The Bronfmans: The Rise and Fall of the House of Seagram
Thomas Dunne Books
Review by Peter York
‘Clogs to clogs in three generations’ for the Canadian liquor-and-media Bronfman family actually means they’re left with about ten billion dollars between them. They won’t starve. And it could go back up again by the odd couple of billion if Edgar Bronfman, Jr., parlays his Warner Music business cleverly. The family deals at that scale, buying and selling and windfalling in the hundreds of millions at the very least.
What drives a three-generation family biography like Nicholas Faith’s The Bronfmans is the idea that they built up a completely new kind of giant global business in liquor over 50 years – spirits and wines were resourced from practically everywhere and sold everywhere – and then bet the shop and lost it in a couple of years in the international media and dot.com boom.
The shop-better, the man who the Financial Times called ‘the official idiot of the entertainment industry’ in 2003, Edgar Bronfman Jr., had always thought his birthright – Canada and liquor – was boring, but music and films were magic.
I met him in 1975, a tall, plump engaging teenager who wanted to work in the movies, as a constant visitor to our shared house, where my friends, precocious, hyper-energetic twenty-somethings, wanted to direct and produce films. Of course, if you’re a teenage billionaire your chances of making it in filmland are enhanced.
Edgar Junior – we called him Efer, the name David Puttnam gave him – was actually financing the low-budget film he was working on and my friends were involved in. I don’t think I’d grasped any of it then – the scale of the Bronfman money, the family style or Efer’s ambitions.
My friends filled me in – Efer came from money, and his father, Edgar Senior, seemed to have lots of affairs with English actresses and aristocrats. But a couple of years later, when I interviewed Efer in New York for Harpers & Queen (for what it’s worth I still liked him), I got the hang of it fast. He’d got an office in his family’s Seagram building on Park Avenue, a beautiful Mies van der Rohe tower that seemed to cover a whole block.
This massive bit of patronage, furnished and art-filled by Efer’s aunt Phyllis Lambert with the Rothko’s and Pollocks and De Koonings, said the family had really arrived in the big city when it went up in 1958.
In the heartland of what Steven Birmingham famously called ‘Our Crowd’, the New York, East-Coast German-Jewish rich who’d arrived in the mid-19th century, the Bronfmans, who pitched up in Canada from Russia – more precisely Soroki, Bessarabia – in the 1890s looked provincial and a bit rough at first.
And then, of course, there was the ‘bootlegging’ background. Mr Sam, Efer’s grandfather Samuel, who’d built the business before the war, had supplied bootleggers in America during Prohibition (along, of course, with practically every other distiller in Canada). Even though the Bronfmans’ real money had been made after Prohibition by teaching America to drink better, marketing a clutch of added-value brands like Chivas Regas that enhanced aspirant, 1950s drinks-trays across the world, the bootlegging reputation still hung around.
Nicholas Faith describes how, when he told friends he’d been commissioned to write about the Bronfmans, friends muttered ‘cement galoshes’ and one banker suggested that they’d take out a contract on him. Just why the Bronfmans (it means roughly whisky-man in Yiddish) got so much of the blame when Joe Kennedy, an altogether ghastly human being who built a close and lasting relationship with the Mob at the same time, seemed to get away with it – ambassador in London, a daughter marrying into the Cavendish family in the 1940s – seems to be down at least in part to anti-Semitism.
Certainly the Canadian Establishment, with its Scottish roots and its low-key style was, according to Faith, far more anti-Semitic than its British counterpart. When Distillers, the recently vanished company that ran the world Scotch whisky business, planned to collaborate with the Bronfmans in the 1930s, Canadian bankers told them they shouldn’t be doing business with the Jews. The epically respectable Establishment Scots did it all the same. It was an important step towards the Bronfmans’ rehabilitation for the post-war world.
By 1971, when Samuel Bronfman died, Seagram was the world’s biggest drinks business, established with a huge portfolio of vineyards, champagne houses and socially OK spirits brands. It was, says Faith, even a little sclerotic, bureaucratic, slow off the mark on changing consumer trends.
Sam’s son, Edgar Bronfman Snr., was utterly different from his father. Handsome, indulged, a multi-married Playboy of the Western World while his father had been the classic Jewish family man, was happiest in London, Monte Carlo or Rome rather than Montreal or Manitoba. And a different kind of businessman, too. Sam had been a close-worker, obsessive about quality in distilling, fascinated by products, loyal to staff.
Edgar Senior was more cavalier but made some incredibly lucky investments, getting the family into Big Oil and parlaying it for 25 per cent of Du Pont, then one of the world’s largest chemical businesses, a marvellously valuable stake that became central to Seagram’s share price as the core business lost momentum.
But the next CEO, grandson Efer, as it turned out, was different again. He wanted out of liquor and out of Canada, and into the world of The Player and the mega-media conglomerates of 1990s America. After a few years as Seagram’s CEO, Edgar Junior, by then slim and sharp, Armani-ed and designer stubbled, sold the Du Pont stake for $7 billion in 1995 so as to buy Universal, from its bemused Japanese owners Matsushita. He sold off the boring US domestic TV businesses to Barry Diller. Analysts said at the time that it left Universal with too much ‘content’ and too little distribution, but so what, content was still king.
Universal ate money in the early Bronfman years, but Efer went on acquiring (PolyGram for $10.4 billion in 1998). At the height of the media and dot.com boom in 2000, he sold the whole of Universal Seagram to the French conglomerate Vivendi for $35 billion in shares (Efer described it as a merger).
Vivendi was a fraudulent house of cards, inflated by a boom market, French national pride and a magnetic madman – Jean-Marie Messier. Over the following three years the share price collapsed by 84 per cent and Edgar Bronfman Jr., had resigned as vice-chairman.
It’s a fantastic story of wealth creation and destruction and for a commissioned book (Faith doesn’t describe the deal) seems completely unsparing. But the logistics of distilling (Faith is an industry specialist) and the mechanics of the deals (he’s a veteran City writer) are described in trainspotting detail, while the stuff of a more modern market in biography – the you-are-there psychodramatic reconstruction of events, the look of houses, people and Lear jets, the thrill of it all – gets less air-time. I want, for instance to know exactly why little Efer, who Faith paints as a petulant Prince, gave up on song-writing and guitar playing for the altogether more trivial business of doing deals.