Conrad's Heart of Darkness
The decline and fall of Conrad Black.
"How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning."
If anyone should be gloating at the collapse and disgrace of Lord Black of Crossharbour, the absurd title with which Conrad Black invested himself on being raised to the British peerage, that someone should be me. In the mid-1980s he boasted to a reporter that he was going to buy the London Spectator in order to fire me as its Washington correspondent. When I heard the news, I thought: Here we go again, another newspaper tycoon gone clean off his trolley with megalomania. Next thing we know, he'll have to build himself a revolving room, like Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail, or announce that he's a poached egg and demand a large piece of toast to lie down on, or build an opera house in which his untalented girlfriend can sing.
In fact, shortly afterward, he did buy the Spectator, and I had to find another market for my anti-Reagan feuilletons. But Black persisted in hampering my scrabble for work. When I was hired as Washington editor for a now-defunct London Sunday paper, he rang up the management to warn them that I was a dangerous and wicked person and to advise them strongly to get rid of me. I did think of suing for defamation at this stage, but I decided that the whole thing was too interesting. The feud began to be a "thing" in the gossip columns. I privately put Conrad Black (as he still then was) on my evil-eye list. This Don't F*** With Hitch curse actually works—look at what happened to Saddam Hussein—but Black declined to mend his ways (to the contrary, he even put Henry Kissinger on his well-remunerated board of advisers), and now look what's happened. I remember running into a very conservative gentleman in the corridors of the American Enterprise Institute a year or so ago who had taken a look at the evidence and said, "Conrad's gone too far. This time he's going to jail."
Revenge is sour, of course. Black beat some of the rap, especially the most serious charge, and has essentially been convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice. There was, no doubt, an element of class war in the minds of the Chicago jurors as they heard about the astonishing "Barbarians at the Gate" expenditures on parties, jets, and all the rest of it. And it seems that I was right all along—at least about the part where Citizen Kane built an opera house for his girlfriend.
Lady Black, the former glamour-puss Barbara Amiel, turns out to be one of these women who are insatiable. Insatiable in the Imelda Marcos way, I mean. Never mind the mammoth tab for her birthday dinner in New York, where it's at least arguable that business was discussed. Never mind the extra wings that had to be built onto her homes just to accommodate the ball gowns and shoes. What about the time she was on a Concorde that stubbornly remained on the tarmac at London airport? Irked at the delay, she telephoned the chairman of British Airways, Lord King, to demand action and—failing to get crisp service from him—announced that she would never fly the airline again. This, in turn, meant the acquisition by Hollinger Securities of a private jet for her. And this, in turn, meant the installation of an extra lavatory on the aforesaid private jet, at a cost of $250,000, so that Lady Black wouldn't have to be inconvenienced by the crew members coming down the fuselage to use the existing one.
It's that last touch that promotes her into the ranks once described by the novelist Joyce Cary: the people who utter what he called "tumbrel remarks." A tumbrel remark, as you may have guessed, is the sort of observation made by the uncontrollably rich that is likely to unleash class warfare. Marie Antoinette's advice on cake is the original. Barbara Bush, on the upgraded accommodations for Katrina refugees in the Houston Astrodome, is a good recent example. Lady Diana Cooper, when approached by a ragged man who said he hadn't eaten for three days, upbraided him roundly and said: "But my dear man, you must try. If necessary, you must force yourself." You get the picture? "You are good enough to fly me, but not good enough to use my loo" is well up in this class. On another celebrated occasion, wishing to consult one of two women who worked for her husband and had similar names, she had one of them summoned to her home and, on discovering that she'd made a mistake, trilled peevishly: "No, you're the wrong one. I want the other one." I want, I want … By the way, this is almost exactly what happens when Lord Copper, tyrannical proprietor of the Daily Beast in Evelyn Waugh's Fleet Street masterpiece Scoop, disastrously hires William Boot instead of John Boot.
By all accounts, the great real-life tycoon was the merest putty in this dragon lady's hands; a factor that—for me, at any rate—paradoxically weighs in his favor. He would have been happy enough writing his history books (the one on FDR is by all reports pretty good) and convincing himself that he was advising and influencing those in power. But always the incessant demands, always the cry for newer and better baubles. Who cares about the shareholders when there is a lovely woman's whim to be gratified? Bourgeois values be damned! Alas, there are classy ways of doing this kind of thing and tacky ways, and Lord and Lady Black ended up looking vulgar. Like Tom and Daisy in Gatsby, they were "careless people" who regarded others according to whether they could be useful or not, and now it's closing time in a playground that may not have been all that much fun even while it lasted.
Postscript: I am writing this from the San Francisco Bay Area, where all summer a local politician named Ed Jew has been in trouble over his filing of an allegedly bogus claim of residency. The headlines on the case invariably give his full name (he is of Asian descent), as in last Saturday's "City Attorney Toughens Case Against Ed Jew." But the headlines about Conrad Black have very often said "Black Convicted." Is this discrimination on a subtle level? Or should Mr. Jew be glad that he has such a short first name?
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel by Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images.