Edgar Bronfman Jr. is his usual cool, controlled self as he artfully bobs and weaves through a handful of tough questions from CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo. The tall, handsome scion of a famous family, with his familiar reddish-brown designer stubble, impeccable Armani tailoring and easygoing manner, has little new or revealing to say. But his appearance in late October on the high-profile show with the interviewer known during the stock-market bubble years as the Money Honey speaks volumes. Bronfman's disastrous wager on the ambitious dreams of a French empire builder has cost his family billions and left his own reputation in tatters.
Still fabulously wealthy by the standards of ordinary mortals, he could have simply slunk off home to his elegant townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side, returned to writing the romantic pop songs he used to pen in his spare time, and stayed out of the spotlight he never much liked anyway. Instead, there he is on prime-time cable, talking about feeling betrayed and making it abundantly clear there and in a handful of other carefully selected interviews that he's not about to leave the stage without doing everything possible to salvage what he can of both the family fortune and his reputation.
"My focus is entirely on trying to help all of the stakeholders, management and shareholders, to recapture the value that has been squandered and formulate a future that is exciting," Bronfman declares in another of those interviews. The future he's talking about in his typical bizspeak is not necessarily his own but that of Vivendi Universal, the unwieldy transatlantic conglomerate forged two years ago through the merger of a French media and utilities company with the Hollywood entertainment businesses he had assembled at Seagram, the global liquor empire founded by his legendary grandfather, Samuel Bronfman. When he speaks of squandered value, he's talking from painful experience. Of all the unwitting victims of the collapse of the dot-com bubble and the shattering of the myths that fueled the Internet boom, few have lost more -- financially, emotionally, and in terms of stature and prestige -- than the Bronfmans. On Edgar Jr.'s urging, this proud family traded in an heirloom that was the source of one of the world's great fortunes in exchange for a piece of a New Economy dream, and then watched in helpless horror as it all went terribly wrong.
The roots of the disaster had their origins in the very foundations of the dynasty and the forbidding legacy left behind by Sam Bronfman, the clan's mercurial founder. But the actual beginning of the end can be traced to a fairly innocuous breakfast meeting that Edgar Jr. decided to squeeze into a Paris vacation one cool, overcast October morning in 1999. The meeting he arranged was with Jean-Marie Messier, a compact bundle of energy, ambition and ego, who was then in the midst of transforming a staid French water and sewage utility called Vivendi into a media and communications colossus. It didn't take long for Edgar Jr. to realize that he was talking to someone who shared his grand vision of an Internet-driven future dominated by a few smart global media companies. He, too, was in the business of change, having torn Seagram from its long-established roots in spirits and wine and plunged it headlong into the much riskier but far sexier realm of music, movies and theme parks. But it was the Internet and its endless possibilities that really made his eyes light up. The casual 30-minute get-together over coffee and croissants at Vivendi's splendid new headquarters on Avenue de Friedland, near the Arc de Triomphe, stretched into a three-hour conversation. Eight months later, the two new soul mates would jubilantly announce a stunning marriage mingling two vastly different cultures and several strong personalities to create the world's second-biggest media and entertainment company. In less than two years, it would all unravel, leaving a trail of bitterness and broken dreams.
Today, after nearly being crushed to death under a mountain of debt accumulated by Messier in his hell-bent drive for size and glory, Vivendi Universal is on life support, its survival in the hands of a rescue team parachuted in by the worried French business establishment, its long-term prognosis still doubtful. The architect of the debacle was ousted last July at the instigation of the Bronfmans, who feared their rapidly declining investment would soon be utterly worthless. "He just kept buying everything in sight, like a kid in a candy store," says Edgar M. Bronfman, Seagram's former chairman and Edgar Jr.'s father. "And he didn't care what the price was." From the time the acquisition of Seagram was completed in December 2000 and its prized liquor assets sold off, until Messier's departure a little more than 18 months later, the company added an astonishing $1 billion worth of debt a month to pay for a dizzying media and telecom spending spree that left the Bronfmans and other investors shaking their heads in disbelief. The inevitable result was a liquidity crisis of monumental proportions.
Yet, at first, the French old-boys network that dominated the company's board rallied around their beleaguered countryman, even as investors fled in droves and sent the company's stock price spinning to record lows. In France, corporate chiefs have power that a Jack Welch could only dream about. And when they're as well connected as Messier was, they are practically a law unto themselves, as the Bronfmans discovered to their dismay. The French elite thought that in Messier and his Napoleonic ambitions, they finally had someone who could stand toe-to-toe with the American titans of popular culture and carry the French flag to their home turf, one of the goals Messier rarely mentioned outside of France. But the directors were finally persuaded by nervous bankers and by an unusual round of shuttle diplomacy conducted by Edgar Jr. himself that Messier had to go before he drove one of France's oldest and most important companies right off a cliff.
By the time a determined Edgar Jr. presided as vice chairman over the board meeting that sealed Messier's fate, the value of the Bronfmans' holding had plunged more than 70 percent -- chopping their worth by more than $2 billion in the previous six months alone. The family has sold a sizable chunk of the Vivendi Universal stock received in exchange for Seagram, but it still ranks as the largest shareholder in the widely held company with 4.9 percent ownership. Today, although the share price has improved a bit as the new management wrestles with asset sales to bring down the killer debt, the Bronfman investment is worth less than $800 million and the family's total paper losses exceed $3 billion. "This is not play money," says an insider. "It was real, and there was a real betrayal." It's obvious that this is what hurts most of all. "Not to pooh-pooh the money, but that's not the real disaster," Edgar Sr. insists. "The real disaster is bad judgment. [We] took something my father had built and my son had converted into something which was really dynamic, and put it with these guys to get the kind of size we needed. And suddenly it blew up in our faces."
The Bronfmans' downfall is more modern morality play than Shakespearean tragedy, with Messier perfectly cast in the role of the tempting devil. The bubble years produced many such characters, financial alchemists promising to spin gold out of dot-com or fiber-optic versions of base metal; but few were as boyishly charming, brilliant or persuasive as the one-time wunderkind of French investment banking. "It's an unfortunate story," says Edgar Sr., putting it mildly, as he thinks back to the person he thought was the perfect choice to carry the family's fortunes into the new millennium. "He's a good salesman and I thought he was going to do a great job. He made such an impression. But he turned out to be less than we thought."
The other main actors in the drama all played their scripted parts to the bitter end, unable to alter their seemingly preordained destiny. Edgar Jr., 47, had been handed the overwhelming responsibility of safeguarding the family's immense fortune for future generations and was determined to prove he was more than up to the task. His doting 73-year-old father was equally determined never to look over his son's shoulder or second-guess his decisions, the way his own father had. Finally, there was his uncle, Charles Bronfman, 71, Seagram's former co-chairman, the cautious, conservative member of the family who is best known for his philanthropic work in Israel and for having once owned the Montreal Expos baseball team when it actually drew crowds. Charles had vowed never to provoke a family feud over business, and stayed true to his word, even as his worst nightmares came true. And hovering over the stage, haunting the family still, is the specter of the man known as Mr. Sam, the larger-than-life Montreal liquor baron with the steely will and the towering temper, who unwittingly laid the groundwork for the disaster that would strike his descendants three decades after his death. All it took was the right catalyst.
Edgar Sr. still vividly recalls how tough his overbearing father made his life at Seagram, as the old man clung to power in his final years. In the end, he says, Sam "ruled by veto, not by imagination" -- for example, fighting new liquor marketing methods that he didn't understand. "I remember telling my father: ëWhy don't you advertise to your own contemporaries, because they're mostly dead.' You have to realize it's a young person's game. You can do a lot of things for a long time, but marketing is something that's a little different." So when his own son's turn came, Edgar Sr. gave him free rein to bring in fresh ideas and make his own mistakes. He has always professed to be satisfied with the results, particularly with his son's hugely controversial move into Hollywood -- at least until the Vivendi fiasco. And even then, he doesn't regret the decision to sell Seagram -- only the outcome. "We misjudged a human being and we're paying for it. It's one of those things where the buck stops here. There's no place else. We can't look at somebody else and say, ëIt was your fault.'"
As for Edgar Jr., the weight of family responsibility had pressed down on him ever since he agreed to join Seagram two decades ago, after a brief and unsatisfying stint as an independent Hollywood film producer. His own grandfather, who never took his vast wealth for granted, believed in his darker moments that his grandchildren would one day undo all he had built. Hence, his now prophetic remark: "Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations. I'm worried about the third generation. Empires have come and gone." Think that didn't prey on Junior's mind? He once vowed publicly not to go down in history "as the one Bronfman who pissed away the family fortune." And there's little doubt that that apprehension played no small part in the thinking that led him into Messier's eager embrace when there seemed no other road left to take. Messier says Edgar mentioned it as they were putting the finishing touches on their deal.
There's no doubt Edgar Jr. had expected a far different outcome after taking the Seagram torch from his father in 1994. Although not the oldest son (he's the second of seven children, four of them boys), he was the only member of the family whom Edgar Sr. thought capable of succeeding him at the helm of Seagram, a distiller that Sam Bronfman acquired in 1928. Over the next six decades, it would grow into a global force in the booze business, thanks to a strong distribution system and an expanding stable of wholly owned and licensed brands that would come to include such big-selling libations as VO Canadian and Crown Royal whiskey, Chivas Regal and Glenlivet Scotch, Seagram's Gin, Mumm Champagne, Martell Cognac, Absolut vodka and Captain Morgan spiced rum. Seagram was also by far the largest shareholder in chemical giant E.I. DuPont de Nemours, with 24 percent of the stock. Between the booze and the DuPont dividends, Seagram raked in vast profits year in and year out, good economy and bad, putting the family high on the list of North America's richest people. The DuPont holding, which Seagram acquired in 1981 as its share of the spoils in a takeover battle for oil giant Conoco, represents Edgar Sr.'s finest business achievement. Yet within less than a year after Edgar Jr. took over the day-to-day operations of the company, it would be gone, sold back to a delighted DuPont at 13 percent below the market rate, to help Edgar Jr. launch his bold foray into Hollywood.
Charles, who was always much less willing "to roll the dice," in his brother's apt description, was deeply unhappy about his nephew's decision to take the family into the profit-challenged world of entertainment -- starting with his $5.7 billion investment in 1995 in MCA, which gave him 80 percent of the company (subsequently renamed Universal Studios). Charles revered the family's wonderful but lately neglected liquor holdings and loved those steady DuPont dividends. As long as the booze flowed and DuPont stayed solvent, Charles knew that his children and the generations to follow would never have to worry about their bank balances. But Edgar Jr. had no desire to run what he viewed as an old-fashioned business stuck in a rut, whose best source of income was a passive stake in a boring chemical company. And his father agreed.
Hollywood beckoned, as it had earlier when he was a starry-eyed teenager who decided that college wasn't for him. (Edgar Sr. had had his own flirtation with showbiz in the late 1960s as a partner in a small TV production company and briefly as part of a group in control of MGM; but these were separate from Seagram. Sam had regarded Hollywood as nothing but a "whores' business" and an expensive way to meet women). The difference was that this time Edgar Jr. would be arriving as a major player with Seagram's billions at his disposal. The industry's sharks, people like Michael Ovitz, David Geffen and Barry Diller, whom he counted as friends and advisers, began circling even before his corporate Gulfstream V had landed. It didn't take long for industry veterans to pounce on Junior's lack of expertise and experience, on his costly early hiring mistakes and other management miscues, on his reliance on outside consultants and his strange notions of industry economics. In the press, he was portrayed as a lightweight dilettante drawn to the industry's glitz and glamour, a bumbling rich kid ripe for the picking. As one anonymous Hollywood executive famously opined at the time: "He's like a piñata! Hit him and money comes out."
Yet Seagram's move into entertainment was not some sudden whim. Edgar Jr. was well aware of the pitfalls, as well as the opportunities. In 1993, when he was Seagram's No. 2 executive, he signaled his intentions by accumulating 14.9 percent of Time Warner's stock. But his father never liked companies that were heavily regulated, and that would include Time Warner, with its huge cable systems (which is somewhat ironic, considering that Vivendi itself is more under the thumb of government than any U.S. player.) Smaller MCA, Edgar Sr. felt, was a far better takeover target and a lot easier to swallow. Besides, its unhappy Japanese owners were eager to unload it for about what they had paid in the first place.
Charles was almost certainly the only person who could have stood in the way of his nephew's ambitions and who had enough clout on the board to do so. But it would have caused a deep family rift, and he wasn't about to take that fateful step. He still remembered the bitter split decades earlier between his own father and his uncle, Allan Bronfman. To keep Allan's children from having a say in the running of Seagram, Sam forced him to sell a large amount of stock at below-market rates. The breach never healed, and Charles, a kind and sensitive man, never forgot. "Family is simply more important than money to Charles," says one person who knows both sides of the family well. "There weren't going to be any fights." Then, having gone along for the Hollywood ride for the sake of family unity, he was in no position to object in 1998 when Edgar Jr. snapped up Polygram, the world's biggest music company, for $10.4 billion. Or when his nephew reached the fateful decision that on its own, Seagram would never be big enough to swim with the entertainment industry's biggest fish.
By the time Messier came calling with an all-stock takeover bid then valued at $33.6 billion, Seagram's once sound balance sheet had been badly eroded by Edgar Jr.'s aggressive deal making. Long-suffering shareholders and even Junior's staunchest outside critics acknowledged that, on paper, the Vivendi bid was simply too good to turn down. Here at last was a measure of vindication for the oft-maligned scion. With the apparent coup, he could finally show the world that his Hollywood gamble had been worth it, that he had created genuine value that would not have been possible if Seagram had stuck solely to boring old booze and chemicals. It was as if he was telling his grandfather: "See, I made us richer, so stop glaring down at me." And even better, he had boosted the family's chances of playing a lucrative role in cutting-edge media, telecom and communications businesses that would dwarf anything Seagram could have done on its own. Or so he thought.
Before deciding that Vivendi-Seagram was a match made in heaven, Edgar had sounded out every other possible partner or buyer for Seagram's mix of showbiz assets, but had come away empty-handed. He had become convinced that Seagram would never be big enough on its own to take on a Walt Disney, Viacom, News Corp. or AOL Time Warner -- especially the latter, a combination of new and old media that looked positively scary on paper. The AOL deal has since turned out to be frightening only to the hapless investors that bought the online giant's New Economy doublespeak about the joys of convergence, of getting all that wonderful Time Warner content to all those grateful AOL eyeballs. But at the time it struck fear in the hearts of new and old media moguls everywhere, and none more so than Edgar, with his passionate belief in the vast potential of the Internet. Then along came Messier, a virtual unknown outside of France but with an intriguing collection of cable, telecom and Internet assets, a yen for more, and a willingness to pay a juicy premium to get what he wanted -- and which Edgar absolutely had to have to sell the deal to his family. "It's easy to say now that they backed the wrong horse," says a Wall Street investment banker who was familiar with some of the Seagram discussions. "But Messier was the only horse willing to pay up for it. There were no other horses."
The brash Messier, who was then 43, had even bolder dreams than Edgar Jr. and a much bigger ego. He entitled a book about his brilliant career J6M, short for Jean-Marie Messier, Moi-Meme, Maitre du Monde (myself, master of the world). The nickname came from a satirical puppet show running on his own cable channel in France, and he claimed to be mocking himself, although few who knew him believed that. Messier realized that there was one key missing piece as he constructed his New Economy media giant flying the French tricolor -- a major Hollywood studio that could provide the content to stuff into all the new telecom, cable and Internet pipelines he was building. The only one available, at a price beneath the stratosphere, was owned by the Bronfmans.
Not even the free-spending Frenchman could live with Edgar Jr.'s laughable asking price of $100 a share. But he did cough up $77.35, a fat 45 percent premium and more than enough to persuade the family to say farewell to its beloved Seagram, with the appropriate tears welling in their eyes. The Bronfmans could have taken a combination of cash and stock. But their well-documented aversion to taxes, coupled with the conviction of both Edgars that the markets would quickly realize what a brilliant future lay in store for the new company, led them to request all stock. They traded their control block of 24.6 percent of Seagram for more than 8.6 percent of Vivendi, making them by far the biggest shareholder, but with no money to show for it. It would prove to be a costly blunder.
In a poorly negotiated deal, the Bronfmans failed to properly protect themselves if Vivendi's stock price fell dramatically. Although advised by the Wall Street investment firms Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the final decision was with the Bronfmans and their lawyers. This was not an uncommon practice during the raging bull market of the late '90s, but it would have dramatic consequences. By the time the transaction closed in December 2000, the dot-com bubble had burst, media and Internet stocks were tanking, and telecom, particularly the wireless kind in which Vivendi had an enormous investment, would soon join them in the gutter. In the end, the Bronfmans took away not the $77.35 worth of Vivendi Universal stock they were expecting, but $54. This was the first sign that Edgar Jr.'s Deal of the Century could end up putting a severe dent in the family's fortune. And there would be plenty more to come.
Even before locking up Seagram, Messier put the booze and wine operations on the auction block. Charles took a long look at joining some Seagram managers, and other corporate investors, to mount a buyout, but backed off. He was upset by the sharp drop in the value of the Vivendi deal before it closed and was particularly bothered by the prospect of overpaying for something that the Bronfmans had owned in the first place. It would be the last time a member of the family would try to preserve the Seagram name. The business, which generated about $6 billion in sales annually, was later divided between two longtime rivals, Diageo and Pernod Ricard, for $8.1 billion. This meant Vivendi was essentially acquiring a Hollywood studio, valuable theme parks, real estate and the world's biggest music company debt-free because the Seagram's sale offset those other companies' debt.
Instead of proceeding conservatively, Messier seemed to take the new conglomerate's financial well-being as a cue to go on a wild spending spree. Like a shopaholic with a no-limit credit card, he threw billions at acquisitions, all in the name of convergence, an idea already thoroughly discredited in the eyes of investors and the industry's more sober leaders, who had come back to earth with a thud after their dizzying ride on the Internet bubble.
Messier spent $2.2 billion to buy Houghton Mifflin, the leading U.S. textbook publisher, $1.5 billion for a stake in EchoStar Communications, the satellite TV provider, and $3.2 billion for USA Networks, the television business that Edgar Jr. had previously sold to Barry Diller in the most controversial move of his Hollywood years.
In a particularly complex $4.1 billion deal in 1997, the younger Bronfman had swapped Universal's TV production arm, which churned out such programs as "Law and Order," "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Jerry Springer," and two popular cable channels, USA Network and Sci-Fi Network, to Diller in exchange for $1.2 billion in cash and a 45 percent stake in Diller's company, which also included a home shopping channel, online ticketing, Internet travel and some other small pieces. When Diller stepped down or died, Seagram would have the right to retake control. But in the meantime, Diller would call all the shots. Edgar Jr. trumpeted this as a great coup. One of Hollywood's business legends would take on the job of reviving the struggling TV operations, while Edgar would get his hands on extra cash to pour into movies, theme parks and music; and control would revert to Seagram eventually anyway.
To this day, Edgar Jr. and his father ardently defend the arrangement that in one swoop enabled Diller, an industry power when he ran Paramount and built the Fox TV network for Rupert Murdoch, to once again become a major Hollywood mover and shaker. Many others in the industry were much more skeptical, deciding that Diller had picked Junior's pockets and sent his pants to the cleaners. In any case, Messier effectively reversed the entire deal four years later, reacquiring all of Diller's entertainment assets in a deal valued at $10.5 billion. The actual cost was $3.2 billion in cash and stock (only the Bronfmans would take all stock) because Vivendi was throwing in the chunk of Diller's company that it inherited from Seagram and which was by then valued at more than $7 billion.
The two Edgars were shocked when Messier did the deal over Junior's vociferous opposition. Why fork out so many billions, when Diller had no choice but to eventually cede control of the company to Vivendi Universal under the terms of the original deal with Bronfman? Diller "made a lot of money for us," Edgar Sr. says. "I don't think he took advantage of us. He took advantage of Messier, but Messier was asking for it."
During Messier's binge, Edgar Jr. had also tried to talk him out of jumping into the sleepy book publishing business and urged him to steer clear of EchoStar. But the deal-making addict always ignored him, rarely consulted anyone else, and sometimes didn't even tell the board before leaping at the next too-good-to-pass-up bargain. He spent billions more on just about anything that peaked his interest, including big chunks of state telecom companies in Poland, Morocco, Spain and Hungary.
At the same time, he was using his new celebrity status to craft a flamboyant and hugely expensive lifestyle for himself, moving his family to a $17.5 million duplex penthouse, acquired with Vivendi Universal money, on Park Avenue, in the same upscale Manhattan neighborhood as the three Bronfmans. Unlike Messier, though, they used their own money to live like billionaires. The son of a middle-class accountant from Grenoble didn't have any personal money to speak of. He basked in the new spotlight, getting seats for himself and his wife, Antoinette, on Manhattan's most sought-after cultural boards, making appearances on talk shows, being profiled in Vanity Fair. Edgar Jr. and his glamorous Venezuelan-born wife, Clarissa Alcock, moved in some of the same social circles; but soft-spoken Edgar was like flat ginger ale beside the perpetually effervescent Messier. The Bronfmans were appalled by it all; but with only 5 of 19 board seats under their control (the board has since been downsized to 12, with the number of seats taken by the Bronfmans reduced to two) and no say in the running of the company, there wasn't much they could do about it -- until they finally persuaded the French directors that if Messier continued, the company wouldn't.
They had help, in the person of Claude Bebear, the boss of insurance giant AXA and the most influential of France's business leaders. Bebear took to assailing Messier's performance in public and working behind the scenes on his ouster. Bernard Arnault, the French luxury goods king and an old Messier ally, finally quit the board in disgust. Yet Messier still clung to power until Edgar Jr. made house calls on the holdout directors, to persuade them that he had no designs on the top job and that his family would be perfectly satisfied with a competent French CEO. That did the trick, and "the master of the universe" was quickly given his walking papers and told to vacate the luxury Manhattan digs by the end of December.
Even before that, Messier was privately claiming that Charles Bronfman was conspiring to oust him and accused him in public of using the tactics of "bootleggers," a less-than-subtle reference to the origins of the family fortune during Prohibition. Charles refuses to get into a public spat, only expressing relief that the Messier era is over. Edgar Sr., always more direct and blunt than his brother, described Messier as "paranoid," adding pointedly: "Even paranoids have enemies." For his part, Messier is still blaming just about everyone but himself for his downfall, as he settles into a new, much lower-profile life as a New Yorkñbased investment banker and media investor.
Back at Vivendi Universal, the Bronfmans and other shareholders are pinning all their hopes of a recovery today on Messier's replacement: Jean-Rene Fourtou, a 63-year-old former pharmaceutical boss and close Bebear ally whose no-nonsense style, low-key personality and devotion to the bottom line are the complete antithesis of the celebrity CEO/visionary personified by Messier. Whether Fourtou, who has no background in any of Vivendi Universal's main businesses, can get the company out of the intensive care ward remains a question mark. He has to find at least $10 billion just to meet the company's obligations in the next years, which means major asset sales. These have already started, although this is not the kind of market where you want to be a desperate seller. After reviewing the entire gamut of Vivendi Universal's holdings, Fourtou has decided to sell what he can of Messier's acquisitions. That will almost certainly include the former Seagram entertainment businesses, which could be partly or wholly spun off as a separate U.S.-listed company, sold outright, or folded into a restructured empire led by Barry Diller, possibly in league with another key shareholder and ally, former cable magnate John Malone.
Fourtou has hired a top French investment banker whose primary job will be to wring as much value as possible out of every divestiture. He has also handed Edgar Jr. a bigger role, which makes sense, as he's the only person left at the top who knows anything about the U.S. operations. "He's working behind the scenes to regain influence," says one knowledgeable investment banker. But just how much real influence can an American have in a company that's a captive to French politics and the old-guard business club, and who doesn't even speak the language? Not much, insiders agree.
There's no doubt Edgar would love to be a part of any deal for the U.S. assets. But more than one observer sees Diller emerging as the only sure winner from the entire sorry saga, whether or not he ends up in control of all the Hollywood assets. "He's the only one left standing with his pride intact and from a strategic standpoint," says Harold L. Vogel, head of Vogel Capital Management and the author of Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis. "He still has plenty of flexibility and cash in his bank account. Edgar only has paper." Diller said through a spokeswoman that he could not comment on Vivendi Universal's future because "the situation is pretty fluid." While Diller, 62, has been accumulating wealth and enormous clout, the Bronfmans no longer have the financial firepower they first brought to bear on Hollywood. "At $6 billion you're still a player," says Vogel. "At a billion dollars, they're not players anymore."
Edgar Sr. has a right to be angry and bitter over what has befallen a family dynasty that was once so wealthy and influential it drew favorable comparisons to the Rothschilds. He had devoted a working lifetime to carefully nurturing and expanding what his father, a Russian immigrant who grew up in poverty in the harsh landscape of the Canadian Prairies, had started with a single Montreal liquor store in 1916. There's nothing left now to pass on to the fourth generation but diminishing trust funds and memories of what was and what might have been. Yet there's more disappointment than anger in his voice -- and even a hint of relief that the great family burden is no more. His 22 grandchildren will just have to create their own legacies now. "As a matter of fact, I'm glad that there isn't any Seagram to leave to them," he says. "You know, this whole question of entitlement and that they're the Seagram Bronfmans or whatever is not a good thing. People have to go and fend for themselves. I don't know who the hell would run it, and there would be family fights. It's much better not to have that as a legacy."
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.