By Rick McGinnis
The first question you have to ask when holding all 600-plus pages of Barbara Amiel’s Friends and Enemies: A Memoir in your hand is: Who exactly is this book meant for?
You might imagine that it’s an attempt to correct the story of her husband Conrad Black’s trial, conviction and imprisonment. But Black himself attempted to do that with his 2011 book A Matter of Principle, and it should be obvious by now that anyone given to an unfavourable opinion of Black’s guilt probably made their mind up when he was charged with fraud in 2004. The world has become an awful lot more polarized since then, and opinions on Black’s guilt or innocence are deeply buried among the a priori assumptions of most people who still think about what was once front-page news.
But if it’s for Black’s fans and supporters, it’s likely that they’re already enumerated among the list of Friends – in Canada, the U.S. and Britain – helpfully included in the book’s appendix. While most of them can surely afford a copy in hardcover, it’s certain that many will still expect a complementary volume – perhaps even a signed one – and in any case that doesn’t make for a potential market that would appeal to any publisher.
What you’re left with is a book for anyone who wants to read a really good story – a potboiler, almost a bodice-ripper, with a transatlantic plot, copious dirt, and a cast of famous names. Whatever your opinion of Amiel, her talent as a writer is undeniable. She’s definitely more readable than her husband. And, so most of Friends and Enemies is a real page-turner, as outlandish and improbable as a novel by Jacqueline Susann or Jackie Collins, despite being based on real life and verifiable events.
Amiel’s origins are as unhappy as you might expect – born in England, she ended up in Hamilton, Ont., after her parents divorced and her mother remarried and emigrated. She was a teenager living alone, plotting to return to England and her father, when she learned of his suicide in a perfunctory telephone call from her mother. With a start in life this quietly dire, quick psychoanalysis would diagnose deep and lingering father issues, and Amiel is too smart to deny them.
Most people over a certain age will remember Amiel as a stunning young journalist, pushing to the front of a crowded but placid media scene in the ‘70s with obvious ambition and audacity that wasn’t appreciated in Canada, though it did end up making her the first female editor of the Toronto Sun in 1983. My father-in-law was in the newsroom there when she famously showed up wearing a fur coat – and nothing else. The ubiquity of this story – and others closely resembling it – gives some idea of how avidly Amiel was being watched even before she reached her international social apogee as Lady Black.
The first, pre-Conrad third of the memoir is a record of a life that could have ended in quiet retirement thereafter and still be called scandalous. There are many men, a bisexual period, a rape, an addiction to codeine, brief imprisonment in a jail in Mozambique after a holiday that went awry and three marriages, two to rich but inscrutable men, one to a writer she considered more than her intellectual equal – the late George Jonas. Amiel admits that she prodded Jonas to jealousy and physical abuse that ended the marriage, though they remained close friends until his death.
There is, early on in her journalism career, an abortion, recalled over two pages with a grim, forced insouciance that can’t hide the familiar regret. “My abortion was almost comical in its stereotypical features,” Amiel writes. “The storefront had boarded windows covered with paper notices and a backroom featuring a dentist’s chair.” The abortionist, Leslie Frank Smoling, was co-defendant alongside Henry Morgentaler in the case that would effectively decriminalize abortion in Canada.
“A nearly five-month fetus is not a mole to be removed,” Amiel says, looking back on that day. “At the very least one should know its shape, understand it has developed toes and fingernails, can stretch and yawn, see its fierce little fight for life.”
“‘Death comes to the apple, comes to the cheese,’ as my former husband wrote in one of his poems. Death came to my fetus. I did not know this would be my single chance at having a child.”
Much later in life, when her husband is sent to jail, Amiel finds emotional solace in a trio of dogs – Kuvasz, large Hungarian herding dogs misleadingly resembling Labrador Retrievers – that are obviously substitute children, the “fur babies” that have replaced absent children in so many lives. The passages in the book where Amiel recalls her failure with a first, untrainable animal and the death of a beloved second one are the most emotionally raw stretches of her memoir.
Most of the book covers her time as the wife of Conrad Black, and much of that tells their side of his trial and incarceration. I won’t try to take a side in this – the peculiarities of Black’s alleged crimes are obscured by labyrinthine interpretations of corporate law and securities regulation, but it wasn’t hard to recognize sensationalized media coverage and overzealous prosecution at work, especially in light of the sentence handed out to lifestyle guru Martha Stewart not long before.
What the story does contain is plenty of hubris, a dramatic element to any story. Amiel never flags in supporting her husband, but she does fault him for ignoring the rise of shareholder activism and the corporate governance movement, which Black dismissed with a customary hauteur that he would later regret.
For her part, Amiel regrets what she recognizes as her own greed and competitiveness, aroused by her elevation to a new social class that she’d only fleetingly moved in as a high-profile journalist, and (briefly) as the wife of two rich but comparatively low-profile men. Black’s ambitions were much larger than those husbands, and Amiel became his willing accomplice in his ambitions as a press baron, which led to a title and a seat in the House of Lords.
A poor girl with rich tastes, she allows herself to spend her way into the good graces of a group of socialites she dubs “The Group” – wives of men much richer and more powerful than Black. With the looming downfall of Black’s Hollinger empire, this part of the book is the natural culmination of the mass-market paperback novel that Amiel’s life became – her longing for status, money, and fame achieved, to disappointing, even tragic effect.
With Black and Hollinger already in the sights of people who would end up gutting the corporation, Amiel gleefully enhanced the target on their backs by giving provocative interviews and providing photo-ops that celebrated conspicuous consumption, at a time when high society was quietly moving away from these ancien regime displays of wealth.
Her life among these Park Avenue aristocrats, following the social season back and forth across the Atlantic, is one of small but innumerable humiliations, ignored but remembered on the way to more of the same. As a journalist, Amiel was the author of her own fortune, and usually among the smartest people in the room. As a rich man’s wife, her status is bound tightly to his, her intelligence the least useful thing about her. Even if you don’t hold a charitable view of Black, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Amiel, even before his sentencing sweeps that society world away.
Many people will skip to the Friends and Enemies lists at the back of Amiel’s book, a select few to see if they, or someone they know, make an appearance. For the rest of us it provides a fascinating and candid conclusion to Amiel’s story. Unwilling to entertain any Christian responsibility to forgive, Amiel openly contemplates revenge, especially on those members of the legal profession who she thinks went far beyond their obligation to the law in pursuit of her husband.
Her erstwhile society friends are notably absent; Amiel recognizes that there was no real malice in their dropping her – she and her husband simply lost their utility and cachet, and in any case that era of high society is now a part of history as much in the past as one you’d find in an Edith Wharton novel.
The UK list of friends is loaded with titles and honorifics; the U.S. and Canadian friends are a curious mix of conservative luminaries (Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Brian Mulroney) and liberal ones (Bill Clinton, Anna Wintour, Margaret Atwood, David Peterson). Stephen Harper is on the enemy list, as is Toronto Star columnist Rosie Di Manno, whom most media liberals consider a conservative, or at least a reactionary.
The fact is that Amiel and her husband were strange icons for the conservative movement, even before their downfall. No one would mistake them for social conservatives, and Black’s many odd enthusiasms, such as his worship of FDR, raise red flags for ideological conservatives.
They are, ultimately, denizens of overlapping worlds of celebrity, politics, and power – worlds that were once conspicuously non-partisan, and governed by fluid and often gnomic markers of class, status and currency. This makes Friends and Enemies, a book only a few months old, a record of a world quickly passing because it’s hard to imagine a Barbara Amiel succeeding in journalism today—or wanting to— given the quickly diminishing returns and viability of the profession.
A smart, pretty, and ambitious young woman like Amiel today would avoid journalism and probably try to make her mark as an online personality, or as some kind of activist. Her choices would be far more circumscribed; the likelihood of being punished for straying from political and social orthodoxy extreme. A modern Barbara Amiel would be far less interesting, her career much shorter. There would be no 600-page-plus memoir but a trail of deleted tweets, an inactive YouTube channel, a Facebook page full of dog videos. Now tell me more about social progress.