After publishing several of the most-read publications in Canada, such as Famous and Cineplex Magazine, showbiz legend Salah Bachir turns the lens on himself in his new memoir, First to Leave the Party.
An entrepreneur, art collector, movie industry insider and successful publisher, Bachir immigrated to Canada from Lebanon with his family in 1965. An out and proud gay activist who has worked in the film world for more than four decades, Bachir was inducted into the Canadian Film Television Hall of Fame in 2017.
Bachir is also renowned for his philanthropy—the man is affectionately known as “Gala Salah” for chairing or co-chairing more than 100 benefit galas that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars—and he has received both the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.
Bachir’s hugely entertaining, star-studded memoir First to Leave the Party (Signal Books) documents an extraordinary life well-lived, alongside his many friends and companions who light up his memoir like a sparkling Hollywood marquee—including Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, and k.d. lang who sang at his October 2015 wedding to artist Jacob Yerex.
About First to Leave the Party, Elton John blurbed, “Salah Bachir is the biggest-hearted philanthropist with the rock star life.” Observes Salah, “I think Elton has the better art collection and I have the better jewelry, but we both scored big-time in having great husbands.” Salah and I recently sat down for a candid Q&A which has been edited for length and clarity.
You wrote your memoir with Jami Bernard, the award-winning film critic for the New York Daily News.
Salah Bachir: Jami helped me write it and edited me. We’ve known each other for about 40 years. These are stories I’ve told people forever, so we collected them together and made it a bigger story.
Why did you decide to call your memoir First to Leave the Party?
Salah Bachir: Well, we’ve all been last. It’s just there’s only a certain amount of time where you’re going to get the best set of people. Even at galas now I will kick people out. If I say 10 p.m., if you need more to drink, go down the street. There are volunteers working who need to go home.
How did you decide what to put in your memoir, but also what NOT to put in?
Salah Bachir: Well, Jami was great at that because we can’t include every person I’ve ever met or who has influenced me. Though we could have written entire books about Eartha Kitt and Ella Fitzgerald!
I love that you use your pronouns on the cover of your memoir. You may be the first to do that.
Salah Bachir: If there are others, we haven’t been able to find them. Why do we put the onus on the trans community? Everybody should use pronouns.
I enjoyed your chapter on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. I assumed Mr. Newman was bisexual.
Salah Bachir: Don’t we always think that the most gorgeous men in the world should be bisexual? She stayed home with the kids, and he went off to have his career. She had a bigger career than he did in the beginning. She won an Oscar long before he did. But seeing them at their house, he’s helping make salad, she’s picking the right tomatoes and stuff. They had a very natural relationship.
In your memoir you write, “I wanted to be known, and I wanted not to be known. I think this is a dilemma for famous people, too.” How does one balance the demands of celebrity?
Salah Bachir: Taking care of celebrities is a lot of work, as we all know. As a publisher, I needed a story and they had a story to tell. Did I want to take care of them after that? Not really. But I bonded with some, especially when organizing galas. I don’t think I’m a celebrity per se, where people are rushing you and interrupting you. Because they’re onstage, celebrities are playing somebody else the whole time. I am able to offer privacy and a sanctuary and treat them as people.
Celebrity has changed so much over the course of your publishing career. Has social media made it better or worse?
Salah Bachir: I think the true artists and the great ones are recognized for their work and wouldn’t give a fuck what’s on social media.
You have chaired or co-chaired more than 100 galas and raised hundreds of millions of
dollars for charity since 1980. How do you feel about being called Gala Salah?
Salah Bachir: I am fine with that. For my galas, they start at a certain time and they end on time. No speeches. At the Picasso gala at the AGO, I only allowed a three-minute speech. You can have screens that thank your sponsors. There’s food on the table as soon as you arrive. There’s always great entertainment. And no live auctions. Everybody knows what they’re there for, especially if you’re paying $25,000 a table.
Should philanthropy be private?
Salah Bachir: It all depends on the individual. There are quite a few anonymous donations, and we respect that always.
You write, “The world is powered by social relations. Today, I support and encourage many artists, but I can also call people and get something done. I am never afraid to ask for help.” How did you become so unafraid and bold?
Salah Bachir: At the end of the day, I’m known as a salesman in publishing. So for every “no” you don’t sit and sulk. It’s not like your big date said no to you. You move on. It is also persistence. And it’s a volunteer thing. You’re not being paid for it. Sometimes others reciprocate because one day they will call on you to help with one of their pet projects.
You are an avid art collector—more than 3,000 pieces, including a substantial Andy Warhol collection. How do you decide what art you buy?
Salah Bachir: There are artists we follow and collect. We love seeing them grow and make a living. We do donate a lot of art. This year we have given galleries, hospitals and community centres about 500 pieces of art. We’ve had about 50 shows from our collection. It’s a passion, others might say an addiction.
I love the scene in your book where you and Marlon Brando talk about you coming out to your parents. You also write that for a while you lead a double life. Were you wary of being out at the beginning of your career?
Salah Bachir: I had separate lives. I assumed people didn’t know I was gay. When I came out to my hockey captain, he said, “Yeah, we knew—we just thought you would tell us when you were ready.”
Coming out to my parents was also a non-event. The only thing my mother said to me was, “One day I want you to have a kid who will be as nice to you as you have been to us.” But I am still coming out!
I find that there is more than one coming out, that we come out to people our entire lives.
Salah Bachir: And we still have to defend certain issues every day of our lives.
AIDS ravaged your generation. How scary was the AIDS crisis for you? Have you ever had survivor’s guilt?
Salah Bachir: The AIDS crisis came right after the war in Lebanon. So I had already lost a lot of childhood friends. I haven’t had survivor’s guilt and I ended up being HIV positive, as I write about in my book. So I channeled my energies championing issues—like same-sex marriage—and fighting for things important to our communities.
How do you feel about being called a living legend?
Salah Bachir: I’m not. I prefer being called for dinner.
INFOS | First to Leave the Party by Salah Bachir (Signal Books / Penguin Random House Canada) will be published on October 17.