NEW YORK — Edgar M. Bronfman, the billionaire businessman and philanthropist who as chairman of the Seagram Co. expanded his family’s liquor-based empire and who as president of the World Jewish Congress championed the rights of Jews everywhere, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.
His death, of natural causes, was confirmed by the family’s Bronfman Foundation.
Mr. Bronfman inherited control of Seagram from his father, Samuel Bronfman, an irascible, self-made Canadian magnate who founded a distilling company in 1924 and got rich during Prohibition when Bronfman liquor found its way to American customers through bootleggers.
Then his father was a criminal.
Edgar Bronfman gave the company a more sophisticated image, in keeping with his own elegantly turned-out profile in New York society — a prominence underscored in the 1970s by the headlines generated by the kidnapping of his son Sam for ransom money.
But as liquor profits began to falter, he broadened the company by acquiring Tropicana, taking Seagram into the oil business, and eventually making it the largest minority shareholder in DuPont, the chemical giant. Later, he allowed his son Edgar Jr., who had succeeded him as head of the company, to risk billions of dollars to transform Seagram once again, this time into a major player in Hollywood.
As president of the World Jewish Congress, from 1981 until 2007, Bronfman turned a loose, cautious federation of Jewish groups in 66 countries into a more focused, confrontational organization.
Yeah, he's a real hero.
Under his leadership, the congress pressed the Soviet Union to improve conditions for Jews living within its borders and to allow freer emigration.
Related: Secret Facts - Soviet & Jews
Spurred by Mr. Bronfman, the congress led efforts to expose the hidden Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, the former secretary general of the United Nations who became president of Austria. And it campaigned successfully to force Swiss banks to make restitutions of more than a billion dollars to the relatives of German death camp victims who deposited their savings in Switzerland before World War II.
Mr. Bronfman shrugged off criticism from those who feared that his aggressive tactics were risking an anti-Semitic backlash. “The answer isn’t to say, ‘Don’t make trouble,’ and hide our heads in the sand,” he wrote in his 1998 memoir, “Good Spirits: The Making of a Businessman.” “We may not earn the friendship of others, but we will demand their respect.”
You receive neither from me.
Edgar Miles Bronfman was born in Montreal. His father and his mother, the former Saidye Rosner, were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who had moved to Montreal from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Edgar was the third-born of their four children.
Sam Bronfman and his brother Allan established a successful mail-order liquor company but were forced to give it up when provincial governments in Canada took over the retail side of the liquor business themselves. The Bronfmans decided that if they could not sell liquor, they would produce it. The family built its own distillery near Montreal in 1925.
It prospered, and the Bronfmans took advantage of Prohibition by opening more distilleries just across the border from the United States. One that the brothers bought was owned by the Seagram family, and they incorporated the name. When Prohibition ended, they were strategically placed to open a Seagram subsidiary in the United States, in 1933.
“How much business Father and his brothers did with bootleggers was never clear,” Mr. Bronfman wrote in “Good Spirits.”
Mr. Bronfman and his siblings grew up in aristocratic splendor. Their family’s suburban Montreal mansion was staffed with a butler, a cook, maids, nannies, gardeners, and chauffeurs. They spent summers at their country estate in Tarrytown, N.Y., and at the family retreat on Lake Placid in the Adirondacks.
But affluence did not always evoke fond memories. “My childhood was marked by a tension between privilege on the one hand and emotional dysfunction on the other,” Mr. Bronfman wrote in “Good Spirits.” He complained that his father had rarely been around and that his mother had been remote and inaccessible.
Mr. Bronfman said he had grown up with a confused understanding of his Jewish identity.
They were pushing transgender perversion even back then?
The Bronfmans kept a kosher home, and the children received religious schooling on weekends. But during the week he and his younger brother, Charles, were among a handful of Jews sent to private Anglophile schools, where they attended chapel and ate pork. “No one said anything to my face,” Mr. Bronfman remembered, “but I constantly heard comments denigrating Jews.”
(Cue violin music and tray of whine and cheese)
Mr. Bronfman had a knack for finances and the boldness to tell his tyrannical father how best to handle his money. At 22 he explained that Seagram could reap great tax benefits if it incorporated its petroleum subsidiary and carried out exploration in the United States rather than in Canada. “Fortunately, Father saw the point at once and agreed,” he wrote.
Mr. Bronfman was a confident executive, safe in the knowledge that as the firstborn son he was the heir apparent. His brother accepted his status and throughout his life deferred to Bronfman on business decisions. But his oldest sibling, Minda, resented the accident of gender that had removed her from consideration as the eventual heir, despite her degree in business administration. Relations between the two were strained for most of their lives.
In 1953 Mr. Bronfman married Ann Loeb, a granddaughter of the financier Carl M. Loeb. Loeb, Rhoades & Co. helped the Bronfmans purchase the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Co….
At its zenith, in 1956, Seagram’s products accounted for one of every three distilled-alcohol drinks in the United States. Then its market share began to slide. To compensate for the losses, Bronfman squeezed more profits from less production, using modern cost-cutting methods and focusing on more expensive brands of whiskey.
But he was frustrated by his inability to wrest full control of Seagram from his father, and he began to dabble in film and television production. After losing a bid for MGM to the financier Kirk Kerkorian, however, he returned full time to the beverage business.
With the death of his father in 1971, Mr. Bronfman’s personal life began to unravel. That same year he separated from his wife, with whom he had five children. After their divorce, he married Lady Carolyn Townshend, in 1973, but that marriage also ended in divorce, a year later. He quickly became involved with another Englishwoman, Rita Webb (who changed her name to Georgiana). They married and divorced each other twice, and had two daughters. He then married Jan Aronson, an artist and a former triathlete….
In 1975, Samuel Bronfman II was kidnapped in New York and held for ransom. Mr. Bronfman himself delivered the $2.4 million ransom to one of his son’s two kidnappers, who were both arrested shortly afterward by the FBI. But the kidnappers’ lawyer claimed in court that the abduction had been a hoax and that Samuel Bronfman II had been a part of it. In the end, the jury convicted the defendants of the lesser charge of extortion.
He was elected president of the World Jewish Congress in 1981. “Making money is marvelous, and I love doing it, and I do it reasonably well,” he told 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.”
Mr. Bronfman acknowledged that he could be abrasive in pursuing Jewish causes, but he defended his approach, telling the Times in 1986, “I would like every Jew to be as comfortable in his skin as I am in mine.”
Poor Jew! Not even comfortable in their own scales, I mean, skin.
Related: So Long, Sharon
New Year off to a good start.
Also see: Self-Centered Jewspaper
And they quickly buried Sharon, too. Must be bad for the image.