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

Charles Bronf­man with Howard Green

  • Review
By – May 16, 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.”

Peter E. Korn­blum holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley.He taught Eng­lish in the High School Divi­sion of the New York City Depart­ment ofE­d­u­ca­tion from 1981 through 2007.

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