Friends and Enemies: A Memoir, by Barbara Amiel (Constable, £25).
IN 2019, President Trump gave his friend, media tycoon Conrad Black, a full pardon. Black’s tax bill was also reduced from $18million to a mere $500,000, leaving his wife Barbara able to continue collecting Hermès bags, Manolo Blahnik shoes, and decorating their ‘homes of monumental size’ in London, Palm Beach and Toronto.
‘In Manhattan, we bought a $3million apartment on Park Avenue,’ she writes. ‘One of the first things I did was apply for credit cards, Saks, Bergdorf’s, Bendel’s, Bloomingdale’s. I did this largely because it was fun to go into the customer service office and, when asked for my address, say, “Park Avenue” very casually.’
To describe her extraordinary life – which manages to be both despicable with its litany of useful rich men, but admirable; her $35,000 a year spent on jewellery was at least partly funded by her own earnings – she rewards herself with an autobiography of 600 pages.
As a Jewish girl in a ‘battle-scarred house in Hendon,’ she suffered from phobias and anxiety but doesn’t think that makes interesting reading. She always knew she’d get out to something better. ‘I took it for granted,’ she says, ‘that I would grow glorious breasts like London’s Windmill girls.’
Like her future husband, her father was also accused of fraud and aged 14 she was bundled off to Canada by her neglectful mother. She supported herself working in a shop, but her burgeoning bosom quickly became useful.
She married four times and had generous admirers. Kerry Packer, the Australian entrepreneur, twice gave her £100,000 to accompany him to a casino, while a ‘very famous Canadian industrialist’ thrust her $5million as a gift. Being a modest girl, she only took one million.
Lord Black calls her ‘preternaturally sexy.’ As his wife she achieved high social success and took pains to fit in with his set, mainly billionaires with second and third wives. She began to live on salad to try to acquire ‘limousine legs,’ and found herself surrounded by ‘frenemies.’
‘If you wanted to pal around with the Kissingers, which Conrad did, and the philanthropist Jayne Wrightsman, you had to take the whole package,’ she writes ruefully, ‘which included the spiteful.’
Her dinner invitations, where she sat with dukes, leading politicians and international bankers, came to an abrupt halt in 2007 when Black was accused of fraud. Appropriately, she sensed bad news coming whilst shopping.
‘The sales lady, who had just complimented me on my Hermès handbag, announced, with a note of slight triumph, that my card was declined. I managed to wheedle out the info that my credit limit was cut to $100, but didn’t twig what was going on, let alone that this was just the start of 12 hellish years to come.’
Black got six years, later reduced to three and a half and Barbara was no longer invited to share lettuce leaves with the Manhattan X-ray ladies.
She and Conrad have bounced back, he’s still in the Lords and worth about $80million. Like many 80-year-olds, Barbara is reflecting on it all, asking: ‘Where did my life go? I thought I would find it in these pages.’
But they are not written by a wise old lady reminiscing. Plastic surgery now makes her appear to be wearing the Guido Fawkes mask, and she is writing for revenge.
She ends her tome with four pages listing ‘friends and enemies.’ Not all became enemies because they dropped her when Conrad was in trouble, some get a kicking for other crimes such as criticising her dining room.
‘I have no forgiveness in me,’ she writes. ‘Should I have the opportunity to do harm to a clutch of people named in this book, I would, just as they did to me and my husband … unforgivable and deserving of capital punishment.’
Wielding her pen like a sword, she entertainingly decapitates them one by one.