Billionaire philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, the chairman of the Seagram Company and long-serving president of the World Jewish Congress, died Saturday, aged 84. The Canadian-born Bronfman died at his New York home surrounded by family, according to the charity he led, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
Bronfman made his fortune with his family's Seagram's liquor empire, taking over as chairman and CEO in 1971 and continuing the work of his father, Samuel. Under Bronfman's leadership, Seagram expanded its offerings and was eventually acquired by French media and telecom group Vivendi Universal in 2000.
But Bronfman's wealth, combined with his role at the World Jewish Congress, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations in 80 countries that he directed for more than a quarter of a century, allowed him to be a tireless advocate for his fellow Jews.
"He was the first of his kind, a titan of industry that dedicated himself fully to advocating, advancing and encouraging the Jewish people," said Dana Raucher, executive director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton awarded Bronfman the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. In the citation, Bronfman was heralded for working "to ensure basic rights for Jews around the world."
In a 1986 Associated Press profile, he said his position and money helped assure him access to world leaders: "It's a combination of the two," Bronfman said. "In the end, it doesn't really matter why that access is available, as long as it is there."
The year before, he had become the first WJC president to meet with Soviet officials in Moscow, brandishing his case for human rights while promoting Seagram's interests. He visited again in 1988, by which time Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, a key WJC goal, had begun to rise under Mikhail Gorbachev's reforming leadership.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the WJC joined efforts to force Swiss banks to make restitution of more than $1 billion to relatives of German death camp victims who deposited funds in Switzerland before World War II.
"What we have to do is write the last chapter. ... We will get the story, there is no question of that, but in the meantime, Holocaust survivors are dying every day," Bronfman told Reuters in a 1996 interview to promote his book, "The Making of a Jew."
In 1975, the Bronfman name made headlines for a far different reason when one of Bronfman's sons, 21-year-old Samuel, was abducted in a New York suburb.
The family paid a $2.3 million ransom and Samuel was found after authorities raided a Brooklyn apartment.
Two suspects were convicted of extortion but acquitted of kidnapping in a sensational 1976 trial in which the defense accused Samuel Bronfman of staging his own kidnapping as a hoax to cheat his father out of the ransom money. Samuel Bronfman denied the allegation.