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The Unmaking of a Dynasty

Dreaming of a global media company and driven by blind ambition, Edgar Bronfman Jr. shed the crown jewels of his grandfather's empire and nearly destroyed the family fortune.
Brian Milner
From the Print Edition:
Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mar/Apr 03

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Edgar Sr. says he's happy to be retired, and is keeping remarkably busy writing books (he's on his fourth, after two memoirs and a tome called The Third Act, on how to make the most of retirement) and breeding and marketing bison meat. He also continues to be a major force in Jewish philanthropic causes and has been an important voice in international Jewish affairs through the years as chairman of the World Jewish Congress. In his spare time, he's producing a movie about a Holocaust survivor, but is smart enough to get Universal on board to distribute and partly finance the film along with some private investors he hasn't identified publicly.

Charles has also kept busy with his philanthropies and has been preoccupied with fixing his disastrous Israeli investments. Ask him if he misses Seagram, and he offers a sad, one-word answer: "Totally." Ask him if he will ever again invest with the family in anything, and the answer is nearly as succinct: "Only with my children."

So if Edgar Jr. wants to continue pursuing his dream, he will almost certainly have to do it alone. But no matter what happens, neither he nor his father will have to worry about giving up their favorite power lunch seats at the famed Grille Room of the Four Seasons restaurant. In one of its smallest asset sales, Vivendi Universal has handed back to the Bronfmans the near 50 percent stake that Seagram had owned in the celebrated dining spot in its landmark Manhattan headquarters.

The Four Seasons will soon be all that remains of the Bronfman influence at the distinctive Park Avenue tower, which was designed by renowned modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and will probably always be known to the public as the Seagram Building, regardless of its owner. As part of its efforts to slash costs and raise badly needed cash, Vivendi Universal is moving its shrinking U.S. corporate staff to smaller quarters and putting the famed Seagram art collection -- including works by Picasso, Miró, Rothko and other modern masters -- on the block. This has come as a body blow to Phyllis Lambert, 75, the oldest of the three surviving children of Sam Bronfman. It was Phyllis, an architect by training, who was the key family member involved in selecting the building design and assembling the remarkable collection of paintings, tapestries, photographs and sculptures that the complex would come to house. She has described the coming dispersal of the art, part of which has been on public display since the building opened in 1959 to widespread acclaim, as part "of a whole Greek tragedy."

Meanwhile, after weathering the withering attacks of harsh critics for years, Edgar Jr. may yet emerge from the current mess with the last laugh if Fourtou and his rescue crew manage to resuscitate Vivendi Universal and extract real value from what's left. For now, the best he can hope for is that no one remembers how he traded his family's crown jewels for the fantasy of a global media empire.


Brian Milner is an editorial writer and columnist for The Globe and Mail in Toronto.

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