Born into the Seagram liquor fortune, Edgar Bronfman Jr. always had more of a taste for the arts than the booze business. After graduating from Collegiate, he skipped college and tried his hand at being a Broadway producer, Hollywood producer, and songwriter. None took, and by the 1980s he was safely ensconced in the executive suite at Seagram, the multi-billion dollar conglomerate his grandfather founded. Following Edgar Bronfman Sr.'s retirement in 1994, Edgar Jr. took over as CEO; he went on to make a series of disastrous decisions that ultimately cost the Bronfman family billions.
In 1995, he sold the company's enormously valuable (but boring) stake in the chemicals giant DuPont and then plunged headlong into the entertainment business, purchasing the film studio MCA/Universal for $5 billion and, later, the record company Polygram for $10 billion. Hollywood's savviest players promptly took the naïve, inexperienced heir to the cleaners, although Edgar Jr.'s most disastrous deal came in 2000 when he combined Universal with the French utility company Vivendi in a $33 billion transaction. Vivendi unraveled shortly thereafter, diminishing the Bronfman family fortune by an estimated $4 billion and establishing Edgar Jr. as one of the worst stewards of a family fortune in history.
Despite his dubious track record—New York once described him as "possibly the stupidest person in the media business"—Bronfman lined up a second act in the entertainment business in 2003 when he partnered with Thomas H. Lee Partners, Bain Capital and Providence Equity Partners to purchase Time Warner's ailing music subsidiary, Warner Music, for $2.6 billion. Given the bleak economic prospects for the music industry, it was a surprising move, although given Edgar Jr.'s musical leanings, perhaps not.
Since taking over, Warner has had to confront many of the same problems as its competitors, namely declining sales and profits in the face of growing piracy and decreased consumer demand. Warner's abysmal performance since the company's IPO has led Bronfman to discuss taking the company private, a move that would also remove him from the glare of Wall Street, which recently took him to task for failing to acquire rival EMI. In 2007, Bronfman tried to address shareholder dissatisfaction with some much-needed belt tightening, which resulted in a 10 percent staff cut. (The cutbacks did not, however, impinge on his $6 million bonus.) These days Bronfman is talking about reviving the company by moving into new, more profitable businesses like music merchandising and artist-management services.
Bronfman's senior executive team at the company includes Lyor Cohen, the former CEO of Def Jam who now manages day-to-day music operations, and chief financial officer Michael Fleischer; senior label execs include Craig Kallman, Julie Greenwald, and Kevin Liles. Bob Schumer has served as his attorney; Alan Mnuchin, the son of Bob Mnuchin, has advised him on several of his acquisitions. Roger Erickson, Carrie Chiang and Edward Lee Cave have all sold him real estate. Edgar sits on the board of Barry Diller's media company, IAC. (It was Diller's IAC that purchased Universal's cable holdings in the late 1990s and made a killing in the process.) Bronfman also serves as a trustee of the NYU Medical Center, along with Gary Cohn, Ken Chenault, Larry Fink, Ron Perelman, Bob Pittman, and Jamie Dimon, among others.
On the side
Edgar lunches regularly at the Four Seasons, which the Bronfmans co-own with Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder. Although the family's interest in the power spot was sold as part of the Vivendi transaction, they bought back their stake several years later. Edgar Jr. looks down at the crowd from his regular table on the second-floor balcony.
Edgar Jr.'s father, Edgar Bronfman Sr., and uncle, Charles Bronfman, are prominent Jewish philanthropists. (It was his grandfather, Samuel Bronfman, who established the family fortune by buying Canadian distilleries and then cashing in during Prohibition.) Edgar Jr.'s brother, Matthew Bronfman, is an investor and board member of the World Jewish Congress. Two other brothers, Sam Bronfman and Adam Bronfman, live in Northern California. Edgar Jr.'s sister is Holly Bronfman Lev, who now goes by "Bhavani." His two half-sisters are Clare and Sara Bronfman.
The perpetually bearded Bronfman—who's known to friends as "Efer"—married actress Sherri Brewer in 1979. (Sherri had a small role in Shaft; the couple was introduced by Dionne Warwick.) They had three children—Vanessa, Benjamin and Hannah—before divorcing in 1991. In 1994, Bronfman married Clarissa Alcock, the daughter of a Venezuelan oil executive. He has four kids with Clarissa, who's a decade his junior: Aaron, twins Erik and Bettina, and Clarissa (who goes by "Tutti.") One of Bronfman's sons from his first marriage, Ben, is the guitarist for New York alt-rock band The Exit.
Until recently, the Bronfmans lived in a 15,000-square-foot townhouse on East 64th Street that Edgar Jr. purchased for $4.3 million in 1994. Renovations took four years to complete; to suit his wife, Bronfman had architect Peter Rose remove the core of the house to create a "courtyard piazza" in the style of a Venezuelan mansion.
In 2007, he sold the townhouse to Russian billionaire Len Blavatnik for more than $50 million. He later paid $19.5 million for a five-bedroom at 1040 Fifth—Jackie O's old building—but never moved in, instead acquiring a 10-room spread in the Carhart Mansion on East 95th Street for $19.2 million. They didn't stay very long. In 2008, the Bronfmans moved to a 7,000-square-foot, 15-room rental on West 63rd Street. In 2009, they picked up a mansion in London, where they now spend much of their time.
When he was a songwriter, he penned tunes that were recorded by Dionne Warwick, Celine Dion, and Barbra Streisand.