NEW YORK - Billionaire philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, the chairman of the Seagram Company and long-serving president of the World Jewish Congress, died at his New York home on Saturday aged 84, The New York Times reported.
Montreal-born Bronfman took control of the Seagram empire from his father, Samuel Bronfman who had founded the liquor company in 1924. He then expanded its operations, acquiring Tropicana, moving Seagram into oil business and even chemicals, by making it DuPont's largest minority shareholder.
The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants was president of the World Jewish Congress from 1981 until 2007, presiding over its transformation into a more focused and confrontational organisation.
During his tenure, the US Congress increased pressure on the then-Soviet Union to loosen emigration restrictions on Jews living there. Bronfman also pressed Congress' efforts to expose the Nazi past of former UN Secretary-General and later president of Austria, Kurt Waldheim.
The WJC during that period also joined the effort to force Swiss banks to make restitution of more than US$1 billion (S$1.26 billion) to relatives of German death camp victims who deposited funds in n Switzerland before World War 2, the Times said.
"What we have to do is write the last chapter," Bronfman told Reuters in a 1996 interview to promote his book, "The Making of a Jew".
"We will get the story, there is no question of that," he said. "But in the meantime, Holocaust survivors are dying every day."
Bronfman, who published his memoirs "Good Spirits: The Making of a Businessman" in 1998, one of four autobiographical books, was put in control of Seagram's US subsidiary, Joseph E. Seagram & Sons by his father in 1953. He became a US citizen a few years later, the Times said.
It was in the 1950s that Bronfman's sister Phyllis, was put in charge of Seagram's new headquarters, the famed, iconic Seagram Building on Park Avenue which continued to draw admirers to its airy plaza.
Bronfman, who was married five times including two times to the same woman, made bold-faced headlines in 1975 when his son Samuel was kidnapped and Bronfman himself delivered more than US$2 million in ransom. The kidnappers were arrested and convicted of lesser charges, according to the Times.
Bronfman turned Seagram over to his son Edgar Bronfman Jr., who became president of Seagram in 1989 and chief executive in 1994 and moved the company into entertainment. Seagram's beverage division was eventually acquired by Pernod Ricard and Diageo.
Bronfman died of natural causes, the New York Times reported, citing the family's Samuel Bronfman Foundation.