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Edgar M. Bronfman Sr. served as the President of the World Jewish Congress for almost three decades. (DAVID KARP/AP)
Edgar M. Bronfman Sr. served as the President of the World Jewish Congress for almost three decades. (DAVID KARP/AP)

Seagram’s Bronfman built a storied business empire Add to ...

Edgar M. Bronfman Sr. spent much of his life quenching the world’s thirst. But his legacy will be his own thirst for justice.

The Canadian-born liquor magnate, who headed Seagram Co. Ltd. and became an outspoken leader for Jewish causes, died Saturday at the age of 84.

A statement from his charitable foundation said he died at his New York home surrounded by family members.

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Born in Montreal in 1929, Mr. Bronfman was heir to one of Canada’s most storied business empires.

His father, Samuel Bronfman, was the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe and made a fortune distilling liquor and exporting it to the United States during the Prohibition era.

That liquor concern would become Seagram, which Edgar Bronfman first joined as a young man before becoming chief executive in 1971 upon his father’s death.

At the firm’s peak in the 1950s, Mr. Bronfman later recalled, one out of every three distilled-alcohol drinks consumed by Americans was made by Seagram.

A savvy marketer with an eye for new opportunities, Mr. Bronfman led the company beyond whisky and into other types of beverages – wine, champagne, cognac, and even orange juice with the purchase of Tropicana Products Inc. in 1988.

He was also responsible for what would become one of Seagram’s most profitable investments, a large minority stake in chemical giant DuPont.

Mr. Bronfman presided over the liquor empire from the company’s headquarters in the Seagram Building, a modernist masterpiece on New York’s Park Avenue designed by Mies van der Rohe. His own office featured sculptures by Rodin and a portrait of his father, known to many in the business simply as “Mr. Sam.”

In 1994, Mr. Bronfman’s second son, Edgar Jr., took over at Seagram. He spearheaded a push into the entertainment industry and brokered a calamitous all-stock acquisition of the firm by France’s Vivendi SA in 2000. The deal ended up destroying much of the Bronfman family fortune.

In 2002, Mr. Bronfman Sr. described the transaction as a “disaster” in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “It’s an unfortunate story,” he said.

Mr. Bronfman wrote four autobiographical books, including one on his career in the liquor business (Good Spirits) and one on his Jewish identity (The Making of A Jew).

A billionaire, he turned his energy to the wider world.

“Making money is marvelous and I love doing it and I do it reasonably well,” he told an interviewer from The New York Times in 1986. “But it doesn’t have the gripping vitality that you have when you deal with the happiness of human life and with human deprivation.”

As President of the World Jewish Congress for nearly three decades until 2007, he turned a low-profile assemblage of Jewish groups around the world into a vocal force for the freedom of Soviet Jews and the recovery of assets stolen during the Holocaust.

Mr. Bronfman was the first president of the WJC to travel to the former Soviet Union, where Jews were forbidden from practicing their religion and experienced severe discrimination. He urged Soviet leaders to allow Jews to emigrate to Israel and elsewhere. In the 1990s, Mr. Bronfman led an effort to sue Swiss banks to reclaim assets belonging to victims of Nazi persecution.

In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton awarded Mr. Bronfman the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the country’s highest accolade for civilians.

“Many Jews around the world are better off today because of Edgar’s determined, unrelenting fight for justice on their behalf,” Ronald S. Lauder, Mr. Bronfman’s successor as WJC President, said in a statement Sunday. “His name will forever be enshrined in the history books.”

A debonair presence among New York’s wealthy elite, Mr. Bronfman married five times and had seven children. His eldest son Samuel was kidnapped in the 1970s by criminals seeking millions of dollars in ransom, which Mr. Bronfman paid (the kidnappers were later arrested). Mr. Bronfman became a U.S. citizen in 1957 and did not maintain strong ties to his native land, unlike his siblings Phyllis and Charles.

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