Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy

HarperCollins  2017


In this memoir, written with Howard Green, Charles Bronfman traces the mixed effects of extraordinary wealth. As one of the heirs to the immense Canadian Seagram’s liquor fortune, Bronfman was raised in a Montreal mansion, served by a butler, and driven by a chauffeur in a Rolls-Royce. Nevertheless, this mild and modest macher experienced early challenges and difficulties. His story is that of a troubled “slow starter” who has finished strong.

Although Charles and his older brother, Edgar, sold off their family company by the year 2000, Charles’s fortune was still valued at $2.1 billion some fifteen years later. But while he can now reflect and write as a “contented man,” he still feels the emotional pains of his youth. His father could be difficult, and young Charles “lived in fear—as did my siblings—that we could be the next target of one of his explosive rages.” Bronfman describes himself as a “childhood basket case,” lacking in resolve and self-confidence. Since he panicked during his exams, he never did complete his undergraduate degree at McGill University. It was not until he reached his thirties that Bronfman began to conquer his deep anxieties. After gaining majority control of baseball’s Montreal Expos in 1968 for $10 million, he sold his interest in 1991 for $110 million. As an ambitious pioneer of major league baseball in Canada, the youngest Bronfman had asserted his autonomy and “was no longer just Sam Bronfman’s son.”

John D. Rockefeller Jr., the youngest sibling of that rather affluent family, once commented that “the only question with wealth is what you do with it.” In his slow but gradual development, Charles Bronfman also realized that pragmatic truth. Identifying as culturally Jewish, Bronfman has had a long and varied association with Israel. In his mid-fifties, he was able to do something with his wealth consistent with his passion and principles. His second wife, Andrea, had deep ties to Israel, and in the 1980s, he became the largest foreign investor in the country.

That success led to his very notable philanthropic program—the Taglit-Birthright Foundation. This attractive and generous program sponsors free ten-day trips to Israel for young Jewish adults. Since 1999, Birthright has financed trips for more than 500,000 young Jews, and the Bronfmans’ foundation has supported these educational ventures with more than $325 million. Rejecting any religious or ideological “coercion,” Charles clearly articulates the program’s aims for its participants: “To be happy you’re Jewish, to identify with the Jewish people, and to have a positive emotional relationship with Israel.”

In preparing this thoughtful and candid memoir, Bronfman participated in extensive interviews, an intense process that actually became a cathartic and helpful one. What affects the reader is the unexpected and tragic events that occur even in his very advanced years. Despite the cruel setbacks, Bronfman continues his journey with personal resolve and the worldview that “hope trumps despair.”

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