That Was Then

Bar­bara Amiel’s mem­oir cov­ers it all, from name-drop­ping to nam­ing names,

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - Shi­nan Go­vani writes

Bar­bara Amiel’s mem­oir names names

It was as much an end of an era as it was mil­len­nium. Con­jur­ing up ghosts of a 2000 New Year’s Eve spent in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic lair of the late Os­car de la Renta, Bar­bara Amiel re­mem­bers how glam­orous and how “cock-a-hoop” she felt then, amidst all the many one-name su­per­novas of the Man­hat­tan ilk (women atop a fad­ing old guard): his wife, Annette; Nancy Kissinger; Mercedes Bass; Jayne Wrights­man; the other Bar­bara, Wal­ters – “all tarted in our long gowns, and the glit­ter­ing paste tiaras that had dec­o­rated our din­ner plates.”

Turn­ing to her hus­band, Con­rad Black, that night – both of them then at the Ed­mund Hil­lary sum­mit of so­ci­ety (he the in­ter­na­tional press baron with a far-flung em­pire that in­cluded Lon­don’s Daily Tele­graph, The Jerusalem Post and the Chicago Sun-Times) but still some years from their slow raft ride to the isle of ig­nominy (af­ter a sen­sa­tional trial in Chicago – faced with 13 charges, Black would go on to serve nearly 42 months in a U.S. prison on counts of fraud and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice), Amiel re­mem­bers say­ing, “We can’t go on like this.”

When Con­rad peered quizzi­cally, she replied with a sigh of so­cial anx­i­ety (one that in­evitably be­comes more per­sis­tent and ever clankier, the more rungs you climb). That is to say, as Amiel shares now: “We were al­ways guests – guests in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, guests in the Hamp­tons or Con­necti­cut, guests at the char­ity ta­bles that cost any­where from $25,000 to $100,000 a ta­ble.”

“What do we bring?” Amiel vexed. “We add value,” Black clipped back.

And so it went – and still goes: one of the abid­ing scenes of a mar­riage, cour­tesy of a fresh tell-all that the Lady has writ­ten – that’s Bar­bara Joan Estelle Amiel, Baroness Black of Crosshar­bour, to you – mere months from her 80th birth­day in De­cem­ber.

Bar­bara, ever the catas­trophist and pupil of Hobbes; Con­rad, de­spite some of the rick­eti­ness of re­cent years – that ex­tra­or­di­nary court trial! that stint in jail! – still, some­how, a man of Lucy Maud Mont­gomery-like pluck.

The mem­oir, a doorstop­per ti­tled Friends and En­e­mies – heavy on the lat­ter – cov­ers it all, bring­ing to boil the life of a wo­man who has fas­ci­nated since she was on the cover of Toronto Life some 54 years ago. (The first-ever is­sue of the mag, did y’ know?)

Thinker. Columnist. In­ter­na­tional beauty. Scourge of the left. Hell-hath-no-fire pro­tec­tor-wife. The early years, in Canada, back when she was a Snow White gone wild – all al­abaster skin, raven locks, in­tel­lec­tual fire­power and sex­ual élan – and when she nabbed the role of ed­i­tor of the Toronto Sun (the first wo­man to run a pa­per in Canada). The even ear­lier years, back to that hard­scrab­ble child­hood – born in Lon­don, Eng­land, and im­mi­grat­ing to Hamil­ton, with the mother who had all the bed­side man­ner of Betty Draper. The fizzy mid­dle years – with hus­band No. 4 by her side (hav­ing al­ready shed lawyer Gary Smith, writer Ge­orge Jonas and TV mag­nate David Graham) – dur­ing which time

they hopped across scenes ev­ery­where from New York to Lon­don to Palm Beach, host­ing din­ners in their home for Diana, Princess of Wales, one mo­ment, tête-a-têt­ing with Anna Win­tour the next, nights on the town with Gianni Agnelli.

Asked to re­flect on the gush­ing wa­ter­fall of nos­tal­gia – some­thing that any per­son writ­ing a mem­oir of their life must con­sider – Amiel con­ceded to me on the eve of pub­li­ca­tion: “Nos­tal­gia, some­thing I ex­pect all hu­mans feel – I of­ten won­der if an­i­mals do when they sense the loss of a mem­ber of their group – is not an es­pe­cially dom­i­nant note in my mind. In gen­eral, I pre­fer to look for­ward rather than back al­though, of course, in a mem­oir by ne­ces­sity you must re­count ear­lier days. Most of us fac­ing the end of our lives tend to re­mem­ber child­hood a lit­tle wist­fully be­cause there’s no ‘go­ing home’ any­more ... !”

When I sug­gested to her she is a Failed Tro­phy Wife of sorts – a theme that comes up re­peat­edly in her mem­oir, as Amiel tries in vain to be­come a prima plus-one and host­ess of note as the wife of a press baron in var­i­ous world cap­i­tals – she was a good sport. “Ac­tu­ally,” she con­firmed, “I would have liked to be a good Tro­phy Wife al­though I don’t think Con­rad would have given a fig. I sim­ply didn’t have the nec­es­sary qual­i­ties. I wasn’t young enough (best to be in that won­der­ful de­mo­graphic late 20s to very early 40s). I never had quite enough time be­cause I’ve been work­ing on deadlines all through our mar­riage, which meant some­times the seams of my stock­ings weren’t straight or my hair not done.”

“Key for a tro­phy wife, too,” she went on, “is a gen­uine en­joy­ment and skill in be­ing a host­ess or guest at so­cial oc­ca­sions, which I re­ally couldn’t do, though heaven knows I re­ally tried. But as my friends from early days will tell you, that was al­ways a prob­lem for me, so noth­ing new in my mar­riage, only the prob­lem was writ larger. I think the fact that I was a suc­cess­ful columnist did pro­vide a bit of an ex­cuse to patch over my short­com­ings.”

As far as other failings go, there was cer­tainly no big­ger than the Vogue pro­file she granted, in 2002 – the one that sprouted the sin­gle line that’s be­come syn­ony­mous with our Bar­bara, and later be­came a sand­bag on her hus­band as al­le­ga­tions of fi­nan­cial malfea­sance be­fell him there­after. Back when she now-fa­mously told the mag that her “ex­trav­a­gance that knows no bounds” – ba­si­cally Amiel’s “Let them eat cake.” (The quote had the snakebit­ten luck of go­ing even more vi­ral once pho­tos emerged of her and Con­rad dressed up as Marie An­toinette and Car­di­nal Riche­lieu for a fancy-dress party held at Kens­ing­ton Palace in 2000.)

Giv­ing a full tick-tock in her mem­oir of that mo­men­tous in­ter­view and shoot – Mario Testino took the pics, and her friend An­dré Leon Tal­ley styled the spread – she writes: “How many times have I re­gret­ted that line? ... the words sounded melodic to me, and they were go­ing to be the noose around my neck.”

About that mo­ment in his­tory, Amiel fur­ther ven­tures in the book, “so­cial me­dia and celebrity wardrobes had not yet taken hold ... In terms of shal­low dis­play, I was ahead of my time and be­hind in the num­ber of hand­bags.”

Cue the pas­sage that again re­minds us of the cost of keep­ing up with the Joneses, the higher you climb: Those days in Lon­don, when their world be­comes one of but­lers, chefs, chauf­feurs, foot­men and guards (and where, when her wed­ding even­tu­ally does hap­pen with Black, both Mar­garet Thatcher and Sarah Fer­gu­son are on hand for the re­cep­tion held at Annabel’s).

Asked in what ways Con­rad has changed her and she him over 25plus years of mar­riage, she told me: “I think Con­rad is more ‘trust­ing’ in the sense he be­lieves peo­ple have the same stan­dards of loy­alty and de­cency he has and quite of­ten they don’t. I don’t ex­pect much, so I’m rarely dis­ap­pointed. We can’t re­ally change one another. These sorts of at­ti­tudes are built into our life ex­pe­ri­ences and genes – and re­mem­ber we didn’t get mar­ried un­til I was 51 and he was in his late 40s. We just laugh at one another’s views. He thinks I’m a ter­ri­ble pes­simist, and I think he’s a mad op­ti­mist. The truth is prob­a­bly some­where in be­tween.”

A bit­ter­sweet sto­icism cer­tainly per­vades at the close of the book, with Amiel writ­ing, “I had star­dust ... but not enough.” That, com­bined with the reams and reams of pages in that fi­nal part ded­i­cated to the two loyal Hun­gar­ian Ku­vasz that had come into her life and to­ward which she ra­di­ates a Leona Helm­s­ley-like de­vo­tion. (Sadly, one of her dogs died in June, she tells me.)

It is a melan­cho­lia only tem­pered by the spiky list of gripes that keeps the pages of her mem­oir an­i­mated, as the au­thor names names of all those whom she be­lieves slighted her and her hus­band dur­ing their trou­bles – and af­ter.

To that end, I had to fi­nally ask: “To get all Proust Ques­tion­naire on you, which liv­ing per­son do you most de­spise?” to which Amiel had a more than ready re­sponse: “Af­ter what hap­pened to my hus­band, I can’t sin­gle out the liv­ing per­son I most de­spise – the list is too long, and a fair num­ber of peo­ple are tied for pole po­si­tion.”

Trans­la­tion: her en­mity, much like her ex­trav­a­gance, knows no bounds.

A colour­ful life: Amiel in 1980; on a 1983 bus shelter ad; on the first Toronto Life cover; at her wed­ding to Con­rad Black in 1992

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