"An extravagance that knows no bounds"

The difficult background of journalist Barbara Amiel, wife of ex-Hollinger executive Conrad Black, may have something to do with the couple's troubles today.

Published September 3, 2004 2:40PM (EDT)

For a long time the wonder about Barbara Amiel was how she could stay so sexy, so young, so vibrant, while maintaining her position as one of the most forthright columnists in British newspapers.

She was the scourge of the left and the darling of the right -- a powerful woman lusted after by powerful men -- and she snared one of the most powerful when she married Conrad Black, the Canadian media tycoon and then owner of the Telegraph group, in July 1992.

That marriage, her fourth, brought everything she yearned for: extreme wealth, a new column in the Daily Telegraph, a title and access to the high society she adored. As George Bloomfield, a former lover, 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."

Today those who once admired Lady Black are wondering why all of that was apparently not enough.

"The most extraordinary thing about this whole affair is that it seems so unnecessary," said a close acquaintance. "They had a wonderful life, plenty of money, [and] they wanted to compete with the mega-rich in America."

The extent to which Amiel, right-wing thinker, columnist, beauty and society hostess, is claimed to have benefited from the alleged wholesale looting of Hollinger International's finances was set out this week in a 500-page report by a special committee established to investigate the affair.

One of the reasons the money was needed, the report said, was 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; exercise equipment valued at $2,083; opera tickets for $2,785; a "birthday party for Barbara" at New York's La Grenouille restaurant costing $42,870; contributions to the salaries of a chef, senior butler, guard and chauffeurs at their homes in London, New York and Florida; perfume; food; shopping trips for Amiel; and cash for tips on such shopping trips.

Such apparent conspicuous consumption is all a long way from Amiel's beginnings, charted in her autobiography, "Confessions." Born in Watford, England, in 1940, she was 8 when her parents divorced after her father left her mother for another woman. Her mother remarried, moved the family to Canada and settled in Hamilton, Ontario. When her stepfather had trouble finding a job, however, relationships at home became rocky, and at 14 Amiel struck out on her own. A year later her natural father killed himself back in Britain.

Her troubled background is cited by many as a reason for her toughness today. Renting rooms, she supported herself with low-paying jobs while attending school. She attended college but became addicted to codeine, and later to antidepressants, only kicking the habit when she met her second husband, George Jonas, a Canadian writer.

Journalistically she started out at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., but made her name as a right-wing columnist in a mostly liberal country. In 1983 she was chosen as the first female editor of the Toronto Sun, which announced her as "beauteous and brainy, rightwing and right on."

On her third marriage, to a cable TV executive, she moved to London and continued expounding her views in the Times until she met and married Black.

It is Amiel's combination of intelligence, beauty and sex appeal -- which she uses as a form of direct action -- that has contributed to her success both in society circles and professionally. "If she sits next to someone at dinner and she decides she wants to please, there's no one more brilliant than her," said one hapless man. "She fixes those great green eyes on you and the rest is history. It is an amazing performance."

Many of her friends cite female rivalry as a reason for much of the criticism of 63-year-old Amiel. "It is women who label her a man's woman; the subtext is that she is drop-dead gorgeous," said Andrew Roberts, a right-wing historian and close friend of Amiel. "She is fiercely attractive; she is as sexy as hell and she presumably knows it. I certainly know it."

But while her fierce intelligence is remarked upon by many, it fuels extreme views that are propounded with a frequency bordering on the obsessional -- something that many believe undermines her journalism.

Like many of today's right-wing commentators, she briefly flirted with communism as a student, but later as a nonreligious Jew enthusiastically adopted trenchantly pro-Israel, pro-American, Euro-skeptic views, and promoted her belief that homosexuality is an abomination.

With Black in control of the Telegraph group, she had a lofty platform from which to shout and complete control of the contents of her musings. It was a brave departmental editor who spiked a column, but it did happen on occasions when an editor of the day was faced with a rant too far against the BBC.

As the couple's status rose, so did their social ambition. In 2001 Black accepted British citizenship and a peerage, and the creature that is Lady Black was born. She played the hostess at huge parties in their mansion in Kensington. Some blame Amiel for constantly pushing the boundaries of extravagance.

One anecdote told about her is that after a visit to the movies, she remarked that she would never go to a public cinema again. "All those smelly people." Similarly, after being delayed on a flight from New York, she stated it was her final journey on a public jet.

On a trip to Canada to inspect the National Post newspaper, which was launched by her husband, she had barely stepped out of a taxi when the mission was diverted. "Let's go shopping," she said to a companion. When inside the store, she was seen to sweep up everything, like some sort of shopaholic, an observer remarked.

In 2002 Vogue was invited into her London mansion, where the reporter noted "a fur closet, a sweater closet, a closet for shirts and T-shirts and a closet so crammed with evening gowns that the overflow has to be kept in yet more closets downstairs." And there was more -- a dozen Hermès Birkin bags, 30 or 40 handbags made by Renaud Pellegrino and more than 100 pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Amiel attributes her need for all this to a slight she suffered as a penniless teenager, when the mother of the boy she was dating made fun of her outfit. "I sort of never forgot it. And now I have an extravagance that knows no bounds." That quote has been widely repeated, but friends say it is nothing more than endearing self-satire.

It was perhaps not so endearing when read by staff at the Telegraph group who in the same year had a pay freeze imposed upon them by Lord Black. "We are shocked by all of this," said one staff member. If true, he said, it seemed extraordinary "when you remember them telling us we couldn't have a pay rise."

Whether self-aware or not, Amiel's extravagance does not stop at clothes. She is as obsessed with jewelry, blaming her love of diamonds and pearls on her marriage to Black, which moved her into social circles where jewels are a "defining attitude, rather like your intelligence."

"It's one thing to make a mistake with a wrong choice from Prada," Amiel remarked, but quite another to buy the wrong piece from Graff or SJ Phillips."

Already in 2001 questions were being asked about the couple living beyond their means. Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail in Canada and a friend of Amiel's, summed up the suspicions. "Only a few hundred women in the world can afford to dress like Mrs. Black, and Mrs. Black may not be among them."

Today friends say Amiel is feeling "crushed" by the weight of the problems mounting against her.

Hollinger International, which recently sold the Telegraph Group, has begun legal action in Illinois against the couple and other executives, seeking $1.25 billion in damages. Criminal fraud charges could also be brought. But Amiel's close circle of friends is fiercely defensive of her.

"She exists in the highest society that there is," said Roberts. "She still exists in that society; the stories that she's been cut off in some way, knifed by people, are complete rubbish.

"If she is not going out as much, that is simply because she doesn't want to be somewhere there are innumerate hacks."

Amiel is not feeling sorry for herself, her friends state. Instead, with the attitude of a fighter, she is ensuring her survival. Already she has begun writing again, penning a typically robust comment piece in the Sunday Times a fortnight ago.

By Sandra Laville

MORE FROM Sandra Laville

Related Topics ------------------------------------------