This spring, Clare Bronfman, the 31-year-old heiress to the multi-billion-dollar Seagram liquor fortune, would describe to a New York court the extortion letter that was sent to her on April 24, 2009. Intended for her 33-year-old sister, Sara, as well, it was signed by several women, including the sisters’ financial planner, a masseuse, and a hairstylist, and demanded that “they be paid $2.1 million by midnight,” Clare said in a sworn declaration, “or else they would go to the press with information they deemed harmful to my sister and I.” What that information was, the letter didn’t say, but Clare viewed the threat as alarming. The daughters of the billionaire philanthropist and former Seagramchairman, Edgar Bronfman Sr., and the half-sisters of Edgar junior, the chairman of Warner Music Group, Sara and Clare were not simply heiresses to a global empire built by their grandfather Samuel Bronfman. As they would describe themselves, they were also important, wealthy entrepreneurs and philanthropists in their own right—women who bankrolled a web of investments and humanitarian foundations based in the Albany region, where they lived. Indeed, as Clare would tell a court this spring, the extortion demand arrived when she and Sara “were two weeks away from hosting the Dalai Lama in Albany for an event on humanitarian issues.”
The alleged threat would have been disturbing if it occurred. But among the many allegations that have been made about Sara and Clare Bronfman in recent months was the charge that Clare was lying about the “extortion” letter. Made in hundreds of pages of court documents that began to leak out to the press this spring, they have stunned friends of the Bronfman family. Many knew that Edgar Bronfman’s daughters were involved in a secretive organization called nxivm (pronounced “nexium”), a group that he himself had openly referred to as “a cult.” But only a few were aware of what the court documents would reveal—the massive gutting by the Bronfman daughters of their family trust funds to help finance nxivm and the alleged investment schemes of its leader, a 50-year-old man by the name of Keith Raniere. The amount—reportedly $100 million—was staggering and made for eye-popping headlines. But according to legal filings and public documents, in the last six years as much as $150 million was taken out of the Bronfmans’ trusts and bank accounts, including $66 million allegedly used to cover Raniere’s failed bets in the commodities market, $30 million to buy real estate in Los Angeles and around Albany, $11 million for a 22-seat, two-engine Canadair CL-600 jet, and millions more to support a barrage of lawsuits across the country against nxivm’s enemies. Much of it was spent, according to court filings, as Sara and Clare Bronfman allegedly worked to conceal the extent of their spending from their 81-year-old father and the Bronfman-family trustees.
But Edgar Bronfman knew at least some of what was going on, according to those who have spoken to him. And he was deeply concerned, says one ex-nxivm member who met with him last year. “He wanted to know how his girls were. He was worried about them,” this person says. “He saw them, but only the façade.” They were distant and secretive. “I was afraid,” this person says, “to tell him what was really happening.” Like many former members of nxivm, this person was afraid of the consequences of speaking out. But in the last few months, people have begun to come forward with stories about nxivm. Stories about private detectives allegedly obtaining bank and phone records of nxivm opponents; stories of its critics being followed and threatened and, in one case, reportedly run off the road by a black limousine; accounts of a motherless three-year-old boy, brought into the group as a newborn under mysterious circumstances, and about the circumstances behind the Dalai Lama’s visit to Albany. Suddenly darker questions were being raised about how the Bronfmans’ money was being used. Indeed, today, in the multiple lawsuits involving the Bronfman sisters, there are serious allegations being lobbed—not just of possible blackmail and perjury but also of other “potentially illegal” activities, including theft and “a conspiracy to forge documents.”