The private jets! The mansions! The celebrity parties! Barbara Amiel became instantly rich when she married newspaper proprietor Conrad Black. Then, in 2007, he was jailed for fraud. She tells her side of the story – from Watford schoolgirl to billionaire wife to prison widow, dropped by everyone (apart from Melania and Elton). Interview by Alice Thomson.
Didn't she nearly have it all? The jewellery, private jet, houses, holidays, chauffeurs, a column on a national newspaper and a media tycoon she loved. At the beginning of the century, Barbara Amiel could afford to pop in and buy some emerald earrings to match her eyes before lunch, a couple of Hermès handbags before the butler served tea and go to bed in sheets that cost £10,000 ($19,500) each.
By 2007, she had lost almost everything when her husband, Conrad Black, the proprietor of the Telegraph group, was jailed in America on charges of fraud and obstruction of justice. Overnight, Lady Black's hairdresser and friends all shunned her. When she rang her favourite shop assistant, the manager of the Manhattan Manolo Blahnik shop, asking for a pair of "mood-lifting shoes", the woman sneered, "You've got quite enough," and hung up. "I never realised how hated I was," she says now, without a trace of self-pity. Although Lord Black was later pardoned, they are still ostracised by many old acquaintances. "Everyone who had a grudge or schadenfreude, a bunion or a sore tooth, was thrilled by our demise," says Amiel. "I was toxic."
Who could like this modern-day Marie Antoinette? After reading her book, I could. Her autobiography is entitled Friends and Enemies: A Memoir and, in it, she does get her revenge on the rich ladies who lunched in London, Palm Beach and New York. But there has been so much more to her life than the past 30 years of stupendous wealth followed by wretched prison visits. Born in 1940, she has been through rejections, addictions, suicide attempts, an abortion and a great deal of sex, "which I mostly loved", all with remarkable humour.
At nearly 80, even on Zoom she still looks flawless. "It's all fillers, don't worry," she says from her sitting room in Toronto. She genuinely doesn't seem to want any sympathy. Nor is she aiming to be sensationalist, but her old-fashioned Becky Sharp story could have been updated by Shirley Conran — only with dogs rather than goldfish.
Her childhood in Watford was desperate. Her father left when she was eight and her mother went out every night determined to ensnare another man. "I didn't have anything to compare my childhood with, so it felt normal," she says. "After the war, everyone was dislocated, so I don't want to whinge, but I might have liked a little affection. My mother loathed me and saw me as a hindrance to her life."
Meanwhile, Amiel worshipped her father. "I think he quite liked me, as long as I got high marks and I was pretty and did well at piano. But I rarely saw him and, when I did, my mother wanted me to get money. I'm a bit of a hard-headed bitch now, but as a child, I really wanted to please."
She never saw her father again after her mother remarried and took the family to Canada when Amiel was 14. "I've never felt Canadian, but I don't think the British think I am British, so I have always been in a bit of a limbo." The young Amiel hated leaving London and was soon thrown out of her home, ending up in a string of boarding houses. After a year, her mother rang and said, "Your father's dead. He killed himself and you will probably go mad like him." Amiel explains this in a matter-of-fact way. "I was saving up to go home to him, so it was a shock," she says. "I decided to stay on at school, but parents didn't want their children playing with me and I had to spend my spare time making money. The worst time was working in a canning factory in outdoor sheds. You had to cut peaches and, because I wasn't skilled, I kept cutting my hands and I got ill."
Her looks, she soon realised, could help her out. "I was not good-looking in the normal way, but I was attractive," she says. "I had a small waist and some bust. If I had been plain, my life would have been more difficult. I didn't have nice clothes. I wasn't a Jewish princess or a blonde American sweetheart, but I was passably clever. Because I was Jewish, I wanted to be part of the Jewish set and I was finally asked out by the heir to a pickle family. He was very unattractive with styes, but I felt I had arrived."
She was still treated as an outsider. "The first party I went to I wore Bermuda shorts and long white socks," she says. "It was New Year's Eve and I was dumped because I was an embarrassment. I never had the right clothes. Eventually, a girl at school sold me an old dress for $5."
Then her roommate, when she scraped together the money for Toronto University, taught her to shoplift. "I shoplifted for six months — cashmere sweaters and a winter coat — before I got caught and was terribly ashamed," she says. "Perhaps there is some truth in the idea that if you shoplift when young, you become a shopaholic when old."
I was about to marry the wrong man, but my friend Leonard Cohen rescued me.
Her great friends were the Cohen cousins. The singer, Leonard, and his cousin helped her to escape when she realised she was marrying the wrong man in her twenties. "I never wanted to get married," she says. "I didn't want to give up my name or job, but I didn't know how to get out of it. Finally, I ran away. Leonard rescued me. He would play his mouth organ and, though he was the sweetest, kindest man, I thought he couldn't sing. But he could write insanely well. He wrote me a poem. I wasn't sure whether he wrote one for every girl, but I found it while writing the book."
Her early adult life was a struggle without parental advice, but Amiel got through it with the help of drugs. "I have taken codeine since I was 14, when I started working at a drug store after school and, by 11pm, I would be shattered. The owner gave me the drugs to help me keep going." She has continued to use codeine all her life. "In moments of agonising pain, when you just want to get the hell out of it, I would try to overdose on it," she says. "I'd end up in hospital. I still take four tablets a day. Every now and then, a do-gooder says, 'Opioid addict. We must get her off it,' but I don't drink much, so it helps."
She got a job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a typist, but cajoled her bosses into promoting her. For a short period, she was in front of the cameras, as a presenter.
Just as her media career took off, she discovered she was pregnant and had an abortion. "I was practically in my fifth month and didn't know I was pregnant. No one had told me the facts of life. I only had a period once a year. I didn't feel maternal and I didn't have much money or any stability. I had slept with two men in that period, but abortion was illegal. It had to be a backstreet abortion in a dentist's chair. I am sometimes seen as a mad rightwinger, but I will always be pro-abortion because I know how it feels to be desperate."
Her career went from strength to strength, but she has never had children. "If I had known I was never going to have a child, I might have acted differently," she says. "I could die soon. I have no family, no one who cares, except Conrad. I think I might have been a rotten mother, but I would have been sympathetic to teenagers." She pauses. "I miss it. It's my greatest regret."
It might have been hard to have become the first female editor of a Canadian paper (the Toronto Star) in 1983 if she'd embraced domestic life, I suggest. "If my great grandmother could in 1891 arrive in Britain from Russia, get her papers as a midwife and work with four children, I could have tried."
She loved her career in Canada in the Seventies and Eighties, she says. "No one tried to sexually assault me. I didn't see the glass ceilings. I saw American women such as Gloria Steinem talking about them, but it didn't affect me. I worked my way up. I didn't get equal pay. That was irritating. When I challenged it, I was told men had a family to support. I certainly believe there are men out there who are horrible to women and who abuse their positions, but it has worked the other way too and what is now defined as sexual assault is absurd."
What does she mean? "If someone reached for my bosom or patted me on the shoulder, I wouldn't kick them in the balls; I'd just tell them to get lost. I had an editor once who claimed he loved me and it drove me bonkers. It was a distraction."
Does she think the MeToo generation complain too much? "I don't think women make things up. I just didn't get harassed myself. If someone said to me, 'I will promote you if you go to bed with me,' if I wanted to go to bed with them, I would, and figured I'd get two for the price of one. If I didn't, I wouldn't and I would find another way to move up. Rape, to me, has to have a menace in it. If a boss had said to me, 'I'll get you fired if you don't have sex with me,' then I don't know what I would have done."
She was married briefly as a student to Gary Smith. Her second marriage, to the writer George Jonas, was abusive, but even then she doesn't entirely blame her former husband. "I knew how to trigger it and I used that," she says. "It was a very complicated relationship. He shouldn't have hit me, but I loved him. But when he dislocated my jaw, I was really frightened and a friend helped me to leave."
I loved being able to open a magazine and think, I can buy anything I want here.
She did seem to spend a lot of her spare time having sex and ended up in prison in Mozambique once, having followed "a god" half her age to the war-torn country. "That was a nightmare," she says. She admits she has found it hard to resist a good-looking man. "Well, don't you? I have always liked tall, beefy men, rather the same stature as my father when I was a little girl. I'm not proud of my record, but if you tally up my life compared with what they call sexually active women now, it probably wasn't as promiscuous as it sounds in the book. I tended to be serially monogamous. In between marriages, I would see one or two men in six months."
Amiel has experimented with many types of sex. "I have always had an anything-goes attitude and never judged people on what turns them on," she says, but the incident with the dog is the one that sticks in my memory and hers. "A thousand and one things happened in my life, but that stuck in my mind because the dog was so beautiful. It was a doberman. The African-American gentleman who owned it was so beautiful and the day was so bright. It was early in the morning on a Sunday in New York. Everything was perfect. I started chatting to this man, then he said, 'Why don't you come back to mine?' I was petting the dog and he was petting me. When the whipped cream came out and the dog got excited, I must say I was very disconcerted. I did wonder what was going to happen next. The dog had clearly been trained. I was on the floor on my back with no clothes on so I wasn't really in a bargaining position. I remember as I was edging back towards my clothes, I didn't think the dog would attack me because it had such lovely eyes, but I decided to get out."
That doesn't sound like consensual sex. "The man was exquisite, obviously middle class, and I gave him the impression of being a complete slut, so why shouldn't he have asked me for more? I was more worried about the dog because the cream was artificial. Most dogs don't like cream, but this one did."
Then she moved to London. When her businessman third husband cheated on her, she tried to commit suicide by hanging herself from a chandelier. "I ruined such a beautiful conservatory." The Australian media mogul Kerry Packer on two occasions paid her £100,000 ($195,000) for the pleasure of her company while he gambled in a smart London casino. This helped her to buy a flat and she became a Times columnist. I tell her my life, by comparison, seems mundane.
She also tried sex with women. "I often fantasised about women when I had sex with men," she says. "I like to make myself feel normal by saying quite a few women probably do. I always wanted to touch other women, to see how they felt, and I wanted to see what it felt like to be a man. The problem was I didn't want to do things that a man did with his lower half. I wasn't interested in strap-ons, so it was a limited experience. But I never ended up having an emotional attachment to a woman, so I felt it was cruel to explore that world further if I couldn't be serious."
I have to keep reminding myself that Amiel is nearly 80. "Yes, I've lost two husbands in the past few years. Men often say that the easiest ones to get are attractive women because they are insecure about their looks going. I was always worried. I fell for men in an astonishing way, but I never liked taking their money. I would just leave when the relationship came to an end."
Nor would she sleep with men who repelled her. She adored the publisher Lord Weidenfeld, but he so physically repulsed her that embracing him was like "clutching death" and she could only bring herself to "pleasure him orally" instead.
Conrad, a fellow Canadian, was different. She found him hard to resist when she met him in 1991 and says they still have regular sex nearly 30 years later. "Until I married Conrad, I wasn't really interested in money. I liked knowing that I could support myself. Then the minute I married Conrad, I turned into this rich person. I had a reasonable amount of talent, not nearly enough, but I liked my career and had always focused on that and men. So I found the socialising hard at the beginning. I would freeze the moment we approached Palm Beach or when Conrad suggested I host a dinner party."
For possibly the first time in her life, she appeared to have found a group of women friends. "I was so excited by the group because they seemed to take me in and, suddenly, I had the female friends I wanted. But then I discovered they didn't want to do any of the things I wanted — music, opera, politics — and I worked, which was frowned on. Conrad said they liked me, but I don't think they did really. They looked down on me. One thing I don't miss is them."
Most of the women, she says, "had the attention span of a mayfly. A few read, but they never discussed anything seriously. It was all, 'How much money does your husband have? How much power? Can you pass the lettuce leaves?' I bent over backwards to tell them I didn't have too much in case they hated me for it. They all looked it up, so there was no point anyway. The men had a far better time. They could talk about politics. It wasn't purdah, but women's conversation was limited to snide gossip and if you got too political, it was considered bad taste."
The competition, she explains, was ferocious. "I used to sit in our plane and I would see their planes on the runway, and everyone would be sizing up each other's planes. Someone would get a new interior decorator and we all had to redecorate our houses. America was worse, but Britain has been catching up. I think the Russians and Americans have changed it."
They sound so wonderfully poisonous, it puts you off ever wanting to be one of the super-rich mean girls. They sneer at everything from Amiel's earrings to her dinner settings. "I did love the huge houses and the clothes, but I didn't really know how to look after them," she says. "But I loved having so many rooms for the first time in my life."
Was any of it fun? "Oh yes. I loved going to the Met Opera, having the money and the clout to go to any Ring Cycle I wanted anywhere in the world. I get high on Wagner."
And the clothes? "I still have some, but everyone was expected to wear couture and I hated the fittings. I got very restless."
It was the security she enjoyed most. "I loved being able to open a glossy magazine and think, I can buy anything I want here. Anything. Not just the clothes, but the jewellery and the real estate. Suddenly, I could buy a little apartment in Paris on a whim. But I don't miss it. The only thing I miss is not being able to get around the world quickly, and Covid stopped that anyway. As long as I have Conrad and the dogs, I'm fine."
This was payback... I never anticipated the venom. I didn't realise how disliked I was.
Losing it all must have been stomach-churning, if only because it was so humiliating. "They never found any improper book-keeping," she says. "But the ball started rolling and it just rolled straight down the hill. It wouldn't stop. Everyone wanted to make a name out of us. I woke up every day and felt sick. I have this huge pile of lovely notes from Conrad saying, 'Next week,' or 'Next year will be better. I am sorry,' but it never was. I knew there was no way but down. It was awful, but I was resigned to it. I couldn't believe that my life had been so good. This was payback."
She seemed resigned to her fate. "I am a pessimist and I always felt it couldn't last," she says. "I knew we weren't going to get out, but I never anticipated the venom. I thought we had a few friends. I knew I wasn't liked, but I didn't anticipate how disliked I was."
Almost everyone – except, she tells me, Sir Elton John – deserted her when Conrad went to jail. "I couldn't believe this wonderful man was incarcerated. I spent hours researching his case. I could hear these shouts and doors clanging whenever he rang, but he never let me know how bad it was."
Nor did she let him know, although she had to wake at 3.15am to arrive in time for prison visits. "Sitting and waiting to see my husband, having the guards leering, I had to keep up this pretence that it was all fine," she says. "He always came out of the prison door as though he was coming into his drawing room. He never let me see any worry."
Her acquaintances all assumed she would leave him. "People said I was a gold digger, but for years I had never had any money. It was Conrad I wanted. We were in this together and I felt I had contributed to his downfall by showing off our wealth. Conrad kept saying he would understand if I left, but that would have been too dreadful for me as well as him."
It was almost harder when Black was released, even though he was eventually pardoned. "I had learnt to live alone, and he had acquired different, rougher manners," she says. "He had always had to have eyes in the back of his head for the guards. Conrad sees the glass as half full and mine is half empty, so his optimism can be difficult to take. We had to learn to live together again."
Writing her memoirs has been painful. "I've been through all the things people said about me, the trial transcripts, the letters, all the moments of my life, and tried to put it down, but it has ripped the guts out of me. Then we had to leave the house Conrad had lived in for 69 years in Canada. It cost £1.5 million a year to run, so we had no choice."
She doesn't mind their downscaled life. "This house isn't small by most people's standards. We still have four bedrooms. I don't like having neighbours and I miss the huge garden, but I like the intimacy of a smaller house. We read. Conrad watches the American election. I can sit on his lap and we chat."
The journalist is less interested in politics now. She's met Donald Trump several times and she says Melania was one of the few people who was kind to her when Black went to prison. "She offered to let me use their spa free of charge." The Blacks threw parties for Boris Johnson when he was editor of The Spectator. "I adored Boris once, his humour, the ease of his life. I've sweated over mine and he just breezed around. I wouldn't trust him with women or trust his word, but I'd leave him in my house. I know he wouldn't beat my dogs."
She hasn't been back to Britain since Margaret Thatcher's funeral and is not sure now whether she will ever return. "When you are my age, you know your life is going to end," she says. "If I die tomorrow, no one will say it's premature. But I hope to work for another ten years. I have no one to follow me.
"I think the happiest moment of my life was when I was alone with Conrad on a small boat in Turkey. We were swimming, and I thought, I am married to this wonderful man and life can never hurt me again. It didn't, of course, turn out to be true, but it was a great feeling."
Friends and Enemies: A Memoir by Barbara Amiel is published on October 13.
Written by: Alice Thomson
© The Times of London