For three days, extracts from Barbara Amiel’s new autobiography Friends And Enemies have rampaged across the pages of this newspaper.
Jaws dropped and eyeballs popped as Lady Black unpacked her life; pegging out her dirty laundry with a boiling honesty one could only admire, especially given the ferocity of her critics over the years.
Indeed, when her fourth husband Conrad Black was jailed on charges of fraud and obstruction of justice in 2007, you could have floated many a boat on the universal gloat. ‘The fall of Conrad Black,’ said the Wall Street Journal, ‘is being received in Britain with almost as much glee as the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.’
So alongside her startling confessions of sexual buccaneering and lavish spending, she also sets about her foes with gusto, picking them off like a perfumed sniper.
Lawyers should be strangled at birth. Anyone who ‘persecuted’ her and her husband should be injected with Ebola virus so she can watch them die. Journalists who criticised were ‘jealous’ of her wealth or just plain ‘smelly’.
Barbara Amiel attends the 2nd Annual Canadian Arts And Fashion Awards held at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel on January 31, 2015 in Toronto, Canada
In Barbara’s bumper book of bastards, no bad deed goes unpunished, no score unsettled, no enemy unscathed.
‘Oh, does it seem that way?’ she asks, innocently. ‘I didn’t know what I wanted to capture or say, I was just trying to find my life.
‘There was such endless vituperation about me; was I really that horrible? I thought there must be some truth to it. So I wrote the book partly to justify myself, partly to find out what really did happen. Most of all I wanted to be truthful.’
Her husband thinks she has been ‘too hard on herself’ but Barbara remains obdurate. ‘It was a natural human instinct to dislike me,’ she has concluded. ‘I think I showed off too much. I just … irritated people.’
All this is delivered down the Zoom line from her home in a Toronto suburb. It is a ‘temporary’ abode, she says, because the Blacks want to move back to London as soon as they can.
They love the music and culture of Britain, whereas Canadian politics is making life there increasingly tiresome and shallow.
‘There are only two positions; soft Left and hard Left,’ she says. ‘And [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau is the most politically correct airhead I have ever met. He has a really handsome face but nothing between his ears.’
Today Amiel is in her chaotic, book-lined workroom; her hair the usual inky bob, her ruby lips glossed, still a beauty as she fast approaches her 80th birthday.
On her bottom half she wears black Levi jeans and cute canvas shoes imprinted with images of her beloved Kuvasz pet dogs; her top half is in Yves St Laurent haute couture; a fine blouse of silk mousseline with pearl buttons on the French cuffs.
‘That is going to sound awful,’ she concedes, ‘but I am not going to lie and say it’s ready-to-wear.’
The Blacks sold their big house in Toronto last year, dispensing with the final link to their grand life before jail, and ignominy forced them into these reduced circumstances; a 12,000 sq ft new-build home, big enough to hold his 35,000 books but not to entertain in the lavish style they once enjoyed.
Her social media postings reveal cosy domestic scenes, with dog beds on the wooden floors and Conrad, 76, padding about in an at-home blazer, his Minotaur shoulders disappearing into the fridge as he searches for a snack.
Many couples split under the pressure of a jail sentence and scandal but Barbara and Conrad seem to have become closer. They met in 1991, married a year later and still love each other, adore each other’s company and enjoy regular sex.
‘When I was young, it seemed revolting that women of my age would have a physical relationship with their husbands. I just thought it was nonsense. Now I don’t.
‘I am not a terribly brave person but I would walk on hot coals for him. I love Conrad and he loves me and our love is alive in every manifestation, just as it was when we first met — and that involves every aspect of it.’
Barbara Amiel and Conrad Black attend Hudson’s Bay And The Isabella Blow Foundation Present Fashion Blows at The Hudson’s Bay on October 22, 2014 in Toronto, Canada
Their love nest is ‘a large house by my standards but not by Conrad’s’, she says, adding that there is a ‘relatively pleasant’ garden and an outdoor swimming pool which is ‘not large enough nor deep enough’.
But whatever could be deep enough or large enough to satisfy a woman like Barbara? In her book, she artlessly describes missing her old London home thus: ‘How I loved the light that streamed through the six pairs of French windows across that drawing room.’ And let us not forget she once famously confessed to a glossy magazine that she ‘had an extravagance that knew no bounds’.
‘I was being ironic, making fun of myself,’ she says. And I believe her, for if Friends And Enemies proves one thing, it is that the former Fleet Street columnist has a keen sense of humour. If she didn’t, as her enemies might say, she would be missing the joke of the century. In this 600-page furnace of a book, the author confesses to things that ordinary humans wouldn’t even admit in the privacy of their own minds.
Accepting a £200,000 gift from Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer after he won playing cards. Revealing that one-time lover Lord Weidenfeld so physically repulsed her that embracing him was like ‘clutching death’ and that she could only bring herself to ‘pleasure him orally’ instead.
She bought emeralds purely to impress, then lusted after more. One gets the feeling that few moral agonies ever troubled Barbara’s midnight soul, while by day she was equal parts Lady Macbeth and Lady Muck.
It is all here, from first marriage to last handbag, from soup to nuts. How terrible she was to her first husband, the strange sex games she played with her second husband, how she tried to commit suicide by hanging herself from a chandelier when her third husband cheated on her.
Barbara Amiel and Conrad Black during Macleans Magazine Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary Gala at Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts in Ontario, Canada
‘God, I ruined such a beautiful conservatory,’ she tells me, as if she had chosen the wrong shade of terracotta for the plant pots. ‘There has to be a knack to it, right?’
When I read Barbara’s book before interviewing her, I would wake in the middle of the night, blood thrumming, synapses screaming, brain unable to cope.
Was I dreaming, or did she really get drunk with Leonard Cohen on the night before her first wedding?
Did she really bump into ‘a tall African-American’ with a handsome Doberman dog on a New York street, go back to his apartment for sex, then allow him to spray whipped cream on her nude self before he invited his dog to lick it off?
Did Vogue fashion boss Andre Leon Talley really send her mad, hysterical faxes from the Paris fashion shows, advising her what to buy? (‘Steer clear of anything edged in sable at Balmain!’ ‘Let rip at Gaultier!’)
Can it be true that her butler was mauled in the snow by one of her dogs after he had eaten a baked salmon dinner (the dog, not the butler)? Or that Barbara once cut off her nose to spite her face quite literally, as an early botched nose job left her with barely a snout and she had to have another operation using a bone graft from her hip to build it up again?
Yes, yes and yes again. It is all true, every word of it, and lots more besides.
Without a nose she endured a brief, unhappy period in her life when men did not find her attractive. Once she got re-snouted, it was business as usual.
When she appeared on television, she had legendary breasts that had all Canada speculating on whether she’d had a boob job. She would tell interviewers: ‘If I had them done, they’d be twice as big. I don’t do things by half.’
Those green eyes and that purring voice! How could men resist? Very few of them did and for about six decades she welcomed their interest with enthusiasm.
‘I love sex,’ she tells me. ‘Opera and sex are my two great passions. I thought it was just so much fun. A girlfriend and I once sat down to count the number of partners we’d had…’
Should I mention the Doberman?
When she appeared on television, she had legendary breasts that had all Canada speculating on whether she’d had a boob job. She would tell interviewers: ‘If I had them done, they’d be twice as big. I don’t do things by half’
‘And I can’t remember the number, so don’t even ask! I suppose by the standards of today I wasn’t even promiscuous. I tended to marry the people I had affairs with. But I loved sex and I thought it was great fun.
‘I wasn’t into the orgy scene. I was really rather straightforward in what I liked.’
‘But I thought men were just great gifts to women.’
Amiel originally wrote 400,000 words of memoirs, then had to cut it in half — but quite honestly I could go on reading about her life for ever, although the brutal honesty of her chapters does seem to suggest some form of self-punishment.
For while many people blame Barbara for the downfall of her husband, the surprising thing is that she is one of them.
‘Why did I need to be so flamboyant? Why did I need so much haute couture? So many homes?’ she wails. ‘I blamed myself then and I still do now.’
It was her ostentation and ability to irritate, she believes, that first drew official attention to exactly how the high-rolling Lord and Lady Black of Crossharbour were funding their lavish international lifestyle. It was her supposed lust for houses and gowns and private jets that untied the ribbons on their gift-wrapped existence, then snuffed out the Gatsby-esque glow for ever.
One minute they were just your average ultra-high-net-worth couple sleeping in £10,000 sheets in their homes in Palm Beach, London, New York and Toronto. The next she was visiting him in prison where they drank, God forbid, ‘ghastly coffee out of a really foul vending machine’.
‘Conrad says I am wrong, that nothing would have changed,’ she says. ‘But we would have had more cash. I contributed to the shortage of ready cash which made it impossible for us to get proper legal defence.’
Off the top of her head, she estimates she spent £300,000 every year on couture. Later she emailed to say it was actually about half that amount. ‘I checked the invoices, which I keep for masochistic reasons,’ she wrote. More punishment.
It was Barbara’s supposed lust for houses and gowns and private jets that untied the ribbons on their gift-wrapped existence, then snuffed out the Gatsby-esque glow for ever
After his trial in 2007, former press baron Black would serve nearly 42 months in a U.S. prison after being convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice — and it nearly killed them both. In prison, he developed idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and hypertension. At home, she made herself ill with stress and anxiety.
‘I was worried Conrad would die in prison because I couldn’t get medical care to him. I was worried I would have a stroke and be incapacitated because I had to stay alive for Conrad, otherwise he would have been totally alone.’
Socially they became pariahs. Barbara was sacked by her own hairdresser, disowned by the manageress of the Manolo Blahnik shoe shop in Manhattan and, most humiliating of all, blanked by her friend Ghislaine Maxwell, who ran away from her at a party.
‘She bolted,’ she says. ‘Look, I can’t blame her. I can’t blame anyone. After all, I was toxic.’
She finds it hard to reconcile ‘the Ghislaine I walked with on the sand at Palm Beach’ with the Ghislaine who allegedly procured underage girls. ‘But I can’t defend her because I don’t know whether she committed those crimes or no t… if she did, she should pay for them.’
The Blacks have certainly paid the price for theirs, an ordeal that lasted for 16 years from first court paper to last. Perhaps it is ironic that the stress made Barbara lose so much weight, little of her couture fits her now.
‘My bosom went out of the window — you don’t realise how much fat it is. When I started buying haute couture, I was a decent 130 pounds. Now, even though I eat a box or two of biscuits a day, plus porridge and everything else, I am still stuck at about 111 pounds.’
She sold most of her Birkin bags to pay vet bills for her dogs. ‘If they got ill, I would just tear off another bag,’ she says. ‘That was my way of contributing.’
Conrad has urged her to start shopping at Chanel again, to cheer herself up, but so far she has resisted. ‘Buying Chanel is such a cliché it makes me ill, but the thing is it always fits. I don’t have to have alterations. Conrad is always saying, Barbara, you don’t have to skimp this way, you can go out and do it.
‘I am not a creature of hideous extravagance any more. I have become this rather bizarre person who worries all the time. But don’t worry, I will learn to buy again! You can count on this in me. I am not going to suddenly turn into the little woman in the thrift store.’
Who would doubt it for a second?
What has she learnt from this terrible parable of excess and hubris? That she does not miss the material things, especially not the couture. ‘It was always a pain in the neck. I did it for the sheer, shallow reason of keeping up with the Joneses. I don’t even want to get dressed up any more, I just want to stay at home with my dogs.’
She also learnt that strength comes from within, not without. ‘God, if I didn’t have some mental strength by now I would be a quivering jelly. I learnt a lot. How to wake up morning after morning, knowing that things looked hopeless but that I would get through the day.’
And that old age brings with it fresh concerns but deep comforts.
‘I worry about encroaching Alzheimer’s. Sometimes I forget words, I mispronounce them. I do worry that I am slipping into dementia, so we discuss it and I say, you know Conrad, you have got to let me die. I don’t want you to have to look after me.’
But won’t he look after her like she looked after him?
‘Yes,’ she nods, a Snow (Not Quite) White considering her stalwart prince. ‘I know he will be there until the end. I know.’
n Friends And Enemies, by Barbara Amiel, is published by Constable on October 13 at £25. To reserve a copy for £21.25, visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.