Barbara Amiel: Confessions of a high society reject

Barbara Amiel may have captivated her fourth husband, media tycoon Conrad Black, but the middle-class girl from Watford was ostracised by the Manhattan elite whose approval she craved. Her revenge? A tell-all book that’s got the super-wealthy clutching their pearls.

Barbara Amiel
The highs and lows of Barbara’s colourful life are chronicled unflinchingly in her memoir. Image: Richard Bernardin

Memoirs. They’re having a moment. The more scandalous the better: think Tory wife Sasha Swire spilling the beans on David Cameron’s lusty bonhomie or Mariah Carey’s account of almost being sold to a pimp by her sister. But neither holds a candle to Barbara Amiel’s sizzling sexpot-and-shopping extravaganza.

In Friends and Enemies: A Memoir, the octogenarian savagely dissects herself and every crashing bore and crushing snob she encountered on her picaresque ascent from jobbing London journalist to Lady Black. And reveals what it was like to be one half of the ultimate media power couple at the heart of the glitzy establishment on both sides of the Atlantic.

Nor does she spare anyone’s blushes as she recounts their dramatic fall from grace when her newspaper proprietor fourth husband Conrad came a cropper in 2007. In the US a court found him guilty of fraud and obstruction of justice, and he spent three years in prison. Meanwhile, their billionaire frenemies melted away like the first snows of Gstaad, and Barbara was blacklisted by her hairdresser and snubbed by the manager at her local Manolo Blahnik store.

Barbara and Conrad, 2003
Barbara and Conrad pose for Vanity Fair in Florida, 2003. Image: Jonathan Becker/Contour by Getty Images

Her book is eye-poppingly prurient, entirely riveting – and arguably the ultimate act of high society self-harm. So, in the aftermath of publication, how is she feeling? ‘I can’t say I’ve been sent to social Siberia as such, but then I already live quietly these days,’ Barbara says airily on our Zoom call from her home in Canada. It’s here she spends most of her time doting on her pedigree Hungarian kuvasz dogs and the rest doting on her 76-year-old husband.

‘Maybe I was ostracised without noticing? I did get one horrible email from someone who wasn’t even mentioned – the things I know about her, I could destroy her! But I won’t. I am privy to a lot of secrets but they are not mine to tell.’

That sort of leverage might explain why she hasn’t been entirely abandoned. Wise are the women who keep their elegantly literate bête noire close. ‘Quite a few friends in London have just written saying it’s time to shed my leper’s cloak, stop ringing my bell and return to civilisation again, which was nice,’ she adds.

Barbara, who was born in Watford, was eight when her parents split up, and moved to Canada a few years later with her mother. After graduation, she entered into journalism where she baited Canada’s liberal establishment with her contrarian views, before returning to the UK in 1986 as a controversial columnist at The Times and later The Daily Telegraph, which was owned by Conrad.

Barbara and Margaret Thatcher
The couple with Margaret Thatcher, 1998. Image: CAMERA PRESS/Srdja Djukanovic

Eight decades in, Barbara is still recognisably the same middle-class girl from Britain. Aside from fillers and an early nose job, the rest of her face is as old as she is. No mean feat in the rarified circles in which she moved. The plump embonpoint of her youth may be long gone, but she radiates energetic joie de vivre, possibly from the full (Eww! Too much information) physical relationship she says she still enjoys with Lord Black, whom she married in 1992 when she was 51 and he 47.

It was her idea to scramble up then drape herself from the location house mantelpiece for the YOU photographer. ‘I’ve never done a fashion shoot before,’ she says. ‘It’s strange; so many people fixing my hair, doing my make-up and tending to me. The world I entered was full of women who had this sort of attention daily; I had always worked for a living so I was a great deal less put-together. I just didn’t fit in.’

The consequences of ‘not fitting in’ are leitmotifs that run through Friends and Enemies like pavé diamonds through a colander. It’s also the reason her story resonates among those of us who couldn’t tell a £100,000 Ming dynasty vase from a £1 million Song dynasty ewer.

But in marrying Montreal-born Conrad, Barbara was entering the stratosphere; he was a global media and business titan who became proprietor of The Daily Telegraph in the mid 80s and was made a Conservative peer, Lord Black of Crossharbour, in 2001. Two years later he was hit by a juggernaut of allegations that he had misappropriated company funds. The fact that he lavished $62,000 on Barbara’s 60th birthday party in 2000 didn’t help his image; nor did her 2002 tongue-in-cheek declaration to Vogue that ‘my extravagance knows no bounds’.

Barbara and Conrad fancy dress
In those infamous fancy-dress outfits, Kensington Palace, 2000. Image: REX/Shutterstock

Barbara never really did anything by halves. There’s sex aplenty in the early part of the book; not terribly graphic but icky nonetheless. Carousing with her aged suitor George – the late publisher Lord Weidenfeld, 21 years her senior – she was captivated by his mind, less so by his body: ‘it felt like clutching death’. Then there was the younger lover who told her it was time to get her breasts ‘fixed up’ and her policy of bedding impotent men (which is too graphic to go into here). But I’m far less discombobulated by the tall stranger who picked her up (on a Sunday afternoon!) and got his jollies by spraying her naked form with whipped cream and watching his doberman lick it off, than I am by her Mean Girls humiliation at the hands of the waspish Manhattanite elite who winced at her arriviste clothes and openly mocked her jewellery.

‘Conrad introduced me to a whole new world so I knew I had to up my game and ditch ready-to-wear clothes,’ she says. ‘At one point I thought I was being rather impressive because I was flying to Rome for made-to-measure fittings,’ she recalls. ‘But then one of his circle took Conrad aside and said dismissively, “You must stop your wife going to that little Italian dressmaker.”’ Only the haughtiest of haute couture would pass muster.

Officially Barbara may be Lady Black but in truth she’s more of a Becky Sharp who elbowed her Vanity Fair way up the class system to the sort of snooty American top tables where philanthropy is a day job, Maine lobster is served on Tsar Nicholas II’s Romanov dinner service and a collective gasp goes up when a woman has the temerity to nibble the bread.

Barbara and Oscar de la Renta
With designer Oscar de la Renta, 2003. Image: courtesy of Barbara Amiel

‘I was never thin enough, my necklaces were never grand enough. When I sent lavish thank-you gifts to hostesses they were never acknowledged and I just felt lost and at sea,’ she says. ‘I was left wondering if the crocodile wallet I sent was too showy or just made from the wrong piece of crocodile.’ The very definition of a first world problem. But a problem nonetheless. The truth is that well-read Barbara never had difficulty attracting the attention of well-connected intellectual men. The tragedy was that she wanted acceptance from their wives, who were at pains to keep the newbie at arm’s length until she had proved herself. Without their help.

In Friends and Enemies she does not mince her words: billionaire’s wife Mercedes Bass, who scolded Barbara for wearing white as it was ‘for salesgirls’, is described as ‘tediously opinionated and spiteful’; Nancy Kissinger, wife of former US Secretary of State Henry, comes across as patronising and unkind, and the late Sir David Frost’s wife Carina was ‘usually beastly’. ‘In my experience the Sisterhood isn’t terribly supportive,’ Barbara observes. ‘They let you down. I know I could be a bit toxic but they probably didn’t know how sensitive I was.’ In the book, she is unflinching in her self critique and refers to ‘that mean little mouth I make’, her ‘poisonous stew of self-importance and insecurity’ and how her needy, greedy acquisitiveness turned her into a ‘caricature’ of those around her. These wives sound like high-net-worth witches, who erected ‘a Park Avenue wall of silence and omertà’, as Barbara puts it. Trying to befriend any of The Group, as she called this clique, by meeting up alone for coffee and a chat was ‘on par with getting a private audience with the Pope’.

It begs the question why she didn’t thumb her nose at them and pretend she didn’t care until she actually didn’t care? ‘It’s not in my DNA to give up,’ says Barbara. ‘I wanted to beat them at their own game. And without wishing to sound harsh, when you have a lot of money it’s impossible to maintain a friendship with anyone who hasn’t. You have to spend so much energy trying not to humiliate them with references to your private view at the Hermitage in St Petersburg or first night at the Met and it’s awkward always offering to bring them on your jet…’

Barbara and Lord Weidenfeld
With suitor Lord Weidenfeld, 1987. he was 21 years her senior. Image: Daily Mail Archive

Awkward? Hang on while I crack out my tiny violin, Barbara. She responds with a wry smile; self-knowledge is her métier. Although strong on scurrility, she is not one for self-pity, which would explain why elsewhere she briskly dispenses with her mental health issues and half-hearted suicide attempts in a few paragraphs.

To cement her place in society, from 1998 to 2002 Barbara embarked on a manic spree of couture buying. She had four houses to furnish but didn’t have the nous to set herself a budget and not only gained the reputation as a ‘contemporary Marie Antoinette’, but famously went to a themed ball at Kensington Palace in 2000 looking like Louis XVI’s decadent bride, while Conrad channelled Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s chief minister.

In Friends and Enemies, Barbara tells how she ‘craved’ to be one of US Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s coterie, ‘fantasised about being pals’ with photographer Mario Testino and hanging out, in turn, with Kate Moss. Undoubtedly, had she been more comfortable in her own skin, her life would not have been so emotionally fraught. But when I put the notion to her that she is more of a ‘man’s woman’ than a ‘woman’s woman’, she swiftly demurs as if the very suggestion were hurtful.

I have to say I find her quick wit and very English self-deprecation entertaining, but then experience and age has mellowed her. Barbara still blames her own conspicuous extravagance for, if not causing her husband’s financial woes per se, then providing his critics with ammunition. The former media mogul disagrees and feels that she was unduly harsh on herself in her book. He left prison in 2012 and, after publishing a warm biography of his friend Donald Trump in 2018, was awarded a full pardon by the President in 2019.

Barbara with Donald Trump
Celebrating her 60th birthday with Donald Trump, 2000. Image: Courtesy of Barbara Amiel

Barbara and Conrad now live in Canada but are planning on buying a little (these things are relative) flat in West London. He works day and night – writing columns, investing, reinventing himself – and while they are definitely not poor, she is no longer trying to keep up with the Kissingers or the Rothschilds.

Barbara appears, in fact, to have finally found her tribe. Dogs and dog shows are her new passion. She raises her leg like a ballerina to demonstrate her bespoke canvas shoes, printed with images of her favourite kuvasz Maya. From upper crust to Crufts upper, as it were. She is unrepentant.

‘I’m 80, at least let me enjoy being eccentric,’ she cries. ‘Every age has its benefits. Despite coronavirus I’m not shielding and I am aware that if I catch it I’m going to die, so I want to live as much as I can right now.’

It’s impossible to begrudge her that. Not least because she’s mustard-keen to get back to writing. And who knows, she may yet change her mind about safeguarding the incendiary secrets of the smart set that snubbed her…

Barbara’s book Friends and Enemies: A Memoir is published in hardback by Constable, £25. Order a copy for £17 until 8 November at whsmith.co.uk by entering code YOUBARBARA at checkout. Book number: 9781472134219. Terms and conditions: whsmith.co.uk/terms.

Interview: Judith Woods. Producer: Antonia Whyatt. Stylist: Zeina Esmail. Hair and make-up: Patrick Rahme. Location: Cabine by Nicholas Mellamphy. Coat, Mugler, from The Room.