Salah Bachir at a gala in 2019. Photo: George Pimentel. Insets, top to bottom: Bachir with Tony Bennett, Phyllis Diller, Kim Catrall and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Photos: Courtesy of Salah Bachir
The Stars Align in Salah Bachir’s Celebrity-Filled Memoir
In a Q&A about 'First to Leave the Party,' the Toronto VIP talks about mortality, valuing the humans behind the headlines and his jewels / BY Kim Honey / October 13th, 2023
The entrance to Salah Bachir’s grand home in Paris – built in 1842 by the first mayor of the tiny southern Ontario town, population 15,000 – is a little hard to find, so visitors often end up texting for directions from the funeral home parking lot around the corner, which amuses the majordomo of the 9,000-square-foot house. His husband, multimedia artist Jacob Yerex, has suggested they post the address outside the wrought-iron gates that encircle the property, but the drivers of the delivery vans that regularly pull up to disgorge all manner of food and sundries can find it, and so the pasha of Paris is content to leave it be. (@pasha_bachir is his Instagram handle, a nickname bestowed by Hoax Couture designers Jim Searle and Chris Tyrell, who dress him, almost exclusively, in black.)
The Toronto entrepreneur, executive, philanthropist, fundraising machine, art patron and LGBTQ activist loves “the country house,” far from the hustle and bustle of the big city, where he owns a lavish condo on the Lake Ontario waterfront. Here, the aesthete is surrounded by gardens that explode with a riot of blooms and greenery in multiple beds, punctuated by 18th-century French statuary and Yerex’s pandemic project, carved totem-like towers of wood salvaged from black walnut trees. There’s a magnificent magnolia tree that carpets the lawn every spring with saucers of pink flowers, a pool made from Indiana limestone and, outside the back door, a kitchen garden that provides some of the vegetables for a salad. Inside, there is floor-to-ceiling art, which is just part of the couple’s extensive collection, along with a living room straight out of a queer Bridgerton, a spa-like bathroom retreat on the second floor and a small conservatory overlooking the garden that acts as Bachir’s office. His little 11-year-old Havanese dog, Max, nips at his feet, and often leaves little presents on the carpets.
The lunch invitation to Paris immediately followed a request for an interview about his new memoir, First to the Leave the Party: My Life With Ordinary People Who Happen to Be Famous, which chronicles Bachir’s incredible life, from his roots in the northern Lebanese town of Kfarhata to the family’s 1965 emigration to Toronto, his teenage years as a popular football player and on to his early activism in politics as a university student.
He also explains that his access to the rich and famous began in the 80s, when he managed his brother George’s video store and they started publishing Videomania, the first consumer magazine devoted to home video releases, out of the basement of the Toronto store. Video was a “cash cow” for the studios, he writes, and they “went out of their way to arrange meet-and-greet junkets in Hollywood and beyond to get the word out about films, which would get a second boost with video release.” Other publications were doing celebrity gossip, so his magazines – Videomania was followed, in time, by the trade publications Premiere, Famous and Cineplex – deliberately ditched the invasive personal questions and focused on “the art and pleasure of film, which made us popular with both studios and stars,” he writes. Bachir even interviewed some of the talent himself; that’s how he met one of his heroes, Marlon Brando, in Toronto, after he was sent to talk to Matthew Broderick and ran into The Godfather legend instead.
His career in the video business eventually led to executive roles – president of Famous Players and president and CEO of Cineplex theatre chains – and, he notes, dovetailed nicely with his charity work, as they often needed talent for fundraising events. Bachir’s memoirs are sprinkled throughout 54 short chapters about the people he has met and befriended over the years, like: Elizabeth Taylor Tries on My Pearls; Eartha Kitt is Not For Sale; Wooing Gregory Peck; Harvey Milk Sets Me Free and Keith Haring Does New York. Not to mention the chapter detailing the secret affairs he had with American playwright Edward Albee and Tony Award-winning actor Brian Bedford, who was a fixture on Broadway and on stage at the Stratford Festival.
Our long-ranging conversation begins in the den, with comfy leather couches arrayed in front of an 80-inch TV fit for at-home movie and football-game viewing, and proceeds to the farmhouse-style kitchen table, where Bachir talks about his diabetes, the kidney disease that required dialysis, and kidney failure that led to a transplant in 2019 and a near-death experience with sepsis that followed the operation. He also answers two burning questions: How did he make his millions, and are his jewels real?
After a three-hour visit, he and Yerex bid me farewell with a five-litre can of oil made from olives grown on the Kfarhata property, which tastes of jasmine and lemons. It goes without saying, this Q&A has been edited and condensed for length.
Kim Honey: Memoirs can be contemplative, with a lot of writers facing their mortality because they’re casting an eye over their lives. In your instance, you survived death several times. Is that why you wrote the memoir now?
Salah Bachir: I think, having survived, I wanted to tell my story. I was in the hospital when I started posting some of the stories I’ve told for years [on social media], because I wanted something positive to tell people during COVID-19 – something nice, instead of whining about something like, ‘I haven’t traveled for years.’ A lot of the celebrities I write about are at the end of their careers. I wanted to remember some of their contributions, and take it away from ‘what are you wearing?’ You know, all the material things.
KH: What was the goal?
SB: I wanted to do the book as something completely different than everybody else. There’s a quote that always stuck with me, Orson Welles telling his [Citizen Kane] cinematographer, Gregg Toland, “let’s do everything they told us not to do.”
KH: I heard award-winning Canadian author and playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald is narrating the audiobook. It makes sense, because her mother is Lebanese and she can pronounce all the Arabic words correctly.
SB: We hadn’t met before, but, really, [her 1996 novel] Fall on Your Knees meant a lot at that time in my life. And because I’m on anti-rejection drugs for my kidney [transplant], sometimes I cry reading some of the stories. I can’t finish reading even to Jacob. Even to Max.
KH: In the book, you write that there was a point in the 80s when you couldn’t cry. Your psychiatrist called you a beautiful vase with a crack in it. So, you’ve had a lot going on in your life over the years that you had to internalize?
SB: I was in situations where friends in Lebanon during the Civil War were dying. And then with AIDS, that’s a scar that never heals. The reasons I didn’t want to read my audiobook are, one, it was a lot of work, and two, if I can get someone like Ann Marie MacDonald, it’s amazing. But I still cry reading some of those stories. It opened up so many things.
KH: What parts got you?
SB: My struggle was more about people I’ve lost. A lot of the people who are in the book lifted me up at times when I would be down. Having Gregory Peck say, “you’re pretty handsome, yourself.”
KH: There are a lot of ghosts here, aren’t there?
SB: Some of them are still with me. Like, Keith Haring died so young. What kind of conversation would we have today? What would’ve happened over the years? What’s happened with the publicity of the book is that two people who knew Albee have come forward about that piece. They’re adding to the story about how gentle and lovely he was. The artist Shelagh Keeley, she’s got a show, and he bought her art. Little things like that.
KH: This is a very unconventional memoir. It is a series of vignettes. It’s not chronological. We know you’re from Lebanon and you came to Canada at 10, and we know your aunt gave you five bucks before you left. But it’s not like, ‘I was born in x hospital on x day …”
SB: I was actually born at home and we still have the house. My parents left me the house, because I said I would take care of it for our whole family to use.
KH: Where is it, exactly?
SB: A little town called Kfarhata in north Lebanon, about 10 minutes from the Mediterranean. The view is of the mountains, and it was always surrounded by fruit trees. There’s jasmine, there’s cedar, pine trees and gardenias. In the back there are vegetables. And we have a fig tree, an apricot tree and grapes growing. That’s my next book actually.
KH: What is it about?
SB: It’s called In My Grandmother’s Garden. Everything was edible. You walk in and there’s rosemary hedges that are this high [indicating thigh level], and you just rub your hand over them. Even the roses, you can make rose hip jam and rose jelly.
KH: Is that where your love of flowers comes from?
SB: Love of flowers, and love of food. Before all the kidney issues, my thing to say to most famous chefs would be, “it’s your place, make me something.” They knew what they had, what was fresh. I eat everything.
KH: You lived with diabetes for a long time before you got kidney disease. So, you were wining and dining before that?
SB: I was able to eat everything, but people I went to regularly knew I was diabetic. So, like, with [Canadian chef] Jamie Kennedy, I would simply say, “feed me.”
KH: Do you have to take anti-rejection drugs every day?
SB: [Bachir, taking a handful of pills with water] Mm-hmm.
KH: How does it feel to live with a kidney transplant? Is it scary?
SB: It’s great. It’s wonderful. I traveled a lot when I was on dialysis, because you can go most anywhere in the world and be treated. But we haven’t gone anywhere yet. We’ve gone to Ottawa because kd lang was getting a Governor General’s Award.
KH: Was that the last time you dressed up?
SB: I’ve done a few galas. I did one with [Broadway actress] Audra McDonald for the 519 [LGBTQ community centre in Toronto] and Sarah McLaughlin for St. Joseph’s Health Center Foundation.
KH: You’ve said you don’t miss getting dressed up anymore. You’ve done it so many times, and you’re obviously in your element. I mean, look at the cover photo for your book.
SB: They were taken by Guntar Kravis. He’s an old friend and he’s got great photography. Greg Gorman wanted to do the cover – he’s been a friend forever – but he had a retrospective in the Middle East somewhere. He said, “why don’t you come to LA and we can have fun in the studio.” And I’m like, ‘I’m not taking my jewelry and my clothes to LA.’ I’m immune compromised and I didn’t have access to people I work with here. So, [the book cover] was shot in the apartment in Toronto.
KH: If you went to LA for that photo shoot, how many suitcases would you take?
SB: One. I don’t travel with a lot. It’s harder for a bigger guy to find clothes that fit, so I have no problem wearing the same outfit two, three days in a row. I will change the broach on it. [laughs]
KH: Let’s talk about the title, First Leave the Party. You were a partying type back in the day, weren’t you?
SB: I never got drunk, because I was a control freak. When I was staying with my cousin in New York, he would be showering and getting dressed for work and I’d be walking from the village, literally grab breakfast and going to sleep on his couch. It changed over time. Not just AIDS and everything else that could happen, but people get really obnoxious when they’re drunk and apologize two days later. Things get damaged, and you’re tired. I’m diabetic on top of it, and I know I’m going to get myself in trouble somehow. I had a friend who always left at a certain time, and I admired him more and more. And then it became like, ‘I’m going to do this.’ There’s no fear of missing out. If I want to see more of something, there’s always tomorrow.
KH: Let’s talk about your jewelry for a minute, because in the book you have this great conversation with Liz Taylor where you ask her about her fakes, and she says has made identical replicas of some pieces so she can travel with them.
SB: She was wearing that Chopard necklace at the time. I said, “Is that a fake? I always wear a real Chopard.” Liz – I never called her Liz – no one gives her credit.
KH: What would you have called her?
SB: Elizabeth. And I don’t like people calling me Sal. She was actually brilliant, which people don’t give her credit for. She knew her art really well. Her dad was an art dealer and [Greta] Garbo was one of his clients. She knew if her kids had to sell [a piece] or somebody had to sell it – because it was her jewelry and she wore it – that, if it was a $100,000 piece, it was going to go for a couple of million dollars. So, for certain occasions, she wore jewelry knowing that if she was photographed with the Kennedys or in one of the pieces Richard Burton gave her, in the future someone could use it.
KH: Are your jewels real?
SB: I don’t know who said it, but it’s my line: “Darling, the only thing fake about me are my friends.” Ninety-five per cent of them are real. I helped design them with my friends, like Laurie Goodman or Mark Lash here. The joke about this sapphire [necklace, one of a strand of five shown on the book cover] is that your queen-to-be [Princess Diana] got one of these, and I got the rest of them.
KH: Is this one necklace or five separate ones?
SB: Each couple years I’ve added a strand. The first one is yellow sapphire; the second one is blue sapphire; then there’s rubies, emeralds and pink sapphires, all set in platinum. I made the matching bracelets every time and, at the beginning, I did a matching ring, but I stopped after the ruby one.
KH: Was the book hard to organize, because you weave bits of yourself into the anecdotes about celebrities you’ve met, and relate it to your personal experience.
SB: But, by the end, you get it all. I think it was important that we end on the wedding [he married Yerex in 2015], and the journey there. In our magazines, we’ve always said [keep it] light, tight and bright. This isn’t the New Yorker. These [chapters] are not 10,000-word pieces. They could’ve been longer. I mean, Eartha Kitt could have been a book in itself. Aretha Franklin could have been 5,000 words. So, I just wanted to almost pepper the stories and not get into it.
Jami [Bernard, his co-writer] was great. She was a film critic for the New York Post and the New York Daily News, and she has written 10 books. I had to write the Warhol chapter, and there were about 10 more to go. She was in a mood, and she said, “well, this is not about everybody we’ve met, because we’ll have five books to put out.” And I was like, “okay, we’ll stop there.”
KH: The other thing about the ending that was very poignant is you talk about your HIV status, and you say in the book you didn’t want to be known for that. I thought it was interesting, because it is buried in the back. Hasn’t the stigma changed?
SB: I had work in New York, and here in Canada from the early days [of the AIDS crisis], but I didn’t want to be known for my status.
KH: You did not publicize it because of the stigma at that time, or because you were traveling and didn’t want people to know?
SB: My close group of people knew. Obviously with dialysis, everybody knew. I had to go all over the world. There were places who refused me treatment. The American University of Beirut refused me treatment, but at a little hospital in North Lebanon, the doctor said, ‘I’m more worried about your diabetes because you’re here in October and it’s fig and grape season.’ She was really open and great. A couple of places put me in an isolated room, but I had my own room and I could sleep.
KH: You have suffered discrimination because of it?
SB: I think there’s been discrimination. But Arab is like a four-letter word these days, too. Being gay, being fat and having body issues – I was always going through all kinds of stuff, and my status was one more [thing]. I think being gay and being flamboyant or whatever you call it was more of an issue. No one sees me and says, ‘Oh, that guy’s HIV positive.’
KH: How did the book change as you were writing it?
SB: At the beginning, I was angrier, and I didn’t really want to say the HIV thing. I didn’t want to say the Edward Albee [affair] thing. But when I wrote the Brian Bedford story, I started to open up more.
KH: So, you’re more closed off at the beginning?
SB: Yes. It became more of a memoir then, instead of, ‘I knew these people, I met these people.’
JY: I think that might be one of the hooks in the book, is that you get reading it like it’s a bunch of anecdotal, cute stories, and then suddenly you get this really poignant, deep point of vulnerability. That’s kind of strange at the beginning, or disorienting, but then it becomes this neat thing. It was cool to watch you [addressing Bachir] realize that you were getting personal and that you were willing to take that risk.
KH: The interesting thing is in the interviews with these celebrities, you’re opening up to them.
SB: It was mutual. I’m catching some of them at the end of their careers and [they’re getting] very little attention and [I was asking] can we pay tribute to your life? And not treating them like, ‘how was it like sleeping with so and so?’ It was more like appreciating certain scenes in certain movies, and what it took to do that.
KH: Why was it important to you to humanize them instead of lionize them?
SB: At the end of the day, it was a job. I needed to get a story and I needed to tell one really. Literally, I’d go into an interview thinking, ‘I gotta meet my friends in an hour, let me get this story.’ And you had a publicist that was a little more open than today. Also, I don’t think I was enamored by any of it. Even with all of this [wealth], I’ve always said, ‘if we don’t have it, we don’t have it.’ It’s no big deal. I moved back in with my parents when the first magazine didn’t work.
KH: Speaking of the business acumen, you’ve raised billions of dollars, not to mention all the time and effort you’ve given to charities, but the amount of money you earned has bought a fabulous art collection and your fabulous jewelry collection.
SB: People don’t see beyond the jewels. They see this guy at a gala, they don’t think of the Scene [loyalty] program. No one ever saw that I had run all these successful businesses, that I had the number one read magazines in Canada on a few occasions, or that I changed the whole [theatre business]. I mean, segmenting [theatre audiences], and marketing them.
KH: There are rumours you invented some technology that was bought by the theatres, which earned you millions and millions of dollars.
SB: When Cineplex bought Famous Players, I co-owned 50 per cent of the media company, [but] I made my money before Cineplex. I co-owned Famous Players with Viacom. And before that, we launched everything in the video industry. I was doing pretty well by the time we got to Famous Players.
KH: Well, that clears it up.
SB: There have always been these rumours around that I was part of some rich, oil family. When Hilary Weston was Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, she came in with a lovely woman and said to her, ‘Salah’s in oil.’ So, the woman named all these rich Arab families she knew in London. I finally had to say, ‘I don’t know them, but they’re friends with my uncle or dad,’ or something. My uncle was pretty influential in my life. He was Lebanon’s ambassador to the UN and he introduced me to a lot of stuff. But it was about olive oil.
KH: You just turned 68. You’ve had a pretty incredible life as evidenced by this book. Since you’re so good with quips, what would your epitaph say?
SB: Gone are my Salah days.
To read excerpts from “First to Leave the Party,” pick up the October-November 2023 issue of Zoomer magazine, out on newsstands now.