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Illustration of philanthropist Charles Bronfman. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of philanthropist Charles Bronfman. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

Charles Bronfman opens up about Seagram's demise: 'It is a disaster' Add to ...

It’s lunchtime at Rouge Tomate, a sleek and airy establishment near the southeast corner of Central Park. With one eye, I scan the menu – only local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients, a selection of organic wines – and with the other, I try to spot one of the wealthiest Canadians in the world.

Moments later, Charles Bronfman arrives. A small man with a balding pate and a ready smile, he is wearing a pink-and-green striped tie and a dark blazer bearing his Order of Canada pin.

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He is an unusual sort of billionaire. Like some of his peers, his fortune originates in a legendary business empire. But unlike them, he knows what it is like to see that business implode and collapse. Rarer still, he has publicly committed to giving away most of what remains.

He is open to discussing missteps, even painful ones, especially if he feels others will learn from them. There were the early mistakes with his philanthropic foundation (sky-high ambitions, less-than-precise goals). There was the ill-advised third marriage, to an architect, which ended in divorce.

And of course, there is the demise of Seagram Co. Ltd., the liquor giant built by his father Samuel. In the 1990s, Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mr. Bronfman’s nephew, led the company into the entertainment industry and eventually, a calamitous acquisition in 2000 by France’s Vivendi SA.

(Joanna Slater describes her lunch with Charles Bronfman in a video: The making of Lunch with Charles Bronfman)

For years, the Montreal native said little to nothing publicly about the choices that destroyed Seagram. Now, Mr. Bronfman is more candid. “It was a disaster, it is a disaster, it will be a disaster,” he says. “It was a family tragedy.”

At the age of 81, Mr. Bronfman is still willing to try new things, including submitting to an interview over lunch, which he says is a first for him. To break the ice, we start with concoctions from the restaurant’s in-house juice bar. I opt for the Raging Bull (kale, grapefruit, lemon), while Mr. Bronfman selects the more dignified Winter Smoothie (mango, orange, pineapple).

We meet at a moment ripe for reflection. Mr. Bronfman has written a new book, The Art of Doing Good , a how-to guide on succeeding as a social entrepreneur, drawing on profiles of eighteen individuals. It’s a follow-up to The Art of Giving , published in 2009, on how to be an effective philanthropist.

Both books were co-authored with Jeffrey Solomon, the president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, the main vehicle for Mr. Bronfman’s charitable work (he and his second wife Andrea, who died in 2006, started the effort in 1986).

There is not only a new book – which he will discuss at an event in Toronto on April 10 – but also a new relationship and a new passport. Last year, Mr. Bronfman married Rita Mayo, a long-time Montreal resident. And in February, he became a U.S. citizen, which gives him dual nationality.

Becoming an American had nothing to do with taxes, he says – Mr. Bronfman’s net worth is an estimated $2-billion (U.S.), according to Forbes magazine – and he confesses the move was accompanied by a lot of “negative emotion.” One factor contributing to the decision: Since 1996, he has spent most of his time in the United States, in New York or Florida, and he was tired of not being able to vote. The new passport doesn’t change his identity, he says, tapping his fingers to his heart: “I’m a Canadian.”

After all, this is the man who has made the promotion of Canadian heritage one of the priorities of his philanthropy: His foundation funded the acclaimed Heritage Minutes, the bite-sized films that educated a generation of Canadians on points of national pride. He is also deeply involved in Jewish causes, both in North America and in Israel.

Friends and associates describe him as both thoughtful and canny when it comes to charitable projects. Often, he provides not only funding but connections. Deborah Kenny, an educator who founded a network of charter schools in Harlem and is featured in The Art of Doing Good , says Mr. Bronfman was an early donor who opened doors to other contributors, like media magnate Barry Diller.

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