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Edgar M. Bronfman became CEO of Montreal-based distiller Seagram Co. Ltd. in 1971, retiring in 1994. (WILLIAM E. SAURO/NYT)
Edgar M. Bronfman became CEO of Montreal-based distiller Seagram Co. Ltd. in 1971, retiring in 1994. (WILLIAM E. SAURO/NYT)

Obituary

Born into riches, Edgar Bronfman grew into philanthropy Add to ...

Philip Beekman, who was president of Seagram for a decade starting in 1976, remembers Mr. Bronfman as a tough, smart executive with strong opinions about virtually everything. “He challenged you always – that was a plus,” Mr. Beekman said.

Around this time, Mr. Bronfman became more active in Jewish causes. The plight of Soviet Jews – forbidden to practise their religion and forbidden to emigrate – struck a particular chord. All four of his grandparents came from territories then part of the Soviet Union; he wrote that he felt an obligation to Jews whose ancestors “had not made that arduous journey” to the new world.

As president of the World Jewish Congress for nearly three decades starting in 1981, Mr. Bronfman had a unique platform and he was determined to use it. He negotiated with Soviet officials and played a key role in the release of some political prisoners (one later presented him with a white skullcap sewn in prison using a chicken bone as a needle).

Mr. Bronfman was also fearless in investigating the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, who served as secretary-general of the United Nations and president of Austria. And Mr. Bronfman led an effort to recover assets of victims of the Holocaust that were held by Swiss banks. In 1998, the Swiss banks agreed to pay $1.25-billion to settle lawsuits related to Holocaust-era claims.

At Seagram, Mr. Bronfman was determined not to repeat what he saw as his father’s mistakes: clinging too long to the top job, not allowing his successor freedom to run the business as he wished. But in seeking to avoid his father’s errors, he made different ones.

He decided to retire at the age of 65 in 1994 and become co-chairman of the company. Earlier, he had determined that his second son, Edgar Jr., rather than Samuel, the eldest, would succeed him as chief executive. But fearing the conflict between his sons, he blurted out his choice to a reporter for Fortune magazine – before discussing it with either his son Samuel or his board of directors. It was a “huge mistake,” he later wrote.

It was also a choice that would prove controversial. As chief executive, Edgar Bronfman Jr., known in the family as Efer, led Seagram into the entertainment business, purchasing MCA and PolyGram. To pay for those investments, he sold Seagram’s 25-per-cent stake in DuPont, which was delivering hundreds of millions of dollars a year in dividends to Seagram’s bottom line. In 1998, Mr. Bronfman Sr. airily dismissed DuPont as “boring” – a point on which he and Efer agreed, he wrote.

In 2000, Edgar Bronfman Jr., with his father’s backing, orchestrated a sale of Seagram to Vivendi in an all-stock deal worth $34-billion. Within months, however, the value of those shares plunged as doubts grew about Vivendi’s debt-driven plan to turn itself into a global media and entertainment giant (the company later flirted with bankruptcy and its chief executive Jean-Marie Messier was ousted in 2002).

The collapse of Vivendi’s shares destroyed several billion dollars of the Bronfman family fortune, deepening a rift between Edgar Bronfman Sr. and his younger brother Charles. The former principal owner of the Montreal Expos baseball team, Charles Bronfman had opposed the move into entertainment and the sale to Vivendi.

In the years since, however, the two brothers – both billionaires and philanthropists – mended their relationship. They shared a vision for their charitable ventures in the Jewish community, believing that the next generation of Jews needs a connection to their identity built on hope rather than fear.

After spending much of his life disconnected from Jewish heritage or observance, Edgar Bronfman started a new engagement with the tradition in his middle age. He began reading the Bible and the Talmud, and held weekly sessions at his foundation for debating and studying Jewish texts.

In 1999, president Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest accolade for civilians, citing his quest to “ensure basic rights for Jews around the world.”

“Edgar was an original,” said Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University in New York, who spent a decade working and travelling with Mr. Bronfman when both men were involved with Hillel, a network of Jewish centres on university campuses. “There was a formidable nature to [him] and no one else quite fits that bill or fills that role.”

His brother Charles Bronfman echoed that sentiment. “Edgar lived a full life,” he wrote in an e-mail. “His passionate presidency of the World Jewish Congress saw him take on giants and bend them to his will for the benefit of the Jewish people. I loved him and miss him and will continue to miss him.”

Mr. Bronfman died of natural causes related to his advanced age, according to a spokesman for his charitable foundation. He leaves his fourth wife, Jan Aronson, seven children, 24 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, as well as his elder sister Phyllis Lambert and his younger brother Charles Bronfman.

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