AS SAM BRONFMAN would remember it, the 120-mile trip by dogsled from Kenora to Lake of the Woods wasn’t a lot of fun. It was the winter of 1916 in the flat, lonely expanse of northwestern Ontario, long before the Trans-Canada Highway was built, and the twenty-seven-year-old Bronfman needed to get to his destination as quickly as possible. Even if the highway had existed then, he probably would not have driven. Bronfman hated to drive, and for the last forty-nine years of his life, after his marriage to the worshipful woman who would always refer to him as “My Sam,” he never once took the wheel of a car. Sam Bronfman paid people to do the driving for him.
In Bronfman’s telling, the epic journey from Kenora (six days out, six days back, nothing to eat along the way but the venison bagged by his guide) became the foundation myth of one of North America’s great fortunes. Under the peculiar division of federal and provincial powers in the Canadian constitution, a broken-backed form of Prohibition had settled over the Dominion four years before the bone-dry version reached the United States. Individual provinces could not stop the manufacture or the interprovincial shipment of alcoholic beverages—those were federal matters—but they could ban sales within their boundaries. By 1919 every English-speaking, Protestant-dominated province had voted itself dry (Quebec, of course, remained true to its cultural origins). This provided a loophole for savvy entrepreneurs: if you could ship the stuff from a wet place to a dry place and find a way to distribute it once it arrived, you could make some meaningful money.
That’s how young Sam Bronfman found himself on that dogsled in 1916, on his way to a distant lumber camp where he hoped to find the owner of a small Kenora hotel who had put up the place for sale. At least one other buyer was waiting for the hotel man to return to Kenora, and Bronfman didn’t wish to give another bidder a chance. Under local law, the hotel maintained a license allowing it to store liquor. Under federal law, Bronfman saw opportunity. Kenora’s greatest distinction up to that point in its history was its renaming. One gets a sense of the sort of place it had been from the town’s original name: until 1905 Kenora was known as Rat Portage. But now, in this westernmost town of any size in Ontario, whose prohibition laws were not yet as severe as Manitoba’s or Saskatchewan’s, Bronfman could establish a depot for liquor, ship it in from an operation he had purchased in Montreal, and then forward the goods into the prairie provinces. The hardship of the voyage to Lake of the Woods, aggravated by the limitations of his guide, demonstrated Bronfman’s commitment to his vision. “I could hardly face the return trip,” he said in the late 1960s. “All that son-of-a-bitch could shoot was deer. He never even found a rabbit, a bird, or even a bear.”
That was how Bronfman spoke all his life: directly, coarsely, and with his own interests trumping everyone else’s.* The third son of Yechiel and Mindel Bronfman—in chronology if not in affect—he became the dominant Bronfman of his generation, he said many years later, for the same reason “a horse win[s] a race. I just did.” He was two years old in 1891, when Yechiel and Mindel brought their family from Soroca, a small farming town in what is now Moldova, to the not dissimilar landscape of eastern Saskatchewan. Farming led to horse-trading, which led to other commercial ventures, and soon the Bronfmans had accumulated enough capital to start buying small hotels in small towns. “Hotel” was an overly grand term for most of them. In places like Emerson and Yorkton and Kenora and the other dusty communities that captured the Bronfman family’s interest, the hotel, close by the railroad station, offered minimal accommodations to the prairie travelers of those days. It had beds, it served meals, it probably had a pool table, and it definitely sold liquor.
The Kenora opportunity didn’t last long; in 1918 interprovincial alcohol sales were banned by Parliament. But even though Canadian law allowed the shipment of liquor only if its intended use was medicinal, you hardly needed to be at death’s door to merit a legal shot of brandy. The Bronfmans built up a very nice business with the cooperation of local physicians, who were rewarded with a two-dollar bonus for each liquor prescription fulfilled by a Bronfman-controlled outlet. Sam and his three brothers continued to do fine, even after the doctors upped their demands to three dollars per. The scale of the family business changed radically, however, when the status of liquor changed south of the border. That was why Sam and his older brother Harry would come to spend Christmas Day 1919 by the railroad siding in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, unloading five freight cars packed to their roofs with Scotch. Twenty-seven more cars followed soon thereafter, and for several days the brothers worked twenty-hour shifts as they filled their warehouse, and any other building they could get their hands on, with this new currency.
Years later, recounting the details to a would-be biographer, Sam quoted Tennyson, saying the family had seized “the skirts of happy chance.” That sounded a lot better than saying the Bronfmans had embarked on a fifteen-year period of cupidity and criminality, which they would eventually whitewash from memory through decades of audacious public relations and phenomenal business success.
IT WAS ALMOST fated that the Bronfman family would make its fortune from alcoholic beverages; in Yiddish, which was their mother tongue, bronfen is the word for “liquor.” The illegal trade in booze also happened to be a business that did not operate under the discriminatory codes of the day. As the Canadian journalist and historian James H. Gray pointed out in The Roar of the Twenties, at the time Sam, Harry, and their brothers Abe and Allan were getting into the liquor business, there had never been a Jewish CPA in all of Canada; there were no Jews in the nation’s insurance industry; strict quotas kept doors barely ajar in the medical schools; and throughout the western provinces, from Winnipeg all the way to Vancouver, the number of Jews working in the banking business was precisely one.
The same ethnic distinctions that divided the American public over the Prohibition issue—native-born Protestants against everybody else—played out in Canada as well. In the east, Anglophone Canada’s chronic suspicion of French-speaking Catholics was intensified by Quebec’s unwillingness to join the dry parade. In the west, Manitoba’s chief police official guessed that 95 percent of the province’s bootleggers were Jewish. Archdeacon G. E. Lloyd, soon to become the Anglican bishop of Saskatchewan, held the Jews of the illegal liquor industry at arm’s length, warning them that because Canada had chosen to grant them “rights enjoyed by other white men, they must not defile the country by engaging in disreputable pursuits.” A Manitoba cleric named R. H. Glover went a giant step further, charging that “a group of American Jews, assisted and abetted by certain prostitute gentiles whose God is the dollar, have succeeded in debauching Canada from ocean to ocean.”
What was odd about Glover’s dark accusation was that he believed the debauching Jews were Americans. If there was any basis for this, it had to be the seismic shift, after January 16, 1920, from the tolerated wink-wink-nudge-nudge of Canada’s so-called medicinal liquor business, to the large-scale, cross-border smuggling trade the Bronfmans would soon dominate. Canadian prohibitionists, every bit as sunny as their American counterparts about domestic dryness, simply didn’t want to believe their countrymen would engage in forbidden behavior. Back when Ontario closed down its taverns and liquor stores, a Toronto dry activist cheerfully reported that the St. Charles Bar on Bay Street, where he had once counted 128 men in various stages of inebriation, had turned into a soft-drink parlor where men could spend their idle hours “sipping near beer and buttermilk.” But even the rosiest glasses could not misapprehend the scene developing on the prairie, where Sam Bronfman and his brothers had discovered liquid gold.
Soon the alchemy of desire led them to start manufacturing their own stock. In the very beginning of the Bronfmans’ cross-border business, the liquor flowed upstream, as American distillers disposed of much of their presumably valueless inventory by sending it to Canada. In the first year of U.S. Prohibition the Bronfmans imported some 300,000 gallons of whiskey from American distilleries, mixed it with raw alcohol and water, and began shipping a much larger quantity of seriously degraded product back across the border. When their supply of Old Crow and Sunny Brook and other American brands ran out, the Bronfmans began importing enormous quantities of pure neutral spirits from Scotland, diluting it, and adding appropriate coloring. (Caramel was a favorite; some other blenders used prune juice for color and creosote to add a smoky flavor.) Before the end of the year they were sending 26,600 cases—almost 64,000 gallons—of their goods back to the United States each month.
The Bronfman product was mixed, bottled, and stored in a series of export houses—in the local idiom, “boozoriums”—strung along Saskatchewan’s border with North Dakota, in towns like Gainsborough and Carievale and Bienfait. The Bulman Brothers printing company of Winnipeg provided labels. “Anybody could walk in and buy 1000 or 5000 labels any time they wanted to,” Sam would remember, and soon case upon case of bottles bearing either counterfeit brands or invented ones would emerge from the boozoriums, all dressed up for, say, the eighteen-mile trip from Estevan, Saskatchewan, to Noonan, North Dakota. Among the Bronfmans’ faux Scotches were unimaginative but likely brands such as Old Highland and Prince of Wales, as well as inventive, if improbable, ones like Glen Levitt.*
In the farming communities that housed the boozoriums, liquor export was a valued industry. Under provincial and federal statutes, the Bronfmans, their distributors, and their customers broke no laws as long as they paid appropriate taxes on their profits and appropriate customs duties on anything crossing the border. The difference in scale between their old “pure drug” business and the liquor business was easily measured. Settling a dispute with Canadian tax authorities in 1921, Sam and Harry agreed to pay $550 in income tax for 1918, $7,644 for 1919—and $113,694 for 1920. Even that last figure fails to give a sense of the size of the Bronfman enterprise. When Harry Bronfman said in 1922 that “the liquor business in Saskatchewan is controlled by me,” it was quite a business: based on Harry’s testimony in a trial that same year, the Winnipeg Tribune calculated the family’s profits at $391,000 each month.
For all the businesslike nature of the prairie smuggling racket, it was a racket nonetheless. The boozoriums were adorned with stout locks, iron bars, and assorted weaponry. The vehicles used to move the goods south were largely of a variety known in border towns as the “Whiskey 6,” sixcylinder Buicks or Studebakers, their backseats removed, their suspensions reinforced by heavy-duty springs. Many carried thick chains that could be attached to the rear bumper and dragged along the dirt roads, raising enough dust to allow escape—from honest cops doing their duty, from dishonest cops looking for an extortion opportunity, or from energetic hijackers. At the border Canadian officials required the southbound runners to present itemized manifests in order to compute the amount of export duty owed the Dominion government. The customs receipts handed back to the runners were invaluable to American border agents as well; they used them to determine the size of the bribes they were owed.
In 1969 Sam Bronfman’s son Edgar, who had succeeded his father as head of the family’s giant Seagram’s empire, wrote that during U.S. Prohibition, the company “sold its products only in the Dominion” of Canada. Two decades later, Edgar was no longer quite so sure. In his memoir, Good Spirits: The Making of a Businessman, he continued to insist that everything Sam had done during Prohibition was “perfectly legal,” but he did add a qualifier: it was “never clear,” he said, how much his father and uncles had had to do with bootleggers.
Nevertheless, the Bronfman liquor didn’t make it across the border by accident, and it didn’t find its way from North Dakota to the cities of the upper Midwest through transubstantiation. The Bronfmans were playing a game rough enough to have led to the murder, never solved, of Sam and Harry’s brother-in-law, Paul Matoff, who was killed by a blast from a 12-gauge shotgun as he sat in the family’s boozorium in Bienfait counting the money he had just collected from an American bootlegger. The North Dakota police did not arm themselves with machine guns capable of firing fifteen hundred rounds a minute in order to apprehend a few wheat farmers hoping to make an extra buck. The Bronfmans had representatives in the United States, at least one of whom—the salesman responsible for Chicago and Minneapolis—was bold enough to carry business cards declaring that he was an agent for the wholesale liquor operation of the Bronfman-controlled Yorkton Distributing Company, and advertising its six outlets “near [the] international boundary in Saskatchewan.” By 1923 the bootlegging business had enabled Sam to build such valuable connections in the United States that he was able to get prized tickets to the Dempsey-Firpo championship fight in New York. His benefactor was a bright young entrepreneur named Meyer Lansky.
ARTHUR J. TUTTLE was as straight as a judge could be. He’d been a prosecutor in Ingham County, Michigan, then U.S. attorney for Michigan’s Eastern District, before William Howard Taft appointed him to the federal bench. He made his judicial reputation handing down severe sentences to traffickers in prostitutes—“white slavers,” in the argot of the day—who were brought into his court for violating the Mann Act. He was devoted to his apple farm in the central Michigan town of Leslie, his hunting cabin in the state’s Upper Peninsula, his college fraternity, and the Republican Party.
Judge Tuttle was also devoted to the idea of Prohibition and believed deeply in its enforcement. Whether his court had either the authority or the means to play an effective role in enforcement was another matter. At the time the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, Tuttle was the lone federal judge in a district that encompassed Detroit and every other large city in the state except Grand Rapids. That was fine until the advent of the Volstead Act exploded the orderly calm of his marble-and-mahogany courtroom. In Prohibition’s first eighteen months, Tuttle’s caseload jumped more than threefold, the increase coming chiefly from proceedings initiated under the Volstead Act or customs laws—codes violated minute by minute on the Detroit River, just four blocks away from the judge’s chambers.
But August 1921, the nineteenth month of Prohibition, made the tripling of that first year and a half seem almost inconsequential, and Tuttle himself was partly responsible for it. The judge’s decisions generally were true both to the intent of the Volstead Act and to the body of laws that preceded it, but he came down against the former when the latter compelled him to do so. In that second Prohibition August, Tuttle enjoined the Collector of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue from trying to stop bonded rail shipments originating at the Hiram Walker Distillery in Windsor from passing through the United States on their way to Mexico. That would have been a violation of an 1871 U.S.-Canada treaty, Tuttle determined, even if the federal actions were intended to address “the evils sought to be remedied” by the Volstead Act. For Canadian customs officials, a journalist soon wrote, it became “kind of a grand gesture to issue a bill of lading for Mexico and watch a two-seated boat rowed into the river.” By 1925 Hiram Walker was claiming annual shipment of one hundred thousand cases of Canadian whiskey to “Cuba.”
Of even greater moment than Tuttle’s ruling in the Hiram Walker case was a decision handed down that same month by an obscure Windsor police magistrate named W. E. Gundy. An Ontario brewery had sought to establish that even though shipping its product across the river to Detroit was a violation of U.S. law, U.S. law was not a matter of concern to Canadians. The court agreed, and the New York Herald marked this moment in international jurisprudence succinctly: “Magistrate Gundy expressed the opinion that the United States was big enough to take care of its own laws.”
The immediate result was a volcanic spasm of activity on the docks on the Canadian side of the river. The freelance transshipment of goods by enterprising Canadians (like that Windsor woman who had claimed to have been sipping her way through ten bottles a day) was now overtaken by industrial-scale operations. Just one day after Gundy’s decision was announced, the contents of seven hundred trucks were transferred to a fleet of small boats that immediately set out for the constitutionally dry shores of Michigan. Canadian authorities looked on impassively as what was soon dubbed the “Mosquito Fleet” scattered across the mile-wide river, an armada of skiffs and dinghies and motor launches “so heavily laden with beer and whiskey that their gunwales were washed by water.” The Detroit News noted that although federal prohibition agents in Michigan did not have a single boat of their own, at times in the preceding months they had made use of a vessel belonging to the Detroit police department. But “the police boat . . . had not been employed by them recently,” the News added, “as it had been hoped that the liquor traffic would die out naturally with the enforcement of prohibition in Ontario.”
That was as naïve as counting on enforcement of Prohibition in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. There, the Bronfman interests kept Canadian officials happy by paying export taxes and keeping a large number of people productively employed. When the Saskatchewan government considered confining the export houses to the province’s large cities, citizens of the farm town of Carnduff, population six hundred, petitioned legislators to let them keep their boozorium, which they deemed essential to the local economy. For Windsor, which now seemed welded to Detroit by the same river that had previously been a dividing line, Prohibition was the equivalent of a land rush. One glance at the bustling export docks could help a government official sense the weight of the money flowing into the local, provincial, and federal treasuries (“Rum running has provided a tidy bit toward Canada’s favorable balance of trade,” said the Financial Post). The same prospect provided an even more thrilling sensation for those who had mastered the distribution of Canadian liquor to U.S. customers. Imagine the math: if you could ring up nearly $400,000 a month in profits out on the prairies, what could you do if you set up operations in the heavily populated East?
IN 1923, explaining how growing quantities of liquor were being smuggled into the United States from Canada, Roy Haynes said, “You cannot keep liquor from dripping through a dotted line.” By then, the Canada-U.S. border from one end to the other was so wet it’s a wonder it didn’t bleed off the maps. In the West, the British Columbia government cashed in by charging each of the export houses a hefty annual license fee. Large, whiskey-laden freighters originating in the United Kingdom began to dock at the piers in Victoria, even though the cargo would never alight on Canadian land. At the eastern end, fishermen who had long extracted their earnings from the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine turned to a vastly more lucrative trade. All along the 3,987-mile land border in between, this new, bottled crop enriched people on both sides of the line. A few years after Prohibition ended, a young man from Norwich, Vermont, gave an interviewer from the Federal Writers’ Project a succinct explanation of why he had abandoned the stonecutting trade for the bootlegging life: “Work?” he asked. “Me work? Only suckers work.”
Only suckers and those who harbored dreams quite a bit larger than escape from the granite quarries. For instance, Sam Bronfman. In 1922 he was thirty-three years old, less than five feet six inches tall, with a receding chin, thinning hair, and a fortune among the largest in all of western Canada. He’d already had a liveried chauffeur for ten years, a Cadillac that turned heads as it cruised the streets of Winnipeg, and a temper that could peel paint. He believed that “you were somebody if you had money,” his son Edgar said years later, “and if you had a lot of money you were more of a somebody.” This would have explained his answer when he was asked what he believed was the greatest invention in the history of the world: “interest.”
Bronfman’s decision to transfer his base of operations from Winnipeg to Montreal, and his market from the upper Midwest to the rich, thick belt that ran from New York to Chicago, was inevitable. He would later acknowledge that he was slow to exploit the bejeweled cornucopia that was Detroit and the rich opportunities strung along the Eastern Seaboard, from Boston south. In time the delivery of liquor by rail into Windsor and by ship to Boston, New York, and other East Coast cities would make the Bronfmans wealthy beyond even Sam’s dreams. But first he had to develop a source of supply more reliable than the thousand-gallon redwood vats of his Saskatchewan boozoriums.
“MY HUSBAND WAS the most wonderful man in the whole world.” Those were the opening words of a privately published memoir that Saidye Rosner Bronfman wrote several years after Sam’s death in 1971. She truly believed it. The memoir, titled My Sam, recalls her long marriage to a man who loved to serenade her (“Baby Face” was his favorite song), surrounded her with servants (“If you want another maid,” he told her, “get another maid”), and forbade her to make gefilte fish (all that chopping, he said, reminded him of how hard his “dear little mother” had labored). They had married in 1922, when he was thirty-three and she was twenty-six, and though the wedding had been nice enough, there wasn’t really a honeymoon, unless you consider nearly two years lived on the road a honeymoon. Back and forth across Canada and the United States they traveled, visiting “Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Chicago, Buffalo, Detroit,” Saidye wrote, “packing and unpacking, always living out of a suitcase.” And her version of a stationmaster’s call didn’t even include Ottawa and Los Angeles and Louisville, all of them stops on the same ceaseless tour. The Bronfmans went to Ottawa for a family wedding; to Los Angeles to visit Sam’s widowed sister Jean, who was living there with her two young children (Jean’s husband was the Bronfman brother-in-law who had been blown away by the shotgun blast in Bienfait); and finally to Louisville, ostensibly to attend the Kentucky Derby.
It was a convenient reason, but a false one. The visit to Kentucky, like the couple’s expeditions to so many other places, was a business trip. In this specific case, the business was the Greenbrier Distillery, about fifty miles from Louisville. This was what Sam had been looking for all those months he had been scouring the continent: a permanently idled distillery he could purchase cheaply, then dismantle, ship north, and reassemble on Canadian soil. The Bronfmans found the perfect spot for it in the Montreal suburb of Ville LaSalle, on the banks of the St. Lawrence. Every day for two years, Sam, Harry, and Allan would visit the site to watch their future take form in the rising bulk of the reborn distillery.
Sam called this daily ritual his “hour of devotion.” But in 1926 he and Allan made a trip that qualified as a pilgrimage. They sailed that year to Great Britain to meet with the men who controlled the Scotch whiskey industry. The Bronfmans had been buying from the Scots since 1920, importing thousands upon thousands of barrels, blending it with their own production, and marketing it as “highland whiskey.” Now they had a bigger idea: they wanted to create a partnership on the western side of the Atlantic, with both parties sharing in the profits bottled up in the famous brand names the Bronfmans wanted to import.
In London the dour, careful men on the other side of the table had reason to listen. The year before, the Distillers Company Limited, a combination of several family firms that had been in existence since 1877, had finally brought into its fold the five leading brands in the British whiskey industry: Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, White Horse, Haig & Haig, and Black & White. Upon completing what became known as the “Big Amalgamation,” the DCL, by this point the world’s largest liquor company, controlled virtually all of Scotland’s distilling facilities, the most prominent brands, and several of the UK’s leading gin producers as well, including Tanqueray and Gordon’s. Operating the way any healthy cartel would, it had quickly established a schedule of protocols—price fixing, brand allocation, quality control—governing sale to the illicit American market. In their internal documents, the Scots referred to the United States only as “the scheduled area,” while otherwise maintaining the pretense that the whiskey they were shipping across the Atlantic was intended for Canada, Bermuda, or the British islands of the Caribbean.
The top officers of Distillers Company Limited had known the Bronfmans to be reliable trading partners who were quick with payment for the malt they’d been importing for their simulated “highland whiskey.” They approved of the quality of the Bronfman product (from their suite at the Savoy, Sam and Allan had sent over samples for the Scots to taste), and they had chosen either to be complimented or to remain indifferent when Sam had made the audacious decision, in 1924, to call the Bronfman family business Distillers Corporation Limited. Sam was not the only audacious Bronfman: “There was no special reason for the name,” Allan blandly told an interviewer four decades later.
The original DCL tempered its eagerness to enter into a Bronfman partnership with Scottish prudence. After further meetings in Edinburgh, the Scots sent Sam and Allan home with an equivocal response. Less than a month later the firm’s chairman, William Henry Ross, arrived in Montreal with his deputy Thomas Herd to do some research. Although the DCL was nearly as old as the sixty-four-year-old Ross, it was he who had turned it into a formidable trust. Six feet five, full-bearded, and blade thin (Fortune said he looked like George Bernard Shaw as painted by El Greco), Ross was austere in manner but exceptionally adroit in extracting agreement from the disagreeable. “No man but William Ross could have made a Dewar and a Walker sit down at the same table together,” said one of the whiskey barons.
The report Ross and Herd later delivered to their fellow DCL directors—“an investigation as to the position of the Scotch Whisky trade in Canada”—was a monument to the compelling force of self-interest. They found the Bronfmans’ Ville LaSalle distillery more than adequate, its location near railroad facilities auspicious, the records of the business in excellent order, and “the statements made by the Brothers Bronfman when in London and Scotland to be strictly accurate.” But because part of their mission was “to enquire into the general character and respectability” of their potential partners, the Scotsmen expanded their investigative efforts in Montreal. “We had to set about our enquiries very judiciously,” they wrote, “but were met at the outset with the fact that the Jews to which the Bronfmans belong are not generally regarded with favour in Canada.” Their informants “admitted that the Brothers Bronfman were honest hard-working men who could be relied upon to fulfil any financial obligations undertaken by them, but notwithstanding this fact they advised us to have no dealings with any of the Jews.” Ross and Herd cited two reasons for not going into a direct partnership with the Bronfmans: one they summarized as “race,” and the other they characterized as “the class of business with which they were associated”—namely, bootlegging.
Funny thing, though: all the other Canadian distillers, the two wrote, also happened to be “doing their utmost to develop this particular outlet.” Because that made it impossible for DCL to take a position in the Canadian market with clean hands in any case, maybe it made sense to work out something with the Bronfmans, but . . . not with the Bronfmans. The solution Ross and Herd proposed was a separate DCL-controlled holding company formed specifically to enter into a partnership with Sam and his brothers, “thus removing all direct touch with the Bronfmans.” The summary was brilliant: “The Bronfmans would expect to be represented on the board of the Holding Company,” wrote Ross and Herd, “but as this would be a private company and not a Trading concern their connection with same, even if known, should not affect the business prejudicially.
Besides, the Scots added, the Bronfmans “possess considerable political influence and have a good outlet for their distillery products.” In 1926 a liquor cartel couldn’t ask for more in a North American partner. For the next five years, while the British market for whiskey and gin dropped more than 6 percent annually, and even as a worldwide depression bared its teeth, the directors of DCL paid their shareholders of its common stock a dividend yielding 20 percent annually.
NEARLY FORTY YEARS after Sam Bronfman’s deal with the Scots and his subsequent purchase of the old Canadian firm of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons,* he sat down with two reporters working on a profile for Fortune. He had long been one of the wealthiest men in North America, a celebrated industrialist, philanthropist, and civic leader. He had been named a Companion of the Order of Canada, counted the prime minister of Israel among his friends, had met the queen of England. Discussing the rise of the Bronfmans, he said, “This operation from the beginning was one man. You’ve probably gathered that.”
Certainly the vast global operation that the House of Seagram would become was the creation of the brilliant, driven, and explosive “Mr. Sam,” as he was known to employees and other sycophants. But during the Fortune interview, he had chosen to forget how, at least in the early days, he had depended on his brothers. Each had played a critical role in Sam’s rise. The brothers who were most visible were Harry, with whom Sam probably had the most in common, and Allan, a lawyer whose negotiating skills put him at the center of much of Sam’s deal making.
Yet in the Prohibition years the eldest Bronfman, Abe, might have been the irreplaceable one. While Harry ran the operation at the Montreal distillery and Allan traveled with Sam to London, Edinburgh, and New York, Abe toiled in less worldly places. Early on this put him in St. John, New Brunswick, presiding over the cars and trucks ferrying liquor across the border to Vermont. Soon, first from St. John and later from Halifax, and then the North Atlantic island of St. Pierre, Abe would direct a complex logistical operation: loading Bronfman product into the holds of schooners bound for points south or onto trains headed for Detroit; filing bills of lading with Canadian customs officials indicating that the cargo was on its way to Cuba; submitting to those same officials stacks of falsified landing certificates that had been procured by a Bronfman agent in Havana and mailed back to Canada; and collecting great stacks of money. Some of that money would find its way to the Bank of Montreal, which was willing to accept it for deposit because, an internal document said, the unnamed depositor in question—“a liquor exporting concern whose product finds a market in the U.S.A.”—had managed to “prevent their name or the name of this bank being connected with remittances from United States sources.” Abe was good at this sort of thing: no fingerprints, no foul.
It was never clear exactly how much cash the Bronfman-owned Canadian Distributing Company and Atlantic Import Company brought in during those early years. Testifying before a Royal Commission examining the liquor export business in 1927, Abe said he could not produce the companies’ ledgers. “They were in the way,” Abe told the inquiry in sworn testimony. “I had no further use for them, and I burnt them up.” Abe’s associate in Nova Scotia, a Bronfman brother-in-law named Barney Aaron, was less forthright with the commission member who was curious about some outgoing shipments that had been cleared for Lima, Peru. How, the commissioner wondered, would a boat get to Lima, which is inland from the port city of Callao? Aaron demurred at first, pointing out, “I am not a navigator.” Then he became more helpful. “Lima,” he explained, “may have been built before the ocean was near the shore there.”
Sam Bronfman was more careful than Abe or Barney during those hearings. He saved his candor for the Fortune interview, nearly four decades later. Even though “I have no proof,” he said, he couldn’t help but suspect that a certain quantity of the liquor the family had put on those boats had somehow ended up in the United States.
* The coarseness increased commensurately with his fortune. Biographer Nicholas Faith said a characteristic Bronfman insult would have him calling someone “a cocksucking son of a cocksucking cocksucker.”
* In Saul Bellow’s Herzog, the protagonist remembers his father, a small-time Montreal bootlegger, at the kitchen table in their dingy flat, labels and paste pot at the ready: “Well, children, what shall it be—White Horse, Johnnie Walker?” Then, Herzog recalls, “We’d all call out our favorites” and get to work.
* In 1992, when Sam’s son Edgar was asked why anyone would have sold a Canadian distillery in 1928, he replied, “Goyim.”