Barbara Amiel on Being Mega-Rich, Marriage to Conrad Black, Jail, and Having a Lot of Fun Sex
In a candid interview, Barbara Amiel reveals all on her jet-set “cento-millionaire” lifestyle, marriage to Conrad Black, and sex with a guy whose dog licked whipped cream off her.
Barbara Amiel, author of the memoir Friends and Enemies: A Life in Vogue, Prison, and Park Avenue, the astonishing, salacious, bitchy and utterly unputdownable inside account of her life inside the global super-rich club and subsequent fall into (very relative) penury, is discussing the great fear of every autobiographer: being seen as dull.
“Lives are just so boring, unless you’re Einstein or you know, Anna Pavlova or something,” she sighed down the phone, “It was really a question of making what I thought was, basically, an ordinary life, at least readable by decent writing.”
Some highlights of the “ordinary” life of Barbara Amiel include (deep breath): her four husbands; her career as a newspaper editor and columnist; Kerry Packer giving her £200,000 after bringing him luck at London casino Aspinalls; getting picked up by a guy on the street who took her back to his apartment, sprayed whipped cream on her and got his “beautiful” Doberman to lick it off; giving head to her boyfriend, the publisher Lord Weidenfeld, to avoid having sex because she found him physically repulsive; ruining a chandelier in an ill-fated suicide attempt; marrying Sir Conrad Black, media boss and one of the richest men in the world; spending $10,000 a set on sheets; hanging out with Nancy Kissinger; being able to afford anything; losing it all; seeing her husband thrown in jail and being dropped by almost all her erstwhile friends; and even being banned from shopping at Manolo Blahnik by, of all people, the store manager, as a result.
I tell her I can’t recall a book which so truly lifted the lid on the hidden world of billionaires, and I wonder if that’s because, having been expelled from the club, she had nothing to lose?
“Well, we weren’t billionaires,” Amiel says, “we were cento-millionaires. Conrad was worth about $300 million, I think. And all my life I have been getting into trouble with what I write, so why stop now? When I sat down to write this book, I didn’t think about it in terms of, ‘What have I got to lose?’ I thought of, ‘What have I got to gain?’ And what I’ve got to gain is sort of purgative, getting to grips with what’s happened to you.”
One of the most jaw-dropping features of the book is the way Amiel relentlessly takes apart the members of “The Group,” an informal club of private jet-setting, Chanel-wearing billionaires’ wives, including Mercedes Bass, Nancy Kissinger, and Annette de la Renta.
She forensically exposes their vanities and jealousies, and illustrates how they use their vast wealth to inflict horrible humiliations on her.
For example, Mercedes Bass, the wife of the investor and philanthropist Sid Bass, chastises her for wearing white high-heeled shoes, telling her white is “for sales girls.”
After she sent a thank-you gift of two braided silver cuffs to Nancy Kissinger, Kissinger told her: “I gave the silver bracelets you sent me to my nieces and they loved them.”
Amiel saves some of the harshest criticism for herself, regularly indicting herself for stupidity, vanity, and greed—although one senses some of the brutal attacks on herself are a strategic pre-emptive strike to take the wind out of the sails of her critics.
“I revealed what I saw,” she says, “and actually it reflects as much on me as it does on them, in my view. I think it shows my faults just as much. I mean if you think people are shallow or uninteresting then why the hell are you with them? It must be because you yourself are at times very shallow and uninteresting. You can’t just lay blame. Obviously I have a poisonous personality.”
But what about Kissinger’s naked regifting of the silver bracelets?
“She’s not essentially a mean person. But that’s what she said and I felt three inches high. Of all of them, I’d say she’s actually, she’s the one person in that group that didn’t really have that much of a social agenda.”
Unlike Mercedes Bass? “Yes. I get strangulated when I think of Mercedes. God, she was ghastly. I really think it is a case of the showgirl who wants to be absolutely proper. Now she wasn’t a showgirl, she probably came from a very good family [Mercedes was born in Iran in 1944 to an upper-class family; she is a step-cousin of Farah Pahlavi, the wife of the last Shah of Iran] but she was just determined to be proper. When you were traveling with her, you could never go to a restaurant easily with her because she was one of those people that kept moving from table to table because there was a draught here or we were in the way of the waiters coming in. She’s the one person I do find it difficult to say much good about.”
I think, ‘Oh God, you were really good-looking, why the hell didn’t you make more use of it?’
Amiel, born in 1940 (she is 79) grew up in a Jewish home in North London. Her father was a solicitor. Her parents divorced when she was 8, after her father left her mother for another woman. When she was 12 she moved to Canada with her mother and stepfather; her biological father took his own life in 1956 but this fact was kept from Amiel for another three years.
Amiel concedes she was “semi-attractive” and “quite decent-looking” and subsidized her income as a young journalist at CTV with modeling gigs.
“I knew that I had very nice eyes and I had a good figure and I did what I could with what I had. I look back and I see pictures of myself I think, ‘Oh God, you were really good-looking, why the hell didn’t you make more use of it?’”
Her boyfriends tended to be “misfits and outsiders because I felt more comfortable with them, even if they were second story men [burglars, who would enter a home by the ‘second story’] or something.”
She worked in Canadian TV and media throughout her twenties and thirties, ultimately becoming the first female editor of the Toronto Sun from 1983 until 1985. She was poached by Rupert Murdoch, moved back to London, and became an influential editor and right-wing columnist at The Sunday Times before moving to The Daily Telegraph in 1995. The owner was her future husband, Conrad Black.
The book is studded with gasp-inducing accounts of Amiel’s sex life.
On her affair with the publishing mogul George Weidenfeld (later Lord Weidenfeld) she writes about how she found him physically unattractive: “The only way I could deal with it was to avoid actual body-to-body contact and pleasure him orally. Men rarely care whether you like or dislike doing it, since they go into some world where they can live out every fantasy in their heads.”
In another astonishing scene, she relates befriending a man with a handsome Doberman dog on a New York street, going back to his apartment, then allowing him to spray whipped cream on her nude self before the dog licked it off.
“There is actually other stuff in the book besides me lying down on my back. But in terms of something like the Doberman, I just never had any preconceptions about sex. I just thought whatever you did would be fun and I didn’t expect that encounter to go that way. I just was walking along First Avenue and thought it was quite the most beautiful Doberman I’d ever seen with an owner to match. I really didn’t think I was going to end up on the floor but I did and I left without, I might add and I would like to emphasize this very clearly, without any sexual interaction with the dog, even though he was licking dangerously close.
“I didn’t think it was particularly extraordinary and I don’t think of any people’s behavior as extraordinary; people’s tastes in sexuality are born into them whether they’re straight or gay or whether they like trees or whether they like statues. I just bashed along, and I’ll bet you if you counted up the number of my sexual encounters they would be outdone by many of today’s sexually active women. I tended to marry men, which slowed it down, but I just never thought of sex as anything but fun.”
It’s slightly bizarre to hear Amiel preaching sexual tolerance, as her columns at The Daily Telegraph in the ’90s often ploughed a homophobic furrow.
In 1996, for example, Terry Sanderson, the renowned “Media Matters” columnist for British magazine Gay Times, reported how Amiel had written in the Telegraph that gay weddings would be the “last nail in the coffin of marriage.”
While Amiel conceded that “some homosexuals couples have spent years together, paying mortgages, supporting each other emotionally as well as financially in committed relationships that make many of our own heterosexual unions seem rather flimsy,” still she thought marriage should be denied them. “The institution of marriage has a specific purpose—to procreate and raise a family. That reason is unaltered by the fact that some people marry for purely economical reasons or that some marriages are without issue because of medical problems or personal choice.”
Gay couples, she said, could have “deeply committed relationships with each other, but they cannot create life.” The campaign for marriage equality, she said, was “to achieve the legal obliteration of any distinction between the normative sexual behavior of society and the neuropathology of homosexuality which affects a figure estimated at about five per cent of the population.”
In a follow-up email after the interview, The Daily Beast sent the above quoted passages to Amiel, pointed out that ‘neuropathology’ is defined as “the branch of medicine concerned with diseases of the nervous system” and asked if she would still use such a word in connection with homosexuality, which could be construed as suggesting she regarded it as a disease.
Does she still feel the same way today?
Amiel replied with a lengthy email, saying, “I never saw that Gay Times piece and I would have taken issue with it at the time of print. And Oh God! How ghastly it sounds. Thank heavens that was 22 years ago and I changed! Cripes, what a stick I was.
“My views on gay marriage changed completely a year or two later and were first given in a Macleans column. It was something of a mea culpa.
“Essentially I said that heterosexuals had made such a mess of the institution of marriage and homosexuals had often done better that legalizing gay marriage would be the best chance of saving the institution of marriage. And that since homosexuals had had to fight for every inch of legitimacy they gained, they were our best chance of standing up to some of the more intrusive aspects of government regulation of private behavior.
“Gay couples, I wrote in different columns, ought to share all the advantages we took for granted such as being admitted to an ICU unit or making plans for a sick or injured spouse free of interference from their blood relations like parents etc. and only legal marriage could do this.”
After talking to gay friends, including David Furnish and Elton John, Amiel wrote, “I specifically came out as a supporter of gay marriage and one who had learned her errors.”
“As for the ‘neuropathy’ I do not believe that any union whether same sex or any relationship that is not heterosexual is a ‘disease.’ It simply wasn’t the norm at the time—heterosexuality was normative—and there were efforts to inflate the percentages of same sex unions in order to win the rights of heterosexual unions (which I now believe is an obligation of a civilized society).
“My public changing of views on this subject initially caused some small resentment or at least shock among more conservative readers but since I have never sought the approbation of readers—either conservatives or liberals—it didn’t bother me.”
As a professed sexual liberal, Amiel must think today’s young people are terribly dull in general?
“Well the ones that I know aren’t so much dull as frightened. They’re not adventurous because they’ve been frightened into seeing danger lurking around every corner. I feel sorry for a lot of them because they can’t enjoy life in the same way we did.
“I remember when I was married to David Graham (a Canadian cable TV magnate) and we were in India, I said, ‘Hey, look, I want to go up the Khyber Pass and see what the Russians are doing with the Mujahideen.’ I don’t think many people would want to go up the Khyber Pass now, or even think of doing it. The spirit isn’t there.”
In one aside she says most billionaires she has met are “sexual neuters.” Why is that, I wonder?
“It partly speaks to my sexuality. I mean maybe they are absolutely entrancing to other people, but the ones I met tended to be short and without much interest in anything but making money. Most of the billionaires I’ve met are one-dimensional people and all they care about is money. They watch each other with hawk-eyes, you know counting up each other’s billions. Now you get someone like Richard Branson, he’s probably very interesting, I don’t know him and you sense that he’s got interests in other things but these fund managers, I think, are pretty deadly.”
Her marriage to Black happened fast. After being invited/ordered to join him at various parties and events, he proposed to her before they had even been on their first date. They married in 1992 (Margaret Thatcher attended the reception) and she was instantly catapulted into Black’s world of immense wealth (she also got a new column in the Telegraph, naturally.) In 2001, she became Lady Black after her husband was given a seat in Britain’s House of Lords.
George Bloomfield, a Canadian TV producer former lover, is reported to have said at the time: “She is at the center of the world she always wanted. The world of words. And she’s living with the man who owns it.”
She famously once told Vogue, “My extravagance knows no bounds,” so what, I wonder, is the best part of being really rich?
“I enjoyed the access it gave you, but that was partly because of Conrad owning newspapers and people at that time had a completely warped view of how important newspaper owners were. You had access to just about anyone you wanted and in my case it tended to be musicians and intellectuals and people I’d always wanted to see. So I enjoyed that.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said in his 1926 story The Rich Boy “the rich are different from you and me.” Is that true, I wonder? Do the rich inhabit a different planet to the rest of us?
“Yes, I think it’s absolutely true. In the film, The Incredible Mr Ripley, the millionairess [Cate Blanchett playing Meredith Logue] turns to Tom Ripley and she says, ‘You know it’s awful being embarrassed about money but one really feels comfortable with people who have it, don’t you agree?’ [Meredith's line actually reads: “The truth is if you’ve had money your entire life, even if you despise it, which we do—agreed?—you’re only truly comfortable around other people who have it and despise it.”] And it’s true, because if you have money you can’t inhabit the same world as your journalism friends because you’re always having to lie so that you don’t feel like you’re putting it on for them.
“It’s uncomfortable to be with people who don’t have money, who can’t just get into their own plane, who can’t talk about just flying off to the opening of this, so you become isolated from the real world and its problems. It becomes increasingly difficult to get out of that world.”
“If the guards are in a bad mood, you sit in the waiting room. You’re there, right in the basement”
Perhaps the only thing more astonishing than the catapult-pace of Amiel’s rise was the vertiginous speed of her fall after her husband was accused of looting the finances of his company, Hollinger International. One report investigating the affair said the money was needed to “satisfy the liquidity needs arising for the personal lifestyle Black and his wife had chosen to lead.”
These “choices” included the purchase or lease of two corporate jets; a $530,000 holiday in French Polynesia; a $2,463 handbag; a “birthday party for Barbara” at New York’s La Grenouille restaurant costing $42,870; and multiple staff at their homes in London, New York, and Florida.
In 2007, Black was convicted on four counts of fraud in U.S. District Court in Chicago. While two of the criminal fraud charges were dropped on appeal, a conviction for felony fraud and obstruction of justice was upheld in 2010 and he was re-sentenced to 42 months in prison and a fine of $125,000.
Some have blamed Amiel for constantly pushing the boundaries of extravagance. Again, she cleverly spikes their guns in her book by copping to it herself.
Amiel says of their fall: “It was like an earthquake. You are now a supplicant to the guards to get to see your husband. If the guards are in a bad mood, you sit in the waiting room. You’re there, right in the basement.”
Amiel was swiftly dropped by most of her friends and even her hairdresser of 10 years: “When I called to make my appointment, at the salon where he’d proudly hung my photo on the wall, I was told by him: ‘It would be embarrassing for everyone to have you here.’” She was also left in little doubt she would not be welcome at the Manhattan Manolo Blahnik shop.
But some light pervades the gloom, such as Elton John giving her a $50,000 piece of Theo Fennell jewelry.
Is this really what one needs at a time of crisis, I ask? Might some cold hard cash not have been more helpful?
“No! You’re feeling like a piece of sludge on the pavement, your phone isn’t ringing anymore and out of the blue this man comes and says, ‘You are a star’ and gives you a box. I mean that’s worth more than any kind of money! I wasn’t able to give him something on the Daily Telegraph. I wasn’t able to do anything for him. And here is this man taking time to come and say, ‘You’re a star.’ A girl in that situation needs someone to come along and say, ‘It’s OK, you’re not trash.’ That’s what a girl needs. And if you slag off Elton John for doing that, you’ll reveal more about yourself than Elton.”
Amiel takes some delight in proving wrong those who said she only married Conrad for his money by sticking by him (the pair are still married) during and after his fall.
“They had all got it into their minds that I was gold digger and only married Conrad for money and influence, but none of my close friends thought I would leave. I didn’t pay any attention to it,” she said.
In 2018, Black wrote a flattering biography of Donald Trump, and in 2019, Trump granted him a full presidential pardon. Can one therefore assume they want four more years of Donald?
“My husband is obviously dead keen on Trump, and we have a sort of mutual understanding; we don’t discuss it. I would be absolutely rotten if I didn’t say I was extraordinarily grateful to President Trump for giving my husband a pardon, because you know, we’d asked George Bush, and he didn’t do it. It would be a terrible thing if I wasn’t extraordinarily grateful to him.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in your election. I just can’t tell; the polls don’t seem to me to make any case for him pulling it off. If I were an American I think that I would just dig a hole and go into it and not vote.
“I really have difficulty voting for a man who does appear to be at the end game of his cognitive abilities and after I saw the debate, I would have great difficulty voting for Trump. It’s not a great choice either way.”
I asked Amiel directly whether they got to keep any of Conrad’s fortune.
Amiel replied indirectly: “We live in a nice home, it’s about 10,000 square feet, which houses Conrad’s 25,000 or 30,000 books, plus my journalism library which is considerably more dilapidated but it’s also pretty sizeable. Attached to it is a small apartment in which our ‘man’ lives, he’s a wonderful chap who is a security man and driver and property manager and I have a PA.
“Conrad works day and night. He does business in the day and his column writing at night, which has now run to six columns a week and I don’t know how the hell he does it. We go to bed at 3 in the morning.”
The couple continue to enjoy a sex life, despite being 79 (her) and 76 (him).
“When I was in my thirties and forties, I thought that it would be grotesque to have people in their late-seventies having physical relationships. I really did. I could not think of anything more grotesque and the visual images of it were just, you know, they flittered through my brain very fast and flittered right out.”
So what changed?
“You know the funny thing is, if you really care about someone, they always look young,” Amiel said.
As if by fate, the phone line chooses this exact moment of surprising sentimentality to click dead.
It’s rather like closing the door on a whirlwind.