Poor Little Rich Girls: The Ballad of Sara and Clare Bronfman

Sara and Clare Bronfman are the products of Edgar Bronfman Sr.’s second marriage, to an English nightclub receptionist 21 years his junior. He met Rita Webb in Marbella, Spain, and, like a lot of men, he fell hard for her fair-haired beauty and disarming guilelessness. The daughter of pub owners, the young Miss Webb was an unapologetic social climber. Renaming herself Georgiana after Edgar Sr. took to calling her George, she married him in 1975, gave birth to Sara the following year and had Clare two-and-a-half years later.

In one of his three memoirs, Edgar Sr. wrote that Georgiana asked for a divorce “shortly after Clare was born.” The couple remarried for a brief stint in the early ’80s, a decision Mr. Bronfman
termed “really naïve.” After the second divorce, she began a brief but tempestuous affair with Lorenzo Ricciardi, an Italian filmmaker in his 60s. He was arrested in 1990 for trying to kill her. In 2007, at age 57, she married British television actor Nigel Havers, an inveterate lady-killer and wingman to Mick Jagger.

While Georgiana divided her time between New York, London and Kenya, the girls spent most of their childhood in England. They make scant appearances in Edgar Sr.’s memoirs. He mentions the anti-Semitic bullying that 13-year-old Clare suffered at school in England and his having the offender expelled. In 1996, he wrote, Sara had “gone through the normal phase of rebellion, especially from her mother.” His 2002 book mentions Sara attending school but makes no reference to her brief marriage to Irishman Ronan Clarke. Months after their Las Vegas wedding, the marriage was in tatters, and Sara was adrift.

Susan White, a family friend, recommended an ESP course to Sara. She enrolled in a seminar, as did Edgar Bronfman Sr. Sara was instantly hooked, and Clare, an amateur equestrian with ambitions to be an Olympic show jumper, followed soon after. In 2003, the sisters settled near Albany, working as ESP trainers while Clare nurtured her flagging equestrian dreams in Saratoga Springs. By October 2003, Edgar Bronfman Sr. had decided the group was a cult, an assessment he aired to a Forbes reporter, but it was already too late.

“They’re just nice girls. Clare is a bit withdrawn and certainly the type to stay in and read while everyone else goes out, but they’re both very, very warm and unpretentious,” Yuri Plyam, Mr. Raniere’s former commodities broker and real estate partner, said. When Sara and Clare came to Los Angeles at Mr. Raniere’s behest to sign papers and tour properties, Mr. Plyam said, they stayed at his home.

“They were more interested in staying home and playing with our kids than real estate investment,” he said. Mr. Plyam is now bankrupt and being sued by both sisters over a stalled real estate deal. He believes they are merely acting as Mr. Raniere’s pawns.

NXIVM is headquartered in a modest suburban office park on the outskirts of Albany. Parking spaces near the entrance bear the first initials and last names of the organization’s top officials. On a Friday afternoon in July, the lot was empty save for one midrange BMW in an unmarked spot in the middle of the VIP section. I was visiting the center with John Tighe, a 53-year-old retired waste-management worker for the city of Saratoga Springs who has been chronicling the NXIVM saga on his blog, “Saratoga in Decline.”

Mr. Tighe frequently mocks NXIVM on his blog, and a few concerned Saratogians have started a legal defense fund for him. Mr. Tighe marvels at the paranoia the organization has instilled in many former associates but remains unbowed. “I guess when you’ve got nothing to lose, you’ve got nothing to fear,” he said.

The first occasion I spoke to anyone with direct involvement in NXIVM was a phone call from an anonymous Skype account. A female voice said that Mr. Tighe had disseminated my contact information among some of his sources. She had convened a conference call with a number of NXIVM dissidents willing to talk. They did not yet feel comfortable identifying themselves.

“But if none of you will tell me who you are.” I said. “How do I know you are actual NXIVM defectors and not actors?”

One instantly relented. “Very good point,” he said.

I was not actually concerned that my interlocutors were in the pay of Mr. Raniere but not because the scenario is implausible. In 2003, according to former NXIVM consultant Joseph O’Hara, the organization paid a $500,000 deposit to International Program Group, a now-defunct California-based private-investigation firm whose owners advertised themselves as former C.I.A. agents. The job was to probe the history of Kristin Snyder, who committed suicide, leaving a note in which she claimed to have been “brainwashed” during a 16-day “intensive” NXIVM seminar in Anchorage, Alaska, earlier that year. “I’m sorry. … I didn’t know I was already dead,” the note read.

In a separate case in 2004, NXIVM contracted Interfor, whose founder, Juval Aviv, claims to be an ex-agent for Mossad, to orchestrate a sting on anti-cult activist Rick Ross. Interfor hired an actress to impersonate a concerned mother seeking to hire Mr. Ross to lead an intervention for her son on a cruise ship. The intention, Mr. O’Hara claims, was to throw Mr. Ross overboard. They went so far as to wire Mr. Ross a $2,500 deposit for his services before dropping the plan.

More recently, court documents allege, NXIVM retained private investigator Steven Rambam to harass Barbara Bouchey’s assistant and to loiter outside a hair salon she patronized, asking customers if they were aware Ms. Bouchey was “in trouble.”

On the evening of my visit to Saratoga Springs, Mr. Tighe called to inform me that a NXIVM member with whom I had met a few hours earlier had been “spotted” talking to me by a few apparent members of the cult. A few times walking along the town’s main drag, I distinctly heard voices call out “Moe” or “Maureen,” then disappear into the crowd.

“My son, a cult leader,” James Raniere said. “It’s just not so.” The elder Mr. Raniere is a retired advertising executive who talks with a Brooklyn accent. He responded to my inquiries, he said, primarily to defend his deceased wife, Vera. Many in the NXIVM community believe that Keith Raniere’s mother was an abusive alcoholic, and this, James contends, could not be farther from the truth. “She was the best mother I’ve ever come across,” he said. Keith’s first five years were spent in Brooklyn before the family moved to Rockland County for better public schools. By coincidence, James handled his agency’s Seagram’s account and said he knew Edgar Bronfman Sr. professionally during the 1970s. He is now remarried and settled in Easthampton.

The father and son remain close, James said. He has taken NXIVM classes, attended Vanguard Weeks and has met Gaelen, whom he describes as “one of the luckiest kids, to have five mothers doting on him.” James considers his own son a misunderstood genius whose classes “help people get things done and stop procrastinating.”

Records indicate that Keith graduated in three years from Troy’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1981. James told me his son spent the ’80s “drifting.” Ms. Bouchey believes that Keith toiled for much of the decade as a salesman in a series of “multilevel marketing” operations, a business he learned about from a girlfriend whose father was an Amway salesman. In 1990, he founded his own multilevel-marketing firm, Consumers’ Buyline, reselling $14 annual memberships in Purchase Power, a Texas discount club, for more than $200 per year. He was forced by authorities to shutter the operation in 1993 amid widespread allegations that it was a pyramid scheme.

The Consumers’ Buyline brain trust, however, remained intact. Keith Raniere and a few of his business partners—mostly women with whom he was or had been romantically involved—soon started another multilevel-marketing scheme, this time shilling vitamins and holistic health techniques.

NXIVM is a potent cocktail of ideas derived from self-help, therapeutic hypnosis, Scientology and the writings of Ayn Rand—all delivered through the classic mechanisms of the pyramid scheme first employed with Consumers’ Buyline. Its origins date to 1997, when Mr. Raniere met Nancy Salzman, a registered nurse. Their relationship was initially romantic, but, in Ms. Bouchey’s telling, he cut off their physical relationship abruptly over an apparent “ethical breach.” Still, Mr. Raniere saw potential in Ms. Salzman’s expertise in neuro-linguistic programming, a therapeutic form of mind control used to hypnotize patients out of habits like smoking and binge-eating. (Edgar Bronfman Sr. has credited hypnosis for enabling him to quit smoking.)

Mr. Raniere used hypnosis to help one his girlfriends, Toni Natalie, kick cigarettes. With the help of the (by all accounts) gentle and nurturing Ms. Salzman, he became more ambitious, using her techniques to promulgate his own worldview among his friends, starting with Ms. Natalie, who later said she had been their “guinea pig.”

“At the beginning with Toni, I really think a lot of it was just Keith using Nancy to advance his agenda of sleeping with other women,” Ms. Bouchey told me. She said the pair attempted to do the same with her. “She’ll say, ‘Well, why are you jealous? What don’t you like about yourself that is causing you to feel negatively in this way? We play tennis together. Would you feel jealous if you found out I had other tennis partners?’ And I thought about it a bit, and then I thought, now wait a second. Sex is not tennis!'”

Mr. Raniere and Ms. Salzman took the names Vanguard and Prefect. “I was the only one who dared to call him Keith,” Ms. Bouchey recently told me over dinner on the Upper East Side. I was like, ‘You’re not Vanguard. And Nancy, I’ve known you for 20 years, and I refuse to call you Prefect.”

Mr. Raniere and Ms. Salzman wrote a textbook laying out a sequence of 21 “modules” that would become the basis of NXIVM’s original three-week Executive Success Program. They started the seminars with Ms. Salzman’s existing list of clients. That is how Ms. Bouchey, then going through a divorce, found herself enrolled in a class. Ms. Salzman promised that NXIVM would help her cope. “It was totally life-changing,” Ms. Bouchey said.