NEWS, Saturday, November 22,
2003, p. A03
Keeping up with the Blacks
With the House of Hollinger teetering,
the glitzy pair may find their social calendar suddenly open His money and her
cerebral beauty helped the couple collect influential friends 'like foreign
The loss of the private jets is going to hurt, what with the Concorde gone
Flying commercially between four homes in three countries? Dashing hither and
yon to dinners and parties when everyone else is winging in on their
It is to shudder.
The crash-bang of the House of Hollinger could put a serious dent into the
glittering lifestyle to which Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel have become
accustomed. Nay, have embraced with a passionate intensity.
With their lustre shining somewhat less brightly here than in Britain, many
Canadians may not realize with what success the pair scaled the social mountains
of the world.
"Black is much more important socially in the U.K. than he was in Canada,"
Australian businessman Ralph Ingersoll has said. "I don't know why, because
there aren't that many people who are interesting in Canada."
Whereas in Britain, presumably, there are lashings of them, and the Blacks
assiduously paid them court or, as one British commentator put it, "collected
them like foreign stamps."
In another age, London society would have called them parvenus.
But the combination of his money and clout and her cerebral beauty was enough
to gain the Blacks entree to the right echelons. Nobody snubs the owner of the
influential, conservative Telegraph newspaper, whoever it is.
Even before Black's goal of a knighthood was finally realized in 1999, the
couple's place in the social firmament was set. The National Portrait Gallery
had commissioned a joint portrait of the pair. Becoming Lord and Lady Black of
Crossharbour was just the fairy-tale cherry on top.
The Blacks' double-fronted, 11-bedroom, stuccoed house in Kensington- bought
from disgraced Australian tycoon Alan Bond and valued at $20 million- was
already the scene of sumptuous black-tie dinners for the international great and
the good or, at least, the rich and the powerful.
Sundry Rothschilds, passles of politicians, including Margaret Thatcher and
France's Valery Giscard d'Estaing, pals from the Bilderberg group, corporate leaders, bankers, minor
royals, major aristocrats, and the right sort of journalist were eager, or at
least curious, to sweep past the giant painting of Napoleon in the stairwell and
see what the Blacks had to offer besides the obvious.
"You go to an English party and you get some cheap white plonk," according to
the columnist, Taki, who writes for Black's money-losing but prestigious
magazine The Spectator.
"You go to one of their parties and you eat and drink to your heart's
For former Telegraph editor Max Hastings, the draw was Black's erudition, at
least as compared to other bosses he's known: "He's a genuinely civilized man
while most proprietors are brutes."
The only downside, wrote Nicholas Coleridge in his portrait of Black in Paper
Tigers, is that "he does not shun the opportunity to dominate the table" with
ponderous monologues on the awfulness of left-wing politics or military history.
Black has been known to list for his guests every galleon in the Spanish
armada and recall in minute detail the battles of his hero, Napoleon (including,
No one, so far as is known, ever howled out for mercy, well, not to his face.
"Let us be completely frank," Black told Coleridge, "the deferences and
preferments that this culture bestows upon the owners of great newspapers are
satisfying." It had allowed him to meet "everyone in the world I'm interested
For her part, Amiel and her ever-expanding collection of haute couture
"frocks"- $75,000 and up for an evening gown from her friend, Oscar de la Renta,
or from Jean Paul Gaultier or YSL- tied this year with socialite Lady Powell as
Tatler magazine's Leading Political Hostess. She'd already been named to its
list of Britain's 10 Best-Dressed Women, placing sixth (not every fashion foray
being deemed a success).
But the Blacks are also enthusiastic attendees of any top-drawer social event
going, including some they might wish they'd taken a pass on- say, the costume
ball thrown by Princess Michael that saw them kitted out as a Catholic cardinal
and Marie Antoinette.
Although Amiel still writes a column for the Telegraph and has continued to
advise Hollinger's newspapers on matters editorial, she has become a fervent
devotee of the world of haute couture.
In words she may live to regret, Amiel told Vogue last summer, "I have an
extravagance that knows no bounds."
Indeed, Vogue straight-facedly reported Amiel had "a fur closet, a sweater
closet, a closet for shirts and T-shirts and a closet so crammed with evening
gowns that the overflow has to be kept in yet more closets downstairs off the
A rolling clothes rack had outfits labeled to be ironed, put away, altered,
and "To Try On." No teeny in-store dressing rooms for Lady Black.
Amiel once said that beautiful clothes are "a woman's sexual armour," so,
fittingly, her husband's favourite among her designer riches is a slinky number
made of tiny copper scales.
"The little panels of metal make the most agreeable rustling sound," he told
Vogue, "like I imagine Richard the Lionheart sounded going forth to the Crusades
... How many women go around in chain mail and how many look fabulous doing it?"
But chain mail is nothing without jewels to set it off. Amiel wrote this
month in FQ magazine that in her early years in London, her lack of important
jewelry didn't bother her.
But then it did.
Soon, the two "were trotting around to jewellers ... I found that I liked the
stuff, really liked it. That's when the trouble began. It's one thing to make a
mistake with a wrong choice from Prada, but quite another to buy the wrong piece
from Graff or S.J. Phillips."
The gems and wardrobe traveled from house to house on the now-departed
Challenger jet that Amiel had spent $3 million decorating (the other one, the
Gulfstream, was only leased).
It might have been en route to Manhattan and the sleek Park Ave. apartment
where the Blacks socialize with their American chums: Henry Kissinger, say, or
David Rockefeller, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, or that other Canadian-made-good,
Marie-Josee Drouin, and her billionaire financier husband, Henry Kravis.
The list of power-brokers they associate with is a long and highly social
one. Going by Vogue or W magazine, they are forever dashing about to each
other's parties. It's said that Hollinger board members spend almost as much
time talking soirees as stock shares.
In winter or early spring, the jet may have headed to the Blacks'
14,000-sq.-ft. oceanfront house in Palm Beach, where they're near their dear
friends, Galen and Hilary Weston, whom they also know in Britain and Canada.
This house comes complete with an elevator, private movie theatre and, for
reasons best known to themselves, a tunnel.
Palm Beach's extreme opulence "isn't everyone's cup of tea," Black once said,
"but I find it sort of entertaining."
Still, in 1999, he tried, and failed, to sell the house for $18.5 million
(U.S.). Now valued at $17.6 million, his Conrad Black Capital Corp. pays city
taxes on it of $353,000 a year.
Business interests often bring the Blacks back to Toronto and their mansion
on Park Lane Circle with its black iron gates, electronic entry system and
indoor pool. The house features a three-storey elliptical library with more than
15,000 books and, in a subtle touch, a copper cupola modelled on the dome of St.
Peter's in Rome.
The walls are lined with paintings, including some Group of Sevens, and
framed historical memorabilia, and it's comfortably, not showily, furnished, say
those who attended the Blacks' lavish Christmas parties in the late 1990s.
Mature trees and rolling lawns mean the butler can take the two curly haired
Puli sheepdogs for a good long run without leaving the grounds.
The property taxes are $70,000 a year and the house's value conservatively
estimated at $7.1 million.
From here they venture out, often singly, to see old friends. Last year,
Amiel was taken aback when her host at a small Annex dinner party suggested her
chauffeur might like to come inside rather than have to wait all evening in the
"No," she said. "It just isn't done."
The Toronto house also has a private chapel.
It may prove useful any day now.
JULIAN MAKEY/REX FEATURES Barbara Amiel, as Marie Antoinette, and Conrad
Black, as Cardinal Richelieu, make quite an entrance at a fancy-dress ball in
2000. "I have an extravagance that knows no bounds," Amiel once told Vogue.
Uniform subject(s): Real estate
Length: Long, 1198 words
Copyright © 2003 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved.
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