Conrad Black spent his last day of freedom at home in Palm Beach, Fla., yesterday. His wife Barbara Amiel was there; she was spotted at one point on a balcony of their ocean-front mansion. It was not known whether Lord Black's three children were also present.
Today, Lord Black must report by 2 p.m. to Coleman Federal Correction Complex, a low-security prison about four hours drive north of his Florida home. He could show up earlier in the day.
Meanwhile over the past weekend, the steady e-mail traffic that usually emanates from Lord Black's computer to friends and members of the news media during his court-ordered "exile" in Palm Beach - those are Lady Black's words - was in serious decline.
But in past e-mails, Lord Black has kept up a lively correspondence with numerous contacts, usually with a buoyant certainty that he will prevail in his quest for an appeal and eventual vindication. Two weeks ago he e-mailed to a Toronto friend, "I will be back to Toronto before too long but I'm still slugging it out with the U.S. fascists and I hope to dispense with this nonsense this year." He signed it, as he does with all of his e-mails, with an all-caps "CONRAD."
Lord Black's favourite form of exercise in temperate Palm Beach has always been a sedate bicycle ride (on one of those old-fashioned upright bikes) along the Inland Waterway. In the past number of months, the couple is said to have lived quietly although they have also attended social events in the millionaire's playground. Lord Black continued to enjoy dining out as he did in Chicago during his trial and, before that, in Toronto. This is the high season for the famous social whirl, after all.
Indeed Lady Black, who is a columnist with Maclean's magazine, recently wrote about beseeching a friend to do something "normal" with her - specifically, to meet for coffee at Starbucks - instead of the dinner party invitation she had extended.
CBC journalist Brian Stewart, who is a close friend of Lord Black's, said in an interview with The Canadian Press, "He's been going to Palm Beach now for over 20 years so it's his regular winter stop, so he knows a great many people there. There's that crowd and then there's all the people who come down normally from New York, and snowbirds drop in - the Mulroneys and the Desmarais - but also a lot of Americans from New York. A lot of the old Palm Beach group have certainly rallied to them."
As well, the Blacks have received a steady stream of visitors from out of town. Toronto establishment financier H. N. R. (Hal) Jackman, a long-time friend of Lord Black's (who has occasionally been on the outs with him) made time during his first visit in his life to Palm Beach in mid-January, to meet the family of his soon-to-be son-in-law, to have a long lunch with Lord Black.
While the two did not discuss the impending prison sentence, Lord Black otherwise talked almost non-stop during the visit. The only change apparent in Lord Black, Mr. Jackman said, was a significant weight gain.
Mr. Stewart, who is said to have spent a lot of time with his friend this winter, concurs: "I saw him two weeks ago and he was pleasant, full of life and joking. I think he feels ready for anything that lies ahead. He's not going to let it get him down."
As for Lady Black, one Toronto friend who had not been in Palm Beach recently said that other friends who had were suggesting that she was not faring well. Indeed, in contrast to her usual femme fatale mythology, Lady Black recently referred to herself in one of her columns in Maclean's as "this old woman."
The prevailing wisdom is that Lady Black will live in Palm Beach in order to be close to her husband's prison for visiting days, although, in theory, she has the option of living in their Bridle Path mansion in Toronto or returning to London where her journalism career once flourished. If so, it will be her own form of exile.
Last fall, in another Maclean's column, she wrote about her distaste for the seaside town. "The heat is a wall: steamy, choking and for me impregnable. Like almost everyone in my family, I come with an auto-immune condition and my version allows no direct sunlight. In cooler months, I walk on the beach, looking faintly eccentric in long-sleeved clothing, scarves and ointments. Now, exiled inside the house behind blinds, I move contrapuntally to the sun until sunset begins."
She also allowed, however, that "being exiled to opulent Palm Beach is not exactly hard labour." Indeed, earlier this month the Palm Beach Daily News, considered the final word on high-society happenings there, reported that Lady Black had recently "dropped $250,000 on Oscar de la Renta's latest collection. Nothing with stripes, we hope," society writer Shannon Donnelly added.
Lady Black has also told her readers of her new puppy, named Jonas, which is the last name of one of her ex-husbands, George Jonas. The dog is meant to keep her company while her husband is absent.
Both Blacks have been busy during their time in Palm Beach. Friends say each of them has completed memoirs of their "ordeal." In an interview over dinner a year ago with The Globe and Mail, Lord Black explained that he had been writing the book in the form of memos to his lawyers in order to keep it out of the hands of his prosecutors.
Lord Black's keen interest in public affairs has also been undiminished by his impending fate during his time in Palm Beach. "McCain can win," he robustly wrote to someone recently.
Yet, some friends have been more reserved in their depiction of Lord Black's outlook. He is, says one, "in an okay frame of mind." Many others say they have not dared to talk to him about his impending prison sentence, the elephant in the room as Lady Black spent a recent column discussing. Yet they say his conversation whether by e-mail or over a fine meal, invariably dwells on his certainty that his seemingly impossible fight to overturn his convictions will succeed.
Recently, there have been rumours that Lord Black was on antidepressants, something that, if true, would betray his carefully consistent public image. Asked by e-mail about this late yesterday, he flashed back a reply: "Never." That is vintage Conrad Black.