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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).

"Are you kidding?" says an attorney who worked for Bronfman. "It was required reading! Edgar is haunted by family guilt."

There are silver spoons and gold ones, but Edgar was born gumming platinum, the second child of Sam Bronfman's eldest son and an heiress to the Loeb investment banking fortune. But even before Edgar Jr. was born, schisms plagued the Bronfmans. In the course of wresting Seagram away from his younger brother, Allan, Grandpa Sam split the Bronfmans, pitting cousin against cousin so that today there are two Canadian dynasties: the Montreal Bronfmans, who operated Seagram, and the Toronto Bronfmans, whose fortune came from real estate, manufacturing and mining. In part, it was this intergenerational internecine warfare that sent Edgar Sr. packing across the border to New York City in the 1950s.

"My father wanted us to be U.S. citizens," says Bronfman, and so he and his six siblings were born in New York.

Bronfman glances out his conference room window at the Seagram Building. From his circumscribed world inside the beating heart of midtown Manhattan, he notes that he has lived elsewhere from time to time (including Malibu during the early 1980s, when he tried his hand at independent film production) but has always returned to New York. His reasons are as simple as the fantastic selection of restaurants, Broadway, culture and metropolitan excitement, but they also involve a complex approach-avoidance relationship with his own family

From the beginning, Bronfman showed scant interest in the family business. The early assumption was that Seagram would pass to Edgar Sr.'s eldest son, Samuel, just as Grandpa Sam had turned over the reins to his eldest son. During his own tenure as Seagram chairman, Edgar Sr. transformed the Bronfman millions into billions through a series of smart, fortunate investments and global marketing campaigns that made Seagram products such as Chivas Regal scotch and Absolut vodka into the world's most popular brands.

Edgar Jr. cared little about whiskey, but he was intrigued by power. "When I was 13, I watched my father handling someone on the phone," he recalls. "It was the first time I realized just how powerful he really was. After he hung up, I said, 'You're really powerful, aren't you, Dad?' And he said, 'If it shows that you have to use your power, you aren't really powerful.' "

Besides his adolescent fascination with power, Bronfman's other real interest was motion pictures. At 16, he became a gofer, or "tea boy," on the set of British producer David Puttnam's 1971 feature "Melody." In 1982, the young Bronfman produced the Jack Nicholson drama "The Border."

And though he would have preferred that his son attend college, Edgar Sr. did not disapprove of this Hollywood fling. Over his own father's objections, Edgar Sr. had also dabbled in Hollywood, briefly serving as chairman of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1969. When the elder Edgar first began buying into MGM, Sam Bronfman reportedly asked:

"Tell me, Edgar, are we buying all this stock in MGM just so you can get laid?"

According to Newman's "Bronfman Dynasty," Edgar Sr., who was married to the first of his five wives at the time, replied: "Oh, no, Pop, it doesn't cost $40 million to get laid."

At 24, Edgar Jr. eloped with Sherry Brewer, an African American actress whom he reportedly met through singer Dionne Warwick. (Bronfman co-wrote the pop ballad "Whisper in the Dark" for Warwick.) Edgar Sr. refused to speak to his son for more than two ...years. They didn't fully reconcile until 1982, after Samuel's well-publicized kidnapping and after Edgar Sr. declared his eldest son "too nice" to run the family business. Edgar Sr. floored Edgar Jr. by asking him to join Seagram as special assistant to the president, and perhaps someday take over the company.

For the next 12 years, Edgar Jr. worked his way up to chief executive officer at Seagram, learning all aspects of the family business. But he never gave up his Hollywood dreams. In 1993, he directed the company's bean counters to accumulate a 14.9% stake in Time Warner. By 1995, with the stock stagnant, Seagram turned its attention to a smaller outfit with an equally glitzy pedigree: Universal Studios, which had been swallowed by MCA in 1962.

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