Biographer Tom Bower has already been slandered by his latest subject, Conrad Black. Is he bothered? Is he hell, says Christopher Silvester
Four of Tom Bower’s previous biographical subjects – Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohammed Fayed, and Richard Branson – tried to stifle his books about them by enlisting the services of the late George Carman, QC. Each failed ignominiously. His latest subjects, Conrad and Lady Black, have been unable to follow in the footsteps of their aggrieved predecessors, since Carman is no longer with us, while Conrad and Barbara, their assets frozen by the Canadian courts, have other things on their minds, namely Conrad’s imminent prosecution for fraud in the U.S.
In an article published on both sides of the Atlantic in response to the serialisation of this book, Conrad Black accused Bower of being a drunk. In the Sunday Telegraph, Black accused Bower of making ‘drink-taken promises to write a defamatory book’ to potential sources, presumably a bowdlerised version of his original phrase. In the New York Sun’s version, in case there was any doubt as to meaning, it was rendered as ‘drunken promises’ – a casual libel by a man who has been quick to issue writs when his amour-propre is offended. I have spent many convivial hours in Bower’s company and he likes his claret, to be sure, but I have never witnessed him in a drunken state.
Of course, he has had far worse brickbats to contend with in the past. Bower cut his teeth as a documentary reporter for the BBC’s Panorama programme. His first biographical book, Maxwell the Outsider was his toughest assignment, because Maxwell tried everything to stop the book. He bullied Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose Really Useful Group owned Bower’s publisher, Aurum Press, and when that failed he got his Sunday Mirror newspaper to run disparaging items about Lloyd Webber.
Later, in a further act of intimidation, he bought a 14.5 per cent stake in Really Useful Group. He threatened third-party injunctions and libel suits against booksellers. When W.H. Smith refused to bow to his threat of an injunction, he threatened to withdraw his Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and People titles from sale in its shops. Shamefully, the company caved in. He libelled Bower repeatedly on the BBC as a liar and a perjurer, for which libels Bower eventually collected £25,000 in damages.
He wrote to every person quoted in Bower’s book, and threatened to sue them, unless, they signed a statement to the effect that Bower had misquoted them. He paid his craven employee Joe Haines to write a spoiler biography. He even attempted to buy Bower’s paperback publisher, Sphere Books. None of these ploys stopped the book from becoming a bestseller.
Cherie Booth, QC, also took Bower on before being forced to retreat. She complained to the Evening Standard when columnist Matthew Norman repeated an allegation from Bower’s biography of Branson that at a Downing Street reception she had told Branson that she and the Prime Minister would do something for him in his campaign to run the lottery. Initially, Booth had sent a lawyer’s letter demanding a prominent apology, but once the Evening Standard had spoken with several witnesses who claimed to have overheard the remark, she backed down and settled for a mere letter for publication instead.
Bower is a formidable foe. His old friend Max Hastings, who served briefly under Conrad Black as editor of the Daily Telegraph, has compared Bower to a Sherman tank. When I asked Bower recently how he was able to find his sources for these revelatory books, he ascribed it to 30 years and more of accumulating contacts, some of whom have helped him with more than one of his books.
The reason he has acquired such steadfast contacts is that he has earned their trust by never revealing who they are unless they agree to let him do so. For Conrad, he spoke with key figures in the Toronto business world from which Conrad hailed, and for Barbara he found not only an old friend who had been dropped but various members of her domestic staff who regarded her behaviour as vile and ridiculous.
Extract from Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge (Harper Collins)
George Black had been ignominiously ousted from the Canadian conglomerate Argus in 1958, but had retained his shareholding in Ravelston, the private company which controlled Argus. His son Conrad worshipped the ‘mystique and power’ of Argus’s principal shareholder, Bud McDougald, yet at the same time he determined to avenge his father in time. After McDougald’s death in 1978, Conrad Black charmed the widows of Argus’s founders, Maude McDougald and Doris Phillips, both residents of Florida’s Palm Beach, into letting him have their voting shares in Ravelston, thus enabling him to wrest control of Argus.
Ever since the 16-mile island became colonised in the late 1800s as a winter refuge by the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Morgans and Carnegies – America’s oligarchs and robber barons – Palm Beach had been a haven for celebrities and the world’s richest players. Some would carp that Palm Beach, populated by ‘up and down folk’, was a ‘sunny place for shady people’ enjoying an extravagant social life of dinners, dances and parties – and that was precisely the attraction for Conrad Black.
The principal qualification for newcomers to mix with the old dynastic fortunes was money. ‘Some people are offended by opulence,’ Black would later tell Peter C. Newman, his first biographer, ‘but I find it sort of entertaining.’ McDougald was Black’s mentor in is quest to achieve that affluence. McDougald had the nerve to travel unashamedly to London for private visits at Argus’s expense, and generally to pilfer the company’s assets. McDougald’s traits, described later by Black as ‘lassitude, greed and vanity’, encouraged Black’s own ambition to possess $100 million and to have the means to escape Canada’s winters. For a social adventurer, Palm Beach was a natural stage on which to launch his presence in America.
In 1980 Conrad Black took his first step towards joining America’s rich set. He bought an unimposing colonial house at 150 Canterbury Lane, on the North End of Palm Beach island. The comfortable 8,700 square foot house did not enjoy a sea view, but it was located near the resort’s nobility. Assiduously, Black cultivated Jayne Wrightsman, a former manicurist who had married an oil billionaire. After her husband’s death Wrightsman had used her inheritance to become Palm Beach’s patrician hostess. ‘Come for dinner in Palm Beach,’ Wrightsman said to the London merchant banker Rupert Hambro. ‘I’ve met this hugely intelligent man who is so wonderful. He’s called Conrad Black.’ Hambro knew Black from summer weekends staying at the businessman Bob Dale-Harris’s farm north-east of Toronto. Meeting him again in Florida, he noticed how Black had changed. Touched by the glamour of big money, Black was flattered that Wrightsman, a kind, generous person, was attracted to him, and that by turn he had become a topic of conversation.
The proof of Black’s social acceptance was his proposal for membership of the Everglades Club, the meeting place of Palm Beach’s elite. The two obstacles were Maude McDougald and Doris Phillips, the two Argus widows. Both still resented their humiliation, and campaigned to blackball their tormentor. Their tactics were in vain. Imperceptibly, Black organised his nomination and election without any formal notification. ‘Clubs are not democratic,’ the widows were told.
Cultivating the right image, Black knew, was essential to acceptance. Walking into a room, he took care that his large, physical presence captured the space around himself. Gracious but also aloof, his self-assured manner left onlookers in no doubt of his attitude: ‘I’m Conrad Black, take it or leave it.’ His quiet voice and gentle movements suggested that he was neither bombastic nor nasty. With studied stateliness suggesting coiled energy, he intimidated some, but never succumbed to an intemperate outburst. Speaking quietly, his big, intelligent, slightly oriental grey eyes fixed in an immobile face, he aroused curiosity whether his fluent, verbose language was expressing anger or pleasure, never using a short word if a long one was appropriate. His new friends were impressed by his seamless prose and his prodigious memory.
Black’s next step was to accumulate the level of wealth so abundantly evident on the island. As well as his small yacht he had already accumulated several cars, including a Cadillac, a Mercedes and McDougald’s Rolls-Royce in London. On some of the bonnets he mounted a gold-plated eagle killing a snake. The symbol matched his goal.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Black acquired the Telegraph Group, a British newspaper company and with it access to the British power establishment, and also a new wife, the outspoken journalist Barbara Amiel, and a London home, in Kensington’s Cottesmore Gardens. Meanwhile, aided and abetted by his trusted partner, David Radler, he embarked on a systematic programme of diverting vast sums from Hollinger International, a New York-listed public company, into his private management company, Ravelston. He was given a peerage at Tony Blair’s behest in 2001.
Although Barbara Amiel did not always enjoy Palm Beach, she was certain that 150 Canterbury Lane, Black’s house there since 1980, was inadequate. Conrad Black agreed. Since buying Canterbury Lane he had coveted 1930 South Ocean Boulevard, a 14,000-square-foot house overlooking the sea. By chance, in 1997 it was for sale at $9.9 million. Included in this was a two-story guest house, a heated pool, gym, cinema and tennis court and, most dramatically, a tunnel under the road linking the house to a 300-foot private beach. Before buying the house, Black might have considered the fate of successive previous occupants, united by premature death and bankruptcy. Convinced that he was charmed, he agreed that David Mlinaric should once again be hired, along with the expensive New York architects Richard Sammons and Anne Fairfax.
The famous interior designer and the architects knew that Palm Beach’s truly rich would have demolished the outdated building, which had been damaged by seawater, rather than renovating it as the Blacks chose. Nevertheless, the Blacks’ shopping list was not unduly modest. Amiel briefed them to produce ‘quiet elegance’ rather than ostentatious extravagance.
Their plans included the complete gutting and reconstruction of the buildings, adding 6,000 square feet to the house to create five bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a cinema, a library and a vast living area, all linked by a black onyx double staircase. ‘This will be Henry Kissinger’s bedroom,’ Amiel explained, ‘and this one will be for the Kravises.’ There was an elevator costing $4.4m, a fountain featuring a marble statue of Poseidon, crystal chandeliers, expensive rugs and stylish carpentry. ‘Why are you building such a huge house?’ Black was asked by a visiting English banker. ‘I hope you think it suits my position,’ he replied.
Membership of the A-list, Black now knew, required more than merely grand homes. Tycoons were expected to contribute to charities on a grand scale. At Hollinger’s expense, they began giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to New York’s opera houses, museums and libraries. Black also contributed $1.2 million over four years to support The National Interest, a foreign-policy quarterly which he co-chaired with Kissinger and [Richard] Perle; he gave a further $275,000 to the Nixon Centre, and $375,000 a year to the Institute of Strategic Studies, a London think-tank. To win similar kudos, Radler began giving to charities in Canada and Israel.
On reflection, the Blacks and Radler decided that they wanted more permanent recognition, and both began negotiations to contribute money to public buildings which would bear their names. The cost of these personal acknowledgements, including ‘the Black Family Foundation Wing’ added to a Toronto hospital, would be $6.5m.
The Blacks’ flamboyance aroused sniggers among the few who understood Hollinger’s finances. ‘I don’t understand why Conrad Black wants to be the poorest billionaire in America,’ commented one observer, noting that Black’s standard of living, which he could ill afford, was higher than that enjoyed by the two richest men in the world, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and the investor Warren Buffet.
The squeeze of the famous into Cottesmore Gardens at the Blacks’ summer party in 1997 reflected their importance among a particular group of writers, journalists, politicians, businessmen, playboys, actors and elder statesmen. Even though some criticised their house as ‘an expensive, ugly monster’, the hosts adored the spotlight among the crowds in the specially constructed two-story reception room. The sight of Henry Kissinger at one end, supermodel Elle MacPherson at the other, and dozens of other famous faces in between, generated electric excitement. Welcoming celebrities to their home inflated their self-importance.
Barbara Amiel could be harsh towards those she deemed to be valueless. Now 57, but boasting the looks of a woman ten years younger, she was indulged by her proud husband. Two dressing rooms of their Kensington home resembled an emporium. Clothes, handbags and shoes costing hundreds of thousands of pounds were amassing in the cupboards designed by David Mlinaric. Amiel never appeared to question whether her husband was making a clear distinction between Hollinger’s and his own personal money, and occasionally items bought by her staff were inadvertently charged to Hollinger. There was no reason for Amiel to question her husband’s ability to fund her love of clothes. She had every reason to assume he was as rich as his posture indicated. ‘What men will do to keep high-maintenance wives,’ carped Dan Colson about Amiel’s trips, flying on the Gulfstream, from New York to Paris to buy dresses, and then, after a three-hour visit, continuing to London. ‘All for the “little woman”’, mimicked Colson. ‘Barbara’s calling the shots on everything.’
Clothes, however, were no longer enough. Amiel had never forgotten the night she arrived in her bedroom, filled with expensive designer items – a scented Manuel Canovas candle, a shagreen ‘temple’ made by David Linley containing a gold comb, perfume from the Santa Maria Novella chemist in Florence and a copy of Gale Hayman’s How do I Look? in the bathroom – to find on her pillow an enormous natural-pearl and diamond brooch. Despite Conrad Black’s pride and generosity, she decided that it was too big to wear. ‘I simply can’t carry it off,’ she declared, and placed it permanently in a safety deposit box. That modesty appeared to have vanished during a jewellery night at Annabel’s in September 1998. A representative of Lawrence Graff had placed a 100-carat diamond in her hand. Even in the dim light, the stone’s sparkle was captivating. The salesman had identified his quarry, although he was unaware of an earlier embarrassment. In 1986, David Graham had examined a bracelet at Graff. While considering whether to take out his credit card, he overheard a salesman sneer, ‘It’s too expensive for him.’ Sheepishly, Graham had left the shop. Times had changed. Then, jewellery had been unimportant to Amiel, but after socialising with the Kravises and others in New York, she appreciated that her new friends rarely appeared in public without displays of huge stones set in white gold. Jewellery, she acknowledged, was a ‘defining attribute’ among that class, ‘rather like intelligence or the number of references you have’. Her erstwhile prejudices were abandoned. ‘All that stuff I believed about big stones being vulgar,’ she wrote, ‘went into ether.’
Under the control of senior butler Andrew Lightwood, second butler Peter Wilson, and a succession of third butlers, Amiel’s life in Kensington had become what her constantly changing staff called ‘bizarre’. Each recruit was taken by Lightwood on an introductory tour of the house, ending on the roof. ‘Make sure the landing lights are on at all times,’ instructed Lightwood solemnly, ‘because Madame takes off from on her broomstick looking for cats. She needs the lights to guide her return.’ His face would crack into a smile. ‘Most important, take care that she never sees you. She hates seeing any of us.’ Amiel’s eccentricity demanded that her staff hid whenever she approached, diving into cupboards if necessary, and never entered her quarters while she was present. Increasingly, there seemed no rhyme or reason to her moods, and no one was quite sure how to satisfy her requirements. On one occasion she had demanded Paula, a maid. ‘I’m afraid, Madame,’ explained Lightwood, ‘that Paula has taken Adelia [another maid] to hospital. She collapsed.’ ‘Why couldn’t Paula just put Adelia in a taxi and send her to hospital?’ asked Amiel. Lightwood did not reply. Amiel, he realised, was clearly having another bad day. The butler considered entering a monastery.
Launching the National Post in Canada in 1999 created a financial crisis for Black’s media empire. Barbara Amiel became aware of its gravity after a flight to Palm Beach to inspect the progress of rebuilding their new home. Boarding the Gulfstream in New York with Henry Kissinger, the Blacks announced their plan to drop Kissinger in Washington and then fly on to Florida. ‘There’s a snowstorm in Washington,’ said the pilot. ‘We won’t be able to land.’ ‘I’ll take the train,’ said Kissinger. ‘How can Henry get to the station?’ asked Amiel. ‘Quickest way is by helicopter,’ advised the pilot. Swivelling towards Conrad Black, Amiel snapped, ‘Why haven’t we got a helicopter, Conrad? The Kravises have one. Black’s smile froze: ‘We’re not rich like the Kravises.’
Down in Palm Beach, Amiel carefully inspected the plans for perfect acoustics and lighting in her office and her husband’s library, while Black tried to find out why the local contractors were proving more expensive than anticipated. ‘Charging through the nose,’ he complained. ‘Lord Macbeth,’ local wags guffawed, was not pleased. The workers had nevertheless gone to some trouble to provide refreshments for their employers. Amiel was given a plastic bottle of water. ‘What am I meant to do with this?’ she asked. ‘Where’s the glass?’ The Blacks departed disgruntled. Sitting with friends later that day, Amiel reflected upon her lifestyle. ‘I don’t deserve these things,’ she admitted. Her audience stared back. Was this the same woman, they wondered, who had despatched the Gulfstream from New York to collect a handbag from Palm Beach? Amiel was, they concluded, an enigma.
Before their return to Toronto, Black decided that he could no longer afford the development. He found a reason to argue with architect Richard Sammons’s accounts, and withheld payment. ‘He’s invented an excuse,’ Sammons told several friends in New York.
Conrad Black goes on trial in Chicago next March on federal charges of fraud and racketeering. His house in Palm Beach is currently on the market for $35 million.