Friends and Enemies: reflections on Barbara Amiel’s book

Some of us are hard to like. Apparently. I count myself among that number. I don’t feel dislikeable and I don’t dislike other people. I have five friends, but four of them are related to me. Despite my age, it’s not that most of them have died off either. I’m not aware that I have made enemies, but then I didn’t need to. I kept my father’s name most of my life, so I inherited his enemies, an even longer list than Barbara Amiel’s. A new Facebook friend from Dad’s old home town mentions she has friended me to someone and promptly blocks me. All you can do is shrug. Nothing personal.

I observe that lack of friends runs in the family.

Barbara Amiel, who recently published her memoir, Friends and Enemies, has listed all of both at the back of the book, a separate list for the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. The Friend list runs to a page and half, double-columned for each jurisdiction. The Enemy lists are shorter, comprised of the judges, lawyers and bureaucrats, chiefly American, who set out to ruin her husband Conrad Black, the Hollinger newspaper baron. A good number of people she thought were her friends turned out not to be, dropping Lord and Lady Black to preserve their own reputations. On the other hand, some people who weren’t even in the Black’s inner circle were astonishingly supportive.

Barbara Amiel is well aware that her caustic wit and fixed, somewhat libertarian views- her support of Israel for example – she is Jewish – grind on some people’s nerves. She began as a model for Eaton’s catalogue in Toronto. She was and is very beautiful, reason enough for dislike by some women. She became a columnist in Canada, then the editor of the Sun newspaper in Toronto and was eventually featured in the Sunday Times and the Times of London. She was dropped by nearly all of them when Chicago prosecutors went after Conrad.

Conrad Black is an amiable fellow, who quickly made friends at FCI Coleman, the federal prison in Florida, as he served his 78 month sentence. He taught history to other inmates. He was jammed, the third person, into a two-person cell. Being very tall, he habitually hit his head on the bunk above him. He has a reputation for kindness and generosity. Very early in his career, he was also pilloried when he sold the Dominion Grocery chain in Canada and raided the employee pension fund. He considered this legal and astute. I was one of those outraged by this action, but in view of his 15-year struggle with the American justice system, his 3 1/2 years in prison, the fact the appeal court dropped most of the charges eventually and he lost much of his wealth, I have forgiven him. I’m sure he’s relieved.

He also has a reputation for being long-winded, and pompously well-informed. More damning, his columns in the National Post support Donald Trump. Only natural, you say, President Trump pardoned him. Personally, I believe that Conrad would not publish something he did not believe in repayment. That seems to imply that I feel he is as a person of integrity if of poor judgement.

Barbara, who had had three husbands before she married Conrad, married up in two cases, men of considerable wealth.There used to be a rumour that Margaret Atwood’s novel Robber Bride was based on Barbara. All must be forgiven, for Barbara describes sitting with Peggy Atwood in the garden on Park Lane Circle. In fact, she came away from her marriages with only a relatively small settlement, which she gave back eventually. But then she famously said, “My extravagance knows no bounds”. It wasn’t even altogether true. Her jewels were no where near up to those of the other socialites in her Manhattan group. But true enough to become the watchword once the ‘scandal’ broke.

Barbara tries to understand why these women do not take her to their bosoms on p. 201 of the book. She concludes that being over 50, they don’t really have the energy to get to know someone new and they do not share her interest in politics, policy or even music.

I would say they were numbskulls myself, but that proves why I have no friends. I’m a snob – intellectually -without really having the right to be.

My sister, my daughter, my niece -count ’em three – and I were so busy establishing and maintaining careers while raising children, that we had no time to lunch. Socially, we might have gone to one party a year, usually work related. When life finally spewed us out into stiller waters, we looked around and found a book club. But no, that didn’t work. Being frog-marched through books of other people’s choosing and having to listen to their ideas was painful. Or we found a yoga group taught by someone less limber and knowledgeable than ourself. I do try to temper my snarkiness – except in the company of the family. I will probably never be a match for Barbara. She will not remember ever meeting me, but in a glancing pass, she once insulted my sister. In retaliation, I announced loudly, “And you’re just a brain in high heels.”

It doesn’t matter. All is forgiven. I dare you to read her book and not like her by the end.

The Park Lane house had been George Black’s and Conrad had lived there all his life. It was the last of their four houses to go. Barbara had sold the Palm Beach house, the Fifth Ave. apartment and the London house in an effort to pay for lawyers good enough to win the case, but each time the relevant bureaucrat stepped in to seize the proceeds. At one point, they had no more than the change in their pockets

It is my opinion that whatever wrongs people think Barbara may have committed were more than balanced out by her 15-year support of her husband. If not quite enough, we can count the kindness and care she gave George Jonas, her second ex-husband when he was dying slowly of Parkinson’s.