The heiress wanted to meet the Dalai Lama. She wanted the Dalai Lama to be her friend. She had been obsessed with him for two-and-a-half years.
“I was literally in my bedroom one day listening to his tapes and thought to myself, wow, this guy is amazing!” Sara Bronfman told an Albany AM radio host last year. When His Holiness arrived in town the next day, Ms. Bronfman could take credit for his presence.
During her dilettantish early 20s, Ms. Bronfman continued, she never would have conceived of such an ambition, but for the previous five years she had been immersed in Executive Success Programs (ESP), a self-help regimen administered by the local organization NXIVM (pronounced Nex-ee-um). It was an experience she found singularly emboldening.
Ms. Bronfman sensed a connection between the Dalai Lama’s teachings and her training. “The way he looks at things is very scientific and very much in line with the philosophy of NXIVM,” she told the host. “I said, ‘Well, that kind of sounds like what we do!’ And I thought, maybe I could introduce myself and bring him here and introduce him to Keith, because I think Keith is a scientist and also a great philosopher.”
Ms. Bronfman was referring to NXIVM founder Keith Raniere, a bespectacled 49-year-old with graying, shoulder-length hair. Mr. Raniere, who goes by the moniker Vanguard, bills himself as a “leader in human potential development” and has trademarked a philosophy he calls the Rational Inquiry Method. He is what you would get, said one former associate, “if David Koresh and Bernie Madoff had a child.” Over the past seven years, Mr. Raniere has earned the devotion of Sara Bronfman and her sister, Clare. In that time, according to his former girlfriend and financial adviser, Babara Bouchey, Mr. Raniere has also squandered more than $100 million of the Bronfman liquor fortune, destabilizing one of New York’s most prominent business and social dynasties.
In NXIVM’s arcane system of ranking members by colored sashes and stripes, Ms. Bouchey ascended to the fourth stripe of the group’s green-sash tier. (In ascending order of rank, the NXIVM awards yellow, orange, green, purple and blue sashes.) As such, she is the highest-ranking of Mr. Raniere’s disciples to defect publicly from the group. “For years, I was telling them that the scarves, the stripes, all the weird stuff needed to go. I mean, come on, the bowing? There were a lot of good things about NXIVM, and we were turning people off with the weirdness.”
A restraining order bars Ms. Bouchey from speaking publicly about the Bronfman sisters, who have sued her for breach of fiduciary duty and invasion of privacy. But in an affidavit made public in January, she said the sisters had ceded more than $100 million to Mr. Raniere and his executive success operation. Sixty-five million dollars alone bankrolled what Ms. Bouchey and Mr. Raniere’s former commodities broker Yuri Plyam describe in court documents as a pathological day-trading addiction. Another $25 million financed the partial construction of 26 homes in Los Angeles at the peak of the housing bubble, in a now-stalled joint venture with Mr. Plyam, who, like Ms. Bouchey, has since declared bankruptcy amid increasingly convoluted legal disputes with the Bronfmans and other associates of Mr. Raniere.
The pair remain staunchly loyal to NXIVM and Mr. Raniere, who appears to have curtailed his most profligate spending habits. (A roster of NXIVM coaches lists Sara, 33, and Clare, 30, as having received the organization’s orange and green sashes, respectively.) But they continue to spend what one former NXIVM associate estimates is $2 million per month waging Mr. Raniere’s and NXIVM’s numerous legal and public relations battles with various enemies—skirmishes that have involved retaining the services of self-professed G.O.P. hit man Roger Stone and crisis communications firm Sitrick & Company, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians from Hillary Clinton to Mike Huckabee and contracting a series of aggressive private investigators to carry out a bizarre array of schemes, like an (ultimately abandoned) attempt to assassinate the anti-cult activist and “deprogrammer” Rick Ross.
Quixotically, Mr. Raniere also commissioned studies into establishing a sovereign country, another former NXIVM consultant said. According to that consultant, the Bronfmans at one point wired $500,000 on behalf of Mr. Raniere to a pair of purported ex-C.I.A. agents in an attempt to smear a NXIVM member who had committed suicide.
And then there are Mr. Raniere’s less clandestine affairs, from Vanguard Week, an extravagant 10-day festival NXIVM holds each August on the occasion of Mr. Raniere’s birthday at a resort in Lake George, to employing five nannies to tutor a 3-year-old orphan named Gaelen (whose mother’s identity is unknown) in Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish and English as part of Rainbow Cultural Garden, an international child-rearing experiment.
With their trust funds drained, Ms. Bouchey said, the sisters have started borrowing against the inheritance they expect to receive upon the death of their 81-year-old father, Edgar Bronfman Sr.
Mr. Bronfman’s fortune was pegged by Forbes this year at about $2.5 billion. That number would be larger by a few orders of magnitude if not for the dismemberment of the Seagram liquor cash cow, including its divestiture of a near-25 percent stake in DuPont, at the hands of the sisters’ half-brother, Edgar Jr., in his quest to become an entertainment mogul. (Of Edgar Jr., an anonymous Hollywood executive once quipped in the 1980s, “he’s like a piñata! Hit him, and money comes out.”)
The costly antics of the wayward sisters are but another in a series of blows to the Bronfman legacy the past four decades. In 2007, Edgar Sr. was forced to retire after almost three decades as president of the once-mighty World Jewish Congress, the liberal philanthropic organization known as “the diplomatic arm of the Jewish people,” after evidence surfaced that his trusted deputy, Rabbi Israel Singer, had embezzled more than $1 million.
Three decades ago, the clan suffered public humiliation when, on the eve of Edgar Sr.’s wedding to the sisters’ mother, his eldest son, Samuel II, who had just graduated from Williams College, was abducted by a pair of kidnappers, one of them a New York City firefighter, and held for a $4.6 million ransom. The next year, a jury acquitted the duo of kidnapping charges on suspicions that young Sam had been attempting to extort money from his father in retaliation for the anointing of his younger brother, Edgar, as heir to the Seagram throne.
But none of these shames match the strange contortions of the tale of Sara, Clare and the $100 million they gave up to the “philosopher” they call Vanguard.