Her Little Black Book
Barbara Amiel doesn’t give a damn
Barbara Amiel and her boyfriend Sam Blyth walked into the stylish Yorkville establishment and every head turned to stare. They were beautiful and tanned — his shirt rakishly unbuttoned and her flamboyant Pucci dress low cut, with a confident display of décolletage. They had a European cool and radiated sexuality seldom seen forty years ago in uptight Toronto. As people gawked, the pair waved to my host and moved toward our table. They’re movie stars, I said to myself, certainly people who live in a different world than me. I was just a nerdy WASP, barely able to say hello. I’ve since met Barbara Amiel several times, but I never really knew much about her, save for the constant stream of gossip that a high-profile personality like hers generates. Her new memoir, Friends and Enemies, proves that appearances aren’t always deceiving.
The world Amiel describes isn’t the world of a Jackie Collins novel, even though it has similar ingredients: sex, money, ambition, fabulous houses, fancy people with even fancier titles. Actually, Amiel’s compelling reportage of life at the top wouldn’t make for a Collins bestseller, because there’s too much pain and chaos. Instead, Friends and Enemies is more an inadvertent cautionary tale about, among other things, the illusory world of celebrity, the motivating power of envy, and the impossibility of freeing yourself once you are ensnared in a legal system that can be unjust. Those who read for escape may not want such a potent reminder of the contradictions that even the most introspective, psychoanalyzed, and self-lacerating among us can’t fully reconcile with their life choices.
At the outset, Amiel warns her story is a rocky road: she describes herself as “a misshapen piece of work” and an object of derision. “By now there has been sufficient material published in newspapers, magazines, books, and film and television scripts concerning my husband and myself that I am genuinely and though God knows I hate to use the word, ‘authentically’ unsure of what I am,” she writes. “I can’t say whether it is after the fifteenth or the fiftieth negative article or the third or the fourth chapter of one of the half-dozen books that dissect you with a hacksaw, but at some point you leave outrage behind and a worm constricts your chest.” What motivates her to share six hundred pages’ worth of her eighty-year story is nothing other than a desire “to set the record straight, to rationalize the whole endeavour by clinging to the notion that even imperfect, highly flawed people can be interesting and perhaps their experiences might help someone” (though she admits that she’s no “Florence Nightingale for the confused-female set”).
To simply peruse the index of Friends and Enemies is to get a sense of what’s coming: pregnancy and abortion; financial and legal troubles; false allegations against; seizure of personal items; codeine reliance; depression; feminism; pets, aggression of; plastic surgery; reputation as a bitch; reputation as gold digger; smearing of; thinness as ideal; Anglican baptism; and anti-Semitism.
Barbara Joan Estelle Amiel was born in December 1940, in England, and spent the war years at her grandparents’ house in Chorley Wood, Hertfordshire —“a safe place for a Jewish child in 1940s Europe.” When the war ended, she moved with her mother and baby sister back to their “battle-scarred house in Hendon, in North West London.” Her parents divorced; her mother remarried a few years later and eventually gave birth to Barbara’s two half-brothers. The reconstituted family immigrated to Canada and settled in Hamilton.
“If I adored my new stepfather, which I did, I worshipped my own father,” Amiel writes. “So tall, broad-shouldered, handsome and very funny, revelling in my good school reports. The excitement of our rare custody visits was so intense that I almost never slept the night before.” She seldom saw him after her parents separated, and never again after she left England. She was fifteen when her mother announced her father was dead: “He killed himself. . . . He went mad. . . . I expect you’ll go mad too.” A lawyer, he had embezzled client funds, couldn’t replace the money, and committed suicide, leaving his new wife and their two children “quite destitute.”
Amiel learned of her father’s death over the phone; she wasn’t living at home at the time. Her stepfather thought it best that she stay in rented rooms, because she periodically upset her suicidal mother. So she had parted from her family “involuntarily,” starting at age fourteen, but she came to “quite happily [rent] different rooms till my last year in high school.” She took odd jobs, too, to keep herself afloat: “Children are malleable and take life as it comes. No one told me how lives were supposed to be, and so I didn’t feel shortchanged.”
Despite the rooming-house existence and part-time jobs, Amiel tried to play the part of an average teenager. She spent time with friends and boyfriends and edited her high school magazine. And in 1959, she got herself to the University of Toronto: “I’d scrambled together the first payment of my college tuition and three months of residence fees with my usual confidence that I’d find a job to pay for the rest.” In that first year, she met Gary Smith, who was studying law at Osgoode Hall. For her birthday, he gave her an opal ring: “My engagement was accidental. . . . A ring could mean nothing else.” She dreaded marriage and worried about the suffocating role of a Jewish wife.
Then came Robert Hershorn: from a wealthy Jewish family in Montreal, he both sold and used heroin. Amiel found the outlaw in him appealing — the antithesis of steadfast Gary Smith. She admits she already had her own addiction — a codeine habit that began as a teenager — but she had no interest in smack. She began a muddled affair with Hershorn and delayed her nuptials: “The evening that was supposed to be my wedding night was spent in Times Square with Leonard Cohen holding one arm of mine and Robert the other.” A month or two later, she did marry Smith. It lasted seven months. “We parted amiably and with no need of a financial settlement,” she recalls. “I was working at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and could afford my rooming house, which, with one marriage behind me, was where I was again.”
Over eighteen months at the CBC, she went from filing clerk to on-camera interviewer and story editor. Then, around 1968, she met the film producer George Bloomfield and moved to New York. Life with him alternated in rapid succession from the high to the low, depending on whether he had movie work. In 1972, she “felt it was all right to leave him,” as he was directing a film and her departure could be relatively guilt free. She was motivated, because she was in love with a man she had dated with “complete indifference” five years prior, the CBC radio producer George Jonas: “After we married”— in 1974 —”the violence, though very infrequent, was material and culminated in my receiving a dislocated jaw that required the ‘I bumped into a door’ explanation for the disbelieving emergency doctor.” Despite their volatile relationship, Jonas and Amiel wrote a book together, By Persons Unknown: The Strange Death of Christine Demeter, which received positive reviews and gave them some financial security, however briefly.
The couple divorced in 1979, when Amiel “decided to leave no cliché unturned, oh God, and, fulfilling Jonas’s worst fears, became infatuated with the Younger Man.” The new beau was just out of university and was the “altogether so physically perfect” Sam Blyth. Having no money, they moved into a cheap, rodent-infested apartment recently vacated by Blyth’s university friends: “His former co-residents left behind thousands of fleas from their cats but sadly not the cats themselves.” By then, Amiel was writing her column for Maclean’s as well as working for the Toronto Sun and CTV. Soon the new couple were widely criticized for blundering into Mozambique without visas. They spent ten days in jail. The Canadian government was uninterested in freeing them, and eventually the British consul secured their release. They lasted two years.
Despite the ongoing relationship turmoil, Amiel’s career moved ahead with high-profile Maclean’s columns and guest appearances on Front Page Challenge and other TV shows: “I was asked to take positions on all predictable topics because Canadian television couldn’t find another female journalist with long hair and a bust to talk in favour of God, against affirmative action and strongly against a state policy of multiculturalism and enforced human rights tribunals.” Then, seemingly out of the blue, she was offered the job of Toronto Sun editor, even though she and the paper “were not compatible in any way whatsoever, apart from a certain determination to shock and a sturdy belief in a Lockean individualism.”
Before her third marriage, Amiel’s fiancé gave her his psychiatric evaluation. It read, in part, that he had “difficulty trusting and making a full emotional commitment with people, especially women.” Such a revelation might have deterred others from tying the knot with David Graham, a wealthy Canadian businessman domiciled in London, but Amiel moved to London to be with him and started writing for the Times. There she became well known for her forthright views. Marriage number three was doomed. Graham often travelled for business and did not give up his pre-nuptial girlfriends. The final straw, though, was Amiel’s relationship with the book publisher and inveterate party giver George Weidenfeld.
While extraordinarily well connected with the British upper crust, Lord Weidenfeld was short, plump, and twenty-one years older than Amiel. This was not to be marriage number four, although he proposed repeatedly, especially after her comment that “holding him is like clutching death” was widely repeated. The breakup with Graham was “a stew of hysteria” and culminated in a suicide attempt by Amiel. After a brief reconciliation — on the condition that she return what was left of her divorce settlement — Amiel was once again looking for a new home. Her London acquaintances were baffled: she was a smart woman who had divorced a rich man, with little to show for it.
Next came a relationship with the Oscar-winning screenwriter and novelist William Goldman. And though the relationship “had elements apart from true love,” Amiel was not to be his Princess Bride. Then there was yet another commitment-challenged man, there was clinical depression, there was another suicide attempt, there was the constant issue with money — yet Amiel kept churning out those columns. In fact, throughout her life, work has been a solace, even at fourteen. And though it wasn’t the right time for another new romance . . . Conrad Black purchased the Telegraph and started spending more time in London. Black and Amiel had met in Toronto, and it had not been love at first sight, at least for her. When he announced that he was separating from his wife, Amiel commented, “The girls will be falling out of the trees for you.” To which he responded, “Don’t restrain yourself, Barbara.” After many meetings — but before a first kiss — Black proposed marriage.
This would be a good place to end the story if it were a Jackie Collins novel — the heroine finally finding true love, not to mention wealth, social prominence, and houses in New York, London, Palm Beach, and Toronto. Instead, this is where the heroine rises to stratospheric prominence, so that she can fall from spectacular heights.
Barbara Amiel came into a frenetic and established social life when she married Black, in July 1992. But there were homes to decorate, staff to hire, dinners to give — all things Amiel claims she was unequipped to handle. Only because of a lifelong interest in clothes was the upgrade to couture of interest. (And though she made the occasional mistake, she also made the occasional best-dressed list.)
In New York, Amiel’s female friends were known as the Group — a select few who dominated the social columns. Early on, the Group reminded her of a famous Duchess of Windsor bon mot: you can never be too rich or too thin. The women were like Truman Capote’s Swans, the name he gave to the most stylish and famous socialites of the 1960s, who appeared to glide effortlessly through life while concealing the constant and strenuous effort — those ungainly webbed feet moving as fast as they could. Amiel paddled quickly to catch up.
In August 2002, Vogue featured Amiel — stunning and age-defying, a sixty-one-year-old who had come to appreciate expensive jewellery — in its annual Age Issue. On their own, the photographs of extraordinary entitlement could be criticized as attention seeking, but not much else. But they were coupled with a bold quote —“I have an extravagance that knows no bounds”— and caused an explosion of derision. Amiel meant the comment to be self-deprecating, but her intent wasn’t easily understood. And that’s ironic, considering she didn’t consume conspicuously enough for the Group (just too conspicuously for everyone else). The Group’s de facto leader, Jayne Wrightsman, an admired philanthropist and noted grande dame who spent far greater sums but didn’t advertise it, told Amiel, “Anna should have protected you more.” Of course, Anna Wintour wanted to sell magazines. And that lack of protection is something of a recurring theme of Friends and Enemies, perhaps coupled with an unwillingness to accept protection at the same time.
It’s probable the ensuing legal nightmare for Black would have happened regardless, but Amiel worries she helped ignite the firestorm of litigation and charges. Was it a folie à deux? Regardless, Amiel gave the mob a slogan — a “let them eat cake” gaffe — to sum up why the lord and lady should be pilloried. Like annoyed swans, the Group turned their backs on Amiel, especially when Black came under legal siege in the early 2000s (“A rockslide begins in silence,” she observes). While her put‑downs of fickle friends are reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, they are far more humorous — and they pale in comparison with the acerbic barbs she directs toward Black’s prosecutors, persecutors, and the legal profession in general.
With Friends and Enemies, Barbara Amiel reprises many of her — as it’s often expressed — extreme right-wing views. Many of her past opinions would never see print in today’s cancel culture, and if they did, she’d be out of a job. So many have taken pleasure in castigating her (and her husband, for that matter). So many have found them guilty of a myriad of character flaws — pomposity, snobbery, wilful naïveté, arrogance. Yet the peanut gallery has looked the other way when equally imperfect characters espouse woke attitudes.
Amiel literally lists her friends and enemies at the end of the book. The list of friends is long (we should all be so lucky), while the roll call of enemies is surprisingly brief. Still, she aims her final remarks at them: “I’m going to try to enjoy the remaining time left to me. And bugger off to the whole damn lot of you. We’re still here. You lost.” It’s a taunt that seems relevant to many in her life, going way back.
When considering the merits of a memoir or autobiography, does one evaluate the writing or the life? And how can you judge a writer’s impression of her own life anyway? Despite the confessional nature of her book, it sometimes seems as if Amiel has only fleeting insight into what’s driven her more extreme behaviours: the attention-deprived childhood, the longing for an idolized but remote father. On one point, though, Barbara Amiel knows about herself what I knew right away in that restaurant forty years ago: this is a woman who lives in a different world. She’s also a woman who has survived a world that destroys most everyone else.