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I was Conrad Black's boss

Globe and Mail Update

Sometime in late 1987, Conrad Black's secretary phoned to invite me to a private luncheon at 10 Toronto Street, the elegant downtown building which was at that time still the capital of his business empire. I was flattered and also curious, because I had not yet met the man whose column ran every month in the magazine I edited.

Yes, I was Conrad's boss. He freelanced for me, and I paid him handsomely for it.

The fact that Mr. Black did not own the magazine (The Globe did) contributed mightily to his pride in writing for it. His monthly cheque was proof that he had standing as a paid journalist, a profession for which he has from time to time expressed great contempt. Privately, Mr. Black has always selectively admired journalists (he married one, after all), and what drove him to write his column is what drives us all. It gives you a giddy, misplaced sense of power and influence. People will notice you. They will applaud. Or so you hope. At any rate, if you can't be a Lord, being a columnist is the next-best way to show off.

As I set off for 10 Toronto, I wondered why Mr. Black wanted to lunch with me. Perhaps it was to discuss his recent acquisition of the Telegraph or to bounce around a few column ideas. None of my other columnists had a private dining room with a chef, and I was also looking forward to the meal.

The conversation began with a stupefying blast of erudition from my host. Conversation is the wrong word, since Mr. Black did all the talking. I remember very little of what he said, though I do recall that both Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger made an appearance. The cumulative effect of this monologue was to make me feel like the most stupid person on Earth, a sensation I later learned I shared with Margaret Thatcher the first time she met Mr. Black.

The verbal barrage, it turned out, was merely a tactic to weaken my mental faculties and prepare the ground for a full-frontal assault. After 45 minutes or so, Mr. Black got round to the real reason for the lunch. He wanted a raise.

As I feebly tried to explain to him, Mr. Black was not at that time underpaid. Quite the contrary. He had managed to extort the astonishing sum of $1,200 per column from my predecessor, a person whose spine was even weaker than my own. That made him perhaps the highest-paid magazine columnist in Canadian journalism, next to Allan Fotheringham.

At the mention of Allan Fotheringham, Mr. Black drew himself up to his full height. Did I mean to tell him that another magazine columnist made more money than he did? How much more? What were his readership numbers,compared to Mr. Black's? How could this discrepancy in compensation be justified? For the next 20 minutes, he grilled me on who made what, and what the circulation of their various magazines and newspapers was. Never mind that Mr. Black did not, in fact, make his living from writing, nor that the good chunk of change we paid him was less than a rounding error in his bank account. He would have none of that. Mr. Black could not be happy unless he was certain he was top of the heap.

This hypercompetitive reflex is common in successful men. They are, after all, great apes, and status-seeking is hard-wired into their brains. Canada's small elite of extremely rich businessmen are all finely tuned to the precise status (i.e., net worth) of their rivals. Among the hypersuccessful, the competition extends to most areas of conspicuous consumption. Who has the biggest house? The best island? The most impressive jet? The loveliest and most accomplished wife? They keep close track of those things.

Then there are the equally important intangibles of prestige and reputation. Peter Munk got Brian Mulroney for his board. But Conrad Black got Margaret Thatcher and George Bush for his. Last year, Peter Munk donated $5-million to the Toronto Hospital to build a state-of the-art cardiac centre with his name on it. Very soon after that, Conrad Black donated $5-million to the Hospital for Sick Children. Conrad Black rides around town in a chauffeured limousine, but Peter Munk rides around town in a taxi, and once told me he thinks Mr. Black's limousine is pretentious.

In the end, the lunch with Mr. Black did not go well. The food was in the finest British tradition, which is to say, plain, overdone and tasteless. The wine was Canadian, and cheap. But I paid dearly. By the time I left I had agreed to a raise of $150 a month, which was way more than the 6 per cent increase that Globe and Mail employees were getting that year.

I have no idea why Mr. Black wants to be a Lord. It seems ridiculously pretentious to me, and much less fun than, say, being a columnist. But this I do know. Mr. Black will get his way. He just about always does.

 E-mail: mwente@globandmail.ca

 

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