Edgar M. Bronfman, Billionaire Who Expanded Seagram, Dies at 84

Photographer: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Billionaire Edgar M. Bronfman takes part in a press conference on anti-Semitism, April 27, 2004 in Berlin. Bronfman, who led Seagram Co. for 23 years before retiring at 65, has died at the age of 84. Close

Billionaire Edgar M. Bronfman takes part in a press conference on anti-Semitism, April... Read More

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Photographer: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Billionaire Edgar M. Bronfman takes part in a press conference on anti-Semitism, April 27, 2004 in Berlin. Bronfman, who led Seagram Co. for 23 years before retiring at 65, has died at the age of 84.

Edgar M. Bronfman, the second-generation heir who expanded the Seagram (VIV) Co. empire with profitable oil and gas and chemical investments, has died. He was 84.

Canadian-born Bronfman, a long-serving president of the World Jewish Congress, died Dec. 21 at his home in New York surrounded by his family, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation said in a statement on its website.

“Edgar was a giant among Jewish leaders, and a mentor and friend to everyone associated” with the foundation, its executive director Dana Raucher said in the statement. “He was the first of his kind, a titan of industry that dedicated himself fully to advocating, advancing and encouraging the Jewish people.”

Bronfman led Seagram for 23 years before retiring at 65 to pursue his twin passions of Jewish faith and philanthropy. He overcame the misgivings of his younger brother and co-chairman, Charles Bronfman, to permit his son, Edgar Bronfman Jr., to sell Seagram’s 25 percent stake in DuPont Co. and plunge into the entertainment business.

A series of costly deals culminated in Seagram’s sale to France’s Vivendi SA for stock that soon lost more than 80 percent of its value. By late 2002, the extended family’s holdings in Vivendi were worth less than half of its initial $6.5 billion stake.

Acquired Seagram

Edgar Miles Bronfman was born on June 20, 1929, to Montreal’s wealthiest and most prominent Jewish family. His father, Samuel, was a founder of Distillers Corp. and had acquired Seagram in 1928. In his 1998 autobiography -- “Good Spirits: the Making of a Businessman” -- Edgar Bronfman wrote of an oppressive childhood which lacked affection from his “remote” mother and “driven, insecure” father. “In truth, Sam Bronfman wanted a clone,” he said.

Bronfman called his father “a great Anglophile” who sent his sons to elite Protestant schools, even though he had them tutored in Hebrew and required them to attend weekly synagogue services.

“The fact of our Jewishness was never in doubt, but the contradictory ways in which it found expression created a deep ambivalence in me that took many years to resolve,” wrote Bronfman.

Edgar Bronfman enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts in 1946. By his own account, he was a lax student and in “a steep decline” by his junior year, when he withdrew from the school after a motorcycle accident. Returning to Montreal, he lived on the family estate while completing his studies at McGill University, where he graduated with honors in history in 1951.

Small Bank

Following his graduation, Bronfman began working full-time at Seagram’s Montreal headquarters as a clerk in the accounts payable unit.

He then spent three years in nearby Ville LaSalle, where Seagram’s original plant was located, to learn manufacturing and blending, taking time out one summer to work as an analyst in New York City. There, he worked briefly for a small bank with expertise in the oil business, then for an investment firm.

Based in part on his research, Seagram diversified in 1953 with a U.S. oil investment. Ten years later, Seagram invested $65 million in Texas Pacific Oil and Coal.

Bronfman had moved to New York to head Seagram’s U.S. operation at the age of 26 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1959.

Film Production

In the 1960s, he formed Sagittarius Productions, a film entertainment company that produced a remake of “Jane Eyre” and an animated version of the children’s classic, “Charlotte’s Web.” In 1968, he bought 16 percent of the MGM studio for $56 million.

His father’s death in 1971 set Bronfman on “an emotional roller coaster,” as he wrote in his autobiography. “The turmoil took its toll on my stewardship of Seagram, at times keeping me from operating on all cylinders.”

In 1975, Bronfman’s eldest son, Sam, then 22, was kidnapped and held for a week before being released unharmed, following payment of a ransom. The suspected abductors were later captured and convicted of extortion, but not kidnapping.

Edgar Bronfman Jr. was named Seagram’s president and chief operating officer in 1989. Four years later, he championed an investment in Time Warner Inc., which stalled at 15 percent after Time Warner erected takeover defenses.

Assets Search

In 1995, less than a year after replacing his father as chief executive, Edgar Bronfman Jr. persuaded the Seagram board to sell the DuPont stake -- which had generated nearly $300 million in dividends the prior year -- and acquire MCA Inc., owner of Universal Studios.

Seagram’s debt mounted in 1998 with the $10.4 billion purchase of Polygram NV. Two years later, he sold Seagram to Vivendi for $34 billion in the all-stock deal.

Bronfman was president of the World Jewish Congress from 1981 to 2007, during which he was instrumental in lobbying the Soviet Union to improve conditions for Jews and spearheading the search for assets seized by the Nazis.

In 1982, Bronfman became the first representative of any Jewish organization to speak before the United Nations, according to the congress website. He established the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a leadership program for Jewish youth, and was the founder of the website MyJewishLearning.com, it said. He was president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and founded the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

Bronfman, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1999, was married five times and had seven children.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net

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