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Bronfman Family Had Fill of Messier

July 02, 2002|CORIE BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As their legendary family fortune dwindled along with the price of Vivendi Universal shares, Edgar Bronfman Jr. and the Bronfman family emerged as key players in the undoing of the company's once-unchallenged leader.

The Bronfmans, who control 5% of the French company, orchestrated a board rebellion that led to the forced resignation of Vivendi Chairman Jean-Marie Messier. The family blames Messier for the evaporation of more than $1 billion in its holding since Vivendi purchased the Bronfmans' Seagram Co. two years ago.

The Bronfman clan hopes to not only undo the financial damage but also restore a bit of its lost pride as descendants of a Canadian liquor dynasty started by Edgar Bronfman Jr.'s grandfather, Sam Bronfman.

A fierce Montreal patriarch, Sam Bronfman took advantage of the Prohibition years in the United States, launching what would become the dominant liquor distribution business in North America. Edgar Bronfman Sr. refers to his father in his autobiography as a "driven, insecure person" who dominated a loveless home.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 04, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 331 words Type of Material: Correction
The Bronfmans--A story in Tuesday's Section A about the Bronfman family incorrectly reported that Samuel Bronfman, patriarch of the family that built Seagram Co., had only one daughter, Phyllis Lambert. In fact, he had another daughter, the late Aileen Minda Bronfman de Gunzburg.
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Sam Bronfman didn't ask but ordered his elder son, Edgar, to take his place at the helm of Seagram. His other son, Charles, would become the company co-chairman. Sam's only daughter, Phyllis, was the family artist and the force behind building the Mies van der Rohe-designed Seagram Building in New York City.

In the 1990s, when Edgar Bronfman Sr. wanted to step down to devote himself to humanitarian causes centered on a newfound devotion to his Jewish faith, he too turned to his son, Edgar Jr., to take over Seagram.

From the beginning, Edgar Bronfman Jr. was drawn to Hollywood, where he had brief experiences as a movie producer and songwriter. In the spring of 1995, the younger Bronfman persuaded the family to buy control of MCA, the parent company of Universal Studios, from Japanese electronics giant Matsushita Electric Industrial.

From his first move in Hollywood, Bronfman drew fire. MCA's venerated chairman, Lew Wasserman, who had remained in charge of the studio, learned of the deal after it was done. Bronfman continued to slight Wasserman, failing to invite the Hollywood luminary to meetings or consult with him about the company.

Hollywood dismissed Bronfman as a dilettante. His efforts to revamp a studio management system created by Wasserman were ridiculed. He was derided for his complicated deal to transfer control of Universal's television operations to Barry Diller.

Under Bronfman's watch, Universal Studios foundered, releasing such box-office bombs as "Babe: Pig in the City" and "Meet Joe Black."

By the time Messier arrived in mid-2000, Bronfman seemed to have given up on his Hollywood dreams, avoiding the press and shunning any serious public role.

Bronfman remained an executive with Vivendi Universal until early this spring. A week before he was to vacate his office, he signaled a growing dissatisfaction with Messier, saying the French executive "has no choice but to create credibility on Wall Street ... or there will be other leadership."

Less than three months later, Bronfman was called upon by his fellow board members to monitor the performance of a man he would help to unseat.

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