The Black Trial: Telling man from myth
Larger than life and more fictional than human -- what's behind the legend of Conrad Black?
ANNE KINGSTON | July 30, 2007 |
The cracks in the self-mythology of Conrad Black were visible if fleeting last week. First, on Tuesday, his sockless arrival at the Chicago courthouse -- not cause for the absurd dissection it received, true, but still a careless sartorial choice for a man who appears to have been born in a pinstriped suit. On his exit, there was the defiant middle-finger thrust, the mute rebuke of the powerless when cornered. Then, after the verdict, his ashen, uncharacteristically silent departure from the courtroom.
All signalled a departure from Black's bombastic confidence of the preceding weeks and months. It was a glimpse into his seldom-seen human aspect, a side rarely on display. The Conrad Black we know is a grandiose, mythic figure, his trial imbued with epic meaning: this isn't yet another guy found guilty of stealing from his company but rather a modern morality tale; his plight is viewed as either karmic comeuppance or colossal injustice. To his critics, Black is the embodiment of capitalist evil. To his remaining supporters, he's the victim of a bogus American show trial. Either way, he's pure symbol, denuded of humanity.
Black has long been framed as a larger-than-life character. In his memoir Best Seat in the House, former Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford writes of meeting Black in 1987 after the businessman bought the magazine: "His personality had a staged, directed feel to it. It was also oddly familiar. Where had I seen it before, a large, handsome man with a supercilious and condescending manner and a baroque vocabulary? Of course: Orson Wells in Citizen Kane." When Black owned the Daily Telegraph, employees would debate which literary character he more resembled: was he Augustus Melmotte from Trollope's The Way We Live Now, a bloated swindler and social climber who, before his downfall, was "magnificent in his expenditure, powerful in his doings, successful in his businesses"? Or Lord Copper, the tyrannical press baron in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, who believed the world was flat, prompting his minions to respond, "Up to a point, Lord Copper"? Even Black's friend George Jonas described Black in the National Post last week as "projecting a persona out of Ayn Rand."
Black's propensity for droll, Oscar-Wilde-like epigrams furthered his identification as a literary figure, and imbued his utterances with the illusion of moral rigour. "Greed has been severely underestimated and denigrated -- unfairly so, in my opinion," he once told Peter C. Newman. "Humility is a good quality, but it can be overdone," he told the Wall Street Journal.
"Conrad is very quotable because I think he's living in a book," his first wife, Joanna, told author Richard Siklos in Shades of Black. "Conrad had written his life and he had it all planned out." In his 1993 autobiography, A Life in Progress, Black writes of rebelling against the beige, under-the-radar Canadian establishment to which he was born: "All my life I had sought a more distinguished, varied and eventful life than the milieu in which I had been brought up." Characters in Black's story were renamed to fit the narrative. Joanna, born Shirley, was rechristened with the more upmarket moniker at her husband's behest after the couple moved to London in the 1980s. His own identity was recalibrated mid-story when he married Barbara Amiel, herself the product of many reinventions, both ideological and physical. He changed nationalities, renouncing his Canadian citizenship to become a British lord. Lord and Lady Black of Crossharbour delighted in their provocative public profile, dressing as Cardinal Richelieu and Marie Antoinette for a costume party and posing for Vanity Fair in 2005 at their Palm Beach estate, with Amiel posed coquettishly at her husband's feet.
Even the most generous retelling of his story by others infuriates Black. After reading The Establishment Man, Peter C. Newman's largely flattering 1982 biography of him -- Black was described as "a Roman candle among the wet firecrackers littering Canada's business landscape" -- Black fired off an angry letter to Newman. "What is particularly irritating," he wrote, "is that it is not open season on me, but upon a largely fictitious image that you created for me of a chillingly ruthless and rather conceited person, obsessed with materialism, pontificating endlessly, and viewing the world through the prism of a reactionary proprietor." Only Black could write such a concise précis of his public persona.