Conrad Black: Reviled as a Businessman, Celebrated as a Historian





Tina Brown, writing in the Washington Post (Dec. 4, 2003):

It's odd how fast grandeur becomes gloomy when the miasma of misfortune sets in. No one could have predicted that the book party for Conrad Black's monumental study of Franklin D. Roosevelt at New York's Four Seasons restaurant would coincide with his stepping down as CEO of the publishing company Hollinger International -- owner of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post and, in the U.K., the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and the venerable conservative weekly the Spectator -- under a cloud of allegations of financial self-dealing and an SEC investigation.

Even with hosts as luminous as philanthropist Jayne Wrightsman and fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, acceptances shrank to a small band of loyalists like Henry Kissinger and Ronald Perelman. Unfortunately for Black, a packed, convivial book party for former treasury secretary Robert Rubin was coincidentally raging in the next room. "I'm just doing a fly-by," one society hostess said as she scurried through to the Rubin fiesta beyond.

The strangest moment was when the deposed chairman of Sotheby's, and ex-con, Alfred A. Taubman sidled in. In December 2000, when Lord Black celebrated his wife's 60th birthday with a luxe blowout at another swell New York restaurant, La Grenouille, he baffled the guests with a long, mellifluous toast to the honesty, sobriety, integrity etc., of Taubman -- the relevance of which became clear only months later when honest Al was indicted in a price-fixing scandal at the venerable auction house. Now Taubman was offering reciprocal loyalty.

The meager turnout was a bummer, since Black's 1,300-page biography has had stellar reviews. Historians from Alan Brinkley to Daniel Yergin have hailed it as the best single volume on the many perplexing aspects of FDR's political life. A belligerent neo-con before it was fashionable, Black has paradoxically contrived to write an admiring appraisal of Roosevelt's pre-Pearl Harbor reluctance to fight the Nazis and the economic interventionism of the New Deal for which neo-cons of the '30s bitterly reviled FDR as "that man."

What's interesting about Black is that he's a throwback to the era when media moguls were still called press lords. His eyes sparkle with self-regard but he is at logorrheic ease on any subject with a historical reference. His wife, Barbara Amiel, writes a sharply barbed, rousingly pro-Israel column in the Telegraph. She famously caused interesting trouble when she wrote up the anti-Semitic remarks made by the French ambassador at a dinner he thought was private. She gets away with it because she's not only Lady Black but a brainy, brunette femme fatale with spectacular cleavage. Once, at a dinner party at the publisher Lord Weidenfeld's Chelsea apartment (the party was for Al Taubman, as it happens), I appreciated the deftness with which at cocktail hour she reconnoitered the dining room to switch place cards and seat herself next to a less grand but more amusing man. It was a moment right out of Anthony Trollope.



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