Edgar Bronfman, Edgar Bronfman

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 26 1998 3:30 AM

Edgar Bronfman, Edgar Bronfman

Overrated father, misunderstood son.

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The Edgar Bronfmans, senior and junior, are always great theater, and never more than in the past few weeks. Edgar Bronfman Sr.--in his role of Aged Wisdom--has just published Good Spirits: The Making of a Businessman, a memoir brimming with self-congratulatory tales of his business acumen and generosity. (When he's not patting himself on the back, he has no trouble finding people to do it for him. Thanks to his relentless and ongoing pursuit of Nazi-loving Swiss bankers, admirers have dubbed him, only half-jokingly, the "King of the Jews.")

Edgar Bronfman Jr. (Youthful Folly), meanwhile, has been busy running Seagram--the Bronfman-managed liquor conglomerate--into the ground. Three years ago, he liquidated Seagram's $9 billion stake in DuPont to buy the entertainment giant MCA (now Universal). April has been a horrific month for Universal. Three of its top executives were sacked last week. It has released flop after flop (The Jackal, Primary Colors, Mercury Rising), and there is no relief on the horizon: Universal doesn't have a summer blockbuster to compete with Godzilla and Armageddon. Edgar Jr. keeps promising that Universal will turn fabulous profits in the next few years, but no one is buying. Hollywood is overflowing with rumors that someone--anyone--is planning to buy Universal away from Seagram and run it properly. Seagram stock, dragged down by Universal, is stagnating through the biggest bull market in history. (DuPont stock, on the other hand, has more than doubled in value since Edgar Jr. sold Seagram's DuPont interest: This has cost Seagram's shareholders more than $9 billion.)

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Usually a few billion dollars in the bank inoculates you against bad press, but Edgar Jr. has been designated the movie industry's official idiot--a 42-year-old child who's squandering his family (and his shareholders') fortune on romantic Tinseltown fantasies. There is a feeling that any real media mogul--Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Sumner Redstone, Rupert Murdoch--could eat Edgar Jr. for lunch and still have plenty of room for dessert.

A certain aura of creeping decay does surround the Bronfmans, and it is tempting to view them as a study in dynastic decline. Sam Bronfman, the family patriarch and Edgar Sr.'s father, was an utterly implacable businessman, the Atilla of liquor. The child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Sam bought Canadian distilleries and seedy hotels during the '20s, then cashed in on American Prohibition. He supplied bootleggers and gangsters with booze: Meyer Lansky was a customer. When Prohibition was lifted, Sam was one of the most powerful distillers in North America, and for the next 30 years, he bullied employees and terrorized rivals to make Seagram an international liquor powerhouse.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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The first-generation Bronfman was entrepreneurial and ruthless. The second generation was managerial and generous. Under Edgar Sr., Seagram expanded overseas and extended itself into real estate and oil. Sound financial practices and organized marketing campaigns replaced Sam's seat-of-the-pants management. Sam had concentrated power in himself; Edgar Sr. learned to delegate it.

Edgar Sr. also made the Bronfmans the most celebrated name in Jewish philanthropy. Since the late '70s, he and his brother Charles have been distributing their fortune to Jewish causes, endowing professorships, buildings, and scholarships in the United States and Israel. (I challenge you to find an American student who studied in Israel and received no Bronfman aid.) He also appointed himself the Jewish ambassador to the world. He paid off the World Jewish Congress' debt, took over its presidency in 1981, and used it as his platform for action. His wealth and fame were an ax. He pressured Soviet leaders to release Jewish dissidents. He and the WJC exposed Kurt Waldheim's Nazi past in the mid-'80s. Edgar Sr. harassed and condemned the former U.N. secretary-general so effectively that Waldheim tried to sue him. For the last three years, Edgar Sr. has been hunting Swiss bankers who profited from Nazi evil and Jewish sorrow. He recruited Sen. Al D'Amato to hold hearings on Swiss misdeeds, persuaded the Clinton administration to investigate, and eventually forced the Swiss to pony up $7 billion to compensate Jewish victims.

If there is a defining quality of the third generation, it appears to be self-indulgence. Edgar Jr. skipped college for showbiz, using his family money to open doors. The doors should not have opened: He produced a couple of bad movies and wrote even worse songs. He also eloped with an actress. In his mid-20s, after a movie flop, he returned to Seagram as heir apparent. Edgar Jr. soldiered along there during the '80s. He was a competent liquor executive, but his love of Hollywood never wavered.

Then his father handed him the company. According to Good Spirits, Edgar Jr. felt DuPont was a "boring investment." (Though DuPont supplied most of Seagram's profits, Seagram had a minority, not a controlling, stake in the chemical company.) Edgar Jr. wanted to be in movies--an information business, not a raw materials one. First, he bid for Time Warner, amassing 15 percent of its stock in an aborted takeover. In 1995 he closed the romantic but costly Universal deal.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

But the saga of dynastic decline is not quite so simple. The father is not quite the icon he seems, and the son is not quite the flake. Edgar Jr. is mocked for his playboy instincts, but it's Edgar Sr. who has been married five times to four different women. Edgar Jr. is the Hollywood mogul, but it's Edgar Sr. who is bullying and grandiose. Edgar Jr. is soft-spoken and self-effacing. Edgar Sr. deplores the assimilation of Jews as a "silent Holocaust," but he barely observes the Jewish religion, married three non-Jews, and named his son after himself, a major Jewish no-no. Edgar Jr. is pilloried for dragging a liquor company into the film industry, but Edgar Sr. did it first. He tried to take over a movie studio in the late '60s and even ran MGM briefly.

Critics, obsessed with Edgar Jr.'s infatuation with movies, have missed his real Hollywood problem. Edgar Jr.'s failing is not that he's too romantic about the movies but that he's too rational about them. To wit: Earlier this month, he outraged the industry by proposing that theaters charge higher prices for more expensive movies. Why, he asked, should you pay the same amount to see a $2 million movie as you would to see a $200 million one? Analysts and movie types hooted with derision--that's "like charging for a piece of art based on how much bronze or paint was used," sneered one.