BYLINE: Duff Mcdonald
Sitting on a dais inside a private club on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Conrad Black was in his element. It was nearly eight p.m. on Thursday, November 6, of last year, and Lord Black was expounding to an invitation-only audience on the relationship between Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "She was very hectoring," he mused, his eyebrows arching as he tapped the tips of his fingers together in church-steeple formation. "And although she was apparently a very witty woman, she didn't ever seem to be any great barrel of laughs with him." The crowd of Council on Foreign Relations members laughed, and Black laughed with them. It was an auspicious start to the book tour promoting his recently released 1,280-page opus on the Democratic president.
Dressed in a conservative blue suit and striped tie, Black, a well-fed man with an imposing presence, answered questions for an hour, reaching just once for a sip of water. And while it was easy to mistake his expression for a scowl, because the corners of his mouth turn down and his eyes can narrow into an angry-looking squint, the right-wing press baron was clearly enjoying the discussion of his unlikely hero.
Days later, at a book fair at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Black faced questions of a different sort. Would Hollinger Inc.-the parent company of Hollinger International, the newspaper conglomerate Black controlled-be announcing news of a long-awaited refinancing? Black, who tends to use three words when one would suffice, said that was "reasonable to surmise."
Facing bad press over his outsize pay and corporate-governance practices, Black had insinuated that he would bring in a new investor to make things right. But it wasn't to be: on November 17, a special committee of Hollinger International's board of directors reported finding $32 million in unauthorized payments to Black, three other executives, and the Toronto-based Hollinger Inc. Black announced that he would step down as C.E.O. of the company he had run for 25 years, while retaining the title of non-executive chairman. Investors, giddy at the news, sent Hollinger's stock price through the roof.
The next day, Black, surrounded by bodyguards, stared down a crowd outside a reading at Indigo Books in Toronto. "All you fellows who wrote today that I'm finished may not have it right, you know. I made 50 million bucks yesterday," he said, referring to the increased value of his Hollinger shares. "That's a flameout I could get used to."
Next up: a party for his book on November 24 in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons in New York. Engraved invitations for the event, thrown by Henry and Marie-Josee Kravis, Oscar and Annette de la Renta, and Jayne Wrightsman, all hugely prominent Manhattan social figures, had gone out long before Black resigned. The party was an embarrassment, with only half of the 300 or so invited guests in attendance. "That room is usually a rat fuck at these kinds of parties," one guest who did attend tells me. "But there was plenty of walking-around room this time."
Meanwhile, in the restaurant's adjacent Pool Room, a more successful book party, for former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, was under way, with Al Franken and former New York City mayor David Dinkins among the 300 guests. As Black's guests came and went quickly, many didn't even realize that his wife, the normally flamboyant columnist Barbara Amiel, was there. Lady Black kept a low profile, wearing a coat with a high collar. According to one guest, you couldn't see her face unless you happened to be staring straight at her.
She wouldn't have to resort to such a measure at the book tour's last stop, a dinner party at the London home of the British publisher Lord Weidenfeld, an old friend of the couple's and a onetime consort of Amiel's. In early December, that soiree was postponed indefinitely.
Just two and a half years after his induction into Britain's House of Lords, Conrad Black's world has fallen apart. What started with grumblings from a minority shareholder in Hollinger International has mushroomed into a devastating investigation with global ramifications.
Lawsuits filed by minority shareholders and even by the board of his own company charge Black with manipulating a rubber-stamp board to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from publicly traded Hollinger International into his own pockets and those of his associates. The S.E.C. and Canadian securities regulators are conducting inquiries, and the U.S. Justice Department is said to be considering criminal charges. Taken together, the accusations leveled against him threaten his job, his lifestyle, his social standing, even his freedom.
On January 17, Black was removed as chairman of Hollinger International. The next day, he announced plans to sell his stake in Hollinger Inc. to Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, a mysterious pair of twins who live together on a private island in the English Channel. Gone are Black's company jets and his corporate tab at New York's elite Le Cirque 2000 restaurant. He is said to be selling two of his four houses, in Palm Beach (asking price: $36 million) and London (valued at $26 million). In the latter, he and Amiel regularly entertained guests from Margaret Thatcher and Henry Kissinger to Tom Stoppard and Sir Evelyn de Rothschild.
Now even those who have publicly stood by the embattled mogul seem to be entertaining doubts about him. "I'm on the board of Rockefeller University, as are Nancy Kissinger and Annette de la Renta," says Christopher Browne, managing director of the New York investment firm Tweedy Browne and Black's chief adversary among Hollinger shareholders. "Annette came up to me at a meeting in November and said that I was doing wonderful things over at Hollinger. I said, 'Yeah, but are you still throwing him his book party?' She said, 'What can we do? We didn't know he was so greedy.'"
Not that Black tried to hide it. "Greed has been severely underestimated and denigrated, unfairly so, in my opinion," he told his biographer Peter Newman more than 20 years ago. "It is a motive that has not failed to move me from time to time." But greed is just one aspect of a complex and tragicomic personality that has baffled many during his three decades in the media spotlight. Charming, erudite, eloquent, and impeccably well-mannered, Black can also be arrogant, self-righteous, snobbish, and thin-skinned.
He is a man with a great sense of history-and of his own place in it. Obsessed with all things military, he has admitted taking inspiration from the "blitzkrieg methods and swarming infiltration of the German tank commanders of 1940." Playing the part of General Conrad Black, he has embraced pomp and pageantry with an enthusiasm not seen since Louis XIV-whether covered in ermine in England's House of Lords or dressed in finely tailored pin-striped suits at the office. And despite more than a few run-ins with his critics, he has generally managed to maintain the image of a lovable rogue.
Somewhere along the way, however, Black seems to have lost touch with the more endearing parts of his overbearing personality. "He has no time for self-mockery," says someone who has known him for almost 20 years. "He used to, but as time went by, he lost his ability to be teased." And then he overreached. Once admired and feared for his ruthless and audacious tactics, Black has been reduced to blaming his predicament on the greediness of others. And as he and his wife retreat behind the closed gates of their mansion in Toronto, there is much Schadenfreude the world over. But there is also a sense of pity-for a flawed character who, but for a few senseless decisions, might have remained on his throne as the philosopher king of the boardroom.
The Canadian-born Black was inducted into England's House of Lords on October 31, 2001. Like Canada's previous press barons-Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Thomson-Black had cobbled together a newspaper empire and anchored it with a mainstay of British media, in his case London's Telegraph. His holdings ranged from the Telegraph to the …