What makes a great memoir? The answer is that it matters less what the life lived actually was, than that it should be described with the utmost honesty. Ordinarily that means it must be written by somebody who either does not expect the book to be published in their lifetime or else has no special desire to still leave the house. Barbara Amiel’s Friends and Enemies, the personal history of the British-Canadian journalist and wife of the one-time press baron Conrad Black, falls very clearly into the latter grouping.
This has already had repercussions. After excerpts from this book first appeared in the British press, Amiel claimed they had lost her what remaining friends she had in London. This is only a slight exaggeration. The excerpts included descriptions from the book of the author’s affairs both in and out of marriage. One was with the late George Weidenfeld, one of the 20th century’s most significant book publishers. Various of Weidenfeld’s voluminous number of friends felt that Amiel had dishonored the great man. As a friend of his myself, I did not take that view. None of Weidenfeld’s friends ever took him for a celibate. Yet the scandal highlighted the moral questions that always surround memoirs such as this:
Do the critics think that the truths of a person’s life should not be said? Or should be concealed? Or put off for another day? If so, then when does that day arrive? When exactly is the seemly moment? At the age of 80, Barbara Amiel has decided it is now. Reading her account, I think she is right.
The young Barbara grew up in Jewish north London and clearly wanted out. Yet when her mother wrenched her out at the age of 11, it was for Canada. Her adored father stayed behind, and four years later Barbara’s mother announced that he had gone mad and killed himself, adding, “I expect you’ll go mad too.”
But Barbara was beautiful, smart, and possessed of whatever fuel it is that a person needs to run from such a start. She married multiple times, always to rich or talented men but each time leaving without any riches of her own. She made it in television and print journalism in Canada, ending up in senior editorial positions and, after a move to London, as a columnist at the Sunday Times.
It was there that I first started reading her, from the late 1990s, when her columns defending Israel in the British press made her a hero to some of us and probably a pariah to more. And yet despite the millions of insightful and controversial words she had written throughout her career, it was Amiel’s private life that brought her infamy.
In 1992 she married Conrad Black, the founder of the Hollinger Group, which for a period owned some of the best newspapers and magazines in the world, including the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator in Britain, Macleans in Canada, and the Jerusalem Post. Black was a press baron just as that breed was going extinct. But in the 2000s he fell after a company coup dragged in outside vulture parties accusing him of enriching himself from the company coffers. Whatever the original justifications for the charges, Hollinger collapsed under its post-Black “saviors.” One of the great newspaper empires was broken up, Black went to prison, subsequently had most of the charges struck down—and then, in 2019, was pardoned by President Trump.
Amiel is at pains to stress how financially monastic her pre-Black life was. But by her own admission, she made up for it afterwards, developing a jewelry and couture habit that positively invited attention from the gods of hubris. After Conrad was given a peerage, she became Lady Black, and a certain nominative determinism seemed to take hold. To many observers, she appeared cold and aloof. Fellow hacks became suspicious of her, and she now believes that the negativity she attracted was not coincidental. Meantime, the circles she began to move in on Park Avenue and the toytown world of Palm Beach gave her a serious sense of imposter syndrome.
Showing off one of her homes and couture collections to an interviewer from Vogue magazine, she professed (in a phrase that would haunt her endlessly) to have “an extravagance that knows no bounds.” To read her laceratingly honest account of what was going on in her head in that moment, and indeed throughout this whole period, is not just to understand Amiel’s own mind but the attitude of a great many people who cover their insecurities with boastfulness and imperious certainties. “I created the impression of a woman far thicker-skinned and predatory than I was,” she admits at one point. “I knew this… but I couldn’t help myself.”
DOES SHE blame herself, as so many observers did, for her husband’s fall? Did she drive him to spend beyond his already considerable means? Conrad Black assures her not and says that while she did sometimes “go overboard,” it was “not into perilous waters.” “I was watching and would have stopped you,” he tells her.
None of which much helped husband or wife through the endless self-questioning that must have come during the weeks in court. Nor through the subsequent round trips to the correctional facilities in which Lord Black was imprisoned for a total of three and a half years.
Black himself has already covered the legal and business elements of this terrain in his detailed 2011 book A Matter of Principle. Anyone who thought that book settled scores will marvel at how his wife’s memoir outstrips his. But her eye turns inward as well as out. Details of the pride as well as the fall are often excruciating in their intimacy. There is the period in which even as the Blacks have only each other for company, she cannot bear to have him touch her in bed. Then comes the moment when, like something out of Gatsby—Conrad is suddenly allowed out of prison and Barbara catches up with him at home: “It was about midnight when I finally reached Palm Beach. I walked through the house towards Conrad’s library and I could see the outline of his shoulders on the terrace, backlit by the patio lights. That was my husband. Free.”
During the height of the trials, it was often claimed by mutual acquaintances that Barbara would surely leave Conrad now that he was down. But she never did, and like everything else in the book, she questions this herself. “You know, I never asked myself, ‘What if I had not married Conrad?’ But I did do another ‘what if?’ quite a lot. What if this prosecution had not happened? Would I have continued the mindless carnival of Park Avenue? Would I ever have had the character, gumption or—God I don’t know what you call it—the common sense, perhaps, to drop the great satisfaction of achieving status in Bill Cunningham’s ‘On the Street’ and ‘Evening Hours’ photos for the New York Times, in exchange for a life with real friends I had in New York City: the Podhoretzes, Neal Kozodoy…?”
If the self-laceration is too much at times, it is also clearly honest. Perhaps then it requires someone else to say that in her own undoubtedly abrasive way, Amiel was brave and deserves a respect as well as an understanding that she at no point asks for.
For example, the self-defense mechanisms that the girl from Hendon developed were not unwarranted. Sitting next to the Duke of Gloucester (a first cousin to the Queen) at a wedding reception, the Duke asks what Amiel’s husband does. “Newspaper proprietor,” she says. “Lowest form of humanity. Rather like the Israelis,” he replies, ignoring her for the rest of the meal. At a famous dinner in London in the 2000s, the then French ambassador in London refers to “that shitty little country Israel,” continuing, “Why should we be in danger of World War Three because of those people?” Amiel subsequently exposed this in print. Was she right? Certainly. Did it make her more enemies? Undoubtedly. More shocking is the behavior of the Everglades Club in Palm Beach, which wouldn’t allow Amiel to go to the club even as a guest of her husband’s because she is a Jew. Most of us, in such a situation, would choose either “To hell with you people” or “I’ll get in and show you.” Amiel tried to assume both attitudes before tumbling from all.
Now, having spent her final years of energy writing this book, she has most certainly got it all out. She describes her decision to have an abortion, her marriages and affairs, an attempted suicide (passed off here with slightly unconvincing humor), and settles all accounts. In an appendix, she even lists her friends and enemies in each of the countries she resided in.
An editor should have shaved some of this off. There is too much about the dogs that Amiel dotes upon. And the book ends too many times, once with the gloating and inelegant phrase: “I’m going to try to enjoy the remaining time left to me. And bugger off to the whole damn lot of you. We’re still here. You lost.”
In the end, though, Friends and Enemies is a great memoir because it recounts honestly what one possibly uncommonly complex human life was like. Amiel summarizes it herself at the end: “I had stardust, that ephemeral something that defies explanation, but not enough.” And again, “It’s a popular truism to say the more you know, the more you realize how little you know. I don’t feel that way. The more I know, the more I realize how much I have thrown away.”
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