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The Rise and Fall of the House of Seagram
By Nicholas Faith
St. Martins Press
The May issue of New York Magazine lists Charles Bronfman among the "people whose ideas, power, and sheer will are changing New York." The citation for Bronfman reads as follows: "Charles Bronfman Jewish philanthropist.
"The largesse of Bronfman - and his late wife, Andrea - is reshaping the way that thousands of young, urban, secular-leaning Jews connect with their faith. Every year, Bronfman awards $15 million to $20 million - and leverages another $200 million from other foundations - to innovative, media-savvy, youth-focused Jewish programs. Birthright Israel is sending its 100,000th Jew to Israel this summer, and the arts nonprofit Reboot puts out 20,000 copies of the bi-monthly Guilt and Pleasure magazine and sponsors informal salons from Park Slope to Morningside Heights."
ot bad for a man who lost the reins to his father's liquor empire when patriarch Sam Bronfman chose his other son Edgar, convinced that Charles's tender nature would not be as effective as his brother's aggressive and confident manner.
The dramatic upheavals of three generations of Bronfmans are outlined here beginning with the family's departure from Eastern Europe in 1889. Yechiel Bronfman and his wife Mina left with their children in tow for Montreal where Yechiel began working in the hotel business. His youngest son Sam soon proved himself to be a shining star as the family business expanded into the liquor business before, during and after Prohibition. By all accounts, Sam Bronfman was a business genius, dominating and relentlessly energetic, with a single-minded pursuit of excellence and financial success. Fortune Magazine in 1966 marveled at his ability to turn a few thousand dollars into millions by the early 1930s due to his terrific business acumen.
In The Bronfmans, author Nicholas Faith claims Bronfman's talent was in "foreseeing the magic, artistry, and potential profit" allowed by producing whiskey blends. Bronfman would mix less expensive spirits with his finest whiskey in order to create a superb product at a low cost, and one that could yield a premium price. Bronfman was a master at every phase of production, from designing labels for the bottles to overseeing how his products were displayed in taverns and stores. He had a sensitive palate and dedicated himself to making light blended whiskey that had only one-twelfth of the toxic elements found in heavier whiskies.
Sam Bronfman was equally demanding of his children who sometimes found him to have an overwhelming force of personality. Some of them felt he was emotionally distant and unreachable. His daughter's eloquent but somewhat disturbing eulogy at her father's funeral hints at what may have driven him, but also sadly what drove him away from them. She said "There's no pretense, no sham about you, father, you always state your position succinctly and clearly, your words and your actions are one. This is the sturdy fiber of your inner core - this is the heart of oak. Your courage, your vitality, your consistency, your plain thinking and plain living - these are the qualities that make you such a whole man." Nothing is mentioned about his love for her or her siblings or time spent together; he remains larger than life, but ultimately out of reach.
So, unfortunately, does author Nicholas Faith, veteran journalist and author of 23 books. When Faith was given the green light to begin this project, he tried to arrange interviews with members of the Bronfman clan. He outlined his intentions and listed his impressive credentials, which include time spent as editor of The Economist and the London Sunday Times. For the most part, he was rebuked, and through much of the book the reader senses this distance. There is a unique chaotic consciousness that often characterizes smart, ambitious, competitive Jewish families that Faith doesn't tap into. The conflicting drives within each generation between orthodoxy and secularity, between loyalty to the family and the desire for reinvention, and the particular tensions between successful Jewish men and their sons are not explored; nor is the fierce love and protectiveness that accompany these conflicts. Faith attempts to draw some simplistic conclusions about what he uncovers, but seems afraid or unable to put forth any valid psychoanalytic insights about the motives and ambivalence that drove these three generations of Bronfman men, and this weakens his narrative.
But the story is riveting enough to stand on its own. It is an interesting saga about business and politics and philanthropy through a century of tremendous turmoil. It is noteworthy that Edgar Bronfman gave his son full reign over the Seagram business in 1981 so that he could run the World Jewish Congress which he did for 25 years. Edgar Bronfman, using the same zeal Sam Bronfman had used to build Seagram, proceeded to rock the international world with forceful challenges mounted against ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim, the Soviet Union's refusal to let Jews leave, and the United Nations' insidious pronouncement that Zionism is racism. For his efforts, he was awarded the 1999 Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton.