A number of copyediting and wording errors crept into the published version of this essay-review, and I've given in to the urge to repair them in the following WWW rendering.  Hence,  the following is not a fully faithful copy of the original article as it appeared in SHAR but a revised version.  The original cite is Ron Roizen, "Mr. Sam, Seagram's, and the Status of Alcohol:  A Review Essay," Social History of Alcohol Review 25:48-54, 1992.


(Almost) Mr. Sam, Seagram's, and the Status of Alcohol: A Review Essay

Michael R. Marrus, Samuel Bronfman: The Life and Times of Seagram's Mr. Sam, Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press, 1991, pp. 549.

Ron Roizen
Alcohol History Project
Southwest Regional Laboratory

Michael R. Marrus -- a distinguished University of Toronto historian, perhaps best known for his studies of the Jewish experience in Europel -- has done an excellent and painstaking job assembling a new study of Samuel Bronfman.  Much in Marrus' book confirms and expands upon an earlier -- and also excellent -- study of Sam and his empire by noted Canadian journalist, Peter C. Newman.2

Sam Bronfman was the imperious, petulant, and brilliant architect and kingpin of the vast Seagram's liquor empire until his death at age 81 in 1971.  He was the third oldest son in a large, tightly-knit Jewish immigrant family that first settled in western Canada about 1890. In 1903, Sam's older brothers, Abe and Harry, entered the hotel business with the purchase of a small hotel in Emerson, Manitoba.  Over a decade, the new family business grew to several establishments, most situated in small Canadian towns.  In 1912, Sam bought the Bell Hotel in Winnipeg, but his hotel career would be short-lived.  As it happened, it was the liquor sales in hotel bars that provided the profit margin for the hotels.  "This was," Marrus recounts, "the essential fact of inn-keeping life that witnesses repeatedly stressed before the Royal Commission on the Liquor Traffic in Canada in 1894, and had not changed in the two decades that followed" (p. 57).  As in the U.S., Canada's temperance activity was greatly energized by the country's entry into the First World War in 1914.  By 1916, the combination of generally poor economic times and new provincial restrictions, which closed all hotel bars,3 had soured the hotel business and depleted the family's financial reserves.  Sam looked for a new endeavor.

Though much of Canada was legally dry, and the push for national prohibition was gaining strength in 1916, the province of Quebec remained wet.  Prohibition laws in the dry provinces, moreover, did not outlaw private purchases of alcohol originating outside provincial borders.  As Canada drifted in a dry direction, Sam set up the Bonaventure Liquor Store Company in Montreal and went into business shipping alcohol to a far-flung network of mail-order customers.  By 1918, however, the new enterprise had fallen prey to the prohibitionary legislative tide.  Quebec became the last province to vote itself dry, and the Canadian federal government had finally outlawed the mail-order liquor business, imposing a national-level prohibition on Canada for the first time. The new prohibitionary arrangements did, however, liberally allow for the "medicinal use" of alcohol dispensed from licensed pharmacies.  Sam immediately set up the Canada Pure Drug Company, in Yorkton, Saskatchewan and was soon again doing a brisk business.

Unlike the United States' national prohibitionary measure, which for permanency's sake had been etched into the federal constitution, Canada's national measure incorporated a pre-set time limit.4  It would lapse, the law said, one full year after the war's end, by which time peacetime circumstances would have returned and national prohibition could be given a fresh appraisal.  In fact, traditionally wet Quebec did not wait for the full year to pass before voting wet, in April 1919 -- thus ending national prohibition's short reign in Canada.  And although dry Canadians did succeed in reaffirming prohibition in several provincial plebiscites across Canada during the following months (see Smart and  Ogbome 1987:51), over the next few years, all but one of the provinces drifted from prohibition to alcohol control.  By 1927, only Prince Edward Island (which  held out until 1948) remained legally dry (see Hose 1928; Austin and Prendergast 1991).

Quebec's early wet vote was accompanied by the federal government's relaxation of the ban on the inter-province, mail-order trade, and Sam readily resumed that lucrative enterprise. The really important legislative event in the story of Sam's growing business, however, was happening south of the border, in the U.S. For Canada -- which had entered the War in 1914, three years before the U.S.' entry in 1917 -- was abandoning national prohibition just as the U.S. was imposing it. The coincidence, as Marrus notes (p. 73), opened up a huge new market.  Canadian law, moreover, did not proscribe selling alcohol for export, even if the export were destined for its now-dry southern neighbor.  Thus, Canadian sellers could carry out a perfectly legal, tax-paying liquor trade, servicing American buyers who crossed the border into Canada to buy alcohol.  The buyers then tucked their purchases into fast Studebakers or ChrisCraft speedboats and returned across the border whereupon their cargoes became contraband.

The opening of the new American market could not have happened at a better time for Sam.  His mail-order and medicinal alcohol experience, his system of warehouses strategically located at provincial borders, his good credit with Canadian banks (allowing the building of a considerable inventory), and his tradition of family business enterprise spawned in the hotel trade provided him with the means to make the most of this golden commercial opportunity.  In Sam's hands, the asymmetry of the Canadian and U.S. alcohol control circumstances could be exploited in other ways as well.  Marrus notes many examples of this, including the 1927 purchase with his brothers of the Greenbriar Distillery in Kentucky.  They bought it at a bargain price, disassembled it, and had it shipped and reassembled at a well-chosen site outside Montreal. The chief distiller and the engineer of the Greenbriar were also brought along to run the new production operation.

By the time of Repeal in the U.S., in 1933, Sam and family had amassed a considerable business and fortune.  Wealth and corporate power, however, did not provide Sam with entree into the elite ranks of Canadian society, which was his aspiration.  As Marrus notes, "Sam had difficulty polishing his tarnished reputation of the prohibition years" (p. 217).  Yet, Sam's rejection, whatever its psychic cost, may have contributed a key ingredient to his enormous marketing successes in the post-Repeal era.  For it was in that period that Sam embraced the notion of identifying his products with high quality and great prestige (see pp. 231 et seq.).  This preoccupation, as Marrus' account notes, was deeply intertwined with his own prestige insecurities and needs.  It was expressed in Sam's attentiveness to the smallest details of Seagram's production, packaging, and advertising.  As Marrus explains, Sam

craved the status and gentility associated with 'the best,' just as he abhorred the disabilities that went with the poverty of his childhood and youth.  Beyond this, he also sensed that millions of North Americans had similar aspirations; in the depths of the Depression, ordinary people would also respond to the appeals of quality (p. 235).
Here, in other words, Sam's psychic needs -- which placed a high premium on the derived prestige he might borrow from his company's product -- meshed with a keen marketing insight.  Sam's prestige-based advertising -- including his famous moderation-promoting ads -- spoke to both his quest for personal prestige and the low standing in which alcoholic beverages were held in the new post-Repeal era.  Though Repeal had re-granted commercial legitimacy to alcohol, most Americans had little good to say or think about drinking.  The great battle over Repeal (as Kyvig [1979] noted) had been won not by those who thought alcohol was good over those who thought it bad, but instead by those who thought prohibition's negatives were even worse than alcohol's. As Bacon (1967) has persuasively argued, a deep chord of temperance sentiment continued to run through American moral definitions of alcohol in the post-Repeal era.  Bronfman, according to Marrus' account, clearly discerned alcohol's symbolic dilemma and determined "to establish whisky drinking as a modern, socially responsible activity and an accoutrement of the good life" (p. 195).

Marrus' analysis of the link between Sam's personal status anxieties and alcohol's problematic cultural status in post-Repeal America is important.  Once the issue of alcohol's commercial legitimacy was resolved in 1933, a new struggle over alcohol's symbolic legitimacy and standing -- as I have argued elsewhere (Roizen 1991a, 1991b) -- commenced in earnest in the U.S.  This symbolic contest played itself out in a number of  different sociocultural arenas, each with its own particular story.  In the regulatory arena, for example, a number of the U.S.' southern and Canadian-border states opted for the 'monopoly system," selling alcohol only out of state-run stores.  These very states were often relatively dry in terms of contemporary popular sentiment and tradition and thus posed the intriguing contradiction that where alcohol remained quite stigmatized, the state nevertheless became the commodity's dispenser to the public.

Perhaps the most acute symbolic dilemma posed by Repeal occurred in the educational arena.  Forty-seven of the country's forty-eight states had temperance education statutes on their books mandating educational units on alcohol for primary and secondary public school students.  By and large, that pedagogy had been provided over the years by dry groups -- the WCTU, etc. -- and instructed students in the many dimensions of alcohol's evil.  What would now become of such pedagogy in the post-Repeal era, when the state had not only implicitly certified alcohol for general public use but (as just noted) in some states had become liquor's sole seller?  Some wets argued that it was unfair and inappropriate for the state in this way to attack a legal commercial commodity.  Others merely chafed at the apparent symbolic contradiction.  Alcohol -- as Levine (1978), Beauchamp (1980), and others have pointed out -- needed to be domesticated or de-vilified for it to become symbolically compatible with its newly legalized commercial status.  American drys recognized the threat implicit in domesticating or de-vilifying alcohol's symbolic definition -- particularly as this threat was manifested in calls for a new value on moderation in drinking practices.  Hence many post-Repeal drys vigorously opposed pro-rnoderation campaigns as inherently and inevitably also pro-drinking in their implication.

Bronfman's ambition to invest every last ounce of Seagram's products with quality and sophistication afforded whiskey a crucial counterweight in the post-Repeal symbolic balance. Particularly in magazine advertisements, Bronfman hammered home his prestige-infusing messages, variously identifying Seagram's products with high social rank, with sophisticated tastes, and with moderate and cultured use.  The exercise exploited several dimensions of cultural worth.  Some ads emphasized Seagram's commitment to adequate aging, for instance, laying claim to being "the good stuff' or "the real McCoy" -- as opposed to the hastily-prepared wet goods other manufacturers had rushed to market in order to exploit the great demand Repeal had suddenly occasioned.  Fortune magazine applauded (see "Liquor" 1934:12).  In this case the rhetorical virtue being attached to Seagram's products lay in the contradistinction between "good" and "bad" alcohol. Other ads emphasized the high social rank and cultured use that drinkers of Seagram's products reflected.  Here, the contradistinction lay in rejecting low-brow drinkers with uncouth and excessive drinking styles.  Even Bronfman's well-known marketing commitment to "blend" whiskies, with their "lighter" color and palate, can (with a little imagination) be seen as a stratagem for distancing his new products from the subtly aggressive overtones associated with "straight" or "hard" liquor. The nuance, here, also emphasized the beverages taste and texture-that is, the aesthetics of its consumption-over its intoxicating impact.  In all these ways, and many more, Bronfman's brilliance as a crafter of cultural imagery placed the cross-hairs of Seagram's marketing strategy on precisely the symbolic issue that posed the chief barrier to alcohol's post-Repeal cultural legitimacy and domestication.

Though Marrus' book was commissioned by Seagram's and the Bronfman family, the author succeeds in providing a balanced picture, omitting neither Sam's notorious blemishes nor his ample virtues from the canvas.  If Marrus' book can be said to falter, however, it does so by never quite succeeding in defining an over-arching and sustaining scholarly mission.  Even a principled realism in family portraiture harbors dilemmas.  One wonders, for example, whether Marrus would have offerered quite so rich a description of Sam's wife, Saidye's, wedding attire if he had written the book in other circumstances.  Some of Marrus' best contextualizing, without the benefit and frame of a clear scholarly agenda, took on a vaguely decorative feel.  That said, Marrus' disciplined craftsmanship and his thorough-going research will certainly make Mr. Sam required reading for future students of Bronfman and his world.


1Besides his studies of the Holocaust, the displaced persons crisis in Europe, and the Jewish experience in modern-France (see Marrus 1985, 1987 and Marrus and Paxton 1981), some SHAR readers may recall Marrus' 1974 study of drinking practices in Belle Epoque France.
2Reading Marrus or Newman on Bronfman may also help some readers decode Canadian novelist, Mordecai Richler's (1989) fictionalized Solomon Gursky Was Here.
3Marrus' account notes the delicious detail that the future whiskey baron "for a time...continued to run the Bell as a 'temperance hotel'" (p. 64), though disappearing profits ended the attempt.
4As Smart and Ogborne (1987:41) pointed out, "We have no sound moden history of Prohibition in Canada, nor is much attention paid to it in standard historical works."  Nevertheless, the story of the rise and fall of Canadian national prohibition is an intriguing one -- particularly, for this reader at least, for its rich supply of instructive parallels and contrasts with the U.S. experience.  Smart and Ogborne's (1987) book, Northern Spirits: Drinking in Canada Then and Now, provides a readable introduction and offers good leads to the available literature, particularly relating to provincial prohibition movements.  Hose (1928) offers an authoritative account of Canada's transition from prohibition to alcohol control, providing for the Canadian literature something akin to what Harrison and Laine (1936) provided for the post-Repeal U.S. literature.  C. W. Hunt's recently published Booze Boats and Billions: Smuggling Liquid Gold! (1988) offers an entertaining anecdotal account of border alcohol trade from a Canadian perspective.  I also recommend the painstakingly detailed, year-by-year reports of Canadian prohibition's progress appearing in Chenington's Anti-Saloon League Year Book series.


Austin, Greg, and Prendergast, Michael. Alcohol in Canada: A Chronological History, Los Alamitos, California, 1991.

Bacon, Selden D. "The Classic Temperance Movement of the U.S.A.: Impact Today on Attitudes, Action and Research," British Journal of Addiction 62:5-18, 1967.

Beauchamp, Dan E., Beyond Alcoholism: Alcohol and Public Health Policy, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

Harrison, Leonard V., and Laine, Elisabeth, After Repeal : A Study of Liquor Control Administration, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1936.

Hose, Reginald E. Prohibition or Control? Canada's Experience With The Liquor Problem 1921-1927, New York, London, Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1928.

Hunt, C. W. Booze Boats and Billions: Smuggling Liquid Gold! Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988.

Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Levine, Harry Gene. "The Discovery of Addiction: Changing Conceptions of Habitual Drunkenness in America," Journal of Studies on Alcohol 39:143-174, 1978.

"Liquor In America: An Interim Audit." Fortune 10:98-, (October) 1934.

Marrus, Michael R. The Holocaust in History, University Press of New England, 1987.

Marrus, Michael R. The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Marrus, Michael R., and Paxton, Robert 0., Vichy France and the Jews, New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Newman, Peter C. King of the Castle: The Making of A Dynasty: Seagram's and the Bronfman Empire, New York: Antheneum, 1979.

Richler, Mordecai, Solomon Gursky Was Here, New York: Penguin, 1989.

Roizen, Ron. "The American Discovery of Alcoholism, 1933-1939." Ph.D. dissertation, Sociology, University of Califomia, Berkeley, 1991a.

Roizen, Ron. "Redefining alcohol in post-Repeal America: lessons from the short life of Everett Colby's Council for Moderafion, 1934-1936," Contemporary Drug Problems 18:237-272, 1991b.

Smart, Reginald G., and Ogbome, Alan C. Northern Spirits: Drinking in Canada Then and Now, Toronto: Addiction Research Foundation, 1986.