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The Bronfmans: The rise and fall of the House of Seagram (June 22, 2006)

book review
by Dean Tudor

The Bronfmans: The rise and fall of the House of Seagram (St. Martin's Pr., 2006, 338 pages, ISBN 0-312-33219-X, $34.95 hard covers) is by Nicholas Faith, a UK financial writer who also writes about wine. He has written 23 books (says the blurb), many on the world of alcohol (Bordeaux, Cognac, Champagne, etc.). He also founded and was chairman of the International Spirits Challenge.

I'm not sure that we need another book on the Bronfmans, at least "we" in Canada. (We do get an update on what Edgar Jr. has been doing the past two years.) Maybe the other books by Newman (1978), Marcus (1991) and McQueen (2004) never sold, nor were promoted outside Canada. So this is really the first "international" book, by a UK writer and a US publisher. Faith does say that his book was "commissioned," but by who? He doesn't specify. Maybe the publisher or a literary agent or book packager approached him, with the peg being the recent activities of Edgar Jr. in the media market.

For most of this book (both a business history and a family history), Faith manages to combine his good financial writing skills with his good alcohol beverage writing skills. He writes well throughout the book, but he lost my interest when the liquor angle faded. So this is a history of the Canadian distilling industry, Canadian business practices in general, bootlegging and Prohibition, personal lives, the Seagram Company, and American Jewry. His main sources were interviews with Charles Bronfman and archived documents.

It follows upon James Gray's Booze: When whiskey ruled the west (1972) – which was an excellent reading of Bronfmans and their problems to that point in time. Sam Bronfman, who died in 1971, and his cohorts made a career of smuggling, bootlegging, and the like. He bought Seagram in 1926. Edgar, his oldest son, maintained the business and ventured into fine wines. In the 1980s, he took his oil investments and bought a 25% stake in DuPont. Edgar Jr. wanted to be a media tycoon. He sold the stake in DuPont and bought into Universal. He then overpaid the owners of PolyGram ($10 billion). Meanwhile, the liquor business went stale, and collapsed when the Bronfman empire was sold to Vivendi – which is another story in itself. Edgar Jr. then bought Warner Music.

Faith also delves into the bitter rivalries within the family, but cautiously. It was only after Sam died that people started writing about the Bronfmans (fear of reprisals?)... Faith's topics also include business expansion, diversification, separation of holdings, holding companies, intergenerational problems, involvement with Israel, legal troubles, marital troubles, philanthropic activities, real estate, tax problems (but see below), and show business (there's no business like...). There is a sixteen-page insert of black-and-white photographs, plus two colour pix on the front cover. The work concludes, naturally enough, with bibliographical end notes, a bibliography, and index.

Audience and level of use: Libraries, business historians, readers of alcohol books and Canadian history.

Some interesting or unusual recipes/facts: Following Prohibition, Sam Bronfman set about making whiskey "respectable" in the US. He was the first to introduce modern marketing methods to the liquor industry in 1935, including such advertising campaigns as "Man of Distinction" and "We who make whiskey say drink in moderation." He produced world-class brands in 7 Crown whiskey and Chivas Regal.

The downside to this book: There is only one indexed innocuous entry for bootlegging, yet the topic is also covered on page 2 and 4 and other locations. There was no mention of the exemption from Canadian taxes that occurred when the Bronfmans sent millions of dollars outside Canada more than a decade ago. Also, I think that the book would be better served with a family tree chart so that I could refer to the various names and see their relationship and life dates.

The upside to this book: The most interesting part of the book is the rise of Seagram's liquor business, and details about the Canadian liquor industry.

Quality/Price Rating: 88

 

 

 

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