The Seagram Heiress and the Company Plane

A Seagram Story of Yesterday and Today

From the NY Times, July 25th

Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn after her arrest on conspiracy and racketeering charges in connection with her role at Nxivm, (pronounced Nex-e-um) a self-help group that prosecutors call a pyramid scheme and former members say is a cult.

The article concluded with:

The hearing for Ms. Bronfman revealed few new details about Nxivm’s inner workings, but gave a glimpse of her considerable wealth. Ms. Necheles (her lawyer) said Ms. Bronfman was worth around $200 million, with about half tied up in trusts supervised by Goldman Sachs, and the remainder in real estate in New York, California and Fiji, where she bought an island for $47 million.

She was charged with identity theft and was released on a $100 million bail bond. It is part of an ongoing investigation of the group which, according to the indictment, was allegedly engaged in money laundering, extortion, obstruction of justice, forced labor, sex trafficking, identity theft and more.

Ms. Bronfman and her sister Sara are children of Rita Webb, also known as Georgiana, who was the daughter of an English pub owner. After their parents’ divorce (they were divorced twice), she and her sister lived in England. Keep that in mind, when we get to the second part of the story.

I didn’t know her but knew how much her father Edgar M. Bronfman (Edgar Sr) cared about her. I recall a phone call from his office with the instruction for us to sponsor equestrian events inasmuch as she was a world class rider and competitor. Believe me, there weren’t any brands for whom this made any sense at all. So, with a stretch of the strategy and an intense desire to keep my job, Crown Royal was selected.

The Company Airplane

Gulfstream IV (Haute Living photo)

The days surrounding the news brought a deluge of emails from ex-Seagram friends with questions and observations. But none were as interesting as the one from Tony Rodriguez. Tony joined Seagram in the early 1980s and held a number of important senior positions in business strategy and finance. He related the following story.

Edgar traveled often to and from London in the mid 80s to visit his daughters. The presence of Seagram employees was often desired in order to qualify for a tax-deductible trip. Of course, the Bronfmans flew on the Gulfstream IV whenever they chose but wanted traveling employees when possible.

Here’s how Tony began his story:

“One of my first business trips around 1985, as Budget Dept. bean counter, was to Seagram’s European HQ in London (where I would eventually work as CFO for 3 years). On one particular trip and at the last minute, they (Seagram Travel Department) cancelled my Pan Am flight reservations because Mr. Edgar wanted a “mule” to be his excuse for a company-paid corporate jet flight with his family, including wife and two daughters, to London. What ensued was a very uncomfortable cross-Atlantic flight…”

As you might imagine the flight was operated with aviation fuel for the airplane and lots of alcohol fuel for the passengers. That’s when the fun began.

Allow me to interject a thought or two at this point. While the trip on the Gulfstream was a wonderful way to fly, it was not without its own special peril. Especially when traveling with Edgar Sr, one was often cautioned to control the alcohol intake and to avoid career ending conversations when Mr. Bronfman had been, ahem, over-served. Unfortunately, the plane only held a dozen or so people and there was no place to hide.

Nevertheless, on this trip, the booze flowed, especially the Sandeman’s Port. Tony was invited to join the meal aboard the plane and to join in the booze and conversation.

There were seven passengers on the flight — Edgar Sr, Georgiana, a British friend of Edgar’s, the Seagram doctor, Tony, and the daughters. They all had lunch (except for the children) and fit nicely around a table on the plane.

Gulfstream IV interior. (Libertyjet.com)

The Seagram Doctor

Yes, that’s right, Seagram had a full-fledged and fully equipped medical office in the NYC headquarters with a full-time doctor and a few nurses. The physician was quite a character — part pedophile and part poster child for #MeToo, but his interest was men. Let’s call him Dr. G, since many of us referred to him as Dr. Goldfinger. One Seagram friend told me recently that if he went to the medical office for a Band-Aid for a paper cut, the doc would tell him to drop his pants.

Anyway, Tony, in his late 20s at the time, found himself in a very uncomfortable trans-Atlantic flight sitting next to Dr. G who kept trying to stroke his thigh during the meal.

Knowing what was happening, Edgar engaged Tony in conversation, including his upper crust British crony. The topic was shooting grouse and the conversation went something like this:

British Crony: Your name is Rodriguez, where is your family from?

Tony: Spain.

British Crony: Ah, I love Spain… I often go grouse hunting on the Costa Del Sol. Have you ever been there? Did your family ever shoot grouse?

Tony: No sir. My family were peasant farmers and didn’t partake in such activities.

Edgar Sr: Have you ever gone grouse hunting when you were growing up? Where did you grow up, anyway?

Tony: No sir, I never went grouse hunting. I grew up in Newark… there were no grouse. But, there were lots of pigeons we shot with BB guns.

British Crony: Well then, tell me, us — what sports did you play in New Ark?

Tony: Street games…

British Crony: Such as…?

Tony: Well, stickball for one. It’s like baseball except, among other things, for a bat we used our mother’s cut off broom.

Edgar: That’s hysterical. Tell me Nigel, have you ever played with your mother’s broom?

British Crony: I can’t say that I have.

Tony went on to tell me that he was sure that neither of them ever saw their mothers use a broom, or even knew if they had one.

He ended his email to me with the following:

“So now we fast forward some 30+ years later to hear that Edgar’s cute little girl is involved in an international sexual trafficking ring.  I’m glad my family is much more boring even if none of us own an island in Fiji.”

 

*        *        *

Thank you, Tony.

For more stories about the Seagram plane see elsewhere on my blog such as here. Also, you might enjoy this one from my book:

Where to sit?

The protocol on where to sit on the company plane was well known. The owner, either Edgar Sr. or Edgar Jr., had the last seat on the right as you faced the rear of the plane (aft). If they weren’t on it, the most senior executive had that seat. Other plush seats were taken by rank, and the couches (we’re talking Gulfstream jets), were left to the more junior or lower ranking execs.           

As the story goes, while waiting for one of the Bronfmans to board the plane, a company president was talking to a colleague while seated in the Bronfman seat, when suddenly Bronfman appeared. Startled, the executive shot up, moved away, and said, “Sorry Mr. Bronfman, here’s your seat.” To which the Bronfman in question replied, “They’re all my seats.”

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