Just a year after the publication of Why Be Jewish?, the theological summa of Seagram liquor heir and Jewish philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, his younger brother, Charles, has written his own, much more ambitious book—a memoir called, wittily, Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy. The book offers the view from below, by the younger brother passed over to lead the family company, one of Canada’s largest. Bronfman’s ghost-written book is poignant and amusingly candid, not least about his difficult family: We learn of the father who never said he loved him, the imperious older brother, the two querulous sisters, the failed marriages, and of course his nephew, swingin’ Edgar Jr., who took over the business and then quite skillfully destroyed it, raising bad judgment to an art form (what can we say except, “With uncles like these…”?).
I spoke with Bronfman by telephone; he was in New York City, one of the four cities—along with Palm Beach, Montreal, and Jerusalem—that he calls home. I have edited and condensed our interview for greater brevity and charm.
Mark Oppenheimer: I’m always surprised that heirs to family businesses seem so often to want to go into the family business. Did you ever think, “Maybe I’ll get a normal job—be a high school teacher, or a sportswriter, or a social worker”?
Charles Bronfman: I think when you are a child, you have all these fantasies. I probably wanted to be a fireman, but anytime you had any discussion of anything, you knew what was going to happen. It made life easier in a lot of ways. I remember my mother saying it was very tough on the generation below me because they had so many choices. In our generation, the women were not supposed to work and the men were supposed to go into the family business. It was the way it was supposed to be.
What do you think you would have done in a normal family?
I have no idea. I think I would have liked to be in marketing somewhere or somehow. I really like that. At boarding school I used to buy Life magazine—this is middle of 1940s—not because I gave much of a darn about the articles, but I loved the photographs, and I loved the ads.
You write quite candidly about the rumors that your father’s wealth began with bootlegging during Prohibition. But after you spend a couple pages on it, I am still not sure if you believe that he did anything illegal or not. Do you think he did?
I didn’t care. All I know is that from a legal standpoint they paid their taxes to the Canadian government, the Canadian government was quite happy, and how and where they shipped goods I don’t know. I don’t know if the Canadian government did.
You were disappointed to get only about 200 presents for your bar mitzvah, fewer than your older brother Edgar. Do you remember what any of them were?
They were mostly, at that time, underwater pens, Parker pens—you could write underwater. That lasted about 45 seconds. And it could have been the beginning of the ballpoint pen. Lot of pens, and lots of things you put travel documents in, wallets and that kind of stuff.
This book is pretty critical of your older brother Edgar, who ran the family company as chairman. Is this a book you could have written while Edgar was still alive?
Somebody else asked me the same question the other day. When I was at Trinity College School, which I despised, the boarding school in Ontario, the only person I really admired happened to be the chaplain. He did a sermon entitled “‘If’ is the biggest word in the English language.” You just used the biggest word. I don’t know the answer. I probably would have tempered it some. Or some more, I should say.
And how are relations with his son, Edgar Jr., whom you seem not to think much of as a businessman?
We don’t see each other much at all. I did see him at my sister’s 90th birthday. We had a nice chat about nothing.
What’s he doing now?
That’s a very good question. Next!
You write of the huge hit your family wealth took, bailing out of DuPont and investing in what became Universal Studios. So how much are you worth now?
My family is worth pretty well what Forbes says [$2.3 billion]. But it’s not me, it’s my whole family. It’s much more my kids than it is me.
You write about leaving your wife Barbara for Andy, the woman who became your second wife. You say that was hard on your children. Do you regret doing it?
No, and I must tell you that my relationship with both my children is incredible, just wonderful. And my [current, and fourth] wife Rita brought my first wife and me back together again, so we are very good friends. She comes for Passover, she comes for Rosh Hashanah. When I had my big birthday last summer, in Bermuda for four days, Barbara was there with us. She’s family again, that’s great. Barbara has no desire to be married to me, I have no desire to be married to her, but we’re friends.
Do you like Bibi Netanyahu?
He’s not my favorite. Never has been. Look, I believe in proactively pursuing the two-state solution because I feel deep in my heart and my guts that failing the two-state solution there is no future for Israel. And it occurs to me there won’t be a formal or even informal alliance of the so-called moderate states in the Middle East unless the Israelis and Palestinians make a deal.
And yet, Netanyahu has been, is, and will no doubt continue to be a real believer in Birthright! The government’s support of the project reflects the outward reach that Israel now has to the Diaspora, a very healthy happening.
What do you think of Mr. Trump?
Strange person. We don’t know because every day it’s a different Trump. There are things coming out of that White House, and you don’t know what to believe. One day he is giving notice to Canada and Mexico he is going to rip up NAFTA, and the next day he’s not. And then he talks about the whole tax thing, then you get a one-pager that fundamentally says nothing.
I obviously wish him well. I really don’t know him. I have never done business with him. I played a round of golf with him. He was a damn good golfer.
What do you think of the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] movement? Does it worry you?
Actually, no. I’ll be beaten up for saying that, but I think over time it will peter out. I think it’s an insidious scheme, and I believe there are so many Jewish groups now fighting it that we will succeed.
Do you worry about Trump moving the American embassy to Jerusalem?
Depends how he moves it. If he moves it at the same time as giving the Palestinians an equal and opposite victory, it could be OK. If he just does it and tells the Palestinians, in effect, to go away, that will be very difficult. And he knows that. And all his advisers know it.
I saw you on my Birthright trip—which you helped fund—in 2001 at the “mega-event” at the end. It was a great trip. I’ve been, my wife has been, two of my three siblings have been. But I didn’t meet any Palestinian Arabs on the trip. Why are they not included?
Because the name of the game of Birthright is to sell Jews on being Jews. We had 10 days, and we don’t want to get involved deeply on the conflict. Now [on Birthright trips] there are two two-hour sessions on the landscape of what the conflict is. I haven’t seen them yet, but I hope to this summer. It’s supposed to be a session that is apolitical and puts facts, real facts, on the table so people can start judging. But we don’t want to turn a Birthright trip into a “Do you love Palestinians or not?” The question is, “Do you love being Jewish?”
And over the millennia, the Palestinian part of it is a little fillip. We’re talking about back to Abraham, and going into the future. I think the drama, the real drama of Israel is an incredible, incredible story. It’s the only people in the world who had a religion and a peoplehood and got beat up and kicked out and have remained on that land ever since.
So what are we, a religion or a people? I don’t think we are a nation, I think we are a people. A nation usually has boundaries or an infrastructure. We are a loose alliance of people all around the world.
Speaking of your philanthropy, you write that personally and through your foundation, you have given away about $325 million. And that you keep your name off of many of your philanthropic endeavors, but that you decided to put your name on a building gift to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Why did you want that named after yourself?
Because I have been associated, and my family has been associated, with the Israel Museum since 1965, and I thought there are two great cultural institutions in the country: One is the Israel Museum and the other Israel Philharmonic. And I thought it would be very nice, after all the work I have done with Israel, to be associated with these two cultural gems. It’s that simple.
At one point you write about wondering, shortly after Israel was founded, whom you would root for in a hypothetical war between Canada and Israel. But you don’t really say. How would you answer that now?
There won’t be a war between Canada and Israel. That’s the conclusion I came to. So I didn’t have to answer it then, and I don’t have to answer it now. It’s a ridiculous question then, it’s a ridiculous question now. No answer needed.
Your father never said “I love you.” Do you say that to your children?
Oh, sure. Hell, yes. I knew he loved me, and he demonstrated a lot of affection toward me, but he was who he was.
Do you miss your brother?
I do miss him, big time. But the problem was we were never the partners we should have been. And I was at fault, too. I’m not going to blame it all on him. And I admire him in many, many ways. But all families are difficult.
It wasn’t a very happy family.
No, it wasn’t. But my kids are happy, and I’m happy in my life now. It is what it is. Either you overcome that kind of thing or become a basket case.
What have I not yet asked about?
Anything about baseball!
Right! You brought the Expos to Montreal. How are they doing this season?
They left years ago. But I was a Mets fan before the Expos, and I am a Mets fan, now. Even though we have lost nine out of 10!
Do you go to the games?
No, I watch them on TV. That way I can turn it off if they are losing.
But then you don’t get the smell of the grass and the hot dogs.
Life is a compromise, and if you’re lazy like I am, that’s a good thing.
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