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Edgar M. Bronfman became CEO of Montreal-based distiller Seagram Co. Ltd. in 1971, retiring in 1994. (WILLIAM E. SAURO/NYT)
Edgar M. Bronfman became CEO of Montreal-based distiller Seagram Co. Ltd. in 1971, retiring in 1994. (WILLIAM E. SAURO/NYT)


Born into riches, Edgar Bronfman grew into philanthropy Add to ...

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.

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