Conrad Black has just stepped off the cruise ship from the United States where he has been working his passage by giving lectures to rich tourists. “I had a high old time,” he says, “but my God, it’s a liver-busting circuit. It took ten days. I improvised talks for well-to-do Americans about history and politics.”
The irony is not lost on the Lord Black of Crossharbour. At the turn of the century, the former press baron used to criss-cross the Atlantic with his entourage in one of his company’s two private jets that would have made his recent lecture attendees look like paupers. But that was before he ended up in a Florida jail for three years convicted of obstruction of justice and fraud.
The Canadian-born former owner of The Daily Telegraph and Lady Black, the journalist Barbara Amiel, were once, by his own admission, “staggeringly” rich and happy to flaunt it. At the height of their fame in 2000, when he was the third most prominent newspaper proprietor in the world, they went to an 18th-century fancy dress party at Kensington Palace seemingly dressed up as Cardinal Richelieu and Marie Antoinette; Black was draped in red and gold robes with a vast jewelled ring and his wife was enveloped in lace and pearls. It seemed a moment of high hubris. He saw it as high humour. He embraced pomp and pageantry and dismissed those he disliked as puerile or pusillanimous.
The Blacks seemed to have it all before their downfall: three vast houses in Kensington knocked together to provide a dozen bedrooms, a 1954 Rolls-Royce, three butlers, a pair of apartments in New York, one just for servants, and a house in Palm Beach next to Donald Trump – of whom more later. His wife, a well-known writer originally from Watford, dressed in Chanel. He called her “preternaturally sexy”. She had a dozen Hermès Birkin bags, 100 pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes and a separate wardrobe for her furs. She once joked that her extravagance knew “no bounds”, although Black later stresses to me, “It’s not as if our home was full of glass statues urinating champagne. It was a tasteful house.”
As a young columnist on the Telegraph, I found it overwhelming. Black, 74, who wrote biographies in his spare time, would invitehis journalists to drinks and dinners with princes, chairmen, historians and dukes under a vast portrait of Napoleon. I remember one drinks party escaping for a moment, opening the wrong door for a bathroom in the basement and finding a butler labelling lots of suitcases of clothes for Palm Beach, along with three hat boxes.
The power was more intoxicating than the money, Black says. “You can get awfully tired of these rich, dumb Americans in Palm Beach who had made $1 billion in birdseed. It’s power that makes the difference and newspapers were powerful.” When his friend William Hague, Conservative leader at the time, suggested him for a peerage, Black needed to become a British citizen first. “Prime Minister Tony Blair sent round the papers by chauffeur and told me to put Mr Blair and the foreign secretary as my two referees. The whole process took half an hour.”
But it was the money that brought him down. The gilded rooms, Amiel’s shoes and their luxurious holidays, angered his investors although he says it was “never vulgar”. His father was a successful Canadian businessman, an executive with a major brewery. Black made his first business investment at the age of eight, putting his savings of $60 into General Motors. He bought his first newspaper in Canada in 1966. At the height
of Black’s power he not only owned the Telegraph Group but the Chicago Sun-Times, The Jerusalem Post and the National Post in Canada, as well as hundreds of regional papers globally as chief executive and chairman of Hollinger International.
But in 2003, he was accused of misappropriating funds from his publicly owned company for his personal use. An inquiry concluded that he had run a “corporate kleptocracy” and he was found guilty of playing a role in a multimillion-dollar fraud and given a prison sentence.
The court wrangling went on for years. His newspaper rivals in Canada, America and Britain covered every last gold tap, with one even conjecturing, wrongly, that he had bought Napoleon’s pickled penis. He sold his stake in Hollinger to the Barclay brothers, and got rid of most of his houses and possessions before going to jail.
Two of his convictions were later overturned; he continued to profess his innocence and wrote a book, A Matter of Principle, to put his side on the record. When he walked free, he returned to Canada and wrote columns for such magazines as the National Review.
Then came the next twist to the story. Last month, President Trump, that former neighbour in Palm Beach, decided to issue a full pardon, called Lord Black “entirely deserving” of clemency and said he had attracted broad support from “many high-profile individuals”. These included the singer Sir Elton John and Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state.
It’s not as if our home was full of glass statues urinating champagne. It was tasteful
Black insists it isn’t because he wrote a nice biography of the president, Donald J Trump: A President Like No Other, last year. “He just rang up,” he explains. “My assistant said there was a call from the White House; I picked up and said, ‘Hello.’ I suspected it was a prank at first by the British media, but the caller spoke politely, ‘Please hold for the president.’ Two seconds later one of the best-known voices in the world said, ‘Is that the great Lord Black?’ ” The peer’s view is that the “long ordeal with the US justice system was never anything but a confluence of unlucky events, the belligerence of several corporate governance charlatans, and grandstanding local and American judges.”
We could spend all our time unpicking the events that led to his jail sentence. What I want to know is why Lord Black has come back. Is he determined to conquer London once more? And has he had enough of dressing up? We meet in Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, in the bar in mid-afternoon. He looks at the menu and groans, “Too much,” and lies back on the banquette in pared-down chinos and blazer. His voice is less a growl now than a whisper. As proprietor, he had a habit of writing irate letters to his own newspapers when he found a leader or column irritating, not usually to do with politics – he particularly disliked one that disparaged women giving birth in their fifties.
He doesn’t want to reprise his social position, he insists, although he does want to return to the House of Lords. But only because politics “is finally becoming interesting again”, not because he has missed wearing his ermine cloak or dining with other lords and not “if it courts controversy”.
“I’m getting a bit old and the ranks of people I know have been thinning,” he explains. “Up until recently, politics hasn’t been particularly interesting, I knew David Cameron a little bit when he was a greeter for Michael Green [the head of Carlton Television]. He has made a historic misjudgment but these things happen,” he says, seeming more forgiving these days.
Boris Johnson, however, is a different matter. Conrad helped to create Johnson when he employed him first at The Daily Telegraph and then at The Spectator. He once held a party for him in 2001 with full-size cardboard cut-outs of him and placemats of his face, and commissioned an ode to his employee.
“I’ve never understood the terrible antagonism to him in some circles, although I am not blind to his limitations as his former boss. Some people think he should be sent to prison for life or something – he really upsets them. Boris lied to me, but that’s Boris. These things happen.”
Johnson had sworn to Black that if he made him editor of The Spectator he would drop any immediate political ambitions. “He promised in a hilarious sequence of oaths and affirmations that he wouldn’t dream of standing as a candidate, he put it verbally and in a very exaggeratedly emphatic way. But it wasn’t two weeks before we found that he had thrown his hat in the ring as candidate,” Black says now. “There was Henley and another place, just to be doubly sure. I was fairly annoyed when he became an MP.”
Now though, he thinks his time may have come. “I just have the sense he’s the one who can slice the Gordian knot if not much else. It has been a shocking spectacle for the world to see Britain in this state, incoherent and divided. Politics hasn’t been this interesting since my friend Margaret Thatcher was in power, but this is way over the top.”
While Boris Johnson was editing The Spectator, he was having an affair with his deputy, Petronella Wyatt, whom Lord Black still sees regularly. “I am completely astounded how complicated the private lives are of some of the people I know. I would find it a terrible strain, but some people like that kind of thing. I don’t think it has a bearing on his ability to be PM.”
Black is one of the few men to know both Boris Johnson and President Trump. He was once Donald Trump’s business partner in a Chicago skyscraper project; he and Amiel would often dine with the Trumps in New York and went to their wedding. “I don’t think Boris is much like Trump. Despite the impression Trump gives, he was an extremely efficient businessman, he ran a tight ship and all his people were capable. He was fantastically motivated to make money and he has been widely misunderstood and underestimated with people thinking he was an absurd character.”
He must see that the president is a contentious figure. “There is plenty of room to disagree with him, but the only slightly absurd thing about him is some of the peculiar and slightly shabby methods he used to further his self-enrichment. They weren’t illegal. He has had this idea all the time I have known him of translating celebrity into high political office and, if I may put it this way without sounding like an old dowager, becoming more socially successful. He has always had a grand plan and he follows it with almost preternatural determination. There are aspects to Boris’s private life which are quite sad. That is not the case with Trump; his ex-wives speak well of him and there was plenty of money for them.”
His admiration doesn’t seem manufactured. “Trump is the only person elected president without ever having sought any kind of public or military office before. He did it with a communication strategy that had just become technologically possible – in that sense he was like President Roosevelt using the radio. Boris is a character but not so much a pioneer; he’s just ambitious. He wants a statue and journalists don’t get statues, only prime ministers.”
As his former boss, I’m not blind to Boris’s limitations. He lied to me, but that’s Boris
Now back in London he is meeting Boris again for a drink but the capital he says has changed. “You can see there are more un-English faces than ever, I don’t mean that disparagingly, but it is a change. There are problems with the Islamists, I think, but that is not confined to Britain. London is still an interesting city; it’s a crossroads. My mantelpiece used to be covered with these stiff invitations. Now the super-rich are different; there are foreigners who have made money in odd ways that probably would raise eyebrows with the membership committee of White’s club.”
He never quite became part of the British Establishment. “I had the impression that, as a foreigner, they credited me with being an educated person, knowing the language tolerably well and British history fairly well, better than most maybe. But when adverse circumstances temporarily overtook me the British that I knew well were more loyal than I expected. On the other hand, I found some elements of this country, especially the media, gratuitously hostile and nasty – the British never like too much success. But everything is fine now and I’ve pretty well won the public relations battle.”
Does he want to exact revenge on those who put him in jail? “I know philosophically the danger of getting too obsessed with revenge. If I have an opportunity to return the unkindness inflicted on me in some cases, I would do it, but it happened. I feel all in all I’ve come through it rather well; the odds weren’t very promising. I don’t want to put on the airs of the embattled veteran, though on many occasions it was no day at the beach, believe me.”
I assume he won’t want to dwell on his incarceration but this is when he suddenly becomes animated. In a bizarre way, he sounds almost nostalgic about his time behind bars, although he had to share a cell, scrub showers and undergo regular body-cavity searches.
“Quite frankly, it wasn’t the most complicated political structure. On the night I arrived I was very graciously greeted by a man who proved to be the don of the Genovese family, who said the famous words, ‘If you catch a cold, we will find out who you got it from.’ Then he said, ‘We have a lot in common – we’re both industrialists.’ ” He ended up going to Mass with the don’s collector every week because “I did feel a little guilty about a few things in life”. He was careful not to offend anyone. “I did not truckle to the system, but I didn’t break the rules either.”
Amiel visited him each week, waking up at 3am to drive four hours to the gates. He would pass her messages in code so that she could pay people through their families on the outside to do his laundry and cook for him. “Barbara saved me.” Teaching did, too. “The Bureau of Prisons has this policy that anyone who hasn’t graduated from secondary school can matriculate, but they have teachers who are for the most part completely incompetent and no one trusted them. The head of education became slightly aware of me because two of my books were in the library. He asked me to become a tutor.
“They would arrive surly and suspicious and I would give them a little speech that I eventually could recite in my sleep saying, ‘It is nothing to me, but if you want to game the system here and leave with your foot on the up escalator and some chance to make a living that is adequate and doesn’t lead back to a place like this, I can help you. That is exactly what the authorities don’t want; they want you to flop back in here, and keep giving them the kick-backs for mattresses and cornflakes.’ ”
Under his guidance, 200 inmates graduated and he went to their award ceremonies. By now he was hooked. “The system didn’t do anything to introduce them to the possibility of universities, so I helped them sign up for correspondence courses. A few of them I even helped financially. It was fun. These people had gone through their whole lives being told they could never achieve anything.
“I’m not a do-gooder,” he says. But he can’t help adding that some got in touch to congratulate him on his pardon.
Biographies dwell on his complicated relationship with his father. He just calls him “a bit of an eccentric, but a gentleman. Although he could be difficult; my mother was a saint.”
It is Amiel, he says, who has stopped him feeling bitter. He has also stayed close to his daughter and two sons from his first marriage. “I had encountered [Amiel] over the years in Canada, but we were both married to other people. Then one day we met when both single and Cupid’s arrow proceeded at the speed of a missile, from the ground to 60,000ft in 3 heartbeats. I suddenly saw her in a different light. I was concerned my feelings might be unrequited. She said that she felt she was subject to a takeover bid, but not a hostile one.”
When Black went through the courts in America, she was painted as a gold-digger. “Her performance was magnificent, which I can’t say surprised me that much. She visited me endlessly [in prison] and when I came out she was there with the dogs. She has proved them all wonderfully wrong.”
They are now settled in a house in Toronto. “We may get something here in London again but nothing big … I like cities more than the countryside. I still chat regularly to people like Kissinger, who is 96 now, and Elton John has been a loyal friend.”
Black seems remarkably sanguine, almost content. “Believe it or not, I have had considerable success as a columnist – I’m rather well paid just to give my opinions and I don’t have to administer anything.”
He thinks his friend Donald Trump will get re-elected. “The group on the cruise were successful, intelligent people from all around the country and they think Trump is Jesus Christ on wheels.” His former employee Boris could become prime minister. It will make life easier for him. But he does worry about conspicuous wealth now. “Not particularly because of being in prison by the way – some of the drug guys had a lot of money. All your dukes once had their vast estates, too. But because it is causing social instability. You can’t just soak the rich or they will leave the country, but they need to act appropriately.”
He sounds embarrassed momentarily at his new worthiness. “I sometimes think people regard me as a bit of a Pollyanna now, which I never was, but I am optimistic. I am in rebuild mode, financially speaking. The world is a jungle. I am not naive – in America in particular there is fierce competition and ruthless competitiveness that leads to a great deal of striving and achieving, but it also leads to the destruction of the lives of many people. Britain is tamer. It has a wonderful history, although you do have your foibles. I’m proud to be British.”
A few days later I contact him again. Everyone always asks about the infamous fancy-dress photo that so many remember him for. I ask whether he now regrets dressing up as Richelieu to his wife’s Marie Antoinette – a picture of extreme excess and conspicuous wealth.
No, he does not and he wants to set the record straight. He writes in an email:
“This canard has been floating around for 20 years all over the world: that Barbara was Marie Antoinette and I was Richelieu. We would have been happy to pretend to be these people but Barbara was a friendly (and perhaps suggestible) barmaid, not the Hapsburg-Bourbon queen of France, and I was just an ordinary cardinal. I did not have the great Richelieu’s goatee and moustache, nor his secular insignia as duke, prime minister, minister of foreign affairs and the interior (police and national security), founder-president of the French Academy and grand admiral. The historical ignorance of the press is distressing, even after all these years, and it is a relief not to employ them any more.”