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Edgar M. Bronfman became CEO of Montreal-based distiller Seagram Co. Ltd. in 1971, retiring in 1994.WILLIAM E. SAURO/The New York Times

The tale of the Bronfman family is one of Canada's most legendary: how a poor Jewish immigrant from what is now Moldova established a liquor empire based in Montreal that grew to become one of the world's best-known brands.

As the eldest son of family patriarch Samuel Bronfman, Edgar M. Bronfman was the heir to everything that story entailed – the immense wealth and sky-high expectations, the immigrant striving, the desire for acceptance and the duty toward fellow Jews.

Mr. Bronfman, who died on Dec. 21 at the age of 84 in New York, turned that complicated patrimony into an unusual journey. At Seagram Co. Ltd., he led the company into new businesses and into its most profitable investment, only to later champion the decisions that led to the firm's demise.

And after initially rejecting his father's Judaism – as a young man Mr. Bronfman once ate ham during the solemn fasting holiday of Yom Kippur in his parents' Montreal home – he became a notable leader in the Jewish world, known not just for his fortune but for his boldness.

Mr. Bronfman was the "great Jew of his era," said Michael Steinhardt, a long-time friend and fellow philanthropist. "He had integrity and courage and that allowed him to do some things that were quite meaningful."

The two men lunched together every few months for the last 20-odd years. Mr. Steinhardt said Mr. Bronfman never expressed regret at what had happened to Seagram under his chosen successor: His son Edgar Bronfman Jr. steered the company into the entertainment industry and finally a disastrous acquisition by France's Vivendi SA.

Edgar Bronfman Sr. "was not someone who had 'would haves,' 'could haves,' 'should haves,'" said Mr. Steinhardt. "He didn't relive mistakes."

Born on June 20, 1929, in Montreal, Edgar Miles Bronfman was the third of four children (he had two older sisters, Minda and Phyllis, and a younger brother Charles). He grew up on an estate in Westmount staffed by a butler, a cook, three maids, a laundress, a gardener, a chauffeur and two nannies.

"In the material realm, we wanted for nothing," Mr. Bronfman recalled in his memoir Good Spirits. "Conspicuous by its absence, however, was love."

In his telling, his parents, Samuel and Saidye Bronfman, were devoted to one another but distant with their children. His father – who built what would become Seagram from scratch during the Prohibition era – was prone to rages, a man "with an ego beyond belief and the success to go with it," Mr. Bronfman wrote.

After attending Williams College in Massachusetts and McGill University in Montreal, Mr. Bronfman set about learning the family business. Itching to be where the action was and to get away from his father, he left for the United States in 1956 at the age of 26, when he would no longer be eligible for the military draft.

In the ensuing decades, he evinced little homesickness for Montreal (though he remained a devotee of the city's smoked-meat sandwiches, which were served at Seagram board meetings). "I must confess that I had no great love for Canada," he wrote in 1998.

Mr. Bronfman became head of Seagram's sprawling American operations. At its peak in the 1950s, the company made one out of every three distilled-alcohol beverages consumed in the country. It had palatial offices on New York's Park Avenue inside the landmark Seagram Building, which was designed by architect Mies Van Der Rohe.

After his father's death in 1971, Mr. Bronfman succeeded him as chief executive of Seagram, but entered into a period of personal turmoil. He filed for divorce from his first wife, with whom he had five children, and quickly embarked on a short-lived second marriage.

As he was preparing to marry for a third time in 1975, his eldest son Samuel, then 22, was kidnapped. To secure his release, Mr. Bronfman paid $2.4-million (U.S.) in ransom to the kidnappers, who were later convicted of extortion. At trial, the defence team made the sensational allegation that Samuel Bronfman was an accomplice to his own kidnapping – a claim the prosecution vehemently denied.

Those years were difficult for Edgar Bronfman. "He fell to drinking heavily," recalled Leo Kolber, a friend and trusted adviser to the Bronfman family for decades, in his memoir. "If you wanted a decision from him, it was best to get it before lunch." During this period, Mr. Bronfman's eldest sister Minda de Gunzburg came to Mr. Kolber with a plan to oust her brother from the top post at Seagram (the plot never went forward).

By contrast, the following decade would bring Mr. Bronfman's greatest business coup. As Americans drank less liquor, Mr. Bronfman had pushed Seagram into new areas of the beverage business and beyond. Using the proceeds from a lucrative investment in oil, Mr. Bronfman seized an opportunity to make a gutsy bid for a large minority stake in chemical giant DuPont in 1981.

Philip Beekman, who was president of Seagram for a decade starting in 1976, remembers Mr. Bronfman as a tough, smart executive with strong opinions about virtually everything. "He challenged you always – that was a plus," Mr. Beekman said.

Around this time, Mr. Bronfman became more active in Jewish causes. The plight of Soviet Jews – forbidden to practise their religion and forbidden to emigrate – struck a particular chord. All four of his grandparents came from territories then part of the Soviet Union; he wrote that he felt an obligation to Jews whose ancestors "had not made that arduous journey" to the new world.

As president of the World Jewish Congress for nearly three decades starting in 1981, Mr. Bronfman had a unique platform and he was determined to use it. He negotiated with Soviet officials and played a key role in the release of some political prisoners (one later presented him with a white skullcap sewn in prison using a chicken bone as a needle).

Mr. Bronfman was also fearless in investigating the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, who served as secretary-general of the United Nations and president of Austria. And Mr. Bronfman led an effort to recover assets of victims of the Holocaust that were held by Swiss banks. In 1998, the Swiss banks agreed to pay $1.25-billion to settle lawsuits related to Holocaust-era claims.

At Seagram, Mr. Bronfman was determined not to repeat what he saw as his father's mistakes: clinging too long to the top job, not allowing his successor freedom to run the business as he wished. But in seeking to avoid his father's errors, he made different ones.

He decided to retire at the age of 65 in 1994 and become co-chairman of the company. Earlier, he had determined that his second son, Edgar Jr., rather than Samuel, the eldest, would succeed him as chief executive. But fearing the conflict between his sons, he blurted out his choice to a reporter for Fortune magazine – before discussing it with either his son Samuel or his board of directors. It was a "huge mistake," he later wrote.

It was also a choice that would prove controversial. As chief executive, Edgar Bronfman Jr., known in the family as Efer, led Seagram into the entertainment business, purchasing MCA and PolyGram. To pay for those investments, he sold Seagram's 25-per-cent stake in DuPont, which was delivering hundreds of millions of dollars a year in dividends to Seagram's bottom line. In 1998, Mr. Bronfman Sr. airily dismissed DuPont as "boring" – a point on which he and Efer agreed, he wrote.

In 2000, Edgar Bronfman Jr., with his father's backing, orchestrated a sale of Seagram to Vivendi in an all-stock deal worth $34-billion. Within months, however, the value of those shares plunged as doubts grew about Vivendi's debt-driven plan to turn itself into a global media and entertainment giant (the company later flirted with bankruptcy and its chief executive Jean-Marie Messier was ousted in 2002).

The collapse of Vivendi's shares destroyed several billion dollars of the Bronfman family fortune, deepening a rift between Edgar Bronfman Sr. and his younger brother Charles. The former principal owner of the Montreal Expos baseball team, Charles Bronfman had opposed the move into entertainment and the sale to Vivendi.

In the years since, however, the two brothers – both billionaires and philanthropists – mended their relationship. They shared a vision for their charitable ventures in the Jewish community, believing that the next generation of Jews needs a connection to their identity built on hope rather than fear.

After spending much of his life disconnected from Jewish heritage or observance, Edgar Bronfman started a new engagement with the tradition in his middle age. He began reading the Bible and the Talmud, and held weekly sessions at his foundation for debating and studying Jewish texts.

In 1999, president Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest accolade for civilians, citing his quest to "ensure basic rights for Jews around the world."

"Edgar was an original," said Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University in New York, who spent a decade working and travelling with Mr. Bronfman when both men were involved with Hillel, a network of Jewish centres on university campuses. "There was a formidable nature to [him] and no one else quite fits that bill or fills that role."

His brother Charles Bronfman echoed that sentiment. "Edgar lived a full life," he wrote in an e-mail. "His passionate presidency of the World Jewish Congress saw him take on giants and bend them to his will for the benefit of the Jewish people. I loved him and miss him and will continue to miss him."

Mr. Bronfman died of natural causes related to his advanced age, according to a spokesman for his charitable foundation. He leaves his fourth wife, Jan Aronson, seven children, 24 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, as well as his elder sister Phyllis Lambert and his younger brother Charles Bronfman.