Slight, bespectacled and driven, former senator Leo Kolber was the ultimate behind-the-scenes player, a frustrated lawyer turned astute real-estate developer and federal Liberal Party fundraiser who never forgot where he came from and always made sure to give back, be it to his alma mater, McGill University, the Jewish General Hospital or the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
“He knew how to get to ‘yes,’ ” said L. Ian MacDonald, the editor and publisher of Policy magazine and the co-author of Mr. Kolber’s 2003 memoirs, Leo: A Life. “No one said ‘no’ to Leo.”
A self-described “consigliere” to the Bronfman family, Mr. Kolber died at his home in Westmount, Que., on Jan. 9 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 90.
Mr. Kolber became best friends with Charles Bronfman when both were students at McGill University in the 1940s, when the latter was but a scion of the Seagram dynasty that began in the Prohibition era, and Mr. Kolber thought of his friend’s father, Sam Bronfman, as his own. For his part, the older man saw something in Mr. Kolber: a willingness to work hard and take informed risks, an ability with money and a commonsensical temperament that, if needed, would help to ground his own sons.
For nearly 30 years Mr. Kolber, who graduated from McGill with a law degree in 1952 and was called to the Quebec Bar later that year, served as president of CEMP Investments, the holding company of trusts that Sam Bronfman established for his children, and was also the chairman of Claridge Inc., the family’s private management company.
Mr. MacDonald noted in a tribute he wrote for Policy magazine that in his two decades as an honorary Bronfman and the reputed brains behind the family fortune, Mr. Kolber somehow managed to tread a fine line between loyalty to the dynasty that began in the Prohibition era and the need to be his own man.
“Of everything he achieved, his success in balancing those allegiances may be his lasting legacy,” Mr. MacDonald wrote.
An ardent Liberal who counted former prime ministers Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Brian Mulroney among his friends, Mr. Kolber extended that ability to the world of politics, too.
“I first met him in the House of Commons when he was in Senate, around the time of the 1993 [federal Progressive Conservative] leadership race,” said Jean Charest, the former Tory leader and Liberal premier of Quebec. “He was a real gentleman who came up and said ‘I hope you do well.’ His view wasn’t partisan even though he was a Liberal. He had a broader view of the country.”
Later, when Mr. Charest made the jump to provincial politics, Mr. Kolber offered to help him raise money and support in the Jewish community; after playing host to a successful fundraiser at the glamorous Windsor Station in downtown Montreal, he waited and waited for the politician to contact him to say “Thank you.”
“It took me a long time to do so and he was not happy,” Mr. Charest recalled. “It was a real lesson for me, one that I never forgot.”
And in 2007, when the provincial Liberal Party became a minority government, Mr. Kolber was one of the people Mr. Charest reached out to.
“It was the first time in 100 years that this had happened in Quebec and I needed advice from people who’d been involved in previous federal minority governments,” Mr. Charest said. “Leo was to the point. He said we needed to govern, to not be shy about pushing ahead and making decisions. It was very good advice.”
Ernest Leo Kolber was born in Montreal on Jan. 18, 1929, the elder of Moses and Luba (Kahan) Kolber’s two sons. His father was a dentist who practised out of the family’s home on Villeneuve Street in the Plateau neighbourhood, made famous by Mordecai Richler, while his mother kept his father’s books. (Years later, Mr. Kolber himself would become the author’s inspiration for Harvey Schwartz, the opportunistically obsequious “pet cobra” of the Gursky family in the 1990 novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here; the Bronfmans were thought to be the template for the Gurskys.)
Young Leo learned to read by the age of 4, a feat accomplished because it was thought he had a heart murmur and he was confined to bed and was so fragile that he was even carried to and from the bathroom. Release only came after his parents called in a pediatrician, who needed only one look at the back of the little boy’s throat to determine all that was needed was for his tonsils and adenoids to be removed.
The experience turned young Leo into a lifelong, self-aware hypochondriac, a state of mind that still didn’t stop him from travelling to countries such as Pakistan and China with Mr. Trudeau and others.
“He had a ‘cause no problem’ attitude,” said retired senator Jack Austin, a former principal secretary to Mr. Trudeau who tended to plan the trips. “He was very compatible, although I do recall he suffered from altitude sickness and slept as we went through the high passes between Pakistan and China, missing some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.”
Mr. Kolber was 16 when his father, who had suffered a heart attack two years earlier, died. The son watched as the older man, bedridden and weak, worried about how to provide for his family, and he became determined to choose a career where he did not have to rely on his hands. In his memoirs, he tells of how “I kept repeating to myself that someday, somehow, somewhere I would be in a position where people, or money, or both, would work for me.”
And they did – in spades.
Along the way, Mr. Kolber served as a director of a number of companies, including MGM (which the Bronfmans acquired in the 1960s), Loews Cineplex Entertainment and the Toronto-Dominion Bank. As a senator from 1983 to 2004, he served as chairman of the Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce, and he was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2008.
In a statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Mr. Kolber his “good friend and mentor.”
“He was an example to me, and countless others, of the importance of working hard and looking out for the people around us.”
Mr. Kolber leaves his second wife, Roni Hirsch; children, Lynne Kolber Halliday and Jonathan Kolber; brother, Sam Kolber; and four grandchildren. His first wife, Sandra Maizel, a writer, film consultant and the mother of his children, died in 2001.