The long and public road

Some things in life are immutable. Conrad Black is among them. You have to admire the force of his personality even as he heads back to prison flinging emails to inquiring journalists that resonate with phrase-making from on high. The sentence was no surprise; I look forward to prison; my efforts have changed the system; my wife is fine.

I first met Black in 1978. I had just joined Maclean’s as business editor when his purchase of Argus Corp. became public and thus began his rise to fame and fortune. He was refusing all interviews. For my first story in Maclean’s (then biweekly heading for weekly publication in the fall) I wrote a piece on GATT. For the next issue, I resolved to write about something more scintillating than international trade so I found out where his office was located (a shared facility at Dominion Securities) in Commerce Court, presented myself, and was told he was too busy to see me. Reassured that he was enthroned inside, I told his secretary I’d be happy to wait. I sat outside his office from 1:30 p.m. until about 5:45 p.m. Finally, I was ushered in.

“I suppose you’re here to talk about Duplessis,” he said, referring to his recently published book on the Quebec premier. He then held forth for more than two hours with detail piled upon detail about how he’d landed Argus and sent me away with telephone numbers for various contacts and colleagues including Nelson Davis, who would serve as his chairman and was traveling in Ireland.

When I called a few days later to set up a photo shoot, his helpfulness continued. He asked that his brother Monte be included and gave me his number, too. “Tell him I advised you about the merits of this photograph,” he said, which seemed to be some sort of code between the two. Monte showed up at the appointed hour. The article was published as the cover story in the June 26th issue with a dramatic color shot of Black, leaning on a desk, propped by his clenched fists, under the cover line, “The Argus Grab.”

So eager was Black to see the finished story that he arrived unannounced at Maclean’s office in order to get an early copy. My son, Mark, then an aspiring photographer, happened to be visiting, rode down on the elevator with Black, and asked Black if he could take his picture. Black agreed, and the result was a smiling shot on the sidewalk holding an open magazine with himself on the cover .

His symbiotic relationship with the media, indeed his insatiable hunger for a public profile, has not changed all these 33 years later.

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