You couldn’t make it up: Barbara Amiel

You couldn’t make it up: Barbara Amiel

For the JC Oct 23 2020

There is a whiff of sulphur about Barbara Amiel’s extraordinary new book, Friends and Enemies, her score-settling 600-page memoir.

Punches are unpulled and holds are not barred as she trenchantly trashes the great and the not so good. She has no problems in having a go at, say, Esther Rantzen, who, she says “skipped beatification and went straight to sainthood”; or Dame Vivien Duffield, who “had a streak of cruelty that masqueraded as honesty”. She is an equal opportunity offender: now notoriously, she described being with Lord Weidenfeld, who was obsessed with her, as “like clutching death”, though the two became good and close friends after his marriage to Annabelle Whitestone.

But Lady Black, as she is formally known, is also the wife of the one-time newspaper magnate Lord [Conrad] Black, once owner of the Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post. Her marriage to him — her fourth, his second — raised her from being a well-known newspaper editor in Canada and columnist in Britain (where she wrote for The Times) — to a woman who lived in rarefied social circles, had four new homes, and agonised over where to place Princess Diana at dinner.

What sets Friends and Enemies apart — aside from the jaw-dropping candour of some of her sexual encounters and the fact that she is a terrific writer — is how Jewish a book it is. Right from the off, Amiel is at pains to talk about her Jewish identity and how it played out, over husbands, newspapers and countries. My annotated version of the book is a forest of Post-It notes, as every page throws up another reference to Jews, Judaism or Israel — and that’s beside the Palm Beach chapter, in which our heroine is told that as a Jew, she cannot enter an exclusive club of which her husband is a member — and the entire 20 pages entitled “The Bloody Antisemitism Chapter”. Oh, and the chapter which begins with a passage from the Yom Kippur neilah service.

We learn that at 26 she thought seriously about making aliyah and also that she strongly disapproves of punishment for Holocaust denial; that she was labelled “a mad Zionist” and felt that she had contributed to her husband’s business downfall by giving an interview to Vogue in which she uttered the lethal words “My extravagance knows no bounds”.

Amiel’s has not been a quiet life of introspection. Born in 1940 in Watford, she spent the war years in Hendon (“just off the Watford Way”, she tells me) with her mother Vera, née Isserlis, her baby sister Ruth, and “Doris, a part-time scullery maid”. Vera divorced Barbara’s father, Harold Amiel, after the war and swiftly found a new husband. The two sisters were dispatched to Devon while their mother was on honeymoon but Amiel ruined things by telling the “large-bottomed lady” in charge that they couldn’t go to church because they were Jewish.

Vera was not pleased. And matters deteriorated when Amiel won a place at North London Collegiate School and her mother, whose new husband was not Jewish, decided to tell the school that “you can’t be Jewish any more” and she would attend Christian prayers in future.

When she was 11, her mother and stepfather moved the family to Hamilton, Ontario, where Amiel spent her adolescence “trying to hang on to my Jewish identity”. At one point she got herself baptised and confirmed before trying, unsuccessfully, to reinstate herself with the local Jewish community. “In my head, the one thing I was, was that I was Jewish. It gave me the courage to carry on. My maternal grandfather used to say to me, always remember that you are Jewish”.

A bizarrely comic episode then ensued after Amiel met the man who was to become her first husband, Gary Smith, in 1964. “I had got engaged to a wonderful member of the Toronto Jewish community. But as the marriage got closer and closer, I got more and more scared.”

Fabulously, the Smiths sent an aunt to London to check out Amiel’s Jewish bona fides. The Hampstead relatives, “a bit put out by the enquiry, sent the Canadian investigative team to Israel to meet my cousin Saadia Amiel… who was busy perfecting the means to make heavy water for Israel’s A-bomb”. Meanwhile, though her Jewish credentials passed muster, Amiel was getting more unhappy about marrying the unfortunate Smith.

Her mother Vera had turned up at Amiel’s future in-laws’ home at a pre-wedding party, trying to speak Yiddish “and greeting one and all with a sprinkling of oy veys”.

Riding to the rescue came Robert Hershorn —and his cousin, Leonard Cohen. Yes, that Leonard Cohen, the poet and singer. The two “kidnapped” Amiel, days before her wedding and took her to New York. Just the same, she married Gary Smith later that year. The marriage lasted all of seven months.

“At that time Jewish wives didn’t work”, she says now, “they stayed at home, collected Rosenthal china, got cottages for the summer, moved up in real estate, bought fur coats…I couldn’t think of life without working”. So she decamped one night, taking all her books, and moved to a scruffy boarding house after getting a job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

A decade after her “starter marriage”, Amiel married her second Jewish husband, the Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor George Jonas. It is Jonas’s book Vengeance on which Steven Spielberg’s film, Munich, is based, the story of the hunt for the terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Germany. The pair were together for seven years and married for five; and, unusually, not only did Amiel and Jonas remain good friends after the marriage had ended but Conrad Black regarded George Jonas as one of his closest confidantes.

Amiel and Jonas lived a relatively poverty-stricken existence but things improved financially with the advent of husband number three, a wealthy Roman Catholic called David Graham, whom she married in 1984. For tax reasons Graham lived in London and so Amiel moved back to the UK from Toronto, where she was editing the Sun newspaper.

But because — according to Amiel — Graham spent so much time out of Britain, ostensibly on business but in fact having many affairs — she ended up making friends in London, many of them Jewish, such as writer Miriam Gross and the (recently deceased) playwright Ronald Harwood. His death, she says, ended her last link with her parents as Harwood had known both families when he first arrived in Britain from South Africa.

Writing columns, mainly from a right-wing, libertarian point of view, but lonely without Graham, Amiel drifted into George Weidenfeld’s orbit. The “on-dit” that she was going to marry Weidenfeld soon reached Graham, who promptly filed for divorce.

And then she met and married Conrad Black. All might have been well, except for an investigation into Black’s behaviour in the holding company for his newspapers, Hollinger. He served a prison sentence in Florida for fraud and obstruction of justice and it took the couple 17 years of fighting legal battles, together with a presidential pardon from Donald Trump — after Black had written an approving biography of the president — before his name was finally cleared.

There is much in Friends and Enemies (not least the lists of Mates and Hates in three countries) to admire and amuse. Amiel writes “I’m not difficult to satirise”, and several pages on we read of her “in the mid-90s when I was looking for butlers”, or “ours was a standard $3m apartment”, or being asked to bring “patio jewellery” for a holiday in the south of France.

The best line, to my mind, is the conversation she had with Jacob Rothschild at an event given to celebrate 55 fountains donated to Somerset House in central London by the billionairess Lily Safra. Amiel had borrowed a piece of jewellery for the evening from London jewellers SJ Phillips, which Rothschild immediately spotted was not in fact a necklace but a converted tiara.

Was it comfortable, he inquired? “Diamonds”, shot back Amiel, “are always comfortable”. Actually, she admits, “it scratched like blazes and I gave it back the next day”.

Given the way she wields her stiletto throughout the book, there was a natural curiosity as to what Conrad Black had thought of it. It is very frank. She laughs and admits he kept asking to read it while she was writing but she refused to show him in case he tried to edit it. Now he’s read it, she says he thinks it’s a good book “but that I’ve been a little hard on myself.”

Amiel hopes, she says, to write another book “with a Jewish theme”, but she’s not sure of the subject yet. The couple plan to move back to Britain next year and she is hoping to find a property large enough for her dogs, “with perhaps a pied-à-terre in London”.

She’s not certain how she will be received by her former friends — but one thing is for sure. The glamorous Lady Black, 79, remains a force with whom to be reckoned. In typical style, she ends her memoir: “Bugger off to the whole lot of you. We’re still here. You lost”.

Friends and Enemies, a memoir by Barbara Amiel, is published by Constable Books at £25

  • 26 October, 2020