Peter Oborne

The ballad of Connie and Babs

Peter Oborne says that Conrad Black was a great newspaper proprietor, but he and his glamorous wife Barbara made a fatal mistake in trying to conquer America

A few weeks ago executives were endeavouring to bring home to Conrad Black the full horror of his personal and corporate predicament, when a sight met their eyes. His wife Barbara, clad only in a leotard and shades, had swept into the room. For a moment nobody spoke. ‘Oh Conrad,’ Barbara Black proclaimed: ‘Let’s just get out of here. They hate us.’

Barbara Amiel was born in Watford, and she enjoyed the kind of childhood that, if survived at all, instils resilience through life. She wrote her first autobiography — it is greatly to be hoped that another will follow — as early as 1980. Amiel was only 39, but there was already plenty of ground to cover. She chose the same title — Confessions — as the French romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and her story was every bit as moving. Her parents had separated when she was very young, and her mother moved to Canada, and remarried. In due course came the news that her father had committed suicide. She moved out of her mother’s home when she was 15 and, according to Conrad Black’s biographer Richard Siklos, ‘spent the next year boarding with strangers in basements and working odd jobs in chemists, canning factories and dress shops while attending school’.

Intermixed with an erratic career in journalism were a number of husbands, of whom Conrad Black was the fourth. When the newspaper tycoon became romantically involved with her 14 years ago, he still had about him the air of a man who had won the pools. His purchase of the Daily Telegraph for £18 million in 1986 had unexpectedly made him quite rich, and enormously influential. But he did not yet know how to make full use of his newly acquired status. Black’s first wife Shirley, with whom he had attended Barbara Amiel’s third wedding — to the cable TV magnate David Graham in 1986 — was not interested.

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