The last time I saw Pierre Péladeau, who lapsed into a coma last week, was in the autumn of 1996, when I spent most of an afternoon at his Montreal office, in what turned out to be a highly unusual and intimate interview.
I wanted to ask French Canada’s leading press lord, whose companies control assets worth $6.3 billion, how he fits into the Canadian business elite. This seemed relevant for a book I am working on, because of his record of having broken most of the Canadian Establishment’s social taboos, such as his bouts with alcoholism, his outspoken anti-Semitism, his support for separatism, and his well-deserved reputation as a womanizer.
As I walked into his ultramodern office at the bottom of Victoria Square in downtown Montreal, it was filled with the magnificent sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the Emperor, emanating from his superb sound system. “I always work to music,” he explained. But I reluctantly asked him to turn down the volume because it was drowning out my tape recorder.
He was not pleased.
Péladeau, now 72, answered all my questions, but there was a listless quality to his replies, until he switched our conversation to his favorite topic: his death and the grand funeral he planned to mark that occasion, whenever it happened.
His reverie about death was actually triggered by a question about his relationship with fellow press baron Conrad Black.
“Black!” he thundered. “He gets a lot of respect because he’s such a tough bastard. But he lied about me in his autobiography, when he said I was ‘mumbling prayers’ during what he thought was an epileptic fit. I pray a lot, but not like that. I pray to my friends who are gone, the guys I knew and especially to the women. I pray in my shower or in my whirlpool bath, and I yell at them: “What the hell are you doing? I need to have an answer on that.’ But they’re not giving me answers, though I’m sure they haven’t stopped thinking, even if they were buried in a box.”
He then recounted in great and fascinating detail his several “successful” attempts to get in touch with departed spirits. “I live in another dimension,” he told me. “I’m not very Christian, I’m not a believer. When I go to funerals and I hear the bishops’ sermons, it’s all so stupid. Death is a wonderful thing if you know what it is. If you think it’s frightening, you’re not thinking the right way.”
To my surprise, Péladeau went on to describe his funeral. “Not my funeral,” he corrected himself. “My celebration of a long life. I’ll have the Metropolitan Symphony play Beethoven’s Emperor concerto as my son spreads my ashes at my place in Ste-Adèle in the Laurentians.” He then told me exactly where each of his girlfriends should be seated during the ceremonies—very much apart.
‘Death is a wonderful thing if you know what it is. If you think it’s frightening, you’re not thinking the right way.’
(Péladeau has been married twice—to Raymonde Chopin and Lynne Parisien—and had a long-term relationship with Manon Blanchette, which produced a son, now 6; he also had affairs with many other women.)
When I tackled him on his well-documented and repeated public flirtation with Quebec separatism—Péladeau has always been a Québécois contradiction, supporting the separatist side in the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association, yet serving as 1987 chairman of Montreal’s Canada Day committee—he shot back: “I’m not a separatist, though I have a lot of good friends in the Parti Québécois. I’ll tell you one thing, René Lévesque was the brightest man I ever met, strong and totally honest—no comparison with what we have now.” About his personal habits, he volunteered: “I stopped drinking 22 years ago and stopped smoking 12 years ago. What’s left? Well, I wouldn’t say I have no vices. I love women, always did. One must love women because they are beautiful to love. I’d much rather have dinner with a woman than a man. They’re always talking about the Canadiens or the Maple Leafs. Of course, with a woman, it’s not just fun to talk to them...”
Often accused of anti-Semitism, and singled out for criticism by the Canadian Jewish Congress, Péladeau hardly bothers to deny it. “All I said was that Jews take up a lot of room,” he insists. “And it’s true. I didn’t say it because I thought it was wrong, but as a form of respect—because they are doing what we, as French-Canadians, should do. Besides, I don’t give a damn what people say about me, as long as I can listen to my Beethoven. After that, it’s Schubert, Mozart and Brahms. If I have a faith, it’s in Beethoven. Just think a minute. He wrote his Ninth Symphony when he was so deaf he couldn’t even hear it. He was the most important man who ever lived.” We chatted on into the late afternoon and, as the pre-winter twilight darkened the office, he did not switch on the lights but grew increasingly mellow, often sounding like his own ghost. “I’ve really got an easy life,” he mused. “My motto is: ‘Keep it simple, stupid,’ and I repeat it to myself very often. I’m a happy man, but I work hard. I often sleep on my desk.”
As we were saying goodbye, he gently advised me, “Don’t believe all you hear about me. I say exactly what I want to say, and I don’t apologize to anybody. Some people say a lot of things about me that are not true. They’re usually ignorant, so I don’t care.”
I reminded him that being both English-Canadian and a Jew, I disagreed with much of what he had said, but that in both those categories I often felt burdened with guilt.
“I’m not,” he shot back with a smile. “I’ve learned how not to be guilty, even about my first wife!”
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