much money as many of them on my appearance, their poise could not be bought.
But this constellation, so plotted and chased by me, was well on the way to irrelevance and extinction, without visible achievement. Many of the socialites were second or third wives, and they were childless. The Group would live on for a while, their names purchased, endowed and inscribed in museums, hospitals and opera houses or on the labels of the clothes companies they had built.
But endowments run out, companies are sold. All around the group I knew, celebrity culture was taking over. The sway of the Group was virtually over, although, just like the Romanoffs, they would never realise it until the end.
As for me, the first sign of my own downfall was when I tried to buy two Wolford bodysuits in Bloomingdale’s. The sales lady, who had just complimented me on my Hermès handbag, announced, with a note of slight triumph, I felt, that my Bloomingdale’s card was declined.
I managed to wheedle out the info that my Bloomingdale’s credit limit was now cut to $100 but didn’t twig what was going on — let alone that this was just the start of 12 hellish years to come…
- Adapted by Corinna Honan from Friends And Enemies: A Memoir by Barbara Amiel, to be published by Constable, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, at £25 on October 13. © 2020 Barbara Amiel. To reserve a copy for £21.25, go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193