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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 ...

These days, Mr. Bronfman splits his time between New York, Palm Beach and Montreal, where he spends a few months each summer. Mr. Bronfman is bullish on Canada’s prospects, although dismayed by Quebec’s new separatist government. When I mention I’d like to ask him about the province’s politics, he shakes his head and replies, “Don’t.”

Quebec separatism aside, Mr. Bronfman is the picture of equanimity.

“Frankly, he is the most happy man I know at this moment,” said Michael Steinhardt, a legendary investor and long-time friend. Together the two men founded Taglit-Birthright Israel. Since 1999, the program has sent more than 340,000 young Jews from around the world on a 10-day free trip to Israel.

Mr. Bronfman describes the joy he feels when he attends major gatherings of Birthright travellers in Israel, where thousands of young people come together to celebrate their shared experience – a joy that always moves him to tears.

He does not dwell on what might have been. He sees his nephew, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., only rarely, he says, when their paths happen to cross. “I’m a very happy camper, my kids are very happy campers, and that to me is the most important thing,” he says.

And now he has a plane to catch back to Florida. The restaurant’s maître d’ escorts us to the door with a deferential flourish (“Thank you, Mr. Bronfman. Hope to see you again soon, Mr. Bronfman.”) We say goodbye on a midtown sidewalk as he dons a tweed cap and a brightly striped scarf and starts walking east.

IN HIS OWN WORDS

On anonymous giving

“I just think you should be proud of what you’re doing. … But I also do not believe in rights or wrongs when it comes to this sort of thing. … As long as you’re doing something that’s helpful to others and satisfies you in here, that’s where it’s all at.”

On generational changes in philanthropy:

“We’ve done a lot of research on all this stuff. We’ve found out, for instance, that Generation X and Generation Y, they’re very spiritual – and it doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Catholic, Protestant. They’re very spiritual but they do not like organized religion. They do not like amorphous things – they don’t like something called a ‘federation’ or a ‘united way.’ Young people want to see what happens with their money. They want to get involved.”

On separatist aspirations in Quebec:

“It’s terribly unfortunate but it is what it is. … “[Quebec] has very, very nice people, lots of resources and a terrific future. But not when you’re striving to do silly things.”

On becoming a dual citizen:

“I’m a political junkie. Since 1996, when I moved [to the U.S.], I have not been able to vote anywhere. … I have a very dear friend in Palm Beach, and I told him the news [about becoming an American] and he said ‘Oh, thank God. For the last 20 years that I’ve known you, you’ve been slamming this country and calling it all kinds of names. … ’ And I said, ‘You have to understand something. I realize that I’ve been a foreigner in this country, so therefore I’ve been very circumspect. But now that I’m a citizen – are you going to get it!”

CURRICULUM VITAE

Beginnings

Born June 27, 1931, in Montreal

Attended McGill University

Family Life

Son of Samuel and Saidye Bronfman

Three siblings: Aileen “Minda” de Gunzberg (deceased), Phyllis Lambert, Edgar Bronfman

Two children, Stephen and Ellen; six grandchildren

Married four times. His second wife, Andrea, was killed in a traffic accident in New York in 2006. Now married to Rita Bronfman, whom he wed last fall.

Career

1951-2000: Various positions in the family’s liquor empire, culminating in the role of co-chairman of Seagram Co. Ltd.

1968-1990: Chairman and principal owner of the Montreal Expos 1986-present: Chairman of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, Inc.

1997-2006: Chairman of Israel’s Koor Industries Ltd.

Hobbies

Golf, tennis, reading about politics

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @jslaternyc

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