Former WJC Head Edgar Bronfman Dies in NY at 84 - The Jewish Voice
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Former WJC Head Edgar Bronfman Dies in NY at 84

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Billionaire beverage magnate Edgar Bronfman passed away at his home on Saturday, December 21.
Billionaire beverage magnate Edgar Bronfman passed away at his home on Saturday, December 21.
Edgar M. Bronfman Sr., the billionaire businessman and philanthropist who served as chairman of the Seagram Company expanded his family’s liquor-based empire and as former head of the World Jewish Congress, died on Saturday, December 21, in his Manhattan home. He was 84.

His death, which was of natural causes, was confirmed by the family’s Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Bronfman inherited control of Seagram from his father Samuel, a self-made Canadian magnate who founded the Seagram distilling company in 1924 made much of his money during Prohibition when Bronfman liquor found its way to American customers through bootleggers, according to the New York Times.

Under Edgar’s leadership, the company took on a more sophisticated image, According to the Times, “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.”

Bronfman was the president of the World Jewish Congress, from 1981 to 2007. According to the Times, “Bronfman turned a loose, cautious federation of Jewish groups in 66 countries into a more focused, confrontational organization.”

Under his leadership, the Congress pressured the Soviet Union to improve conditions for Jews living within its borders and to allow emigration. Pushed by 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,” the Times reported.

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 of 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,” Bronfman wrote in “Good Spirits.”

The affluence with which Bronfman was raised 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,” he wrote in “Good Spirits.” He complained that his father had rarely been around and that his mother had been remote and inaccessible.

Bronfman had reportedly said that he grew 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,” Bronfman remembered in his memoir, “but I constantly heard comments denigrating Jews.”

Bronfman joined Seagram when he was 21-years-old. According to the Times, “he first worked 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.”

“Fortunately, Father saw the point at once and agreed,” he wrote.

In 1953 Bronfman married Ann Loeb, a granddaughter of the financier Carl M. Loeb. Loeb, Rhoades & Company helped the Bronfmans purchase the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company.

Bronfman was becoming increasingly involved in Jewish causes. 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.”

Edgar Bronfman Jr. became president of Seagram in 1989 and chief executive in 1994. With his father’s approval, he sold Seagram’s shares in DuPont and used the proceeds, more than $9 billion, to purchase MCA, a major Hollywood film and music company, which was later split into Universal Studios and Universal Music.

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