I had a lot of fun at the Quebec Writers’ Federation summer picnic the other day. The QWF brings together authors, poets, screenwriters, science writers and graduate students in creative writing. Many of the members have moved to Montreal from British Columbia, Illinois, Ireland and other places – all attracted by the unique character and creativity of Montreal.
One question came up over spinach fritters (and by the way, they were delicious). What was the most challenging thing I ever had to write?
I thought right away of Robber Baron, my unauthorized biography of newspaper magnate Conrad Black. In 2007, my publisher, ECW Press, sent me five times to Chicago, for a few days at a time, to attend Black’s criminal trial for fraud and obstruction of justice. Lord Black of Crossharbour had always seen himself as a master strategist. He had even given me long interviews, waxing poetic about his intimate understanding of power – he admired Machiavelli’s “the end justifies the means”, Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” and Spengler’s “world historical figures” capable of reversing the decline of the West. Black liked to equate himself with powerful men, from kings to popes and prime ministers.
But here he was in US criminal court, where federal prosecutors stood a 95% chance of getting a conviction. Black spent most of his time huddling with his lawyers and scowling at the jury. He had decided not to testify. Some journalists were rooting for him; others were dead against; a few journalists (particularly the ones from Toronto) were annoyed with me, since I knew Black, and they didn’t. I was careful to keep a respectful distance from one and all. I was constantly invited to go outside the Dirksen Federal Building (the courthouse) to give TV interviews on the street. Some TV hosts blew up at me on air, for maintaining the presumption of innocence. Determining Black’s fate was up to the jury – not to me.
One day towards the end of the trial, I asked Black about that drink we were going to have. He invited me to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at the end of the day. He turned up in a beige suit, egg-blue Oxford cloth shirt and gold tie. He had the bitter, exhausted eyes of a warrior. “Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Maurice Duplessis’s fifth electoral triumph of June 20, 1957… So we agree that this is off the record – until after the verdict?”
Black gave me his view of the criminal trial: he was just about to recover his position, ramping up a counter-attack, suing for billions. He seemed to be inside a narcissistic bubble. He asked me what the experts were saying … the journalists … plus any other people I might have canvassed.
I gave a maybe-this-maybe-that answer. “The people I know haven’t really been following the case closely,” I said. “They say the prosecution has tried to throw many charges against you, hoping some will stick. I feel some of the charges are, on the face of it, speculative, whereas four or five others are more damaging….”
As he sipped his Chardonnay, I pictured him in a tiny prison cell, 8 feet by 9 feet, with a fellow inmate not of his own choosing, in an endless network of cells arrayed like a beehive, with no ceilings, and security cameras maintaining a thousand convicted thieves and drug traffickers under 24-hour surveillance. How would someone so proud of being a multi-millionaire manage in such a harsh environment? According to Rupert Murdoch, Black had once even been a billionaire.
Just before we said good-bye at the Ritz-Carlton, I had a frog in my throat. I had got to know Black over the last five years. I didn’t remember him ever taking responsibility for his actions – it was always someone else’s fault – but I couldn’t just walk away. “I wanted to say I regret all these things that have happened,” I said, measuring my words. “It must have been a terrible experience. We will have to wait and see the outcome. I admire the way your children have supported you.”
At these words, Black’s expression changed. I could almost hear him snarling like a tiger behind the bars of his cage. He must have felt I was predicting his conviction.
Well, he was convicted twenty-three days later, and was eventually incarcerated at Coleman low-security penitentiary in Florida. While researching a report for CTV, I learned that another inmate at Coleman Low was Danny Leo, acting boss of the Genovese crime family, the biggest of New York’s five Mafia families. A man like Danny Leo would still be powerful behind bars, and could offer inmates protection … for a price.
My biography came out three months after the conviction, in English and French. Radio-Canada’s all-news channel RDI later asked me to take a TV crew to Florida, to interview Black at Coleman Low, now that he was Inmate #18330-424. I thought about it, then quietly declined the offer. What could I possibly ask him? What could he possibly answer? Why kick a man when he was down?
Writing about delusions is like finding your way out of a labyrinth.