Leo: A Life, Well-Lived

L. Ian MacDonald

January 10, 2020


Leo Kolber was famously punctual, as he reminded me when I rang the doorbell of his house, five minutes late for a luncheon meeting about writing his memoir.

“If we are going to work together,” he said as he answered the door, “you are going to have to learn to be on time.” On leaving his full and eventful life Thursday morning, Leo was a bit early — a week before his 91st birthday.

He lived on Summit Circle, at the top of Westmount — a symbolic residential achievement for more than a few of Canada’s self-made captains of industry, entertainment and politics over the past century. How he got there as the consigliere of the Bronfman liquor and real estate empire was part of the story of the memoir we worked on together, Leo: A Life, which became a national business bestseller in 2003.

Oh, the stories he told while we worked on that book, in his own words, and his own voice: from his birth in 1929 at the dawn of the Great Depression, to his retirement in 2004 as chair of the powerful Senate Banking Committee; from his role as chief fundraiser of the federal Liberal Party to champion of Israel and an array of non-profit causes. Whether he was fundraising for McGill, the Jewish General Hospital, Combined Jewish Appeal or the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, he knew how to get to “yes”. No one said no to Leo.

It was quite a trip to the summit for a kid who grew up as a dentist’s son, 5 km down the mountain and due northeast in the storied Jewish neighbourhood around St. Urbain Street immortalized in Mordecai Richler’s novels. His grandparents, Samuel and Naomi Kolber, had been immigrants from Austria and his grandfather, “a merchant and a moneylender,” as Leo recalled, had a clothing store in a building he owned on St. Laurent —  universally known as the Main, then the heart of the shmatte business — and lent people money for mortgages in places like Westmount.

Leo went to McGill as a 16-year undergraduate in 1945, and worked his way through law school, class of ’52. “It was at McGill,” he wrote, “that I met Charles Bronfman, who became my best friend for life.”

(Leo, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, would have been deeply touched at the end that Charles and his wife, Rita, flew to Montreal to say farewell).

It was through Charles that Leo met the legendary patriarch Sam Bronfman, builder of Distiller’s Corporation and Seagram’s, the foundation of the family’s iconic liquor brands and real estate investments. He was known as “Mr. Sam”, except to Leo, who loved him like a father and never called him anything except Mr. Bronfman.

Mr. Sam hired Leo to run Cemp Investments, the holding company named for his four children, Charles, Edgar, Minda and Phyllis. And from the Seagram castle on Peel St., Leo built the real estate developer Cadillac Fairview. CF built Canada’s urban and suburban landmarks of the 1960s and 70s, from Fairview Pointe Claire on Montreal’s West Island to the famed Toronto-Dominion Centre, whose Bay Street black towers defined the modern Toronto skyline until the CN Tower came along a decade later.

At the urging of his daughter, Phyllis Lambert, whose passion for design later inspired her founding of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Sam Bronfman had hired architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design the Seagram Building, which opened on Park Avenue in New York in 1958. When it came to hiring an architect for the TD Centre in the 1960s, she told Kolber: “It has to be Mies.” And, so it was, for both the TD Centre and Montreal’s Westmount Square, which, with the Seagram Building, are Phyllis and Leo’s black-box Mies van der Rohe triplets; an architectural legacy that has stood the test of time beautifully.

The other banks had no choice but to follow TD’s lead in building impressive head office towers, all within a few blocks in Toronto’s financial district. Decades later, when he flew into Toronto, Leo would often look down at the world class Toronto skyline, and think, “we did that.” And so they did, as well as the Eaton Centre, then the largest retail shopping space in Canada, 1.6 million square feet in the middle of downtown Toronto.

The vision was one part of building Cadillac Fairview as a great Canadian and international company. The rest was largely the relationships Kolber nurtured with the firm’s partners, none more so than Allen Lambert, chairman of the TD Bank in the 1960s and 1970s. They built the TD Centre on a handshake. When another bank pulled out of the Pacific Centre, a major development in Vancouver, Lambert told Kolber on the phone: “Count me in for a third. It’s a done deal.”

Aside from his involvement in business and politics, Leo maintained longstanding friendships with Hollywood legends including Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye and Cary Grant, whom he met through his major philanthropic work and service on corporate boards. His love of and support for Israel was the bond at the heart of his friendship with the late prime minister and peace maker Shimon Peres.

In his decades as an honourary Bronfman and the éminence grise known as the brains behind the family fortune, Leo straddled the line between respect for the dynasty and a desire for independence. Of everything he achieved, his success in balancing those allegiances may be his lasting legacy. He was both deeply loyal and never not his own man.

Leo served as a Liberal senator for 20 years under Pierre Trudeau, John Turner and Jean Chrétien in the days before Senate reform, when both parties appointed longtime fundraisers and few people blinked. But Leo was seriously interested in policy making, and played a leading role as chair of the Senate Banking Committee.

But his greatest interest was his family, his first wife Sandra who died of cancer in 2001, and their children Jonathan and Lynne and their grandchildren. In recent years, he found love again with Roni Hirsch, who saw him through his final illness.

His funeral will be held Sunday morning at 11 at the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue in Westmount. Don’t be late.

L. Ian MacDonald, Editor and Publisher of Policy, is co-author of Leo: A Life, the bestselling memoir by Leo Kolber.