Stephen Bronfman, the Montreal point man in the deal to split home games with the Tampa Bay Rays, comes from the family that turned Seagram into one of the world’s top liquor distillers.
The Bronfman name may not ring familiar in the Tampa Bay area, but the clan survived pogroms, prohibition and one colossally bad business decision. Here are 10 things to help you get to know the illustrious family.
1. Chased out of Europe
In 1898, Yechiel and Mindel Bronfman were prosperous tobacco farmers in Moldova when the czarist-Russia pogroms forced them to flee, along with their three sons Abe, Harry and Samuel. They ended up in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, where the Jewish Colonization Association helped immigrants with homesteading dreams to settle. Depending on who’s doing the telling, they arrived with one or two servants and a rabbi or a Hebrew teacher. The climate was not good for growing tobacco, so they moved to Manitoba, where they sold whitefish, firewood and wild horses they had captured and trained to pull carts. “Family lore says it was 11-year-old Sam who, while accompanying his father on his rounds, observed how much alcohol was sold in the hotels where they met clients. Acting on that, (Yechiel) went ahead and bought one, the Anglo-American Hotel in Emerson, Manitoba, in 1903," according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
2. Selling booze as medicine
In the 1910s, the temperance movement swept through the Canadian prairies, cutting into lucrative liquor sales at the family hotels. Samuel and his brothers took to selling mail-order liquor, until the government eventually cracked down. It was still legal to sell alcohol as medicine, so the brothers rebranded their concoctions using names like Liver & Kidney Cure, Dandy Bracer–Liver and Rock-A-Bye Cough Cure.
3. Bootlegging legacy
Several books have been written about the Bronfmans, including Peter C. Newman’s best seller Bronfman Dynasty and Nicholas Faith’s The Bronfmans: The Rise and Fall of the House of Seagram. During prohibition, the Bronfman’s liquor business was linked to gangster Meyer Lansky. There were also rumors (never proven) about a connection to Al Capone. Mordecai Richler’s novel Solomon Gursky Was Here has been described as a thinly disguised account of the family. In it Richler wrote: “In prohibition’s whoopee days, American bootleggers loaded up at one or another of Sam’s export houses and then took to dirt roads in their Hudson Sixes, trailing thirty-foot chains to throw dust in the face of pursuers.”
4. Mr. Sam, Mr. Whiskey
Samuel took control of the business after prohibition came to an end in the United States. Known as Mr. Sam, he expanded the alcohol business, building Seagram into the largest distiller in the United States and Canada. He also commissioned the Seagram Building. While no longer owned by the Bronfmans, the tower remains a landmark in New York City. What motivated Mr. Sam to create a liquor behemoth? Entrepreneur.com put it this way: “The force that drove Samuel Bronfman to build a small-town distillery into an international liquor empire was the burning desire to be socially accepted. Although he seemed to have it all — wealth, prestige and a loving family — Bronfman (whose name in Yiddish literally means ‘whisky man’) always felt he was an outsider, whom upper-class society looked down upon because he was born poor and Jewish, and because booze and bootleggers were the foundation of his fortune.”
5. A funeral for the ages
Mr. Sam died in 1971 at age 82. His funeral drew 1,500 people, including diplomats and Canadian cabinet ministers, several newspapers reported at the time. Honorary pallbearers included former Ontario premier Leslie Frost, former Manitoba premier Duff Roblin, U.S. Sen. Jacob Javits of New York and Ephraim Evron, Israeli ambassador to Canada. There were reports that the Montreal airport was temporarily closed to regular traffic to accommodate the stream of private jets “shuttling in dignitaries from around the world to pay their respects,” Entrepreneur.com reported. “It was perhaps in death that Samuel Bronfman finally achieved the acceptance he so craved.”
6. The kidnapping. Or was it?
In August 1975, Edgar Bronfman Sr.’s son Samuel Bronfman II was rescued by dozens of law officers from a Brooklyn apartment nine days after he was reportedly kidnapped. Edgar Bronfman Sr., who had risen to the top job at Seagram, paid a $2.5 million ransom, which was recovered from under a bed in an unoccupied apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood, the New York Times reported. The next year, a jury convicted two men of grand larceny for extorting the ransom but acquitted them on kidnapping charges. Two jurors told reporters that they believed the defense attorney’s contention that Samuel Bronfman II had masterminded his own abduction. “It’s a pretty sad system when a guy gets kidnapped, the kidnappers are caught red-handed and they get off,” Bronfman II said at a news conference after the trial. “The best thing you can do is laugh about it and put it behind you and go on.”
7. Winning big: The DuPont deal
In 1981, Edgar Bronfman Sr. pulled off one of the biggest deals in the company’s history. Seagram battled to take over Conoco, the oil company, eventually losing out to DuPont. But what seemed like a loss came with a huge financial victory. “Edgar Sr. threw his support behind DuPont’s bid, and Seagram ended up with 20 percent of the chemical empire, valued at $308 million,” Fortune magazine wrote in 2002. “By the time he retired (in 1994), that stake was worth $8 billion.” The dividends from DuPont contributed $289 million a year to Seagram’s earnings. “I did a very good job, if I do say so myself,” Edgar Sr. told Fortune.
8. David Addison sings the wine cooler blues
Actor Bruce Willis played a role in helping Seagram rise to the top of the distilling business. In the mid 1980s, the star of the television show Moonlighting appeared in commercials for Seagram’s Golden wine coolers. “Hey big fellas, look here,” he sang. “It’s wet and it’s dry — my, my, my. Me and the boys love, love, love it all the time.” In 2010, Time called it one of the 10 most embarrassing celebrity ads ever. The magazine said: “The television ads were reportedly wildly popular, helping to both make Seagram’s the world’s largest distilled-spirits company and launch Willis’ short-lived singing career. In an ironic twist, Willis lost his position as Seagram’s spokesman after being caught drunk driving.”
9. A $3.5 billion mistake
Edgar Bronfman Jr. took the reins at Seagram in 1994, after his father stepped aside. In 2000, he made a ruinous move selling the liquor business to French communications and water company Vivendi to increase his company’s stake in the entertainment industry. The deal went sour and the Bronfman family fortune plunged from $6.5 billion to below $3 billion. “That paper loss is among the largest sustained by a single family, ever,” Fortune magazine reported a couple years later. Charles Bronfman, who is Edgar Sr.’s brother, had warned against selling the company’s stake in DuPont, which Edgar Jr. had spearheaded a few years earlier. He was also wary of going into the entertainment business. In a 2013 interview with the Globe and Mail newspaper, he described Seagram’s downfall: “It was a disaster, it is a disaster, it will be a disaster. … It was a family tragedy.”
10. An unwanted World Series ring
In 2002, Expos owner Jeffrey Loria swapped the Expos for the Florida Marlins, and paved the way for the Montreal team to move to Washington, D.C., a few years later. The deal, orchestrated with baseball commissioner Bud Selig, ticked off a lot of Expos fans, including Stephen Bronfman. He ended up with a very small ownership share in the Marlins and received a World Series ring after the team won the 2003 World Series. In 2006, he told Forbes: “We had two thoughts with the ring. One was to put it up for auction for charity. The other was to blow it up in a public ceremony." He ended up keeping it, Forbes said.