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One On 1: Edgar Bronfman Blends Family Legacy With Personal Cause

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Philanthropist Edgar Bronfman once headed up his family's liquor company, at one time considered the largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the world, but has now applied his passion to an entirely different arena. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

There are clearly some benefits to being a taster at a liquor company.

"My father would send the bartender in if there was something he wanted me to taste. Isn't it a great business when the boss sends you in to drink at 11 o'clock," says Philanthropist Edgar Bronfman Senior.

His father, Samuel Bronfman, was his boss. The business -- the Seagram company, at one time considered the largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the world.

When Forbes publishes its annual list of the world's billionaires, Edgar Bronfman's name is there. In the last two decades, he's focused on Jewish causes, including a lengthy fight for Holocaust reparations. But the lessons of the family business learned long ago, like how to blend a good scotch, are still vivid.

"I was taught by my father that you blend for the three percent of people who know the difference. And you don't take a chance on them finding out that it's different because then they'll tell everyone else. So it wasn't right, so I made it right," says Bronfman.

There is little that's ostentatious about his office at the Samuel Bronfman foundation, which supports a myriad of programs, including Jewish life on campus and sending thousands of young American Jews to study in Israel. But the symbols of power and wealth are obvious, from the Rodin statues to the pictures with national and world leaders.

Bronfman says he's always been comfortable giving advice to these leaders, like his friend Hillary Clinton.

"I didn't like what Hillary was wearing that night, I told Chelsea about it later. She had sort of a frilly thing on. It didn't suit her," says Bronfman.

Budd Mishkin: And does Hillary take advice like that well?
Edgar Bronfman: From me, yes, I'm not sure from who else, but from me, yes.

So comfort and confidence around world leaders was apparently never an issue -- for good reason.

"I had such an awesome father that nobody could really awe me, but you know, I always recognized who they were. And to put myself on that level was kind of chutzpa. But I got used to it," says Bronfman.

Seagram's was based in Montreal. Samuel Bronfman and then his sons turned it into a multi-billion dollar international company. Edgar Bronfman moved to New York in 1959. He became chairman and CEO after his father died in 1971. The son is nothing if not brutally honest about their relationship.

Budd Mishkin: Is there a way you could describe how he affected you both professionally and personally?
Edgar Bronfman: That's very difficult. I didn't like him much, which is an understatement. And I think professionally, whatever he did, I would do the opposite, and I would do fine. I mean he really was a one man show.

He remembers his mother fondly, but says she believed in the British system of nannies raising children.

"But I loved my mother. I just don't understand how she was able to stay with my father," says Bronfman.

The Bronfman family and Seagram's are rich subjects for historians. The company prospered both during and after prohibition. Bronfman says that subject never came up at home, and he was never troubled by it.

"I didn't think he was a bad man for that or an evil man, or even a dishonest man. I just thought, 'well this is how things were in those days.' And then the whole prohibition thing was stupid anyways, and you know, we got out of it, and he built a business after that. And if a lot of the cash came from the prohibition era, then so what. It just doesn't bother me," says Bronfman.

What does a billionaire do as he approaches 80? Edgar Bronfman has taken up the piano.

But his prime passion in the latter part of his life is a subject which didn't interest him much as a young man -- Judaism.

"At the time I was very much in rebellion, and didn't want anything to do with all this stuff. Because it had to do with me and my father, It was not a good scene," says Bronfman. "Well I should have had a Jewish home. I should do what I say to do in the book, which is to give my children some Jewish education, some Jewish background."

In his book, "Hope, Not Fear: A Path To Jewish Renaissance" and in speeches, Bronfman argues that Judaism shouldn't reject intermarried couples and their children.

He says his seven children from earlier marriages were not raised in Jewish homes. He also has 23 grandchildren and says writing the book and his current interest in the future of Judaism is not born out of some sense of atonement.

"I thought that Jewish-American society has to change its attitude, drastically, if we were going to be a growing population rather than a recessive population. And to me, the idea of condemnation of intermarriage was very foolish, since it was a fact," says Bronfman.

Bronfman says he's part of a weekly study, which includes the Talmud, an ancient text on Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. He believes in ritual, but not in prayer.

"I don't know what you're supposed to pray for. That your mother should get well? I mean come on, God doesn't work that way as far as I'm concerned. So I find the whole thing a waste of time," says Bronfman.

Bronfman's interest in studying Judaism is relatively new. Not so his activism in Jewish social causes.

From 1981-2007 he served as the president of the World Jewish Congress, which sees itself as the "diplomatic arm of the Jewish people."

In the mid 1980's, Bronfman led the fight to expose former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim's Nazi past. Waldheim later accused Bronfman of slander.

He says even some supporters advised him to stop.

"'Just leave it alone. And I said, 'no, I can't leave it alone. This guy is a bad guy and I'm going to go after him'," says Bronfman.

During the mid 1990's, Bronfman was part of the effort to help Holocaust survivors recover family assets from Swiss banks.

Again, he faced criticism, some of it from Jewish leaders, one of whom charged that the "exchange of gold for lives" was not a fitting way to get closure on the Holocaust.

"You don't let the robber keep the money. You don't say that this doesn't make closure, I never said that this made closure for the case of the Holocaust. All I said was that they had stolen money and they should give it back," says Bronfman.

He says he didn't just want to make a deal with the Swiss banks. He wanted them to pay for research into the archives so that future generations of Swiss would know what truly happened during the war.

"The president of the bankers' association, who was a middle to small sized banker, pounded the table and said 'you expect me to ask my clients to find out what bastards their grandfathers were?' And I said, 'Yes.' And they did," says Bronfman.

Since 1994, he's been married to his fourth wife, artist Jan Aronson.

After various deals over the past 15 years, the family company, Seagram's, no longer exists. But he is and always has been a Bronfman, always associated with wealth.

Which begs the question. When people befriend him, is it him or is it the money?

"I've never let it worry me. If I like somebody, and they like me, I take it at face value. I don't trust, I don't give them the keys to the vault. But on the other hand, I give them the keys to my heart. That's a whole other subject. You know, you get hurt. You get hurt once in a while. Everybody does," says Bronfman.

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