Last week, during a seven-day celebration at an old-fashioned YMCA resort in upstate New York, Keith Raniere, the mysterious and charismatic leader of a so-called “human development” organization called NXIVM Corp., turned 50 years old. Vanguard Week—or VWeek, as the annual festival coinciding with his birthday is commonly called—drew just under 200 Nexians this year, from Albany and the group’s thriving outposts in Mexico City, Monterrey and Vancouver. For Nexians, these were heady days. According to “confidential” in-house literature promoting attendance at the retreat—fees ranged from between US$1,400 for shared to US$2,120 for private accommodation—VWeek represents “the prototype and blueprint for a new era of civilized humanity.” Writes the event’s coordinator, Clare Bronfman, “the very purpose of VWeek is to get the chance to experience a civilized world . . . [and] craft for ourselves a more fulfilling, purposeful life.”
And so, on a sunny August day, the front lawn of the resort’s stately main hall overflowed with attractive young people in NXIVM T-shirts, doing yoga or lounging in groups in the lush grass, children racing underfoot. Beyond that relaxing Adirondacks atmosphere, however, VWeek more than anything offers Nexians a rare chance to be near Raniere, a purported genius who normally sees only a small group of high-ranking NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um) executives. Of the estimated 12,000 people who have attended the group’s human potential sessions since its founding in 1998—from lowly Albany locals to well-known personalities like Dynasty star Linda Evans and Virgin founder Richard Branson—perhaps only 10 per cent have stayed on to meet either Raniere or Nancy Salzman, the group’s dynamic lieutenant. Those at VWeek will see Raniere fleetingly: when he attends the nightly entertainment and, once or twice in the course of the week, when he takes the stage himself for a Q & A. “You can ask him anything and he’ll come up with an answer,” says a one-time attendee. “It’s like Beatlemania,” quips another. “I mean, there is crying.” Then, every night until early in the morning, with a group of his followers, Raniere plays volleyball, for which he has a passion.
Outsiders are barred from this utopia; NXIVM buys exclusive access to the 700-acre resort, and attendees must identify themselves with colour-coded badges denoting their ranks in NXIVM’s rigid hierarchy. One day last week, heavy-set men equipped with earpieces sat in SUVs by the entrance, carefully scanning all who passed. They had reason to be guarded. On Wednesday, 53-year-old John Tighe, who is on disability as a city worker in nearby Saratoga Springs and now spends much of his time taunting NXIVM on his blog, New York Post, arrived to make a scene. Escorted from the property by NXIVM security, Tighe, a diabetic with peripheral neuropathy and no feeling in his legs below the knees, had to answer to police. He handed the officers a sheaf of recent newspapers clippings—most impressive to the police, Tighe himself was quoted in the New York Post—reporting on allegations NXIVM is a cult and Raniere its “absolute” leader.
Triggering this latest round of NXIVM-related news coverage are allegations that Clare and Sara Bronfman, the daughters of Edgar Bronfman Sr. and partial heirs to the Seagram’s whisky fortune, have lost in the neighbourhood of US$100 million in failed investment schemes controlled by Raniere, to whom they are devoted. According to a deposition given by Barbara Bouchey, a one-time NXIVM executive and the Bronfman sisters’ former financial manager, and filed in California as part of a lawsuit related to a collapsed real-estate venture involving the sisters, Raniere allegedly lost US$65 million of Clare and Sara’s trust money in the commodities market testing out a mathematical formula he designed to beat the system. Raniere went on to direct the Bronfman sisters to pour US$26 million into an L.A. development project that ultimately collapsed, charge the court filings, part of a tangle of suits and countersuits involving the Bronfman sisters, their former business partner Yuri Plyam, Raniere, Salzman and others. (Bouchey, who has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is being sued by the Bronfmans for, among other things, invasion of privacy, would not discuss the sisters with Maclean’s, citing a judge’s restraining order.)
Should those allegations prove true—the substance of the various and convoluted lawsuits involved remain untested in court (Raniere, NXIVM and the Bronfmans did not provide comment for this story despite numerous requests)—such massive losses would be just the latest in a string of eccentric Bronfman schemes, cock-ups and financial spills. Indeed, the family has become as noted for strife as for its savvy since emerging from penury and the Canadian prairie almost a century ago to dominate the world’s alcoholic beverage industry, with lucrative forays into the oil business, the DuPont chemical company and Tropicana juices. The Bronfmans’s fortunes fell most recently under Edgar Jr., Clare and Sara’s half-brother, whose passion for the entertainment industry prompted a disastrous merger with French media and telecommunications giant Vivendi SA in 2000. Forbes later reported the deal saw the family’s net worth plummet from US$6.5 billion to US$2.9 billion in two years.
Such has been the saga that in 1989 Mordecai Richler published a thinly veiled portrait of the Bronfmans: the novel Solomon Gursky Was Here. “I don’t know why Mordecai bothered to change the names,” cracked long-time Bronfman lieutenant and former senator Leo Kolber, so thin was it. Yet for sheer weirdness, the latest installment in the family’s story has nothing on Richler’s Gurskys. It is a tale of missing millions, bizarre lawsuits, and menacing private detectives; of a guru who directs his followers to call him Vanguard and to document his every move for posterity; and of the two heiresses whose lives he has so much defined. “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” worried Mr. Sam, as the first Bronfman patriarch was called throughout his tycooning career, and, in the case of his two granddaughters, Clare and Sara, he may have been right.
Clare Bronfman had been told the executive success workshops offered by NXIVM were life-changing, and she wasn’t disappointed. A champion horse jumper in her early 20s who aspired to compete in the Olympics, she was less outgoing than her vivacious older sister Sara, who introduced her to the program. But during her first sessions at the group’s branch in Monterrey, Mexico, seven years ago, Clare’s trainer and classmates fawned over her, drawing her from her shell as never before. Soon enough, both she and Sara had become committed followers of NXIVM and its leader, Keith Raniere, going so far as to relocate to upstate New York as NXIVM trainers.
So obviously electrifying was the NXIVM experience that the two sisters even managed to convince their hard-driving father, Edgar, to attend workshops in Manhattan led by Raniere’s second-in-command, Nancy Salzman, whom Nexians call Prefect. Montreal-born Edgar, who handed control of Seagram’s to his son Edgar Jr. in 1994 but was then still president of the World Jewish Congress, briefly followed the regimen, stopping after Salzman’s insistence that he enroll his wealthy and influential friends soured him on the program. It was when Clare approached Edgar with her own disenchantment with NXIVM and its leaders that Edgar’s concerns about the group turned into action.
Clare’s fit of pique followed a NXIVM session in which she felt Salzman had ignored her in favour of Sara. Unloading on her father, she mentioned she had lent Raniere’s group US$2 million, at 2.5 per cent interest, an admission that worried him. Months later, in the fall of 2003, Forbes magazine published an exposé of NXIVM, “Cult of Personality,” that noted that adherents learn secret handshakes, open meetings with special NXIVM hand claps, and wear different-coloured sashes according to rank. Some—former Nexians included—believe the group simply offers good executive coaching. But Forbes added that Raniere, according to anonymous critics, “runs a cult-like program aimed at breaking down his subjects psychologically, separating them from their families and inducting them into a bizarre world of messianic pretensions, idiosyncratic language and ritualistic practices.” Edgar didn’t hedge: “I think it’s a cult,” he told Forbes.The article caused a long period of estrangement between Edgar and his daughters. Clare’s unhappiness with NXIVM, as it turns out, had been fleeting, and she now blamed herself for the exposé.