When Edgar M. Bronfman Sr. heard that the pope had honored Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian president he had exposed as an ex-Nazi complicit in war crimes, he fired off a note to the Vatican.

Pope John Paul II making Waldheim a papal knight was "like giving a rotten structure a fresh coat of paint," the billionaire head of the World Jewish Congress wrote with his customary directness.

He received no reply to his 1987 letter — but the same blunt approach helped him persuade the Soviets to allow Jewish emigration and the Swiss to acknowledge that their banks had swallowed up the life savings deposited by Holocaust victims.

Bronfman, an heir to the Seagram's whiskey empire who later in life led a global campaign for Jewish causes, died Saturday at his New York City home, according to an announcement from his family's charity, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. He was 84.

The cause of death was not disclosed.

The hard-driving Bronfman grew up in luxury, surrounded himself with fine art and for years led a life chronicled in gossip columns.

His 1974 marriage to the beautiful young Lady Carolyn Townshend ended when he had it annulled after less than a year; during their courtship, he tried to ease her qualms by giving her a Cartier box containing a nose plug so she could "hold her nose and jump in," Nicholas Faith wrote in his 2006 book, "The Bronfmans: The Rise and Fall of the House of Seagram."

In 1975, Bronfman's son Samuel Bronfman II was kidnapped in a rural area outside New York City. After Bronfman delivered a ransom of $2.3 million, his son's two captors were arrested. A jury convicted them of extortion rather than kidnapping — a sign, perhaps, that jurors were swayed by a defense theory that Samuel had set up his own abduction.

Though Bronfman was well known for high-powered business deals, including major investments in Hollywood that briefly made him the head of MGM, he is best remembered for his activism on behalf of Jews.

His father, Sam Bronfman, a tough-talking Canadian whose distilleries boomed during Prohibition just across the border, had been head of the Canadian Jewish Congress. His son, however, was not particularly religious.

"Much of my life had given secularity new meaning," he wrote in a 1996 memoir titled "The Making of a Jew."

"There was ham in our house on Yom Kippur," he wrote. "I had rejected not just Judaism but religion in general."

However, after his dictatorial dad died in 1971, Bronfman gradually rediscovered his religious identity.

Bronfman became "a bulldozer against anti-Semitism the world over," Faith wrote, noting that, unlike his father and other Jewish leaders of the day outside Israel, Bronfman was fearless about drawing attention, pursuing restitution for Holocaust victims' heirs as aggressively as he pursued any of his business deals.

He enlisted the aid of high-placed friends — like Bill and Hillary Clinton — against the Swiss bankers who were among his favorite targets.

"The only way to deal with these bastards is to scare them," Bronfman told Forbes magazine in 1999. "At a meeting in Jerusalem I gave them hell. I told them the American people thought of Swiss banks as havens for drug money and for the dictators of the world such as Mobuto and Marcos, and if they weren't careful we would ratchet up the whole controversy."

Born in Montreal on June 20, 1929, Edgar Miles Bronfman started working for the family business shortly after graduating from McGill University in 1951. The next year, he found a production flaw that affected 25,000 cases of VO whiskey; he closed the plant for days to track down the source of a taste that wasn't quite right.

He became Seagram's president when he was 28. Soon he was working at the Seagram building, a landmark skyscraper his family built on New York's Park Avenue. He became a U.S. citizen in 1959.

In the late 1960s, he invested in Sagittarius Productions, a company that produced several Broadway hits and movies, including "Joe Hill" and an animated version of E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web." In 1969, he took on the leadership of MGM but quickly sold his interest to Kirk Kerkorian.

Comedian Don Rickles, spotting Bronfman in a Hollywood club, couldn't help himself: "Hey, there's Edgar Bronfman!" he told the crowd. "He was chairman of MGM for five whole minutes."

Bronfman also led his company into more profitable investments, including a major stake in the DuPont chemical company. Bronfman's net worth as of 2010 was $2.6 billion, according to Forbes.

Bronfman's son, Edgar Jr., catapulted Seagram into the entertainment business with a series of deals in the 1990s. He bought MCA, the film and music company for $5.7 billion but ran into a corporate disaster when his investment in French media conglomerate Vivendi went bad. In the early 2000s, the family company was dismantled.

Meanwhile, the elder Bronfman devoted himself to traveling the world and lobbying for the World Jewish Congress, a group of about 80 organizations.

"Making money is marvelous and I love doing it, and I do it reasonably well," he told the New York Times in 1986, "but it doesn't have the gripping vitality that you have when you deal with the happiness of human life and with human deprivation."

He stepped down from the group's presidency in 2007. He continued his longtime involvement with Hillel campus groups and other organizations seeking what he called "a Jewish renaissance."

"The biggest problem today is not anti-Semitism," he told a Hillel gathering at Cal State Northridge in 1995. "It's lack of Semitism."

Bronfman, who was married five times, including twice to the same woman, is survived by his wife, Jan Aronson; sons Samuel Bronfman II, Edgar Bronfman Jr., Matthew Bronfman and Adam Bronfman; daughters Holly Bronfman Lev, Sara Igtet and Clare Bronfman; brother Charles Bronfman; sister Phyllis Lambert; 24 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com