Will Conrad Black step out of U.S. prison a new man?
Published Thursday, May 3, 2012 6:30AM EDT
MONTREAL - Don't expect a brand new man when Conrad Black, Canada's most famous former press baron, emerges from a Florida prison and sheds the jumpsuit.
But be prepared for the possibility of less bombast and controversy from the historically vocal, and polarizing, businessman.
A Conrad Black lite, perhaps.
That's the assessment of people who have stayed in touch with Black throughout his legal battles, which led to convictions that locked the former media mogul behind bars for more than three years.
The Montreal-born Black, whose empire was once worth hundreds of millions of dollars and included newspapers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, is expected to be released Friday from a low-security prison south of downtown Miami.
The British lord himself told an interviewer last year that his first jail term, during which he cleaned latrines and tutored fellow inmates, had made him "humbler."
But in his 2011 memoir, Black did not hold back from blaming nearly everyone around him for his predicament, portraying himself as having been wrongfully convicted. He continued to maintain his innocence before going back behind bars for a second stint last summer.
A lifelong friend of Black's insists he's noticed changes in his pal, particularly after he learned about the ordeals of his fellow convicts.
Brian Stewart said Black now believes that many people -- including himself -- have been wronged by the U.S. justice system, giving him a sense of sympathy for those who have had the "roughest rides in America."
"Once he saw the real injustice around him like that, which in his past life he wasn't really in a position to see, he reacted," said Stewart, who visited Black three times in prison while he served the first part of his sentence.
"Everyone who knows him that I've talked to -- who's known him for a long time -- says the transformation has been impressive."
Stewart, a former CBC journalist, has exchanged hundreds of emails with Black while he served jail terms for fraud and obstruction of justice.
He said the 67-year-old has stayed in good spirits and has kept his sense of humour, often poking fun at his own situation.
Stewart also noted that Black has stated publicly that he wants to stay away from controversy after he leaves behind his life as prisoner No. 18330-424 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami.
He said Black will remain active, particularly as an author of history books. But he said he didn't know what Black's other plans are.
"I would suspect he wants a somewhat quieter life than he had before," Stewart said of Black, who's expected to return to Toronto, where he still owns a mansion.
One of Black's biographers, who lunched with the former media tycoon shortly before he returned to jail in September, thought the businessman genuinely seemed like someone who wanted to move on.
"But that will be the question: 'Is there a quieter, stealthier version of Conrad Black?"' said Richard Siklos, the journalist and Black biographer who wrote "Shades of Black" and "Shades of Black: Conrad Black -- His Rise and Fall."
"I kind of think so. I think he's probably ready for a new phase."
The pair lunched in New York City while Black was free on bail, Siklos said.
During their meeting, Siklos noticed that Lord Black of Crossharbour seemed to have slightly toned down his penchant for using "words that most of us have never heard of."
"I think the way he writes and speaks has become a little less baroque," said the Canadian-born Siklos, who covered Black's 2007 trial in Chicago for the New York Times.
But he said Black's trademark big personality and character remained very much intact.
"I think that's part of his message to the world -- that despite everything's he's been through, he's unchanged," Siklos said.
"And as far as he's concerned, he was in the right all along."
That observation is propped up by Black's 2011 memoir, "A Matter of Principle," a tome in which he sprinkles blame on the people around him and portrays himself as falsely accused.
"I fell, and perhaps my downfall was partially deserved," Black wrote in his book, which stands as his side of the story.
"But the heavy punishment I have received for crimes I did not commit was not deserved."
Black could also seek to clean up his reputation by pursuing a series of libel lawsuits against some of his former associates at Hollinger International and their adviser. The suits, however, could be settled out of court.
A former head of Hollinger, Black controlled a media empire that included The Daily Telegraph of London, the Chicago Sun-Times and newspapers across Canada and the U.S.
His rise led to an offer of peerage in Britain's House of Lords, which he had to give up his Canadian citizenship to accept.
The immigration hurdles blocking any return to Canada after his release have apparently been cleared this week when was granted a one-year temporary resident permit.
Not everyone believes Black has been changed by his struggles with justice.
George Tombs, who wrote an "unauthorized" biography about Black entitled, "Robber Baron," said the fact the fallen mogul has been writing newspaper columns from his jail cell shows he still has a need for attention.
"A great part of his career has been played out very deliberately in public and it's something he just loves," Tombs said.
"I thought that the bubble would burst eventually, but I think he's still in an impermeable bubble."
Tombs pointed to how Black's memoir "savagely" attacks anyone who's gotten in his way as another example of how he hasn't changed.
Canadians will likely remain unwilling to embrace the man unless Black showed more humility and displayed regret for his actions, he added.
But Stewart said he thinks many people will give Black credit for getting through his legal difficulties with "courage and grace," noting that in some ways, the scandal and trial were just as tough on Black and his family as his actual imprisonment.
In an impassioned effort to end his ordeal last June, Black pleaded for leniency in a Chicago courtroom, professing that he had changed his ways.
"My concern is not for myself... but for those around me," he said.
During the same court appearance, Black's wife, Barbara Amiel, fainted when the judge ordered him to return to prison. Black's release will end a separation that has been "terribly tough" on both of them, Stewart said.
"I think he's interested in a productive, somewhat sedate existence and nowhere near as controversial, in terms of feuds and that, as it used to be."