The New York Times
The Bronfmans: The Rise and Fall of the House of Seagramby Nicholas Faith
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
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.
The New York Times
Michael R. Marrus, author of Samuel Bronfman: The Life and Times of Mr. Sam
"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: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires
Praise for Nicholas Faith's Other Books
The Winemakers of Bordeaux
"Anyone wanting an introduction to this inexhaustible subject will be delighted by Mr. Faith, who knows how to tell a story with vivacity."
Theodore Zeldin, author of An Intimate History of Humanity
"An absorbing book."
Frank Prial, The New York Times
Safety in Numbers
"An interesting dossier on assorted bad judgment, chicanery, and loose practices."
John Kenneth Galbraith
"Investigative journalism of the highest order."
"Useful and readable tour through the dark side of Swiss banking."
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Read an Excerpt
Mr. Sam, No Ordinary Monster
When 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 this enormous 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 immense wealth 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 hard-headed 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 story starring 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 family but 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.5
This 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 of Sam'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 empires of Canadian origin--Seagram was a world force. Yet this was an additional reason why wealthy Jews were not considered to be part of the fabric of Canada's economic life. As MacLennan writes, "Historically Jewish fortunes were made in areas like retail trade or real estate, not the traditional sources of wealth and power of the Canadian establishment of the time."7 Unfortunately the Canadian obsession with Mr. Sam has rather hidden any adequate appreciation of his business genius.
The Bronfmans were admired, hated, feared. Mr. Sam and his brothers--with whom he quarreled and systematically sidelined--were loathed for a variety of reasons, both good and bad. The hatred towards him and, to a much lesser extent, his family, owed a lot to Canadian puritanism, envy, anti-Semitism, combined with Mr. Sam's profoundly un-Canadian personality. Nevertheless in a sense the Canadians, not over-endowed with romantically rich families, needed the Bronfmans over the years as their fame--and their wealth--spread throughout the country in the thirty years after 1945 as more and more members of the family spent and invested their wealth and displayed it so lavishly and, in some cases, created scandals which naturally entertained the great Canadian public.
The close interest paid to the family has ensured that so much mud has been thrown at the Bronfmans over the past eighty-five years that it is difficult to conjure up any new misdeed of which they could be guilty, apart from incest. They were Jews in an anti-Semitic social atmosphere, distillers and bootleggers in a country where the temperance movement was almost as strong as it was in the United States. The Bronfmans were the richest of families in a basically egalitarian society. Canadians are traditionally quiet, and perhaps the worst sin the Bronfmans committed was to be noisy and aggressive in a profoundly provincial society, a totally uncozy element in a cozy world. The self-effacing Canadians hated showing off. As Sam's younger daughter Phyllis puts it, "In Montreal there were no tall poppies," but the Bronfmans, and most obviously Sam, were the tallest of tall poppies. Moreover it was felt that Mr. Sam was not the best the race could offer at a time when Jews were acutely conscious of the need to present only the most honest and respected members of their race to the world.*
Such was the importance of the myth, perhaps even more than the reality, that an important novel by one of Canada's best-known novelists centers round the family. In Solomon Gursky Was Here, Mordecai Richler pictured the family--and above all Sam--in vicious and convincing detail. It's a very important book because it provides a poisonous distillation of the myth that the Canadians wish to perpetuate about the family. But in one sense it was merely one example of the author's--usually genial--contempt for his fellow Canadians. He had already deeply offended the French-speaking majority in Quebec through a characteristically rambunctious article in The New Yorker before he attacked his co-religionists through a splendid, if deeply libelous, novel aimed largely at the Bronfmans.
Yet despite the obvious and close relationship of his story to the family, Richler furiously denied any connection. In his author's note he claimed that "I made the Gurskys up out of my own head." But, as one close observer put it, Richler "obviously had a thing about the Bronfmans . . . few people in this very polite country bothered to challenge his transparently untruthful statement that Gursky was not 'about' Sam." Yet when he was asked about the connection at a reading of the book Richler gave the immortal reply, "I will not have seven years of my work reduced to gossip." To which Leo Kolber, one of the family's closest associates, said simply, "Pur-lease. . . . I don't know why Mordecai bothered to change the names."
To make matters worse Richler divides Mr. Sam into two characters, Solomon and Bernard Gursky. He could award Solomon with all the positive aspects of his character leaving his brother Bernard with all the disagreeable ones--including the senility that he claimed--totally unfairly--marked the last years of Mr. Sam's life. "Solomon" is an imaginative, brilliant businessman, who, for example, plans to distill his own liquor and who disappears during a trial for fraud only to reappear in London in the guise of Sir Hyman Kaplansky, an ultra-rich international financier. By contrast Bernard is a money-grubbing horror--the narrator sums him up as a "sly, rambunctious reformed bootlegger, worth untold millions," but still "a grobber,* a hooligan who rained shame on Jews cut from a finer cloth." Richler is also knowingly unpleasant about Bernard's elder son Lionel, a clearly malicious portrait of Edgar. Another of the Gursky brothers is clearly based on Allan, Sam's younger, more cultivated and educated brother--Richler even repeats two real-life incidents, one in which Sam threw an ashtray at his younger brother and another in which Morrie/Allan begs Sam, vainly, to allow his sons a place in the business.
But his hatred was not confined to the Bronfman/Gursky family. Hard though Richler was on Mr. Sam, his family, and his associates, he was just as severe on the book's narrator. This is one Moses Berger, the drunken, underachieving literary son of the Gursky's court speechwriter I. B. Berger (in reality the distinguished poet A. B. Klein) and seems to reflect an element of self-loathing in Richler's own character. But the better one knows the Bronfman story the nastier the book appears, the more references emerge, including--inevitably vicious--references to the suicide of one member of the family, and the departure of another into an Eastern cult. But the whole book could be construed as a hymn of contempt for all of Canada's inhabitants, excepting only the Eskimos in the far north with whom the founder of the clan, one Ephraim--and one of his grandsons--lived. As one of the characters in the book remarks, "Canada is not so much a country as a holding tank filled with the disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples. French Canadians consumed by self-pity; the descendants of Scots who fled the Duke of Cumberland,† Irish the famine; and Jews the Black Hundreds.‡ . . . Most of us are still huddled tight to the border, looking into the candy-store window, scared by the Americans on one side and the bush on the other." But even today the novelist occupies a special place in Montreal's folklore, his habits, his drinking bouts lovingly recounted. More than a decade after his death Richler remains a greatly loved eccentric in Montreal and not just--or especially--within the Jewish community.
The Bronfmans' close associate Leo Kolber was the source for much of Richler's information about the family. One summer when Kolber was temporarily estranged from his wife he spent a lot of time with the novelist, who picked Kolber's brain mercilessly. Kolber's only reward was to be portrayed as one Barney Schwartz, the family's groveling courtier, in the single most unpleasant personal vignette in the book--and that's saying a lot.* But all Kolber says in his autobiography is that Richler was "such a great writer, though not always a great human being. . . . In a certain sense I was flattered to be in it, even if the caricature was highly unflattering."
The novel is picaresque, rambling, kept together largely by Richler's narrative drive and his soaring imagination. Moreover it is full of the romance and sex largely absent in the real-life story. Its framework is seriously preposterous, starting as it does with the creation of Ephraim Gursky, the archetypal wandering Jew, the grandfather of Solomon and Bernard. After many picturesque adventures in Regency London Ephraim had been the sole survivor of the ill-fated expedition led by Sir John Franklin to find a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the icy waters north of Canada in the 1840s. The characters are so striking, and if not accurate, express such underlying truths, that they cry out for quotation, though I have been sparing in this respect.
By contrast, in The View from the Fortieth Floor the American journalist Theodore White† portrays Sam as a minor character, Lou Bronstein, the tycoon behind "Bruno's Liquors." He clearly understood the foundations of Mr. Sam's ethos and indeed his aggressive attitude towards his two sons, the tempestuous Jack, clearly based on Edgar, and the more peaceable Leo, based on Charles: "A business," Bronstein bellows to his sons, "is something living, something you put together with what's in your belly and your heart. It isn't something you put together just with money and brains you hire. Brains like you I can hire anywhere. Business is when you want something to be alive because you had a dream about it. We were triple-A credit rating before you pissers were able to button your own pants." And the narrator understood that the "theme of his life was that he should need to fight because without the stimuli of challenge, leavened with a little adversity, there could be no joy in victory."
In real life Mr. Sam fitted his elder son Edgar's description of Nikita Khrushchev. "His stature was unimpressive, he was not at all attractive, and he seemed a bit crude--perhaps unpolished is a kinder word--but he had a great command of the facts and figures." For, as with Khrushchev, the force of Mr. Sam's personality did not depend on his appearance. Without descending into psychobabble it is perfectly reasonable to say that Sam's character was affected by his physical characteristics. He was small, physically unimpressive, with a receding chin. Sporting activity was out of the question--when he tried to ski down a small hill he thought that he would generate enough momentum on the way down to carry him up again. He never learned to swim and when his family persuaded him to row he never strayed more than a few yards from the shore. Nevertheless he could occasionally relax, most obviously at the country house the family bought during the war at Sainte Margarite, in the Laurentian hills north of Montreal.
But he did have considerable presence and lots of charm, although he was strangely shy in any crowd that he could not dominate. In later life he resembled a small, round, benevolent grandfather, short and plump--his younger daughter Phyllis would sometimes call his paunch "Mary." At work his presence was such that he did not have to sit at the top of a table. As he once observed perfectly correctly, "Where I sit is the head of the table." "Seagram's real head office" said one well-placed observer, "was where Sam happened to be at any given time," which, in the 1950s, could be either in New York or Montreal. And he totally dominated his business. "I should have realized," wrote Edgar,8 "that Sam Bronfman would always have one more vote than there were people in the room." For he was a world-class egomaniac and control freak, self-centered--everything revolved round him and his wishes--with the demonic streak combining relentless energy and egocentricity and a ruthless capacity to impose his own vision often found in business geniuses. His control was total. Abe Klein, his court poet and speechwriter, called him the "maestro." As Michael Marrus put it, he "not only led several orchestras, he also composed the music, repaired the instruments, and planned the concert seasons as well." In addition, "He was endlessly obsessed with the future, was endlessly curious, constantly probing how things were done, to see if there was a better way."
In 1948, in the first major article devoted to him, Fortune magazine wrote that "If there is a whiskey king in America, it is Samuel Bronfman." Not that its journalists were impressed by his appearance. "Seeing him on the street his head cocked back over sloping shoulders . . . one would have no clue to his extraordinary situation as one of the last great tycoons, a vestigial reminder of the gone days when a Vanderbilt or a Rockefeller could actually start from scratch and create a fortune of a hundred million dollars"--as Bronfman had done. "He has a soft voice, an almost natural suavity and casualness, impeccable manners, and a range that extends when required, to indelicate language. His business is his pleasure." His only weakness was "sentimentality. He can lapse into a big and apparently sincere cliché, and is addicted to symbol and ceremony." This is confirmed by Robertson's statement that when in a sentimental mood "he reveals an astonishing addiction for romantic clichés and traditional ceremony."
Mr. Sam is often portrayed--most obviously by his elder son Edgar in Good Spirits--as a monster, and of course he did have the monstrous egotism needed to found an empire. Yet most great industrialists, especially those--like Henry Ford or Sam Bronfman--who have built their success on a single brand or a single product, are inevitably obsessive, perfectionist, egocentric, and Mr. Sam was no exception. Nevertheless, as Fortune shrewdly noted in a 1966 article, he liked "to encourage such assessments of his personality." For a start, like many self-educated men he was astonishingly well read, apt to quote reams of poetry--a special favorite was Tennyson--as he told Robertson his discovery of suitable retail premises in Montreal was the result of "the skirts of happy chance," a direct quote from the poet.
Mr. Sam had all the capacities required to succeed in business; the flair to understand the product required by the market, combined with the passionate, obsessive temperament to ensure that the drink he had dreamed up reached the drinker perfect in every respect, not only in its contents but also the bottle, the label, the box in which it was packaged. "At times," wrote Robertson, "he seemed obsessed with the phrase 'a silken gown,' which he applied to everything that he personally loved about his business." His perfectionism extended to his private life. He always sought to display himself well, was always smartly and formally dressed, invariably pictured in a well-cut suit and tie which he rarely shed even on holiday. His wife Saidye remembered his unwillingness to dance "because he didn't think he could dance so well . . . and he never liked to do anything he didn't do well." This need for presenting a "bella figura" sprang not only from his obsessive desire for respectability but was also a reaction to the hand-me-down clothes he had had to wear in his youth.
Mr. Sam shone in all the roles required--distiller, blender, packager, salesman, advertiser--as well as possessing a love of, and nose for, a deal, not only in his own industry. He also had an astonishingly retentive memory and an instinctive capacity to seize the financial aspects of a situation, combined with a computer-like brain for financial matters, capable of recalling the smallest detail at a moment's notice. He also had the capacity to do two or more things at the same time. Max Henderson, who worked for Seagram before becoming Canada's auditor-general, told Newman how Mr. Sam "would sniff all the whiskies, have a marketing team in to decide on a run of new labels, then haul off to do a tax problem with me, and in the middle of it get one of his lawyers on the phone, giving him hell for dragging his feet in some upcoming litigation, meanwhile getting ready to receive a deputation from the Jewish community." But he was not impulsive, not in business decisions anyway. He drove his associates (and his family) mad with his apparent indecisiveness--including deciding which train he would take from Montreal to New York each week--a trait which, very often, was merely part of his eternal quest for perfection. As Newman puts it, "Choices that had to be made by any given year-end were usually taken late on the evening of December 31."
He also had a considerable capacity for hiring the right people. As his daughter Phyllis put it, "He picked certain people as partners and felt that his trust in them would be repaid. Not many trust others in this way." Moreover he was colorblind; Seagram was virtually the only major company employing blacks and Hispanics in the 1930s. This was partly because respectable, competent whites steered clear of so disreputable a business, but Mr. Sam genuinely believed that, as he once said, "In three generations we'll all be the same color."
Normally he was soft-spoken, but he was famous for his frequent and explosive bouts of anger. However, the bouts were often merely tactical, usually short-lived; "I bruises easy but I heal quick" was a favorite saying. Marrus quotes one of his key executives, William Wachtel, as saying, "In many ways Mr. Sam was a consummate actor, but every now and then, given the proper provocation, his temper could really flare, and with those sorts of temper it was wise to get out of his way." But most outbursts were means of showing that he was in charge, as he had to be in every aspect of life, personal as well as in business. Moreover even the genuine bouts were often the results of a perceived lack of his own obsessive perfectionism in others.
Temper could, as it were, temper loyalty. As one associate put it, "Sam would sack you one day but you knew perfectly well that he would hire you the next." In fact he hated sacking people and when he did would usually retract the dismissal sooner rather than later--one executive claimed to have been sacked at least three times. But once you had shown you had the "right stuff"--often by standing up to him and putting forward reasoned arguments--you were safe from interference. Once you had survived what was liable to be a pretty tumultuous apprenticeship you tended to stay for the rest of your working life. And this applied to quite a number of associates who could never be described as mere creatures. A senior executive once compared him to a tiger. "If Mr. Sam smelled your fright, he'd jump you. But if you stood up to him, you'd gain his respect and he could be totally charming and most thoughtful." "Nobody can be a friend of mine if I can't call him a son of a bitch" he once expostulated to Sol Kanee, one of his few close friends outside business. In telling the story Kanee concludes, "How could I stay mad at a mad bugger like that?"
When Robert Sabloff, then a junior in the advertising department, showed him some advertisements aimed at blue-collar workers Mr. Sam fell into a rage, to which Sabloff retorted that they "weren't designed to be liked by multi-millionaires." According to Marrus Sam snarled, "You think you're pretty goddamn smart," to which Sabloff retorted, "Well if I weren't I wouldn't be working for you." Mr. Sam smiled and in the next thirteen years of working for him Sabloff claims that "I never had a minute's problem with that man." But men like Sabloff were exceptions, for Seagram under Mr. Sam, and even more so under his son and grandson, increasingly resembled a royal court rather than an ordinary company. But none posed a threat to his authority, for Mr. Sam was so self-obsessed that he simply could not imagine the existence of any rivalry. It did not help that too many employees were hailed at first as saviors before Mr. Sam became disillusioned. As Philip Vineberg, his friend and lawyer, told Newman, this was "not because they were failing to achieve a reasonable standard but because his own standard was so high that the average person couldn't expect to achieve it."
Another famous characteristic was Mr. Sam's use of bad language. In one of the great understatements of all time his daughter Phyllis says that "he had a lively way of expressing himself." Robertson's use of the term "indelicate language" was also a gross understatement for a man addicted to the habitual use of expressions that shocked even men who had served in the army--and it was even more startling when he used the words and phrases in relatively formal discussions. His favorite swear word was "cocksucker." But this in itself was meaningless. As his younger son Charles explained, it mattered only when it went back for generations; to be called simply "a cocksucker" was nothing, but when the invocation was extended, as in "no good cocksucking son of a cocksucking cocksucker," that was serious.* But his language was not unusual at the time. One former employee of Mr. Sam's great rival Harry Hatch of Hiram Walker remarked that his boss's profanity "was something to behold."
Inevitably he was a workaholic. "Those who knew him well," wrote Marrus, "had difficulty identifying a time when Sam was not working." Even at home he was apt to write little notes to himself on scraps of paper stuffed into any handy pocket. He claimed that all his children wanted to do was to enjoy themselves, but, as his son Edgar put it, "The great sadness is that he never really enjoyed his own life as much as he might have." Not surprisingly most of his closest friends were also his employees. As a result of his obsession with business, he was lonely, spending many evenings while at home playing gin rummy with Moe Levine, who had married Saidye's sister Freda.
The one truly monstrous aspect to his character was his obsessive need to dominate his three brothers and downgrade their contribution to the business. Two of his brothers, Abe and Harry, were older than him, Abe, born in 1882, by seven years, Harry by three years, while Allan was six years younger. They were the only people who could not to be classed as employees and over whom he could not automatically assert his--to him natural--total supremacy. Not surprisingly his four sisters were not considered a major factor. Robertson got it wrong when he asserted that Mr. Sam "treated his brothers as he did employees . . . to challenge his authority was to invite tirades and trouble." For his more trusted employees were treated far better than his brothers, who were invariably treated with contempt and rage. Robertson, echoing Mr. Sam, put the case against the three with some brutality, "Abe could be expected to waste money gambling, Harry might have become a builder of white elephants. Allan could hardly demur. He was the youngest brother, had graduated in law on family money earned by Sam and had joined A. J. Andrews's law office through Sam's influence. So Sam could 'resent him without any difficulty.' "
In reality Abe was an amiable, and by no means stupid or incompetent fellow with a weakness for gambling--though Sam refused to let his weakness spoil the family image, preventing the aging Abe from being thrown out of the exclusive, exclusively Jewish Montefiore Club for cheating at gin rummy in the 1950s. Harry would have been far happier in his natural role as a respected provincial businessman, while the youngest, Allan, was a decent, gentle person, the only member of the generation who had gone to university, and who became an excellent lawyer. Robertson alleges that Sam had hoped to become a lawyer, yet another reason for jealousy. So "my brother the lawyer," and a relatively smooth and calm one for that matter, was treated worst of all.
Robertson was reflecting Sam's own views when he wrote that neither Abe nor Harry were "particularly articulate or skilled," while he refers to "Abe's occasional dabbling in real estate investments," which "paid off through sheer luck," a gross libel; for Abe, for all his faults, was able to accumulate a decent fortune of his own through such investments after being excluded from the family firm. Moreover Sam ruthlessly ensured that the brothers' offspring would be eliminated from any involvement in the family business. In his entry in Current Biography Sam excused the concentration of power in his hands as a result of the sad example set by the family that had owned Seagram, the distillers he bought in the mid-1920s.
Peter Newman spotted another essential element in his psychological makeup, a search for legitimacy, or rather yechus, its Jewish equivalent, that dominated Sam Bronfman's long life and remains the dynasty's major preoccupation to this day. Yechus is not merely a craving for respect but rather a state of respect recognized by "something grand"--in his case membership of the best clubs in Montreal and, even more so, of that by no means distinguished body, the Canadian Senate. To him, pathetically, these positions were "the true measurement of success." For as he himself wrote in the introduction to Robertson's book, "If you see respect [his emphasis] you are successful. Respect walks hand in hand with integrity. Taken together they, not money, not position, are the true measurement of success." But he remained an outsider in his own country. He felt, writes Marrus, "The cold exclusion of a society that barred his entry into the establishment of the day . . . part of the story . . . was his failure to achieve the recognition he felt he deserved, even though 'for thirty years he was the foremost Jew in the country.' "
His underlying insecurity also showed up in his refusal to spend too much money on himself--though his womenfolk could spend as much as they cared. He had the typical fear of the immigrant that "they," the goyim, whom he knew only too well from bitter experience, were jealous of Jewish success, would deprive him of his hard-earned wealth, as his father and countless other inhabitants of the Czarist Empire had been stripped of their possessions. His all-pervasive and life-long insecurity required balm, and in the last thirty years of his life this consisted of regular banquets and Christmas parties celebrating his achievements, complete with specially written songs and poems, events that were all too easy to parody, and Richler has great fun mocking them.
Nevertheless at least one participant at the celebrations of Sam's official eightieth birthday just before his death remembers them as touching rather than ridiculous. I say "official" because in reality it was his eighty-second birthday, for he had not been born, as he pretended throughout his life, in Canada. It was only after his death that his son Edgar found his father's naturalization papers issued as late as 1937 when he had had to admit that he had been born in Bessarabia, then in Romania, on February 27, 1889, and was not, as he made out, a Canadian citizen born on March 4, 1891, in Brandon, Manitoba. Even Brandon was not the first place the family lived in Canada, they only moved there as one step in their progress up the economic ladder.
His deception has been taken as unusual, as yet another example of Mr. Sam's assumed dishonesty, but it wasn't, for a great many of Sam's generation of immigrants from Eastern Europe turned their backs on their previous existence and retained a profound psychological need to prove that they were truly Canadian. For Mr. Sam's pretense was not due to vanity but to his obsession with being regarded as a loyal Canadian. He did not go so far as Louis B. Mayer of MGM fame, another immigrant from Eastern Europe, who designated his birthday as July 4. But even when he was spending most of his time in New York, wrote Marrus, Mr. Sam never "abandoned his enthusiastic identification with the country in which his career began, and [his refusal to admit to his true place of birth] is perhaps the most significant indication of his obsession with the respectability he associated with Canadian citizenship."
Mr. Sam was not the only member of the family to alter his date of birth. In 1911 his older sister Laura understated her age by three years when marrying Barney Aaron. Nevertheless she did acknowledge that she had been born in Bessarabia, and the change may have been due to a desire to show that she was younger than her twenty-four-year-old husband. This older generation also shared an absolute refusal to tell their offspring anything about their life before their arrival in the Promised Land, or in many cases about their early years of poverty and struggle. For underlying the family's riches was a deep sense of shame as to their origins. When Mr. Sam died the second generation tried to get his younger brother Allan to talk about the early days. But, according to Edgar, "All we got was some philosophical musing. He would never tell us any of the early history." The sense of shame was not confined to the older generation. As late as 1969 Edgar could write--in the Columbia Journal of World Business no less--that the family had sold its products exclusively in Canada until prohibition had been repealed. This sort of evasiveness inevitably makes it harder, but even more fascinating, to investigate the family's real history.
Copyright © 2006 by Nicholas Faith
Meet 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.
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