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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 ...

Mr. Bronfman also didn’t hesitate to point out her rookie mistakes, Dr. Kenny said – for instance, in communicating with major givers. “He would call me up and say, ‘This is amateur. You can’t send your board the same letter you send everybody else,’” she said. “He gave honest feedback, but in such a caring way.”

Mr. Bronfman grew up in a home where both parents instilled the importance of philanthropy. His mother Saidye had all four children knit blankets for the Red Cross during the Second World War, while his father Samuel led a number of Jewish charitable organizations.

In 1985, Mr. Bronfman decided to strike out on his own, philanthropically speaking, launching his foundation a year later. “Somewhere you gotta do something that your heart dictates,” he says, tucking into a plate of Arctic char with bulgur wheat salad and broccoli rabe.

Over the years, he held various positions in the Canadian operations of Seagram, eventually becoming co-chairman of the company. His elder brother Edgar ran the firm from 1971 to 1994 and then handed the reins to his son, Edgar Jr.

The subsequent implosion has been well documented: the sale of a highly profitable stake in E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. to finance a foray into the film industry, the acquisition of Seagram by Vivendi in exchange for shares whose value would plummet, the dismemberment of what remained of Seagram’s business.

After our plates are cleared, Mr. Bronfman orders some hot water with lemon and a plate of cookies, and I ask him about Seagram.

His response is devoid of self-pity. It is the thought of his father, whom he adored, that brings sorrow. “I think about how hard my dad worked to build up what he built up,” he says. “When I think of his dreams of building something and then all of a sudden, it disappears – that’s pretty tough.” The physical manifestation of that dream is the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, an architectural landmark which is no longer connected to the Bronfman family, he noted, something that would distress his father.

“I don’t know where he is, because I don’t know whether I believe in God or not,” Mr. Bronfman says. But if there is a heaven, and his father is there, “he’s got to be very, very upset. And I am still very upset – you can see it in my eyes.”

In one important way, the fate of Mr. Bronfman’s foundation and Seagram were intertwined, since the former was partly funded with Seagram shares. The debacle with Vivendi helped force a decision about whether to give out far smaller amounts in perpetuity or to spend down its endowment.

Mr. Bronfman chose to spend the funds and the foundation will close its doors, right on schedule, in 2016. After that, he will handle his giving personally, assisted by some long-time advisers like Mr. Solomon. Last year, he joined the Giving Pledge, an initiative started by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, where very wealthy people promise to give away at least half of their fortunes.

Next month, he is travelling to South Carolina for a meeting of those who have signed on to the pledge. “I think we all have to pay our own way too, you know?” says Mr. Bronfman, with a slightly impish smile and a chuckle. “That’s awful, awful.”

He has a wry sense of humour, a slightly folksy manner, and a healthy awareness of his own good fortune.

I’m curious about the changes he has witnessed in his lifetime. Can he remember a time, for instance, when New York’s Metropolitan Museum refused to take major contributions from Jewish donors? “Oh hell yes,” he says.

His luck held several years ago, when a friend suggested to Mr. Bronfman that he invest some money with Bernard Madoff, now convicted of fraud on a massive scale. Mr. Bronfman passed the idea along to his financial adviser, who sent a standard set of questions to Mr. Madoff. The answers were not to the adviser’s satisfaction and he advised against it. “So I said, ‘That’s what you’re getting paid for,’ and that was the end of that,” Mr. Bronfman recalls.

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