New at the Sun-Times: Troubleshooter or Troublemaker?

“Zenia strides right past them in her richly textured dress, with her long legs, her startling new breasts, her glossy hair nebulous around her shoulders, her purple-red angry mouth, trailing musky perfume.”

Zenia’s the scourge of Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, The Robber Bride. And what a woman. The critic at Maclean’s, a Canadian newsweekly, pondered Zenia’s “air of both mystery and vulnerability that is absolutely irresistible to men.” “Liar, blackmailer, drug pusher, and gratuitous seductress,” observed the less swept away reviewer for the New York Review of Books. “She alternately passes herself off as the orphaned daughter of White Russians, or Romanian Gypsies, or Berlin Jews. Sometimes she is broke. Sometimes she is dying of cancer. Sometimes she is a journalist doing research and sometimes she is a freelance spy, part of some international espionage caper,” reported the New York Times Book Week.

“She’s sort of like Madonna,” Atwood told a Times reporter.

But what’s said in Canada, Atwood’s homeland, is that not entirely by happenstance Zenia also is sort of like Barbara Amiel. If you place the name it’s because you’ve seen reports that Amiel will soon be a frequent visitor to Chicago. She’ll be stopping by to polish up the Sun-Times, the American jewel in the worldwide string of newspapers collected by her third husband, Conrad Black.

Last month Amiel was named vice president, editorial, for Black’s American papers. “This is nepotism at its best,” remarked a reporter who’s observed the careers and careerism of Black and Amiel from Toronto, where the couple has a home. But “I think she can carry her weight.”

Like Zenia, Amiel tests plausibility. In December 1980 she and two companions were arrested as they were leaving Mozambique, either because border guards had carelessly neglected to stamp their Canadian passports when they entered (her version), or because they’d bribed their way across the border (Mozambique’s version).

A trifling difference perhaps. Given the guerrilla war being waged in the area, I suppose it’s admirable that they went there at all. By mid-January Amiel had weathered a bout of malaria in a military hospital and been shipped to South Africa. She spoke to Toronto’s Globe and Mail by telephone.

The Globe reported: “Miss Amiel said . . . that when she was being questioned by police she flushed her handwritten notes down a toilet and ate her press card to avoid being identified as a journalist.”

This adventure has dogged her ever since, in part because Amiel’s account of it was so swiftly ridiculed, in part because she still walks it on a short leash. “In the hospital she tells us armed soldiers stood by laughing at her,” columnist Rick Salutin observed in May 1981 in This Magazine, a leftist Canadian journal. “But she doesn’t explain how she knew what they were laughing at, and she also says she was in an ‘intense malarial fever’ at the time. She spent a week in a hospital ‘hooked up to an intravenous unit with unsterilized needles and . . . forced to use the most primitive of sanitary facilities.’ It isn’t clear what this last prissy phrase means, or where Amiel in her delirium thought she was–the Cote d’Azur?”

Had Amiel “been left to rot when she got sick” instead of being hospitalized and then sent on her way when she felt better, Salutin suggested, her eyewitness account of the horrors of Marxist tyranny might have been more persuasive.

Salutin went on, “She says she was a fool to travel to Mozambique ‘or any other lawless country’ ‘where political prisoners are tied in their cells with piano wire’ and government practice is to ‘jail and torture their dissenting citizens.’ And then she returns happily to South Africa??!!” Those are Salutin’s italics.

A Toronto editor told me, “Much turns on the throwaway line in which she claims she ate her ID card. It’s so thick and laminated it would be like eating three tablespoons of plastic Cheerios. It’s held up as an example of how overdramatic she was.”

Is that unfair? I asked.

“Not entirely. There’s been some wonderfully lunatic writing on her part in Maclean’s.”

At the time Amiel was a senior writer for that magazine. At other times she’s been editor of the tabloid Toronto Sun and a columnist for the Times of London, where she and Black keep home one, and at the moment she’s a monthly columnist for Maclean’s.

“She certainly has a reputation up here as a tart, right-wing, some would say even rabid columnist,” said the Toronto reporter. Who writes on what? I asked. “Israel to foreign affairs to feminism. She’s weighed in on just about everything.”

Amiel’s coming has stirred memories in the Sun-Times city room of Nancy Merrill Page, former TV-personality wife of former publisher Robert Page. Merrill is vividly remembered for the scoop of the century–exclusive details of Mother Theresa at prayer, with quotes from God. Inasmuch as Mother Theresa prayed silently, and quite possibly in her native Albanian, Merrill’s imaginative coup cannot be exaggerated. “Oh, Father,” said Mother Theresa. “There’s this woman from American TV–she wants to bring cameras. You know how I feel about cameras.” And God replied like the ultimate fixer he is, “It’s OK. She’s come a long way, and it means a lot to her.”

Will another untouchable boss’s wife sink the Sun-Times in journalism’s Mariana Trench? Not likely. Amiel’s the goods. She knows tabloids. And like her or not, she can write–with haughty, juicy scorn.

Her Maclean’s column last May described getting word in England that Canada’s “left-lib intelligentsia,” gathered for a PEN International benefit, had greeted with “stamping of feet and applause” the jest that bad as prison is, writers such as herself could use a taste of it.

“Me, well, I shrugged, having long got the measure of Canada’s media elites,” Amiel wrote. But she noted the double standard. What would the same crowd have made of the quip that “a few Jews would be better off in concentration camps”? It’s time to face the fact, she asserted, that once “fine” organizations such as PEN, Amnesty International, Oxfam, even the Jesuits, have “turned into tendentious vehicles for the left.”

As for herself, “I’ve been investigated by the Ontario Human Rights Commission which tried to get me censored as a writer at Maclean’s; as editor of The Toronto Sun, I was the subject of a racism investigation funded by some branch of Toronto City Council and, finally, I was locked up for eleven days in a vile political prison in Mozambique, and there was not a peep out of PEN or my peers. To this day, the imprisonment in Mozambique is regarded as good fodder for jokes since (a) I am regarded as a right-wing journalist, and (b) I was imprisoned by one of the left’s favorite regimes.”

“She’s one of the great writers,” says David Radler, who’s chief of Black’s American operations. Alas, he doesn’t think Amiel will write a column for the Sun-Times or any of the other papers where she’ll now be trouble-shooting. “I don’t think she wants to.” Her Times of London column surveyed the world. Anything she did now “would have to be America oriented.”

What she’ll do, Radler predicts, is attract better writers. “She has contacts that I certainly don’t have,” he says. “She’ll be able to tag some potential young stars and bring them here.

“Remember one thing,” he continues. “She was the editor of the [tabloid] Toronto Sun when it had 100,000 more circulation than it has today.”

Did Amiel inspire Atwood’s villainess? I ask him.

“I heard that,” Radler says.

Did she really eat her press card?

“She wouldn’t tell lies,” he says.

Quarterback Sneak

It’s an old story, older than you might have imagined. A national powerhouse shamelessly recruits a top athlete from a big city high school, though there’s absolutely no evidence he’s capable of college work. Not that it matters. He skates through college, passing classes he doesn’t attend while leading his team to an undefeated season and mythical national championship. As soon as his eligibility runs out he disappears.

And overnight his image changes. From a paragon of the manly virtues, a born leader and noble warrior, he stands revealed as a coddled man-child. As an older friend of quarterback Walter Eckersall wrote to the president of the University of Chicago in 1907, pleading with the president not to humiliate Eckersall by publicly expelling him: “The University, through its officers, has been derelict in its duties. Derelict in so far as their having knowledge of his loose morals, and yet willing to use him for advertising purposes until he had completed his college career.” The friend conceded that Eckersall “has been a grafter as well as a monumental liar” who regarded his idolaters “merely as persons from whom something was to be had for nothing.”

In 1969 the Football Writers of America, choosing two all-time all-America teams to represent the first and second half centuries of college football, named Eckersall quarterback of the earlier team. Robin Lester, a history teacher at Francis Parker School, tells Eckersall’s story in the new book Stagg’s University: The Rise, Decline, and Fall of Big-Time Football at Chicago.

Dead before he reached 50, Eckersall made the most of the life remaining once glory faded. He turned sportswriter. Exploiting a friendship with Knute Rockne, Eckersall successfully practiced what a Notre Dame historian later called “triple-dipping.” He publicized games before they were played, called them as an official on the field, and then wrote about them for the Chicago Tribune. He made extra money on the side, Lester observes, by selling the free tickets Rockne gave him.

“We tend in our overreaching manner to think we’ve invented everything,” Lester told me. He was speaking of corruption.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Maclean’s Magazine.