Edgar Bronfman runs his $2.8 billion family liquor business from a fifth-floor office in the Seagram Building, an icy vision on Park Avenue by the Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe. The room is decorated with two massive sculptures by Rodin and a tapestry by Miro. Usually Bronfman meets here with associates to discuss land holdings in Canada, distilleries in the Highlands, deals involving millions of dollars, but a tense session in early February focused on a single photograph found in a curio shop in Vienna -- the clear image, circa 1943, of Kurt Waldheim standing under the wing of a plane with Gen. Alexander von Lohr, a Nazi war criminal who ordered the deportation of thousands of Greek and Yugoslavian Jews to the death camps.

Bronfman, who has been president of the World Jewish Congress since 1979, sat stunned. An incredible picture. For years there had been doubts about Kurt Waldheim's war record, intimations in the American, European and Yiddish press, but the former secretary general of the United Nations had always claimed he quit the German army in 1942 and studied law.

"There had been rumors about Waldheim for 10 or 15 years, but now we were showing Edgar the real thing," says WJC Executive Director Elan Steinberg. "We were hoping that Edgar would agree to a full-scale investigation. [WJC Secretary General] Israel Singer and I stood there and waited to see what would happen."

"You know," Bronfman said at the time, "we're not in the Nazi-hunting business."

Indeed, the WJC, which celebrates its 50th anniversary with a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria tonight, has concentrated most of its energies in recent years on problems concerning Israel and Soviet Jewry.

The three men discussed the evidence that had been summarized in a memo for Bronfman. Steinberg and Singer wanted a full-scale search of Waldheim's war records. They prodded Bronfman to approve the idea and send investigators to Vienna, Washington, London and anywhere else documents could be found. Before they left the office, Bronfman took the memo in hand and wrote, "Do It: EMB."

The deliberate gestures and brooding looks remind some of the film actor Joseph Cotten. Bronfman, who is 56, was raised to rule a business empire and seems to regard his political power, his meetings with world leaders, his hurried trips around the globe, as a matter of course. In the business world he is known as a tough boss, an imperious figure with a quick temper. But as he talks about Waldheim, his voice is as liquid and calm as an FM announcer:

"If Waldheim lied about what he was doing in the war, then maybe there's more to it than meets the eye. There were a lot of people who served in the German army, and one doesn't go after every one who served his country -- no matter how wrong or right you think that country was.

"But the stuff was right there in the files. It wasn't a deep problem for a professional investigator. Just a good lawyer who was pointed in the right direction."

While running for the Austrian presidency Waldheim has fought off one allegation and bit of documentary evidence after another:

*Last week the WJC discovered a document in the U.S. Army's "Combined Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects" that says the Yugoslavian government listed Waldheim as a suspected Nazi war criminal wanted for murder. Waldheim is listed as a key intelligence officer on the staff of Lohr, who was hanged in 1947 for war crimes.

*The WJC investigations led to an expose' in a Yugoslavian newspaper, the Evening News, which discovered a document issued by the State Commission on War Crimes dated Dec. 18, 1947, concluding that Waldheim "is established by the evidence to be a war criminal." The decision cited the testimony of Egbert Hilker, who served with Waldheim on Lohr's staff. Hilker claimed that Waldheim was "responsible" for a "reprisal committed on the way between Kocani and Stip in late October 1944, when three villages were burned and 114 killed." According to the document, Waldheim gave the orders "relating to reprisal measures."

*The WJC also obtained captured German military records that showed that in 1942 Waldheim was decorated as part of a Nazi unit that killed thousands of Croatians and Yugoslavs in what later became known as the Kozara Massacres. Of that charge, Waldheim said, "There were no massacres. It was a cruel war in those days, and I regret that deeply."

Waldheim has conceded that he was in the German army long after his re'sume's and autobiography had previously indicated, but has called all other charges of Nazi complicity false and "an almost incomprehensible conspiracy" by his political enemies to discredit him before the Austrian election in May. According to polls, Waldheim's support among the Austrian electorate has increased since the disclosures about his war record. He now leads his opponents by 11 percentage points.

"To tell you the truth," says Bronfman, "I'm hoping that now that the first documents are out, someone else will continue the investigation. We're still not in that business."

With the urging of both the WJC and the U.S. Senate, Attorney General Edwin Meese III is considering whether to pursue an investigation. The WJC has recommended Waldheim be put on the "watch-list" as an alien excludable from the country "for his participation in Nazi-sponsored persecution."

Edgar Bronfman belongs to an Orthodox synagogue, but he says he probably has attended the Moscow synagogue more often than the one on Park Avenue. "When I go, I go to an Orthodox synagogue," he says. "But I go very rarely."

Bronfman has worked on his Hebrew with a private tutor and occasionally dips into the daily Talmud reading while traveling with Singer, an ordained rabbi but, Singer says, "The synagogue Edgar prays in is the WJC. It's a secular synagogue."

Founded in 1936 by Nahum Goldmann, Rabbi Stephen Wise and other prominent leaders to help unite the various Jewish communities throughout the world, the WJC is a confederation of Jewish groups in 66 countries and is especially prominent in Europe and Latin America. Bronfman's position in the WJC -- and his prominence in business -- give him cachet among world leaders. When he needs to talk to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Bronfman dials a private number "that puts me right through." An odd position for a man who says he "didn't grow up very Jewishly."

"I wasn't involved in the Jewish world until my father died in 1971," he says. "I had no interest, or at least it was a latent interest. I suppose we had enough competition going in the business world without my having to invade his other domains. I left it alone."

The Bronfman family went to Canada from the Bessarabia region of southwestern Russia in 1889. They were well-to-do, bringing with them a maid, a manservant and a personal rabbi. Aboard the ship to the New World, Minnie Bronfman gave birth to her fourth child, Sam. "Bronfman" means "brandy man" in Yiddish, and that is precisely what Sam Bronfman became as a young man in Montreal.

During Prohibition, Sam Bronfman shipped liquor to pickup points along the Canadian-American border, where it was bought by American bootleggers. One of Bronfman's closest business associates was the American gangster Meyer Lansky. Because others brought his liquor across the border, Bronfman always insisted he was not a bootlegger. Lansky's associate, Lucky Luciano, however, said Bronfman "was bootleggin' enough whiskey across the Canadian border to double the size of Lake Erie."

When he was a child, Edgar Bronfman says, "I'm not sure the morality issue ever came up. My father sold whiskey in Canada to a number of people and knew where it was going, but I don't think there was a big moral issue at stake."

After buying the venerable Seagram distillery, the family business continued to expand. As did Sam Bronfman's reputation as a very difficult man. He needed a specially reinforced telephone because of his habit of slamming down the receiver after a dissatisfactory communication with an underling.

Edgar Bronfman says he rebelled against his "authoritarian" father. At Williams College, Edgar was better remembered for driving a motorcycle through a fraternity house than for his facility with academic work. Father and son argued, but Edgar seems to have eased rather nicely and quickly into the ways of finance. If he bit the hand that fed him, he really only nibbled. While Edgar was still a teen-ager, his father gave him thousands of dollars to experiment with the stock market. With his profits, Edgar bought Seagram stock.

Bronfman's three marriages have been celebrated, each in its own way. He first married Ann Margaret Loeb, daughter of John Langeloth Loeb, a senior partner in the Loeb, Rhoades investment house. It was a wedding of two of the wealthiest Jewish families in the world: The Loebs were of "Our Crowd" German-Jewish stock; while the Bronfmans were of less noble lineage, they were richer.

After five children that marriage broke up. The divorce "apparently stemmed from Bronfman's often open involvement with young models and society girls," according to Time magazine.

Bronfman then embarked on a short-lived second marriage in 1973 to Lady Carolyn Townsend, an Englishwoman descended from the man whose tea tax helped set off the American Revolution. Lady Carolyn extracted a gigantic prenuptial agreement that included a cash payment of $1 million and the deed to Bronfman's estate in Yorktown, N.Y.

The marriage was, according to the divorce testimony a year later, unsatisfactory from the start. On their wedding night Lady Carolyn demanded her husband leave the St. Regis Hotel in New York City and return, alone, to his apartment. The honeymoon in Acapulco went no better. Peter C. Newman, biographer of the Bronfmans, writes that Carolyn "insisted that the marriage was in fact consummated later during the honeymoon, but Edgar vehemently denied this, claiming that Lady Carolyn 'had a hangup about sex after the marriage.' "

The court ordered that Bronfman pay Lady Carolyn $40,000 a year for 11 years and absolved him of having to meet the requirements of the prenuptial agreement.

More nastiness followed a year later. Bronfman's 23-year-old son Samuel II was kidnaped. Eight days after the kidnaping, Edgar Bronfman stuffed two garbage bags with small bills amounting to $2.3 million and, in the middle of downtown Manhattan, handed the cash over to a kidnaper. The next day police recovered Sam and arrested a fireman named Mel Patrick Lynch and a limousine driver named Dominic Byrne. The month-long trial that followed was a media circus and a congeries of charges and countercharges. Lynch told the court that he and Sam had been lovers, and that Bronfman fils had blackmailed Lynch into a kidnaping hoax to extort money from Bronfman pe re.

The jury acquitted Lynch and Byrne of the kidnaping charge, but convicted them of extortion. The Bronfmans were outraged with the verdict and the smear on their name.

"But I never think about it now," says Edgar Bronfman. "Sam was able to put it behind him. And if he could, we all could, too."

In the meantime, just three days after Sam came home, Edgar Bronfman married Georgiana Eileen Webb, another Englishwoman, but one of less noble birth than Lady Carolyn. Webb's father ran a pub north of London called Ye Olde Nosebag. If this month's issue of Town & Country is any indication, the pub days are long gone. Posing under a pair of 4,000-year-old antlers found in the Irish bogs and with "her loyal wire-haired dachshund Rupert," Georgiana Bronfman celebrates "her Thoroughbred world."

The Bronfmans have a huge apartment on the East Side overlooking Central Park, and they spend weekends in the horse country near Charlottesville. "It's a nice place," Bronfman says of his farm. It's a funny location, but not surprising. Bronfman grew up in a house described by most as a mansion or a "castle." Bronfman calls it "nothing special, a very nice house made of brick."

In the last decade the Bronfman name has stayed mainly in the business and news pages. As Seagram expands beyond the liquor business into real estate, chemicals and other concerns, Bronfman's influence grows, too. He has had a busy year. In October his visit to the Soviet Union fueled speculation that an "airlift" of Russian Jews to Israel was imminent. Bronfman says that was overblown.

"I was carrying a letter from Peres to Gorbachev," he says. "It explored the possibilities of some friendship. It was basically, 'The people of Israel have nothing against the people of the Soviet Union. Let's talk.' " Bronfman did discuss the matter of direct flights to Israel with the Russians: "When all the Jews were let go in the '70s, from the Russians' standpoint, they got nothing for it. If they start that process again, what would they get this time? My answer was that of the first group that left, a very high percentage never went to Israel. The state of Israel really runs the Soviet Jewry movement. So if they wanted to get the Israelis' attention, the way to do that was with direct flights.

"Anatoliy Dobrynin is back in Moscow heading the international department. I think that's a hopeful sign. I think my friend Anatoliy's going to invite a lot of people over there to talk. There's going to be a buildup of pressure through the business community. The Russians know the Soviet Jewry issue is tied to trade . . . How quickly they'll move is another subject."

Bronfman helped Eliahu Essas, a prominent refusenik, get permission to leave the Soviet Union just weeks before Anatoly Shcharansky.

"The Russians would rather deal with individuals than with big principles, like Hebrew education or large-scale emigration, but my aim is not to deal with individuals but with larger issues," says Bronfman. "My guess is that over a period of time, five to 10 years, some of our goals will be achieved."

Bronfman is occasionally criticized by leaders of other prominent Jewish groups for acting too independently -- "I think Edgar thinks he's king of the Jews sometimes," one leader jokes -- but he is widely admired for the depth of his activism.

"Edgar is kind of a throwback," says Jerry Goodman, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. "There used to be families like the Schiffs and the Warburgs who were not only philanthropists for Jewish causes, they were active. I think when some of the anti-Semitic bars against Jews were broken in the '50s, you saw philanthropy, but people's energies went into business and politics. A long time ago, a guy like Felix Rohatyn would have been like Felix Warburg, a giver of time and money to Jewish causes. Edgar Bronfman is one of the few who give both."

Says Abe Foxman of B'nai B'rith, "Edgar could just as soon retreat into yachting or museums or something. He gives Jewish life everything he has."

Not quite everything, of course. "I probably spend two-thirds of my time on Seagram's, one-third on Jewish things," he says.

Although he is "nowhere near thinking about retirement," Bronfman decided this year to name his business heir. According to a story in Fortune, he took Sam II into the private dining room at his office and said, "You're good, but an unfortunate fact of your life is that you'll always be compared to your brother. And as my successor, he's better."

Edgar Jr., who is two years younger than Sam, never had a college education, and most of his business successes have come in show business. But he has been working with his father for years. The principal problem for Seagram's has been the sharp decline in liquor consumption, but Bronfman says the health of Seagram's fortune is secure. With increasing holdings in Du Pont and Canadian real estate and elsewhere, profits continue to increase.

Edgar Bronfman embodies his own thesis of economic history: "To turn a hundred dollars into a hundred and ten dollars is work. To turn a hundred million into a hundred and ten million is inevitable."