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Cover Story

Fumbling the Franchise

Edgar Bronfman Jr. Wanted to Be a Media Mogul. That Dream Cost Him Billions, as Well as the Canadian Liquor Empire His Grandfather Built. Guess What? He Still Wants to Be a Media Mogul.

November 16, 2003|Dennis McDougal | Dennis McDougal is the author of "The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA and the Hidden History of Hollywood" (DaCapo, 2001).

Then, on the morning after Labor Day, when Bronfman prepared to bask in the limelight as the once and future mayor of Universal City, Vivendi's Fourtou announced the $14-billion NBC deal. With combined assets still trailing such giants as Time Warner, Fox, Disney and Viacom, the new NBC Universal was estimated to be worth $43 billion and reportedly capable of generating annual income of $13 billion--a formidable player in the global mass media sweepstakes in which Bronfman had hoped to share.

"Naturally, I was disappointed," Bronfman says. He puts the best face on his defeat by asserting that his bidding war with General Electric forced the company to pay the highest possible price for Universal. Indirectly, the extra $1 billion that GE paid will benefit all the Vivendi stockholders, including the Bronfman family. "I got value for the shareholders," he says, a mantra that he repeats through two days of interviews as consolation and his own personal reassurance.

If he is shocked or bitter at the NBC deal, Bronfman refuses to show it. Nor does he miss a beat in happily announcing that his next business venture will be a gala stage production of "Never Gonna Dance," based on the Depression movie musical "Swing Time," due to open on Broadway on Dec. 4. Just five days after losing the biggest deal of his life, Edgar Bronfman Jr. blithely steps from the role of billion-dollar lion tamer to song-and-dance impresario.

"We're in rehearsals now," he says. What's more, the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers revival looks splendid, except for some minor problems with the script. The two-act structure is too obvious and needs to be less abrupt, more subtle, he suggests. The audience should be entertained without being able to detect the architecture upon which the story is built.

Bronfman's swing from boardroom to Broadway might strike some as odd, but in a way it makes perfect sense, given his family roots. To hear his many Hollywood business associates tell it, Edgar Bronfman Jr. is two very different men housed in the same person: one, an occasionally ruthless, frequently feckless business tycoon; the other, a bona fide romantic who once wrote love ballads for Dionne Warwick and Celine Dion and tried his hand at heart-tugging storytelling for stage and screen.

His manner is courtly and his disposition cheery. But there is no better measure of each side of Bronfman's dueling personality than a thumbnail description of his two favorite movies--"Cabaret," which dances decadently through the rise of Nazi Germany, and "The Godfather," which chronicles multigenerational corruption and loyalty within a Mafia family. Though the Bronfmans were never the Corleones, the family dynamic and fortunes of each clan--the real and the fictional--certainly have their similarities.

In Yiddish, Bronfman roughly means "whiskey man," and as Canada's premier bootlegger, Bronfman's grandfather more than lived up to the name. Sons of Russian Jews who escaped the czar's pogroms by immigrating to Canada, Sam Bronfman and his three brothers opened a liquor operation in a Montreal suburb just after World War I. It mushroomed into a multimillion-dollar industry during the Roaring '20s, when alcohol was forbidden south of the Canadian border. The brothers Bronfman earned windfall profits selling whiskey to smugglers who took it across the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. The Bronfmans then used their considerable cash to buy Joseph E. Seagram & Sons in 1928 and, later, to purchase control of Britain's Distillers Company Limited in 1933.

The brothers were arrested and charged with tax evasion in connection with their liquor business in 1934, but the case was tossed out of court the following year because the government could not produce enough documentation to prove that the Bronfmans had evaded $5 million in taxes on liquor they had shipped to the U.S. For the next two generations, Seagram was synonymous with hard liquor and hard cash, and Sam was described during the famous Kefauver hearings on organized crime in the early 1950s as Canada's top bootlegger.

By then, Sam had edged out his brothers to become undisputed master of Seagram and head of one of North America's great family fortunes. But all the cash in Canada wouldn't buy him respect. Sam contributed millions to political candidates, cultural institutions and Jewish charities, but he could not bury a past that included operating a string of hotels along the Canadian side of the U.S. border that were rumored to be brothels. Maclean's magazine columnist Peter C. Newman chronicled the Bronfman dirty linen in his 1978 bestseller "The Bronfman Dynasty," while Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler savaged the family in the sprawling 1989 roman a clef "Solomon Gursky Was Here." Though Edgar Jr. maintains he has spoken with neither author nor read their books, thousands of others have, including many of those who work for him.

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