NEW YORK - Edgar M. Bronfman Sr., the billionaire businessman and longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, which lobbied the Soviets to allow Jews to emigrate and helped spearhead the search for hidden Nazi loot, died Saturday. He was 84.
The Canadian-born Bronfman died at his New York home surrounded by family, according to the family 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 in the World Jewish Congress, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations in some 80 countries that he led for more than a quarter 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, 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 him have 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 congress president to meet with Soviet officials in Moscow, bringing his case for human rights and taking a little time to promote Seagram's interests. He visited again in 1988, by which time Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, a key goal of the congress, had begun to rise under the reforming leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the congress also helped lead the effort to gain $11 billion in restitution for heirs of Holocaust victims.
Jews in German and Nazi-held countries were stripped of their possessions, their artworks and even the gold fillings from their teeth in the regime's death camps. Much of the gold wound up in Swiss banks, and the institutions came under heavy criticism decades after the war ended for failing to make adequate reparations.
In 1975, the Bronfman family made the news for a far different reason when one of Edgar Bronfman's sons, 21-year-old Samuel 2nd, was abducted in a New York suburb.
The family paid a $2.3 million ransom and Samuel was later found when authorities raided a Brooklyn apartment. The missing money was found under a bed and two men were arrested.
The two 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 intended to cheat his father out of the ransom money. Samuel Bronfman denied the allegation and the prosecution called it "ridiculous."
The family business had been built in Canada by Bronfman's colorful father, who entered the liquor business in 1915. His company, Distillers Corp., bought out rival Joseph E. Seagram & Sons in 1928. During that same time period, when Prohibition was the law in the U.S., much of their product sold legally in Canada later found its way into the bootleg U.S. market.
During Samuel Bronfman's tenure, New York's Seagram Building became an important architectural landmark. Meanwhile, Edgar Bronfman was running the distilling company's U.S. operations, and his younger brother, Charles, was president of the Canadian branch.
Samuel Bronfman was one of the world's richest men by the time he died in 1971, holding investments in real estate, oil and other concerns and donating millions to Jewish causes.
Later, Edgar Bronfman's son Edgar Jr. had helped steer Seagram into the entertainment business in the 1990s. Seagram took over MCA Inc., with its big movie, music and theme park businesses, in 1995, and Edgar Jr. became an executive with Vivendi after the 2000 deal.
Vivendi's expansion efforts later ran into financial trouble, and former top executives, including the younger Bronfman, were accused of misleading investors about the company's health. In 2009, a French judge ordered former Vivendi CEO Jean-Marie Messier and others to stand trial, including Bronfman Jr.
Bronfman had left the WJC president's post amid a series of controversies. He had fired his longtime deputy, Rabbi Israel Singer, after a 2006 report by the New York attorney general concluded that Singer improperly used WJC funds for personal use. No criminal charges were filed.