Obituary: Edgar M. Bronfman / Seagram's executive, influential head of World Jewish Congress

June 20, 1929 -- Dec. 21, 2013

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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 New York City. He was 84.

His death, of natural causes, was confirmed by the family's Samuel 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.

Edgar Bronfman gave the company a more sophisticated image, in keeping with his 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, Mr. Bronfman turned a loose, cautious federation of Jewish groups in 66 countries into a more focused, confrontational organization.

Under his leadership, the congress pressed the Soviet Union to improve conditions for Jews living within its borders and to allow freer emigration. 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."

Edgar Miles Bronfman was born in Montreal on June 20, 1929. 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 said he had grown up with a confused understanding of his Jewish identity. The Bronfmans kept a kosher home, and the children received religious schooling on weekends. But during the week Edgar 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."

Mr. Bronfman enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts and then transferred to McGill University in Montreal, graduating in 1951.

At 21 he joined Seagram, working as an apprentice taster and accounting clerk in Montreal and then at the main distillery nearby, where he eventually oversaw production. He 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.

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.

Mr. Bronfman convinced his father that since the United States accounted for 90 percent of Seagram revenues, it made sense to install himself permanently in New York. In 1953 Samuel Bronfman put Edgar in control of the company's subsidiary in the United States, Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, and placed Charles in charge of the Canadian branch, the House of Seagram.

Mr. Bronfman moved to New York two years later and shortly afterward became a U.S. citizen -- although it was his sister Phyllis, who had studied architecture, who was put in charge of the construction of the new company headquarters, the Seagram Building, on Park Avenue, considered a jewel of modern skyscraper design.

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 aging 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.

In 1975, Samuel Bronfman II was kidnapped in New York and held for ransom. Mr. Bronfman 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 Sam Bronfman had been a part of it. In the end, the jury convicted the defendants of the lesser charge of extortion.

Mr. Bronfman was elected president of the World Jewish Congress in 1981.

As his devotion to Jewish causes grew, he reduced his involvement with Seagram and prepared to turn over the company to the next generation. By family tradition his oldest son, Sam, was the logical successor, but he favored his second son, Edgar Jr., and without consulting either, Mr. Bronfman announced his choice in a 1986 interview with Fortune magazine. It would be Edgar Jr.

Edgar Bronfman Jr. became president of Seagram in 1989 and chief executive in 1994.

Edgar Sr., for his part, became a major philanthropist through the family foundation, with a focus on Jewish educational and social programs in the United States and Israel. At New York University, he helped establish the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He also wrote four autobiographical books.

His work with the World Jewish Congress also accelerated. In the 1990s the congress, spurred by Mr. Bronfman, negotiated with Eastern European countries to recover -- or at least receive compensation for -- the property of Jews that had been seized first by the Nazis and then by the Communists.

In the late '90s, the congress became one of the foremost critics of Switzerland's role during World War II, accusing Swiss banks of having stolen the deposits of European Jews who died during the war. After several years of bitter negotiations, Swiss banks agreed in 1999 to distribute at least $1.25 billion in compensation to relatives of European Jews who had secretly deposited their money in Switzerland before perishing at the Nazis' hands.


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