The patriarch of the Bronfman family and heir to the Seagram liquor fortune, Bronfman is long retired from the business world. He's active as a philanthropist and leader in the Jewish community.
Bronfman is the eldest son of liquor magnate Samuel Bronfman, who founded the family business in Montreal in 1924, bought out Seagram's, and made a fortune running liquor to the U.S. during Prohibition. When the elder Bronfman died, Edgar Sr. took over the American arm of the business while his brother, Charles, assumed control of the company's Canadian operations. During the middle part of the 20th century, Bronfman greatly expanded Seagram's businesses overseas, acquired established brands (like Chivas Regal, Glenlivet, Absolut and Captain Morgan), and purchased valuable oil and real estate assets. Sitting comfortably atop a vast empire, in the 1990s he handed over the company to his son, Edgar Jr., who promptly ran the conglomerate into the ground. With Edgar Jr. at the helm, Seagram divested itself of its $9 billion stake in DuPont and invested heavily in media, buying MCA/Universal in 1995 and then selling it to the French utility Vivendi in 2000. When Vivendi over-expanded and the stock faltered, the family's net worth tumbled by an estimated $4 billion.
Forbes now pegs Bronfman's wealth at $3.5 billion, which may be as little as one-third of what he would be worth today if he'd never ceded control to his son.
A longtime donor to Jewish causes such as B'nai Brith, the ADL, and Hillel, Bronfman assumed one of the most visible roles in the community when he took over as president of the World Jewish Congress in 1981. From his perch at the WJC, Bronfman led several high-profile campaigns: He pressured Soviet leaders to release Jewish dissidents, he exposed the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim (who later sued Bronfman for slander) and, in more recent years, championed efforts to force Swiss banks to make restitution to Jewish families who had their assets seized during WWII. Bronfman no longer leads the WSJ—he stepped down in 2007 shortly after he was forced to oust the group's director amid financial scandal. (Ronald Lauder now serves as president.) Interestingly, while Bronfman may be the single biggest Jewish philanthropist of his generation, three of his wives have been shiksas.
Bronfman is the author of The Making of a Jew, a memoir published in 1996, and Good Spirits: The Making of a Businessman, published in 1998.
Between his four wives and five marriages, Bronfman has had seven children. His first wife was Lehman Bros. heir Ann Loeb, who left him for their female babysitter while the couple was living at 740 Park. His second wife, Lady Carolyn Townshend, was married to Bronfman for 11 months before the marriage was annulled. (He claimed during divorce proceedings that she slept with another man on their wedding night and refused to have sex with him; she claims they did, in fact, have sex—once.) He twice married and divorced his third wife, an English waitress and au pair named Rita "Georgiana" Webb. His current wife is the artist Jan Aronson. In addition to Edgar Jr., who is now the CEO of Warner Music, his other six children are Samuel II, Matthew, Sara, Clare, Adam, and Holly, who goes by the name "Bhavani." Bronfman lives at 960 Fifth Avenue (which Denise LeFrak Calicchio once deemed the "most luxurious building in New York") and also owns a home in Sun Valley, Idaho.
In a headline-dominating episode in the 1970s, Bronfman's son, Samuel, was kidnapped and Bronfman had to pay a $2.3 million ransom to retrieve the boy. At trial, the kidnapper maintained that he and Samuel were lovers and that Samuel had staged the abduction to extract money from his dad.
Bronfman didn't care for this third wife's name, Rita, so he had her change it to Georgiana.