Inside the world of the Billionaire wives

A thrilling new memoir by Barbara Amiel exposes the cut-throat world of the one per cent

Lucia Flecha Da Lima with Lady Barbara Amiel at the Tiffany & Co Summer party 
Lucia Flecha Da Lima with Lady Barbara Amiel at the Tiffany & Co Summer party  Credit: Alan Davidson/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

It’s a bad week for billionaires and their wives - not just thanks to the stock market, but Barbara Amiel’s newly released Friends and Enemies, a scorching memoir exposing the cut-throat world of the one per cent.

“Best not to get used to this,” she writes of her new life embarking on glittering journeys from yacht to private jet to McMansion and back again as the second wife of former publisher Conrad Black. Amiel hardly had the 30 Carat diamond ring on her finger before she was expected to entertain heads of state and dignitaries. As a journalist she may have cultivated witty conversation but as a billionaire’s wife, the expectations are far greater.

Your home, your clothes, your face, your jewellery, your toys: everything is on show in the land of the super-rich, which I inhabited as the wife of an investment banker. This group is so small that the suppliers of jewellery, flowers, art, handbags, houses, Botox and fillers are almost as rarified - they make it fiendishly hard to get their business (being far snootier than their clients), which is an act of course.

'If, as Amiel did, you don the wrong (oiled pavé diamond) earrings because you don’t know any better, they will tell you.' Credit:  Alan Davidson/Shutterstock/ Shutterstock

If, as Amiel did, you don the wrong (oiled pavé diamond) earrings because you don’t know any better, they will tell you. If you don’t know that “patio jewellery” means necklaces under $1 million—catch up. Individuality is frowned upon: it suggests you think for yourself. It might be OK for a husband, but a billionaire’s wife is a Fifites throwback. A few wrinkles, sun spots or cellulite makes him look bad. New York-based billionaire Charles Stevenson Jr, 73 who recently divorced Alex Kuczynski, 49, reportedly stipulated on marriage that his wife was not allowed to gain more than 5 pounds. They split regardless.

My own front row seat to the goings-on of the one per cent necessitated a great deal of travel (of course), much of which was to the most exclusive polo clubs in the world to which my husband belongs (thanks to reciprocal arrangements...). Admission is largely determined by your ranking on the Forbes Rich List. I met more billionaires during my stay than I can count handbags.

What’s more, I met their wives, whose claws instantly came out behind expensive manicures. Like Amiel, I wrote, which was threatening in two ways: it meant I had a profession (which might make me interesting to the men), which 99 per cent of them didn’t. And secondly, journalists are sniffer dogs. If all else fails, we can write an exposé - which is exactly what Amiel did (after things went awry for Black, who was imprisoned and fined $125,000 after being found guilty of fraud, before last year being pardoned by Donald Trump).

A lavish world: Barbara Amiel and Conrad Black attend a party in Kensington Credit: Julian Parker/Justin Goff/UK Press

The first thing I noticed amongst the wives was a quiet sense of desperation. Behind the veil of privilege and Loro Piana cashmere was the knowledge that their job description was permanently being revisited. Where she might have landed the role of wife because of her looks and talent in the bedroom (weirdly enough these billionaires had little interest in the women of their own set), she then was expected to morph into a dazzling hostess. Like Amiel, many of them were new to the job and desperately scared of showing it, so in came the great designers who pretend to decorate your house but actually educate you. Trips to look at antiques in reality were training sessions in table manners and wine connoisseurship. The famous French designer Jacques Granges gives his clients reading lists. If they show no interest, he suggests they try someone else.

Amiel brilliantly describes how her designer asked how she saw a particular corner (she didn’t). Not knowing your thread count or cashmere ply predisposes you to (large) invoices that came after the multiple sheets ordered in (custom) sizes have arrived. A new bride might just about know her way around designer clothes, but when it comes to gilding a staircase or hand painting a wallpaper, she’s a sitting duck. “This is what things cost” is the designer’s favourite put down - meaning you should know, idiot.    

Even when the new wife has managed to create a home that competes with her friends’, she then has to pull off the business of entertainment. Throwing parties is the actual job. But what if Beyoncé is busy, or someone else is giving a party the same day (or week?). The upper classes can be relied on to honour a RSVP, not this lot. One British billionaire couple we know throw lavish parties which everyone less rich than themselves politely attends - apart from other billionaires, who often don’t show up. No apology comes, as no-one dares tell a billionaire off.

Top party planners don’t get out of bed for less than a million, if that. A wealthy friend queried the listed sum for flowers (roughly enough to fill a five storey house). When she came up with a better price she was told to try another firm.

Parties are also opportunities for billionaires to show off their wives, which is where things get tricky. An exclusive gathering of beautiful women is a cattle market for men. This is when - if you were thinking of a change - you get to view the goods; no matter how comfortable the women I met felt in their marriages, they were always looking over their shoulders.

'Parties are also opportunities for billionaires to show off their wives.' Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel  Credit: Sonia Recchia/ WireImage

A beautiful 32-year old mother in the set was found bawling her eyes out in the foyer of a top New York plastic surgeon. When asked what the problem was, she replied that her friends hated her for not doing Botox and having several ribs removed because “I give away their age.” Men, she added, like bulging lips and ballooning buttocks and cleavage because it means lot of time, money and pain were involved.

All billions are not the same of course. I remember attending a party of a Greek tycoon who served caviar out of enormous crystal drums, which we ate with soup spoons. Though everyone gorged, they whispered nonetheless about how uncouth it all was. A Greek fortune was definitely better than a Russian one but less good than a British one, which was pennies as far as an American one was concerned. Then of course came the hierarchy of how you got the billions, and whether they were “legal”.  

Amiel describes what New York City designer Sandra Nunnerley calls the “old world”. “Amiel’s is a different generation,” says Nunnerley, who works with young billionaires from America to Berlin and Hong Kong. “In those days, people were concerned with status and looks. My billionaire wives are Ivy league-educated, philanthropic and understated. They are hands-on mothers. They hire me for ‘quiet’ design”.

The wives I met were not Princeton or Harvard grads like MacKenzie Bezos and Priscilla Zuckerberg (the ex and current wife of Amazon and Facebook’s founders). I suspect some were former escort girls. My view is that the men spent their days fighting with sharks in the work place - at home, they wanted a decorative addition to the Christian Liaigre furniture.  

The women in turn figured out that they had to have at least two babies in quick succession (as Wendi Deng, Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife, did) in order to secure a financial future in case she was traded in. In those days, divorce meant being banished from the group. Today, the wives still churn out two children quickly but then ask for a divorce; staying married is no longer part of the plan.  

In the end, I felt sorry for the wives I slowly got to know. They were at once bored and permanently anxious. They were terrified of ageing. They didn’t trust each other, let alone anyone else. As Amiel says, you don’t want to get used to it, but you do. A life of extreme privilege is amazingly easy to get accustomed to - and extremely difficult to get unaccustomed from.