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`That young man, judging by the shape of his skull, is going to have a tremendous brain' E.P. TAYLOR
Standing nearly six and a half feet tall, George Montegu Black Jr might have cut an imposing figure to his young son Conrad. But relations with children were one of the subtle mysteries of life the elder Black believed he had mastered. `Small children, dogs, fish, and insects love me,' he once said. `I always talk to a child as if he were grown up, and they appreciate that. First of all, I'm a formidable-looking creature — I must look to them as a loud voice, although I always speak softly. I've had success with hundreds of small children just by remaining calm and still and not making sudden loud noises or sudden rapid movements.'
An accomplished executive and investor with the mind of a philosophy professor, George Black could seem variously charming, imperious, or other-worldly. A voracious reader with a passion for history and great men, he was a droll raconteur with a grandiloquent style. `As Coleridge once observed of the ancient mariner, I have strange power of speech,' he once said. Betty Black frequently advised her husband to `shorten things up' to which George would mutter, `Well, for God's sake, if you're going to express something, express it.'
Betty Black doted on Conrad and his older brother Montegu. To friends of the Black children she was a gracious hostess who took pride in running a proper household, complete with cook, nanny, butler, and chauffeur. Toronto, the city where the Blacks lived, was safe, clean, predictable and controlled bypeople very much like themselves.
The picture of George Black as a quintessential brewery executive of his era is summed up by a 1955 profile in Saturday Night magazine: `He has tried his hand at most sports and games of skill. In his view none can compare in challenge or excitement with big business; none requires more skill or better timing. His work, which is his way of life, has only one major rival — his family: his wife, his young sons, Montegu and Conrad, and his comfortable home.'
George Black grew up in the prairie city of Winnipeg, where he was born on 3 June 1911 to George Montegu Black Sr and Gertrude Maxwell Black. The Blacks hailed from New England and lived in Halifax for a time, where George Anderson Black (George Montegu Sr's father) worked for the Hudson's Bay Company. G. A. Black had a small connection to the world of the press barons, as he was related by marriage to John F. Stairs, the Halifax businessman who gave Maxwell Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, one of his first jobs.
Born in 1875 and having moved to Winnipeg as a boy, the first George Montegu was engaged in a number of ventures throughout Western Canada, primarily in real estate and insurance, and was a junior partner of the original Viscount Rothermere, Harold Harmsworth. Black was not at the peak of Winnipeg `society', but he was an extremely well connected man, garnering lengthy entries in Who's Who. A social highlight took place in October 1924, when his daughter Margaret, George Jr's sister, was one of four debutantes presented to the thirty-year-old Prince of Wales at a Friday night ball at the home of Sir Augustus and Lady Nanton. The following afternoon, George Sr was included in a foursome with the prince at the St Charles country club.
As the twenties progressed, many of Black Sr's ventures did not, and his main enterprise became a controlling stake in Western Breweries Ltd, a holding company he created in 1927 to amalgamate four breweries in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and a ginger ale plant. The business suffered during the Depression; Western Breweries stock nosedived from a high of $10.50 in 1930 to $2.50 in 1931, resulting in the suspension of its dividends and a main source of family income. But the family remained sufficiently liquid that George Jr wanted for little and was sent to Appleby College preparatory school in Oakville, near Toronto. This was followed by a short stint at Montreal's McGill University — the brevity due to a bout of double pneumonia which sent him home during his first year. Back in Winnipeg in 1930 he enrolled at the University of Manitoba and fell in love with Elizabeth Jean Riley (a figure-skating champion universally known as Betty), beginning a courtship he later described as lasting `seven financially lean years'.
Black received a general arts degree from Manitoba in 1933 and his first job was with the accounting firm of Millar, Macdonald and Co., where he worked by day while attending lectures and studying for his chartered accountancy certificate by night. In 1937, his efforts began to pay off: he earned his accountant's degree, joined the family brewery as controller, and married his sweetheart in an Anglican ceremony.
The family George Black Jr married into was among Winnipeg's most prominent, possessing the stalwart, rock-solid airs of its main business, life insurance. Betty Riley's father, Conrad Stephenson Riley, traced his roots to Beverly, Yorkshire. Her great-grandfather, Thomas Riley, moved to London in the early 1850s where, with his father-in-law, he is said to have purchased a `fractional interest' in a newly launched newspaper, the Daily Telegraph and Courier.
In turn-of-the-century Canada, Winnipeg, where George Black and Conrad Riley eventually settled, was going through boom times. After the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886, and until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Winnipeg was the undisputed gateway for commerce to the unexploited Canadian West. It became the biggest grain centre on the continent, and from a population of about 14,000 in 1883, when Conrad Riley arrived in Winnipeg, the city swelled to more than 165,000 by 1912.
The Riley's found their fortune in the burgeoning field of insurance. In 1895, Conrad's father Robert Riley set up the Canadian Fire Insurance Company, which he followed with Canadian Indemnity Company and Northern Trusts Company. As a young man, Conrad Riley possessed considerable athletic prowess, and his feats as a rowing champion later earned him induction to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. At the apex of his career, his blue-chip directorships included Royal Bank of Canada, Winnipeg Electric Company, Beaver Lumber Company, Great-West Life, and Montreal Trust. In the 1940s, a magazine profile described Riley as one of the fifty men in control of Canada's finances, which he dismissed as `a big untrue'.
George Black Jr was grateful that during his protracted courtship of Betty, his future father-in-law `bore my callow unsophistication with benign indulgence'. A future in the family brewery and a stable life with Betty in one of the fine homes of Armstrong Point seemed preordained for George until 1940, when Black decided to join the war effort. His first thought was to enlist in the army, but he was rejected because of failing eyesight. `After all,' he said later, `there's no point in having a great big tall blind man standing in a trench looking like an idiot.' The Royal Canadian Air Force, being in need of accountants as well as aces, was more welcoming. On Dominion Day, 1 July 1940, George kissed Betty goodbye and climbed aboard a Trans-Canada Airlines flight from Winnipeg to Ottawa, with orders to report to Air Force headquarters. There, he was seconded to the office of the Deputy Minister of National Defence for Air, James Duncan, who wanted him to assist in launching the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. To avoid the discomfort of a low-ranking officer advising senior commanders, Black was removed from duty and placed in a civilian role. Displaying an air of superiority that runs through the Black line, he later described the men he served as `a hopeless bunch of ghouls. They were totally incapable of handling anything without some assistance.'
In December 1940, Black was invited by James Duncan to an informal dinner at Ottawa's Chateau Laurier hotel where the guest of honour was a renowned industrialist, Edward Plunket (E. P.) Taylor. Taylor served as the civilian right hand of the minister of munitions, C. D. Howe, and the pair had recently been plucked from cold Atlantic seas after the ship on which they were steaming towards England was torpedoed by the Germans.
Taylor, born in Ottawa, the son of a smalltown banker, had built up and acquired a large swath of businesses, largely in the food and beverage industries. He was the quintessential top-hatted Canadian capitalist of the day, a cigar-chomping beer baron and race-horse owner of larger-than-life proportions. Black was impressed by this man ten years his senior who seemed the fount of an endless stream of ideas. Likewise, Taylor, who had started his empire with a small brewery owned by his grandfather, made a mental note to keep an eye on Black.
Several months later, once the training programme was off the ground, Black was recruited to help set up an aircraft propeller manufacturing operation, Canadian Propellers Ltd, in Montreal. Not long after the birth of the Blacks' first child, George Montegu III on 6 August 1940, Betty and the baby joined him in Montreal. By the war's end, Canadian Propellers had built and shipped 12,500 propellers; rising to executive vice-president, Black had directed the operations of 800 workers. When the company was wound up in the summer of 1945, it had accumulated a surplus of $5,000, which was donated to the Mechanical Engineering department at nearby McGill University. `So if anybody says that I was a war profiteer,' Black later commented, `they're goddamned liars.'
One day in July 1944, the industrialist E. P. Taylor was in Montreal and rang George Black, inviting him to lunch. Black had not heard from Taylor for some time, and said he would be delighted to meet him. As Black's office was far from the centre of town he arranged for Taylor to dine at the Black home on Cedar Avenue. Black's instructions to Betty, who was pregnant with their second child: `Hold onto your hat, buy some steaks!'
After dinner, during drinks on the patio, Taylor eased into the purpose of his call. `George, this war isn't going to last for ever ...' What were his plans? Black hadn't really thought it through, but answered that he expected to return to the family brewing business. Taylor agreed that he should go into the brewing business, but not back in Winnipeg: `I think you should come to Toronto and work with me.' Black later described it as a 'real bombshell' and explained that his father was counting on his return. Taylor suggested he and Betty come to Toronto for a weekend and `look at what I've got and we'll talk about it'.
Conrad Moffat Black was born a few weeks later on 25 August 1944, the day Paris was liberated from the Nazis. His upbringing in Montreal would be brief, due to the weekend visit to Toronto made by George and Betty in November which culminated in a job offer from Taylor in their suite at the Royal York Hotel. Nearly a year later Black reported to work at Taylor's Canadian Breweries Ltd in Toronto, as executive assistant to the president, Clive Betts, at a salary of $15,000 a year. Yet from early on it was clear that George Black's ambitions extended beyond being a mere salary man.
In autumn 1945 Taylor was a driving force among a group of industrialists who decided to pool resources and create a closed-end investment holding company. Modelled after a U.S. company called Atlas Corp. (which itself took a substantial initial stake), Taylor and his cronies called their venture Argus, taking the name from the all-seeing hero of Greek mythology, reputed to have one hundred eyes. The philosophy behind Argus was that a small but dominant shareholding in a company, represented by a forceful presence on the board of directors, could have a controlling influence — particularly if that director were Taylor or, in later years, his crafty partner Bud McDougald. While many businessmen were hunkering down for another bust after the lean years of the Second World War and the Great Depression before it, Taylor and company correctly reckoned it was the dawn of an era of prosperity and growth.
The Argus plan was to acquire significant shareholdings in a small number of operating companies without controlling shareholders. Initially, five corporations, including CBL, Massey Harris Co., and Dominion Stores Ltd, accounted for nearly eighty per cent of its approximately $13.5 million of assets.
Though the extent of his holdings would not come to light until three decades later, George Black was one of Argus's original shareholders, and he continued to buy in over the years. He joined the board in 1951, and never sold his Argus shares. He later explained that he was impressed by the `quadrumvirate' who ruled Argus: Taylor, Lt-Col Eric Phillips, Wallace McCutcheon and Bud McDougald — all business icons of their day.
From the moment he set foot in Canadian Breweries' executive offices at O'Keefe House in Toronto on 1 October 1945, Black was caught up in Taylor's expansionist plans. As a brewing executive, Black displayed an aptitude for administration and a disdain for unions. As far as the product went, he preferred spirits to beer. `He thought of himself as an organisation man, and he felt if a company had a good organisation chart, then it should work,' says one of his contemporaries. `"There should be a policy of delegation down the lines of the organisation chart" — and that was it. Well, delegation was fine, but you've got have competent people to delegate to.'
Black's star rose quickly when he was assigned to head a turnaround of CBL's flagging Cleveland subsidiary, Brewing Corporation of America, later to be renamed Carling Brewing Co. The company had recently moved from bottle-washing equipment to nonreturnable bottles, which, along with the new cartons that carried them, were defective. `God, there was beer and blood and broken glass all over thousands of stores,' Black recalled. `So naturally it was a first-rate disaster. It was an imperial military fuck up, like the charge of the Light Brigade.'
By the time Black became president of Carling, new bottle-washing machines had been bought, but sales had faltered badly; the company was losing some $300,000 a month. Black fired staff to get costs in line and started building up the business again. `I've fired so many people in my life that it's sort of an art,' Black later boasted. `I can do it without bitterness.' Carling returned to profitability and in January 1950, six months shy of his thirty-ninth birthday, Black was named president of Canadian Breweries.
One of his next challenges was to deal with a hotel keepers' boycott, that autumn, against O'Keefe, CBL's largest unit. Black believed his arch-rival John Labatt was behind the boycott, which was a protest against price increases and was costing CBL about ten per cent of its business. `Since I was dealing with Machiavellian opponents, I felt obliged to adopt Machiavellian tactics,' Black later recalled. Through his own intelligence network, Black knew Labatt's was going to decrease the price of its beer on the first Saturday in November by twenty-five cents per keg. He summoned his executive vice-presidents to a meeting that Saturday at nine a.m. Black's view was that if there was going to be a price war, he was going to lead it. CBL, he announced, was sending out telegrams to 2,200 hotel keepers in Ontario announcing a fifty cent decrease in its keg prices. An hour later, Labatt's telegrams went out, announcing the twenty-five cent decrease, as anticipated. The perturbed hotel owners went back to buying CBL products.
Just prior to Black's appointment as CBL's president, another of Taylor's brewing subsidiaries, Brewers and Distillers of Vancouver Ltd, offered to buy out the shareholders of Western Breweries. George Black Sr, its president and controlling shareholder, recommended that, at $31.50 per share, or a total of $8.5 million, the 600 shareholders accept.
Western Breweries was integrated into CBL in early 1950. It was one of numerous breweries Taylor would collect in Canada, the U.S. and Britain in his quest to command the world's largest brewery (and an unrealised ambition to pick up a peerage). Each year between 1946 and 1950, the company met its target of twenty-five per cent growth. The rapid expansion naturally took its toll on the CBL organisation, and in 1951 Taylor felt the company ought to be decentralised because `too many policies and decisions were being made at head office'. Black, the new president charged with the dirty work of carrying out the reorganisation, was never one to rush decisions; he would sometimes sit for long periods at his limed-oak desk, balancing a model propeller from his Montreal days between his fingers while mulling over a situation from every angle. He took several months to formulate a decentralising plan, which was sprung on CBL's fifty top managers in November. `I am opposed philosophically and every other way to doing complicated things in a large company in a hurry without proper consideration,' he later explained.
Not only did decentralisation work, but it suited Black's personal style. A night person, he would often arrive in the office at mid-morning or later, and rarely spent more than a dozen hours a week there. `George was lazy,' ventures one former CBL executive. `When he was president of Canadian Breweries he wasn't getting out of the house as fast as he should.' Black took delegation to the extreme and rarely attended meetings of subsidiaries under his command. His own view was that most business could be conducted over the phone and `I find the phone works just as well at home as at the office'.
(Some aspects of George Black's routine can be seen in Conrad Black. He too is not prone to prolonged exposure to his office, can spend umpteen hours each day on the telephone — particularly in the midst of a deal — and rises late, having often stayed up until the early morning working, socialising or reading.)
George Black's eccentricities extended into his personal life as well. He enjoyed bridge and the odd round of croquet, but had quit golfing on 17 August 1937 after hitting his best round. `He astounded himself by shooting a sixty-seven, and he thought that that was it, he had solved all the problems of golf,' says his friend and former brewery colleague, Ian Dowie. `And the next time he played, he was in the high eighties — which of course happens to everybody. This convinced George that this was a stupid game, so he wouldn't bother with it again. That was a sort of indication of George's mental process. I did get him to play a couple of times, because I thought it was silly.'
One subject that never failed to animate Black was labour relations. His attitude towards the powerful beer unions was: `If you can't turn around and snarl at these guys occasionally, they'll kick you to pieces.' Among his top objectives as president was the creation of an alliance with major competitors Molson and Labatt so that if the union struck against one company, they would have to strike against all three. This strategy hinged on the belief that if the breweries stood together, a beer drought brought on by a strike would turn public sentiment against the unions.
Between 1948 and 1958, Carling sales alone increased 877 per cent to 48.7 million cases, ranking it as the fifth largest brewer in the U.S. By 1958, Carling was selling 6.5 bottles per year of its Black Label, Red Cap and Stag Beers for every person in the U.S. In the years that Black was president of Canadian Breweries, 1950-1959, it became the world's largest and most profitable brewery; it dwarfed U.S. giants Anheuser-Busch and Joseph Schlitz Brewing. CBL's sales during the period more than trebled, growing from $100.4 million to $333.8 million and net profit soared from $4.9 million to $12.4 million.
Despite the unbridled growth, there were strains in the executive suite. Tensions that led to George Black falling out with E. P. Taylor can be traced in part to Black's long-time ambition to force an industry-wide strike against a united coalition of brewers. Black realised his wish in the summer of 1959, when the brewers' union called a strike at all the breweries for seven weeks. Taylor's style was to settle right away, but Black resisted — at a cost to CBL of $100,000 a day. Taylor, in Europe at the time, conveyed his annoyance to Black. On Taylor's return to Toronto, Black argued that the strike cost Molson and Labatt plenty too, and his holding the coalition together eventually led to the unions settling for less than they had originally been offered.
Taylor did not share his protege's view, possibly since relations between them had grown tepid even before the strike. By early 1958, Black was no longer in sync with Taylor's expansion plans. For his part, Taylor had come to feel that, whatever his personal feelings, Black had been elevated beyond his abilities. In the spring of 1959, several weeks before the strike, Taylor had suggested to Black that he recentralise the company he had decentralised eight years earlier. Black told Taylor that he was `out of his skull', which did not go over well. On 30 October 1959, Taylor met Black and reiterated his dissatisfaction with the strike and desire to recentralise. `Well, I did the best I could Eddie,' Black told him.
`I think it is time we had a new president of Canadian Breweries Ltd,' Taylor said.
`Well, that's fine with me, Eddie,' Black replied. `I think your policy is nuts and I'm not going to have anything to do with it.' He shook Taylor's hand, cleaned out his desk, and never returned to the Canadian Breweries office.
Relations with Taylor remained cordial, but Black harboured some bitterness that over the years Taylor never acknowledged that Black had been right about the direction of CBL. (The company's financial health roller-coastered over the next few years, but the long-term trend was negative, and it was sold in 1968 to cigarette giant Rothmans.) Black later said that before his final exchange with Taylor as CBL's president turned ugly, Taylor had offered him a five-year contract at $150,000 a year — double his then salary — if he would stick around and do as Taylor bade. He also noted he could have swung a better pension if he'd been fired instead of quitting. But it was a matter of some pride to Black that he `retired' at age forty-eight on his own terms.
Market investments during an era of unfettered post-war economic expansion made him a rich man, and he would never return to executive life again. `I have all the money I'll ever need, and so have my sons, and so has my wife and so has my sister and so have her children,' he said. `And I've made it all.'
`Certainly there was a good chance for Conrad to become a total dilettante,' says George Hayhurst, a close friend of George Black's son at grade school. `There were plenty of guys who had equal privilege and equal access to money who went on to do absolutely nothing.' There was, however, little threat of this happening to the skinny, red-haired rebel. Black's youthful experiences in Toronto, born of material comfort but emotional isolation, were as unconventional as his later exploits on the world stage.
For their first five years in Toronto, the Blacks lived in a home in Toronto's posh Forest Hill district. In 1951, when Conrad was six, they moved to Park Lane Circle, on what was then the outskirts of the city, but in time became one of Toronto's most exclusive areas, known as the Bridal Path. Part of a large parcel of land called Don Mills, which George Black had invested in with E. P. Taylor, but outside Argus, it was a picturesque estate. On seven and a quarter manicured acres dotted with magnificent willow trees, the home was equipped with large public rooms for entertaining and a swimming pool.
With few other young people on Park Lane Circle, Conrad was often left to his own designs. Frequent companions were his books and his father. Like his older brother Monte before him, Conrad was sent to Upper Canada College from the age of six. He would invite friends, sometimes two or three at a time, out to the Black home for weekend visits.
A favourite activity was playing the nickel slot machine George Black had provided for the playroom. Losing was never a problem since Conrad owned the key and could always open up the back for more change. Hayhurst, who sat beside Black in most classes between the ages of ten and fourteen, spent many weekends out at the Black estate. Recalls Hayhurst: `Mostly we played with the slot machine, which was a rather fantastic thing to have in those days. Or we'd play this game called Ships and Battleships on his pool table. The red balls would be ships and the coloured balls would be battleships. Conrad was pretty good at that.'
Another preferred pastime was discussing cars, with debates over which of the latest Cadillac or Chrysler models packed the most horsepower. Sometimes they would sneak down to the garage to look at the engines or play with the newfangled automatic windows on the family cars. The centrepiece of the weekend would be Saturday lunch with Conrad and his parents in the cavernous dining hall. Meals were prepared by the cook, Thomas Dair. George Black sat at the end of the table holding forth on a range of subjects. `His father was a bit distant and sort of looked like the great philosopher,' recalls Hayhurst. `He sort of pontificated.'
Summers for the Black children were spent at the Riley summer compound in Kenora, Ontario. There were also winter trips to Nassau, where George Black was a member of the exclusive Porcupine Club. There, the Blacks rubbed shoulders with American dynasties such as the Mellons and the du Ponts. George Black believed in proper manners and `putting his sons in the picture at an early age' — it was something his own father had done for him. `I don't think it does any harm,' he once explained. `And, furthermore, when you grow up, in later years, you can sometimes astound people by saying, "Well, of course, I once shook hands with His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, in 1919". I did too. I was only eight years old, but I remember.'
George Black's fascination with the good and the great was not unappreciated by Conrad, who, according to a close friend, vowed early on that when he was older `he wasn't just going to talk about people — he was going to know them'.
Conrad Black's parents were often still in bed when he rose for school. Occasionally Betty Black drove her son to school, a few miles away, but more frequently he was chauffered by Tommy, the family's driver. Conrad was by no means the only child to enjoy limousine transport to UCC, but those few who did were duly noted by the other students.
In keeping with their parents' formality, dinner at the Black home was served at precisely the same time every day. `To Conrad this was torment,' says another friend from school days, `because he's notorious for being one of the most unpunctual figures imaginable.'
The brothers were in many respects different. Monte Black was a joiner. Conrad was not. Affable and athletic like many of the Riley cousins, Monte physically resembled his father and adored his mother. Bookish and cerebral, Conrad shared his namesake grandfather Riley's build for rowing but was awkward and enjoyed sports only as a spectator. The Black boys did share an interest in boats, although Monte's taste ran to the pleasure craft that glided through the cottage-country lakes north of Toronto, Conrad's to the mighty steamships and naval juggernauts that ruled the high seas. The isolation of Park Lane Circle was enhanced by Monte's departure, when Conrad was ten, for boarding school.
Precocious, and left to create his own amusements, Conrad Black's capitalist urges stirred early. At age eight, he recalls that he sank his `accumulated life savings of $60' into a single share of General Motors. `The Korean War was on, Stalin was still in power, it was the height of the Cold War,' Black recalls. `To buy a share of General Motors was a wise means of participating in the growth of capitalism, supporting a great institution, and casting one's vote with the side of freedom and enterprise in the worldwide struggle with the red menace which was then generally assumed to be lurking behind every bush and under every bed. It was the equivalent act to the purchase of a Victory Bond ten years before, during the Second World War.'
Black claims to have been `filled with foreboding a few years later' when General Motors president Frederic Donner announced that the U.S. automobile industry's policy was one of `planned obsolescence', designed to ensure that the average car would need to be replaced every few years. `I was young and reasonably credulous,' says Black, `but I instinctively knew that this was nonsense.'
One popular fragment of Black lore that captures the image of the young capitalist has him washing dollar bills and hanging them on a line to dry outside the Park Lane home. This tale, according to Black's first wife Joanna, was embellished and recounted by one of George Black's former colleagues, Jack Campbell, to the author Peter Newman and has since been repeated worldwide. Black had fallen in some mud and was in fact mainly engaged in the less mythical act of washing change. Campbell, says Joanna Black, `had come to the house and Conrad was washing these coins. And he told Peter Newman many many years later that he was washing dollar bills. Conrad told me that he was doing "nothing of the sort".'
Black himself chuckles at the recollection. `I was very young,' he says. `I think I did actually wash mud off one dollar bill. But she's right — it was mainly quarters.'
A similar myth — that he spent much of his boyhood playing with toy soldiers — grew out of a 1980 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation programme that featured footage of an adult Black engaged in a toy soldier battle with his friend Hal Jackman, now lieutenant-governor of Ontario. The perpetuation of this image has always been a source of mild amusement between them. (`That's the only time we've ever played toy soldiers — for that TV show,' says Jackman, who unlike Black actually did collect soldiers. `But I like military science, as does he; we do know the various positions of Napoleonic battles particularly. Conrad will often draw analogies to something Napoleon did in one of his battles. And that's good copy, but it's absolutely nothing to do with reality.')
Black's own youthful reminiscences include David Brinkley announcing the kills in the aerial dogfights over Korea every night, and rushing `home early from school to watch the McCarthy hearings on television'. Though rock and roll was the rage, Black's taste ran to recordings of famous political speeches. The only contemporary disc he purchased was Elvis Presley's `When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again'. A prized recording was a copy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's speech at Madison Square Garden which he would play at loud volume over and over. `It was an unbelievably great speech by FDR, attacking the rich, and the great rich of the Republican Party,' recalls Black's long-time friend Brian Stewart. `His father detested FDR, and this recording would play through the house with the crowd cheering. Finally his father said, "I don't want that damn record ever played in this house again!"' Conrad continued to play it, but behind closed doors, at hushed volume, in the wing that served as his apartment.
Much of Conrad's time was spent in what was intended to be a vast playroom, but as he grew older, became more of a library. Says Stewart: `At seventeen or eighteen, he had his own library of military encyclopaedias and military books, probably not much less than a thousand books in all. Then he had his father's library on top of that.'
Norman Elder, who lived next door to the Blacks for eleven years and would grow up to be an explorer and author of some renown, would occasionally come over and thumb through Who's Who with Conrad, the boys measuring the achievements of people their parents knew. Even for Toronto in the 1950s, this was not most adolescents' idea of a good time.
Two interests which George Black shared with his younger son were chess and Napoleon, with the elder Black lending the younger numerous volumes on the latter. Also in common was a remarkable capacity for retaining facts and figures.
`His father had an outstanding memory, and I think trained Conrad from early childhood to work on it, kind of like a muscle in the brain,' said Stewart. `His father would read encyclopaedias and remember eighty-five, ninety per cent of them. Pretty astonishing. I used to pepper him with the most obscure trivia questions, like "Who was the world's greatest bullfighter?" And he would agonise and think, and strain his brain and sure enough he'd give the right answer.'
One day, when Conrad was quite young, Taylor came over to the Blacks' house after a trip to North Carolina. Little Conrad turned up and Taylor asked him, `Where do you think North Carolina comes into the line-up of the states as to population?' Without blinking an eye, Conrad replied, `Fourteenth.' `Conrad,' Taylor said, `if you're right on that, I'll give you a quarter.' Conrad trooped upstairs and shortly returned with a gazetteer (which he had recently been studying), verifying the figure. Taylor later told George Black, `You know, that young man, judging by the shape of his skull, is going to have a tremendous brain.'
By the age of twelve, Conrad Black's feats of memory reputedly included the length, breadth and armament of every fighting ship on the seas, the length and tonnage of the greatest steamships, leaders of obscure countries, whole cabinets of former Canadian governments, and endless statistics from professional hockey and baseball. `You always had to be careful what you said to Conrad,' a long-time friend recalled. `If you have a discussion with him, he's apt to quote back verbatim some foolish remark you made fifteen years ago.'
Conrad Black's long memory is always razor-sharp when it comes to recalling the eight years he spent at Upper Canada College. Culminating in his dramatic expulsion at age fourteen, Black unenthusiastically pursued his studies, nurtured a smouldering distaste for authority and can be said to have earned extra credits in corporal punishment techniques of the 1950s.
His friends attribute his self-described feelings of rebellion to a sense of imprisonment Conrad felt in his childhood. `I know he rarely, if ever, did any work,' says George Hayhurst. `In grade nine, he would have certainly been in the bottom ten per cent of the class. He would occasionally do some work in the limousine on the way to class, but I think he felt he didn't have to do any work — and he probably didn't.
`He was a little distant. He didn't come out and scrimmage with us at recess when we played hockey or football, but he was certainly not ostracised by any stretch — nor did he ostracise people.'
Whatever oppression Black felt was institutional, rather than personal. Even at a tender age, he derided his prep masters (from afar) as `gauleiters'. One day in 1954, Black told his chum John Fraser, who later in life would work for him as editor of Saturday Night magazine, `This place is a concentration camp, but most of the inmates are oblivious to the fact.' The schoolboy had a way of warming to his subject. `Our pig-stupid colleagues think of this place as the universe. E. P. Taylor could buy up this land and forty more parcels like it without blinking. These jerks that control our lives are pure flotsam.'
In his book Telling Tales, Fraser recalls time spent with Black served as a valuable English tutorial — Fraser didn't know what flotsam meant — for even at age ten Black talked with `big words and strong statements'. Conrad, his friend maintains, `set himself against the imposed establishment right from the beginning and always resented the power others, like masters or prefects, had over him. In addition, he had a terribly sharp tongue, which is not appreciated in the young.'
Another student recalls Black as the most `ostentatiously rich' student in his class, once showing off a wallet bulging with $80 — a large sum for the late 1950s. He is remembered as someone who would enquire of his classmates how many servants they had, and one classmate recalled the brusque manner in which Black treated his nanny. Although Black didn't have many friends and was not among the school's leaders, he was likeable, had panache, and his contemptuous tirades were rarely taken at face value. `I was impressed by him because he was an aggressive, brassy kind of guy,' says one friend from Upper Canada who has not seen Black since. `He'd act tough and belligerent but he wasn't. It was his adopted mode. He was very much a Machiavellian kind of guy. His favourite book was Napoleon and his Marshals and he used to love to read about how they all schemed.' Sometimes Black would defy the school edict that no one was to leave the grounds at lunch by having the limousine wait just beyond the drive, where select classmates would be invited to sit with him and read comic books.
More than three decades after his explusion, Black's venom toward UCC is undiminished — although he admits some of his canings were not undeserved. Nonetheless, in his memoir, A Life In Progress, he wrote, `All those who, by their docility or obsequiousness, legitimised the excesses of the school's penal system, the several sadists and few aggressively fondling homosexuals on the faculty, and the more numerous swaggering boobies who had obviously failed in the real world and retreated to Lilliput where they could maintain their exalted status by constant threat of battery: all gradually produced in me a profound revulsion.'
The result, at age fourteen, was `a systematic campaign of harassment and clerical sabotage against the regime'. Black's antics began with breaking into an office to remove himself from the school's battalion and alter the files of schoolmates he disliked. He also poached his records from the athletics director as a way of avoiding sports activities.
Then Black's mischiefs took a cataclysmic turn. As grade nine year-end approached, amid the disarray of major building renovations, Black and three accomplices, John Hornbeck, Gerry Hazelton, and Bill Koerner, stole the cache of final exams from the school office. Black then proceeded to offer them for sale on a sliding scale — based on the fact that he already knew how well most of the students in the Upper School were doing in their studies, having previously pinched their academic records. The sale netted $1,400 — `a lot of money for a fourteen-year-old in 1959,' Black admits.
To some of his contemporaries, the episode seemed more the schemings of someone craving attention and the approbation of his peers than an act of sabotage. One of his co-conspirators in the exam heist dismisses the idea that Black was rebelling. `I can't imagine anything more ridiculous as a justification,' he says. `I don't say I know what his motive was.' This person claims his own motive was to get the exam for his own use, and that he was not aware Black was selling them until it was too late. `Conrad takes the goddamn papers and the only reason it ever came to light is because he's selling the damn things to upper-classmen,' he says. Black's version differs. `I was not seeking attention,' claims Black. `What happened was one of my colleagues was a little indiscreet and indicated to one of his classmates that he could help him. And then people started coming to me. I didn't set out to sell these things.'
On 9 June 1959, one of Black's customers was apprehended and ratted on Black. Conrad and his cohort were expelled, but not before George Black had tried to make the case to principal Cedric Sowby that his son was merely showing strong entrepreneurial instincts. The principal announced two days later that all the boys would write new exams. `Those who had been among the most eager to purchase were suddenly transformed into the Knights of New Jerusalem,' recalls John Fraser. `Overnight [Conrad] became a pariah and a number of boys even burned him in effigy on his father's front lawn.'
In his memoir, Black apologised to his accomplices in the caper. `I am neither proud nor ashamed of what happened,' Black wrote. `It was an awful system whose odiousness was compounded by banality and pretension, but I was becoming somewhat fiendish and in the end inconvenienced hundreds of unoffending people, students and faculty.'
Although the episode is an important piece of Black legend — revealing an early tendency to mischief, rebellion and a flair for the spectacular — Black eschews any psychoanalysis of it. When asked thirty-three years later by an Australian television reporter whether the exam caper was a formative event which fuelled his adult ambitions, Black demurred. `I was fourteen years old at the time,' he said sternly. `I suppose the temptation must reside in the mind of a journalist to read some extrapolating significance into it. But I really don't think that the incidents that you refer to have any significance today.'
Black's next academic foray was as a boarder at Trinity College School in Port Hope, where his brother had studied. The disciplinary problems persisted, and his stay lasted less than a year. By this time Conrad Black was a heavy-smoking teenager with few friends and plenty of notoriety. His last chance was Thornton Hall in Toronto — `a bit of a cram school,' says Brian Stewart, whom he met there — from which Black managed to graduate.
Armed with mediocre grades and a chequered record, Black was accepted at Carleton University in Ottawa where he enrolled in journalism, switching to history after a semester. `I concluded the courses were more interesting if I took general arts because I was more interested in history and political science than I was in the techniques of journalism.'
Being `not much of a joiner', he moved into a basement flat in the Savoy hotel, some distance from campus. Black quickly established a regimen that included playing cards with various senators and back-benchers who also lived at the hotel, familiarising himself with the taverns across the Ottawa River in Hull, Quebec, and attending sessions of the House of Commons. Studies took a backseat.
`[Prime Minister John] Diefenbaker's government was in a minority position at this point and its status became more tenuous throughout the fall and into the new year, 1963,' Black recalls. `My progress as a freshman followed a roughly parallel course.'
As he careered towards another educational disaster, his first-year history professor, Naomi Griffiths, sent Black a note telling him, in effect, to get his act together or else. For a change, Black did, and the two struck up a friendship, exemplified by Black's tendency to submit voluminous essays running a considerable length over what was required. `He's extraordinarily hard working and an extremely shy person,' Griffiths reminisced in 1979. `He's one of those people who looks warily at others and says: "Well I wonder what category you fit into?"'
From the Savoy, Black moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Juliana, one of the finer buildings in Ottawa at the time.
One night in his second year, Conrad met a cousin from Montreal, Jeremy Riley, at a Chinese restaurant. There he was introduced to a keen and worldly young parliamentary assistant named Peter White.
Through White was six years older than Black, they struck up a fast friendship based on a shared fascination with things political. Born in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where his Canadian father was Latin American sales manager for Sperry Gyroscope, White grew up in Montreal, but had lived briefly in the south of France and Majorca, and studied for two years in Switzerland. He had graduated from Laval University with a law degree in 1963 (one of his classmates and closer friends was Brian Mulroney, the future prime minister) but had no interest in practising law. Instead, he took a job as special assistant to Maurice Sauve, minister of forestry and rural development in the government of Lester Pearson.
Though he worked for Sauve, a Liberal, White was an active young Progressive Conservative. Black was a Liberal who would entertain friends with hilarious imitations of prominent parliamentarians they met, particularly Jack Pickersgill and Paul Martin Sr. `Paul Martin was very very ponderous and extremely circumlocutory and loquacious and would take five minutes to answer a question and was very careful during those five minutes to say absolutely nothing,' says White. `So Conrad got very good at giving a Paul Martin-type answer to a question in the House of Commons.'
Several months after they met, out of his lease and in need of a place to stay for six months, White readily accepted when Black offered his spare bedroom in the Juliana. As a young professional with a job, White couldn't always partake in the after-hours carousing his student room-mate frequently indulged in. Late one night White was rudely awakened when Black and some giggling accomplices entered his room and dumped a door from Conrad's large convertible on his bed. (It turned out one of the passengers had opened the door while Black was backing the car into his underground spot, striking a pillar.)
One nocturnal rite of Black's that caught White's attention in less dramatic fashion was his late-night phone conversations with George Black. By this time George Black had been retired for some five years, and had grown increasingly reclusive. He was occasionally melancholic, but whatever demons afflicted him mentally were amplified by severe cataracts in both his eyes and painful, debilitating arthritis in his legs.
Says White: `Conrad was the apple of his father's eye. I think he saw the genius` in Conrad. George was a recluse at that point in his life, living in that lovely mansion, and he would stay up till three or four in the morning. What he loved to do most of all was watch the Marx Brothers, or W. C. Fields movies, things like that, on late late TV with some very stiff drink beside him the whole evening.
`When finally the television channels all shut down and he'd had his last drink and he couldn't think of anything else to do, he would telephone Conrad. This would happen religiously every night. Conrad had the dilemma: "Do I go to sleep or stay up?" More often than not, he chose the latter.
`The phone would ring at three or four in the morning. They'd talk mainly about the day's events, but a great deal about history also. George would always ask Conrad what he was reading, and what were his professors saying. Roosevelt, De Gaulle, Churchill, Napoleon — they both had very serious interests in a lot of things, sort of a salon-type of conversation. And it would go on for an hour and sometimes two hours.'
Another favourite topic was investment, and White recalls an animated Conrad explaining to him the share structure and internecine intrigues of Argus Corporation.
The aimlessness that characterised Black's youth continued through his undergraduate years. From his military, historical and political interests sprang a natural fascination with world affairs, which would be heightened by trips to Europe in the summers of 1963 and 1965. Travelling with his brother in '63, Black met his friend Brian Stewart, who was then starting a career as a cub newspaper reporter in England and Spain. He and Black spent night after night in sidewalk cafes, sipping cognac and drinking coffee, `discussing the world, where Rommel went wrong in the desert, MacArthur's greatest battles, forever listing the ten greatest this and the ten greatest that'.
Black had never displayed more than a passing interest in the media, save for his flirtation with the journalism faculty. Stewart was surprised one day in Madrid to hear that his companion had added William Randolph Hearst to his roster of heroes.
`He had just read the book Citizen Hearst, and it struck me as a very unusual person for Conrad to be fascinated by,' says Stewart. `He'd go on about Hearst and quote him endlessly. I could never understand what is the interest in this guy; I mean, a mere publisher?'
Stewart noticed similar references to Beaverbrook and Northcliffe creeping into his friend's lexicon. During their travels, Black began to do a curious thing. Like most people on the road, most days they would buy a newspaper. But where Stewart's inclination was to peruse the front page or sports pages, Black would turn immediately to the masthead, or comment on the amount of advertising.
Through Peter White, Black and Stewart — at this point a scribe at the Oshawa Times — obtained tickets to the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City, to see the coronation of their hero, Lyndon Johnson. `Conrad clearly had a mystical love of America which is very strong to this day,' says Stewart, going so far as to portray young Black driving to Atlantic City in Kerouac terms. `Very hard to picture now, but he loved driving, he loved the road, the highway, the movement, the bigness of America.'
On the drive down, they pulled over in Pittsburgh, where the rivers Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela converge, and Black waxed about the might of America. The convention did not diminish his adulation. Thirty-five thousand Democrats crammed into the Atlantic City hall. One night there was a birthday party for LBJ and Black stood among the sea of people while fireworks went off and placards waved. He was in his element. Says Stewart, `Conrad has always been impressed by the impressive — in the sense that he likes political figures to look impressive, be regal, authoritative in appearance. That's why he likes De Gaulle. He likes the grandeur of these figures, and LBJ had it then. People won't believe it now, but he sure had it in 1964.'
Johnson won a decisive victory over Barry Goldwater that autumn, but it was the beginning of the end for the great Democratic machine. Perhaps it was on the drive back to Canada that Black's ideological leanings, rooted in liberalism, began to shift towards the right. He and Stewart had observed the first scattering of anti-Vietnam protesters at the convention, and driving back through Philadelphia they came face to face with the first major race riots of that long hot summer. In the coming liberal years of flower children, free love and radical student protest, Black went in the opposite direction. He was a forthright proponent of the Vietnam War, contemptuous of the anti-war movement.
`Social unrest had become severe in most Western countries by the late 1960s,' says Black. `By that time, our society, as the ultimate product of tensions between left and right, had subjected itself to the crowning indignity of the so-called counterculture. There were frenzied attacks on supposed bourgeois slavishness, insipid middle-class sex practices, and the routinisation of life. I was amazed at the time — and I spent some years enrolled in universities that saw a good deal of agitation of this sort — at the counterculture's ludicrous combination of nihilism and sentimentality.
`In the fifteen years from 1953, when I bought my share in General Motors, to 1968, with the riot-torn fiasco of the Democratic Party in Chicago, much of society had forgotten the unprecedented achievements of capitalism and of its bourgeois practitioners.'
Black's grandiose ideas did not immediately translate into personal success. In autumn 1964, with his Bachelor's degree from Carleton in hand, Black enrolled at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto; he flunked out after one year.
Another trip to Europe in the summer of 1965 was a good way to weigh his diminishing options. Stewart suggested a carefree interlude of living in London for a year, working as a bus conductor, maybe selling ties at Harrods. Black sniffed that he felt he could do better. `He was really wondering what he would do with his life at that stage,' says Stewart. `There was a sense of his parents being fed up. In the early '60s, right through to the '70s, there was a sliver of Conrad that was slightly Bohemian. Had he not ended up a rich businessman, he would have ended up a polemicist, or a writer on the Left Bank or something.' White disagrees, and says Black's uncertainty was not the typical student dilemma of what to do with the rest of his life. `It was more like, "What do I do between now and when my destiny is fulfilled?"'
With few immediate options, Black thought he might move to Quebec, where White was now working. When White heard from his friend, he suggested Black might like to come to rural Quebec to edit a tiny weekly newspaper he owned. It was several hours away by car, but a million miles from the weight of his parents' disappointment. Black accepted, gathered some belongings, and headed off for self-imposed exile in a place called Brome County.
|1 Early Days||15|
|2 Coming of Age||38|
|3 Boy Wonder||56|
|5 The House Black Bought||114|
|6 Waking the Giant, Drowning the Kittens||143|
|7 Citizen Black||163|
|9 The Proprietor||211|
|10 Australia's Newest Press Baron||234|
|11 Media Merger||275|
|12 All Over the Map||295|
|13 Man of Letters||325|
|14 Absolute Bunkum from A to Z||348|
|15 The Price of Success||369|
|Notes and Sources||412|