Sunday, June 4, 2017
Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy by Charles Bronfman and Howard Green ( Harper Collins)
Charles Bronfman shares his thoughts on his own life, family, career and his significant accomplishments in sport and philanthropy. He chronicles key events in his life never letting us forget that he is heir to one of Canada’s great fortunes. Charles was born in 1931 into the fabulously wealthy Bronfman family and grew up in a 20-room mansion with a large staff. Because of and by way of their control of the distilling giant Seagram, the Bronfman family dominated the liquor business with brands such as Crown Royal, V.O. and Chivas Regal. By the 1980s, Seagram was also the biggest shareholder of DuPont and by the 1990s, the family’s wealth was in the billions, but with the $35-billion sale of Seagram to France’s Vivendi, financial and family disaster followed. Here Charles looks at all of it–his relationship with his parents, his brother Edgar, working in the family business, landing Canada’s first big league baseball franchise living a philanthropic life by promoting Canadian identity through and supporting Israel through countless innovative initiatives including the universally respected Birthright Israel. We then see how the Bronfman family splintered over the sale of Seagram.
This is quite a magical and magnetic story of how one man dealt with business, philanthropy, education, and the public interest without ever losing his sense of compassion or balance. Charles Bronfman is a man of generosity and determination.
He was a great statesman and visionary who brought wisdom and integrity to sport and to life. While this is not yet public knowledge, the book was ghostwritten by Howard Green who is credited along with Bronfman as author. That is not a negative statement in light of the fact that everyone wants to write a book these days but not everyone has the ability to do so. I get books all the time that should never see the light of day and rather than criticize them openly, I ignore them by not posting a review. In the case of Charles Bronfman who had something to say, he wanted to make sure that it would be said in the most correct way.
There are poignant and candid stories here and we read a good deal about he Bronfman family. Charles says that his father never loved him and that his older brother Edgar was imperious and his two were querulous sisters. We read of the failed marriages and of his nephew, “swingin’” Edgar Jr., who took over the business and then quite skillfully destroyed it.
Bronfman writes candidly about the rumors that his father’s wealth began with bootlegging during Prohibition and he states that from a legal standpoint they paid their taxes to the Canadian government and how and where they shipped goods were unknown to him. He writes candidly about Edgar, his older brother who was chairman of the board of the company and we can only wonder if he would have written what he did if his brother was still alive.
As far as his nephew, Edgar Jr., he does not see him as a businessman but then we did lose the company. Today, Forbes Magazine says that the family is worth $2.3 billion and Bronfman says the important word is family.
In writing about Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Bronfman simply states that he does not see him as a favorite and never has seen him that way. Bronfman believes that a two-state solution for Israel is the only way to make sure that Israel has a future. He also feels that 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. On the other hand, he states that Netanyahu has been, is, and will no doubt continue to be a real believer in Birthright and through this we see the government’s support of the project that reflects the outward reach that Israel now has to the Diaspora and it is very healthy.
Bronfman sees Trump as a very strange character who is different every day. Bronfman sees the story of Israel as incredible. It is, he says, the story of 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”. He is sure that his father loved him even though he could not express that love but “he was who he was”. And yes, he misses his brother who is no longer alive. He regrets that they were never the partners that they should have been and admits that he was also at fault about this.