The Bronfmans: The Rise and Fall of the House of Seagram

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9780312332198: The Bronfmans: The Rise and Fall of the House of Seagram

The story of the Bronfman family is a fascinating and improbable saga. It is dominated by "Mr. Sam," the single greatest figure in the history of the liquor business, the man who made drinking whiskey respectable in the United States and who in the 1950s and 1960s built Seagram into the first worldwide empire in wine and spirits.
            After Sam's death in 1971, his oldest son, Edgar, maintained the business, though he was distracted by his matrimonial problems. Nevertheless, in the 1980s he masterminded a major coup when he translated a small investment in oil made by his father into a 25 percent stake in the mighty DuPont company.
            But in the 1990s, Edgar allowed his second son, Edgar Jr., to indulge his ambition to become a media tycoon. The stake in DuPont was sold, and the money reinvested in Universal, the film and theme-park empire. Edgar Jr. then paid more than $10 billion to buy Polygram Records and thus fulfill his fancy to be king of the world's music business. But at the same time, he remained in charge of the liquor business, which started to stagnate--indeed, to fall apart. Then came the final disaster when the increasingly divided family sold out to Jean-Marie Messier, overreaching empire builder of Vivendi, the French conglomerate.
            But the story of this amazing family over the past century is about more than booze and business. The Bronfmans is a spectacular account that details the larger-than-life personalities and bitter rivalries that have made the family so famous and, sometimes, so infamous.

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About the Author:

Nicholas Faith is a distinguished veteran journalist, a former senior editor at The Economist and the London Sunday Times. He also founded and was chairman of the International Spirits Challenge, now the most prestigious event of its kind in the world. He has written twenty-three books, including The Winemakers of Bordeaux and Safety in Numbers: The Mysterious World of Swiss Banking.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Bronfmans
OneMR. SAM, NO ORDINARY MONSTERWHEN I TOLD FRIENDS THAT I HAD BEEN COMMISSIONED TO WRITE ABOUT the Bronfman family, many of them muttered about "cement galoshes" and one serious citizen--a leading investment banker--warned me that the Bronfman family would infallibly take out a contract on me. Although this has turned into something of a joke between us, I found that until recently the threat could have been very real. One of his many mistresses had rebuked Edgar, the founder's elder son, when he talked of "knee-capping" someone. He retorted simply, "No, I meant it." And in the 1980s Edgar's son Edgar Jr. told an obstructive television producer that "in my grandfather's time we'd have killed you." Naturally these comments did nothing to dispel the continuing atmosphere of threat and mystery that still surrounds the family and obviously further whetted my appetite for writing a book about this extraordinary dynasty. Such stories still fascinate people several years after the Bronfmans have sold Seagram, the family firm, to Jean-Marie Messier, the French mogul widely viewed as "megalomaniacal" in his overweening empire building and self-aggrandizement, and the name has disappeared from the business scene. Clearly the Bronfman name, and the story behind it, has not lost its capacity to intrigue, and even frighten, the most sophisticated of onlookers.The attraction is partly based on the family's wealth. This is still considerable. Even after the disaster of the sale to Messier the combined wealth of Mr. Sam's two sons, Edgar and Charles, amounts to over $5 billion, and there are probably several billions more in the hands of the rest of thisenormous tribe. But even more important is the reputation of the founder, Sam Bronfman, as "the last bootlegger," the one who went legit so successfully. For the story involves a double fascination, that of the billionaire businessman, combined with the mystery inevitably attached to any survivor of that enormous business, the supply of liquor to the American people during Prohibition. The description "bootlegger" haunted him--and his children and grandchildren--for seventy years after Repeal. One evening his youngest child, Charles, asked him in all innocence, "Daddy, what's a bootlegger?" Mr. Sam dropped the carving knife and said angrily, "Don't you ever say that word again." As late as 2000, sixty-seven years after Repeal, Messier could refer to the family's "bootlegger methods." Yet Mr. Sam, as he was usually called, believed that the mere fact that liquor was illegal in the United States was irrelevant because he felt, with some reason, that he was involved in a legal business, distilling liquor in Canada and exporting it to the US. So he was naturally upset that his trade turned him into a bootlegger and spent his life in an obsessive, and largely unsuccessful, attempt to gain respectability and the respect he felt, rightly, was his due.This is not surprising, for in reality he was an authentic business genius, undoubtedly the greatest in the long history of hard liquor, indeed the man who really invented the whole industry in the US by exploiting the post-Repeal thirst for decent whiskey and made drinking hard liquor respectable for the first time in American history. He was a major creative force who understood that the key to lasting success was reliable quality, which for him implied blending well-aged spirits. That perception, reinforced by an obsessive perfectionism, proved to be in line with the willingness of ordinary Americans to respond to spirits which were not mere rot-gut.While this book is about the rise and fall of a dynastic business, the family was so numerous, so widespread, the story of its members so complex, that I have simply not been able to write about the vast majority of the family--Sam's three brothers and four sisters produced innumerable progeny and, over a century, have multiplied into a considerable tribe. So I have had to confine myself to Mr. Sam, his offspring, and, of the third generation, only Sam and Edgar Jr., the sons of his elder son, Edgar.But even within this apparently limited remit, the story is far more important and more widely relevant than that of a single family who escaped from the frozen poverty of the Canadian prairies to generate immensewealth within a few decades of their arrival from czarist Russia, or of a liquor company, however important, and a single individual, however gifted and fascinating. For the Bronfman saga also involves other, very different worlds, notably those of Hollywood and of the higher reaches of the French business aristocracy.It also, and perhaps most importantly, shines a powerful spotlight on the fundamental changes in the mindset of the world Jewish community in the course of the twentieth century. Even in the face of the Holocaust, the normally dictatorial Sam, for thirty years the uncrowned leader of the Jewish community in Canada, could never summon up the courage to mount an open challenge to gentile politicians, for he perceived them as fundamentally unchallengeable--an attitude typical of Jewish leaders throughout the world. By the sharpest of contrasts, his elder son Edgar, as the long-serving president of the previously almost completely powerless World Jewish Congress, was able to mount repeated challenges to the most powerful enemies of world Jewry--like Swiss bankers and Kurt Waldheim, previously the secretary-general of the United Nations. He was even bold enough to criticize the leaders of Israel, a group accustomed to treat their brethren scattered throughout the world as what Lenin described as "useful idiots," cash cows without any right to a voice, especially so far as Israel was concerned. 
 
The Bronfman saga starts in the 1890s in the bleak plains of Saskatchewan and ends just over a century later with a disastrous agreement reached in the gilded salons of a French conglomerate. In less than a century Seagram, their family company, first rose to become a dominant force in the world market for spirits, was becalmed for a generation, and then thrown to the wolves in the person of Jean-Marie Messier of Vivendi. The founder had repeatedly warned his children of the oft-repeated motto "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations." Whether the fear was genuine, or whether it was simply that he knew that he wouldn't be there to control the activities of the third generation, is open to question.After a poverty-stricken few years the family established itself as hoteliers, and then, after 1920, started to supply liquor across the forty-ninth parallel into a newly dry United States. Subsequently, as distillers as well as merchants, they continued to supply their thirsty neighbors until 1933, but they became truly, seriously, rich only in the 1930s and 1940s thanks to Mr.Sam's whiskies, most obviously 7 Crown. Mr. Sam then went on to pioneer, albeit more by chance than deliberate strategy, the totally original concept of a worldwide business producing and selling a wide range of wines and spirits from a dozen different countries. As a result, before Mr. Sam died in 1971 Seagram had become by far the biggest group in the world liquor business and remained a major, albeit declining, force over the following thirty years before its swift demise at the hands of Messier in 2000.The continuing fascination of the--largely mythical--Mr. Sam begs an important question: why the myth was not attached to other former bootleggers like Harry Hatch of Hiram Walker, famous for brands like Canadian Club and Mr. Sam's great rival in the 1920s, or the appalling Lew Rosenstiel of Schenley Distillers, his archenemy in the United States after Prohibition. But perhaps the most telling contrast is with Joseph Kennedy, in every way a far more disreputable character than Sam Bronfman. While Bronfman was tarred through his associations with bootleggers, Kennedy's far closer relationships lasted long enough for them to be put to good use in ensuring that Illinois voted for his son John in the 1960 presidential elections.The contrast comes over most clearly in the way Bronfman and Kennedy were regarded by the mighty Distillers Company Limited, universally known as the DCL, which dominated the Scotch business. The hardheaded directors happily went into partnership with Mr. Sam, whom they regarded as an honest fellow with an excellent knowledge of whiskey, but felt, wrote Ronald Weir1 in the official history of the company, that "Kennedy was difficult to deal with, signing contracts and immediately challenging their interpretation" and expressing himself in language at least as strong as that employed by Mr. Sam. And whereas Bronfman was totally faithful to his beloved wife, Kennedy was the most notorious of sexual athletes--and it would have been unthinkable for Sam to have allowed his daughter to be lobotomized as did Joe Kennedy.Although Mr. Sam was deeply ashamed of his continuing association with his activities during Prohibition he did nothing to discourage the myths that surrounded his persona. In 1970, the year before he died, he was confronted with the proofs of the official history of Seagram. "This is so much bullshit," he exploded. "If I only told the truth I'd sell ten million copies." The remark has obviously encouraged the notion that he--and the rest of the family--had committed many an evil deed, but probably had more to do with his relentless egomania, the assumption that any storystarring him would be of enormous interest to the whole world. I can only hope so.The flames of speculation have been fed by the fate of attempts by the family to provide an authorized account of their story. Towards the end of Mr. Sam's life the Canadian journalist Terence Robertson attempted to write a biography of Mr. Sam, which was never published but exists in manuscript form.2 It is based on a number of conversations with Mr. Sam and so can be taken to reflect his own version of events. For Mr. Sam, as is the way with all such successful men, rewrote the family history to exaggerate his--undoubtedly predominant--position in the story. Peter Newman3 claims that after finishing the book Robertson phoned a Canadian journalist to say that "he had found out things about Sam they didn't want me to write about," and he told another responsible journalist that his "life had been threatened and we would know who was doing the threatening but that he would do the job himself"--a phone call after which the journalist immediately phoned the New York police who found Robertson dying of barbiturate poisoning. Over the years the story has natually added fuel to the Bronfman legend. But none of even the most vociferous conspiracy theorists has ever found any evidence of foul play, let alone anything damaging to Sam, or indeed any member of the Bronfman family.The next attempt was made by John Scott, a former editor at the Canadian edition of Time magazine, who was hired to counter books like that by Newman and the novel Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler, both perceived by the family as "anti-Semitic Jews." Scott spent seven years on and off before giving up. He was succeeded, for a very short time, by a journalist, Erna Paris, whose researches were terminated before she had even started. But in the late 1980s the family was lucky in finding in Professor Michael Marrus, a distinguished Jewish historian, an author worthy of Mr. Sam,4 but one whose interests lay more in the religious side of Mr. Sam's life than in the whiskey business.Not surprisingly Mr. Sam's sons and grandsons have always employed a team of PRs to protect the family from overmuch publicity. From my experience this has proved counterproductive. When I received the go-ahead for this book I naturally wrote, politely and repeatedly, to each member of the family involved to explain my objectives and my qualifications, such as they were, to write it. Neither Mr. Sam's elder son Edgar nor his grandson Edgar Jr.--normally known as "Junior"--were prepared to see me. Edgar's brother Charles wrote that he saw no reason for another book on the familybut was persuaded by a family friend to see me, amiably enough, for an hour-long meeting that he firmly stated did not constitute an interview. Only his sister Phyllis was frank and open with me. Not surprisingly other authors have found the family equally uncooperative. At his first interview with a prospective biographer, the Canadian journalist Rod McQueen, Edgar Jr. agreed to set up a series of interviews, but then canceled them all. This did not stop, indeed may indirectly have helped, McQueen's production of his valuable biography.5This sort of reclusive behavior is partly conditioned by a streak of "control freakery" that runs through the whole history. Nevertheless it--and the adventures of individual members over the years--have merely slaked, without satisfying, the thirst for shocks and horrors regarding the family on the part of the media, and indeed of the general public, and not just in their native Canada. For even today their fortunes remain colossal--despite the collapse of their empire Forbes magazine reckons that Mr. Sam's two sons, Edgar and Charles, are both worth over $2.5 billion, and dozens of family members are comfortably millionaires.The basic structure of this book, however, is the story of three extraordinary figures, "Mr. Sam," the founder of the business; his elder son, Edgar; and his grandson Edgar Jr., although the list of other characters involved is long and picturesque. Their activities and influence spread far beyond their native Canada and the liquor industry on which their fortunes were based. Edgar's story shines a powerful spotlight on the attitude and actions of the world Jewish community in the last twenty years of the twentieth century; while Edgar Jr. personified the great bubble that enveloped the communications industry in the late 1990s. Unlike other business dynasties, nothing they did was predictable or boring.The comparison often made, most obviously by Peter Newman, between the Bronfmans and the Rothschilds, is facile but misleading--apart from the fact that both were exceptionally rich and in both families the boys, as has been said, "were also Jewish princesses." But they were emphatically not comparable with the Rothschilds, who for two centuries have enjoyed worldwide fame and fortune. Mr. Sam may have been the King of the Canadian Jews but he was of no great importance on the world religious, social, or financial scene. For whereas the Rothschilds have always been numerous--the five arrows on the Rothschild crest indicate the wide geographical spread of the family fortune--the Bronfmans depended on the business genius of one man. Nevertheless, as Mitch Bronfman, grandson ofSam's brother Harry, put it, "All types of things"--including and inevitably financial generosity--"are expected of you because you're growing up in the shadow of a literally incredible guy called Sam."But the real reason for the comparison lies elsewhere, in the psychological need of the star-hungry Canadians for the ideal anti-hero whom they could loathe--as a rich Jewish bootlegger--while simultaneously craving for Sam, and probably even more his family, to provide some spice, some glamour, to a national scene notably lacking in such attributes. For, as Hugh MacLennan put it,6 "Apart from the CPR and the mining and forest industries, from the earliest beginnings of British North America the most successful and prominent businesses were brewing and distilling," and Mr. Sam was unquestionably king of the liquor business. Moreover--and unlike virtually all other business ...

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Book Description St. Martin's Press, New York, 2006. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. First Edition.. 338 pages. Hardcover with dustjacket. Like New. BIOGRAPHY. The Story of the Bronfman family is a fascinating and improbable saga. It is dominated by "Mr. Sam," the single greatest figure in the history of the liquor business, the man who made drinking whiskey respectable in the United States and who in the 1950s and the 1960s build Seagram into the first worldwide empire in wine and spirits, Includes an Index. "The Bronfmans is an intriguing odyssey of a fabled and star-crossed celebrity family, filled with engrossing tales of the secrets of the international booze business, backroom billion-dollar shenanigans, dilettante playboys and rakes, rediscovered Jewish heritage, and an unusual champion of human rights." - Selwyn Raab, bestselling author of Five Families (Key Words: Bronfman Family, Nicholas Faith, Canadian Jews, Seagram, Liquor, Beverages, Billionaires, World Jewish Congress, Vivendi Universal, Carolyn Townshend, Lew Rosensteil, Prohibition, Jean-Marie Messier, Phyllis Lambert, Harry Hatch, Canada, Barry Diller, Sam Bronfman, Edgar Bronfman, Charles Bronfman, Alcohol, Anti-Semitism). book. Bookseller Inventory # 72652X1

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