You will need to allow plenty of time to read and absorb the contents of Barbara Amiel’s new memoir Friends and Enemies which was released earlier this month. Weighing in at a hefty 603 pages in the hardcover and 978 pages on my iPad mini, it requires a lot of time, and many glasses of wine or, in my case, cups of strong tea to get through. When first I heard about the book, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to read it. Her extreme right-wing politics and lack of sympathy for feminism compromised my objectivity on what she would have to say. And who can truly relate to a woman who includes Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter in her list of ‘friends’?
Now eighty years old, Barbara Amiel is seven years older than I am. This means I’ve watched, read about and observed her life and career and that of her husband Conrad Black pretty much from the start. I remember reading in The Globe and Mail many decades ago about Black’s wedding to his first wife who had been his secretary; that’s how long I’ve been around. I’ve been a keen observer of both Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel and until a few years ago when their politics took an even more dramatic turn to the right, I was an admirer. In fact, through about seventy-two degrees of separation, I can claim a cobweb-thin connection to Conrad Black.
Back in the early nineties when Premier Bob Rae was destroying the Ontario economy with his NDP economic policies and prolonging the recession by several years, I attended a protest at Queen’s Park. I had tee-shirts printed with Taxed to the Max and Rae’ving Mad” which I sold for ten dollars each at a cardtable I’d set up on the lawn during the demonstration. Of course, I lost money on the tee-shirt venture because I ordered too many but it was an interesting experience.
The remaining tee-shirts had to be distributed or disposed of so I started giving them away. I packed a couple up and personally delivered them to Conrad Black’s Hollinger office on Toronto Street with a note that his children could perhaps wear them. I knew his strong conservative leanings were the antithesis of what Bob Rae was promoting so I figured he’d like them. A couple of weeks later I received a personal letter signed in fountain pen thanking me for them. I kept that letter for several years—my fragile connection to a famous person.
Anyway, Back to Barbara’s Book
Friends and Enemies is educational, self-deprecating, frequently humorous, tragic, and eye-opening. I could not put it down. I’ll warn you now, this is a rather lengthy review because there’s so much to talk about I cannot begin to cover it all. As I got into the book, it becomes evident that it is not always easy to be rich. Remember the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for”. As I lay reading on my ten-year-old sofa covered with a sale-priced fleece throw from Hudson’s Bay to protect the polyester upholstery from whatever the dog tracks in, I started to appreciate the simplicity of my own working-class life. Thank you, Barbara. It’s wonderful not to have to worry about a constant cycle of hosting and attending classy dinner parties with people you may or may not like including bitchy heiresses. No worries in our household about bickering domestic staff who think nothing of hopping a plane to Florida at your expense to check out your home in Palm Beach. Thank goodness I don’t have to maintain a couture wardrobe worthy of keeping up with the Rothchilds and such. My yoga pants and tee-shirts have served me well these past months.
Barbara Amiel was born in England and moved to Canada with her mother, sister and step-father when she was twelve. Her mother, Vera had an emotionally detached and difficult relationship with her daughters and this resulted in Amiel living in a series of boarding houses in Hamilton, Ontario while attending high school. Her work ethic was established early as she worked multiple jobs during high school and to raise money to attend The University of Toronto. After graduation, it was difficult to get a job that required her literary skills so she modelled and wrote freelance to support herself. Being born Jewish is a strong thread throughout the book. She even details the history of conflict in the Middle East which I found educational and enlightening.
Love and Marriage
Barbara Amiel met her first husband Gary Smith while attending university. He had all the credentials any young woman in the early sixties would want in a husband at that time. He was educated, intelligent, handsome and came from an affluent Jewish family. The only problem was that she felt she wasn’t ready for marriage at such a young age and the prospect of becoming a young suburban wife held no appeal for her whatsoever. Naturally, the marriage didn’t last. As her career in journalism blossomed, she was introduced to George Jonas, a Hungarian immigrant, an intellectual and a man with a tragic past that included escaping Stalinist communism. Her affair with David Graham, husband number three put an end to her volatile marriage to Jonas but they remained close for the rest of his life. David Graham was a philanderer and the cause of severe stress for Amiel who was also prone to bouts of clinical depression exacerbated by her husband’s manipulations.
Conrad Black was not on Amiel’s romance radar when her boss at The Toronto Sun ordered her to accept his invitation to dinner. “Conrad merrily banged on about Duplessis, and with much relief I happily let him. The dinner was excruciating.” They met occasionally at social and business functions over the years but his status as a married man and her already busy love life meant they were never linked romantically. When he separated from his wife and sought her out, they connected and we know how that story ends. Barbara Amiel and I both married our final husbands when we were in our early fifties so that’s encouraging for mature women. Don’t underestimate us.
Black was her fourth and final husband but life with Conrad Black came with a new set of challenges. “My excessive anxiety over this new life with Conrad brought a poisonous stew of self-importance and insecurity.” As a corporate wife, she was now be expected to host dinner parties, weekends at country homes and evenings at the opera or charity balls. Until then, and she was in her early fifties, she had only given two dinner parties in her life, for six people. “I began to get oxygen deprivation at the thought of the steep domestic mountain in front of me.” Having multiple residences, friends in high places and credit cards with seemingly unlimited ceilings was not without its own set of problems. It may be hard for us commoners to sympathize but being rich requires all kinds of extra work the rest of us don’t have to deal with.
Living The Good Life
While we commoners might share gossip with girlfriends about how many pairs of shoes or pairs of black pants we own, the Palm Beach set compared how many planes they owned or how many bathrooms they had in their various homes around the world. Where we talk about spending hundreds of dollars they toss out expenditures in the millions. Being rich means acquiring bitchy new girlfriends who delight in announcing “My diamonds and emeralds are bigger than your diamonds and emeralds”. Bedsheets for guest rooms cost tens of thousands of dollars. That adds up when you have homes in Toronto, London (England), Palm Beach and New York. It’s a rarified world indeed.
The juicy and extensive name-dropping is unavoidable. Dukes, Princesses, Lords, heiresses, celebrities, they’re all named and clearly designated at the end of the book as Friends or Enemies. Amiel crossed swords with Ghislaine Maxwell, girlfriend and alleged procurer of young girls for Jeffrey Epstein. She lunched with the elite and spent weekends at country homes of the uber-wealthy. She was a regular client of the couture houses in Paris with a weakness for Chanel jackets. In fact, a former directrice of Yves Ste. Laurent in Paris once commented that “Palm Beach is the epitome of everything that’s gone wrong in America.” An interesting observation. Throughout most of her life, Amiel was fueled by an addictive cocktail of codeine in a large glass of Ribena and Carnation milk.
At the October 2003 Hollinger International Shareholders’ meeting in New York (at which, coincidently, Donald Trump was the guest speaker), the third-largest investor, Tweedy, Browne objected to Conrad Black’s writing off part of his entertaining and living expenses to the company. All payments had, however, been approved by Hollinger’s auditors, directors and revealed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The denouncements had begun and their blatantly lavish lifestyle made the charges difficult to defend. Amiel’s excessive spending, which Conrad assured her was within their budget as he monitored her spending was a major irritant to the complainants. The coup was led by Richard C. Breeden, who eventually withheld recovery money from investors in the Bernie Madoff frauds for four years while billing $38 million+ to the government for his services. They’re a slimy and unpalatable brew of humanity.
Describing her time in court Amiel likened the flawed proceedings as “like attending a nineteenth-century school with cane-wielding teachers and then recreation time with gangs of roving bullies.” When they weren’t in court, the press hovered like vultures gleefully picking the bones of a once-successful businessman and his journalist wife. Block by block, their tower of power came crumbling down. Over fourteen years, from 2003 to 2017, the Blacks lost everything—their four homes along with furniture and art, sources of income, so-called friends and social status. Christmas cards stopped. Memberships in private clubs were cancelled. The Order of Canada was rescinded. Dinner invitations halted. Funds from the sale of the New York apartment strangely accrued to the FBI. Palm Beach and London were sold to pay legal bills and further funds were constantly demanded by U.S. government authorities and judges.
After The Ball
Barbara Amiel started to rebuild her life during the two and a half years her husband was still in prison. On the advice of her ex-husband, George Jonas, she got a dog, a Hungarian Kuvaszok, and her menagerie grew. Anyone who has ever owned a pet will understand the immeasurable therapeutic value pets bring to our lives when we’re going through any kind of crisis. Donald Trump pardoned Conrad Black in 2017 so it’s understandable why his name is included as one of their friends. Black continues to defend Trump which makes me extremely uncomfortable but that’s a personal and subjective point of view. We cannot argue that Amiel is a talented and smart journalist, whether we agree with her politics or not.
The comparisons of Amiel to Marie Antoinette are not misplaced. While she acknowledges in Friends and Enemies that there are people in the world who have suffered far worse than she has, it somehow rings hollow. Amiel and Conrad Black certainly paid a high price for their missteps. She did bare her soul and it’s difficult to not sympathize with their fourteen years of being dragged through the mud, but perhaps karma has prevailed. Some of her actions (and you’ll know what I’m talking about when you read her painfully frank revelations) smack of very disturbing behaviour. I’ve bookmarked dozens of pages to go back and reread in order to gain a better understanding of why and how she could have done some of the things she did. But, that’s all in the past, which is what a memoir is all about.
Friends and Enemies was an absolutely fascinating read and I could not put it down. Obviously, the lady knows how to write and learning her side of the story was revealing. Amiel has an amazing vocabulary so you might want to have a dictionary handy. I didn’t want to like the book but I did. Now that I’ve finally finished, I have oodles of time on my hands. So, I guess I should get at the ironing and wash the kitchen floor since I don’t have a staff to do it for me (who could also be stealing my stuff). Or, maybe I’ll just start reading another book. Some light fiction would be nice. I feel so much better about the life I’ve lived. And when you read Barbara Amiel’s book I’m confident you’ll be more than happy with your own life as well.
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