MOST OF US YANKS pay so little attention to Canada that we have allowed to go unnoticed one of the world's great fortunes, one that's built on the sale of 600 brands of liquor in 175 countries, amounting to almost a million and a half bottles a day. Since 60 percent of that is consumed in the United States (for which much credit must go to our 9 million alcoholics) our ties with the Bronfman-or the Seagram-empire are strong indeed.
And yet if it hadn't been for the much publicized "kidnapping" of Samuel Bronfman II in New York City in 1975-an event that the jury seemed to suspect was more than a little fishy-most of us would have gonr to our graves not knowing that this family with $7 billion in assets even existed; and that would have been too bad, for the Bronfmans have much to tell us about real class versus purchased class.
Actually, I should say they have much to tell us if the telling is left to someone like Peter C. Newman, editor of Canada's largest magazine Maclean's . He has done a great job: just the right amount of Social Register thoroughness, just the right tone of amused indulgence, just the proper critical technique-which is to say, he has been so devastatingly, cruelly fair as to portray the Bronfmans in the very fashion, I'm sure, they see themselves.
We are introduced to Edgar Miles Bronfman, who runs the U.S. branch of Seagram. "He stands there, looking through one of his ten office windows, and he is beautiful the body supple relaxed, the fingernails manicured but not polished, the face graced by just a touch of tan, the suits cut with precisely understated elegance . . . He is beautiful, and he knows all the tricks: how to invite attention by deliberately reducing the tempo of his limb movements; how to time and execute those throw-away gestures that mean so much; how to dilute the punctuating chop of his right fist (which signals conviction) with the elbow-grabbing grip of his left hand (which conveys sincerity on the hoff)."
I call that a masterful knife job; Edgar will probably feel flattered when he reads it.
Or there's Gerald also of the second generation. Here's a guy worth about $50 million, including $18 million in Seagram stock, and what great thing can he claim to have done for the empire?" Gerald's greatest coup was the idea of placing the black-and-gild ribbon under V.O. labels." Or Mitch, a third-generation whizbang, who hasn't mixed in whiskey business much and is best known perhaps as the friend of one of Montreal's underworld czars. Mitch has been known to pack a shoulder-holster gun and a knife strapped to his leg, and, as Newman notes, like to play cops and robbers with the Mounties.
Numerous other Bronfmans trip across Newman's stage, but he saves most of his script for the founder of the dynasty, Sam: vulgar, arrogant, vengeful, as much a bully to family as to underlings, treating the latter "with the faintly forgiving air of a Schweitzer among the incurables."
The first big Bronfman money came from a string of hotels-some critics called them glorified brothels. Then the family turned to booze. The Bronfman recipe for "Scotch" in those days: a lot of white alcohol and water, a little real Scotch and some caramel for coloring and a shot of sulphuric acid for "aging." They used all sorts of bogus lebels.
In the '20s and '30s various members of the tribe were accused of bribery, of tampering with witnesses, of fraud and excise tax evasion, but none was ever convicted. Perhaps it was because the Bronfmans were usually fortunate enough to have their trials handled by men like Judge Demarais, who threw out one serious case against them-and later became chairman of the Quebec Liquor Commission.
For 20 years Sam Bronfman tried to buy his way into the Canandian Senate, but he found that politicians don't always relish rubbing elbows with their financial patrons. He got his industrial respectability by purchasing Joseph E. Seagrsm and Sons Limited in 1928. It is now the world's largest booze operation. Lately the Bronfmans have branched out into oil (currently 40 percent of their income) and big, big real estate.
Newman is such a fine storyteller that he can transform even those Bronfmans who are pretentious, oafish, and/or shallow into creatures that you want to go on reading about, intrigued as much as boggled that so much money can be passed through so many golden knotholes. Their wealth has so successfully bred greater wealth that if I were trying to stir up a nice Trotskyish revolution, King of the Castle would be my chief ammunition. I defy you to read it without getting the uneasy feeling that if capitalism elevates Sam Bronfman and his sort to the ruling class, there must be a better system.