What Drove a Multi-Million-Dollar Heiress to Finance a Sex Cult?

Clare Bronfman has spent millions of dollars protecting Nxivm leader Keith Raniere, and her commitment to his cause shows no signs of stopping

Inside Hook/June 19, 2019

By Rebecca Gibian

It all could have been so easy for Clare Bronfman.

When she was 23 years old, the heiress with a fortune estimated at around $200 million was an accomplished equestrian sponsored by a German clothing company. A high-school dropout, she was the youngest daughter of late billionaire and philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, Sr., who took over the Seagram Company from his father in 1953. Clare and her sister Sara grew up about as cosmopolitan as they come, splitting time between their family estates in Virginia and the Hudson Valley, as well as a home in Sun Valley and an apartment on Fifth Avenue. Clare started riding horses in her teen years, going so far to open a farm to train them.

Born into all the luck in the world, her life could have gone one of many directions. Instead, she ended up pleading guilty in a Brooklyn Federal Courthouse as part of an alleged sex cult earlier this year.

The trial of Keith Raniere, leader of a group called Nxivm, finished up last week. Closing arguments were made yesterday. The trial has exposed disturbing details of the happenings within the group, which advertised itself as a “self-improvement organization” but has been accused of far more sinister, cult-like activities, including branding women with Raniere’s initials and forcing them to have sex with him.

Raniere is facing seven felony charges, including racketeering conspiracy, sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labor (he has denied all charges, and his lawyer did not respond to a request for comment on this story). His co-defendants, including Bronfman, Mack and Nxivm co-founder Nancy Salzman, have accepted plea deals. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

It has been reported that Clare Bronfman was one of several people among Nxivm’s “inner circle,” all of whom have been charged in connection to the group (former Smallville actress Allison Mack was another). Bronfman allegedly gave up to $150 million to the group and Raniere since 2002. In April, she pleaded guilty to harboring an illegal immigrant and enabling credit card fraud. It’s likely that she will serve a maximum of 27 months in prison.

When she had the chance to address U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis on April 19, Bronfman was apologetic. “Your honor, I was afforded a great gift by my grandfather and father. With the gift comes immense privilege, and more importantly tremendous responsibility. It does not come with an ability to break the law; it comes with a greater responsibility to uphold the law. I failed to uphold the following laws set forth by this country, and for that I am truly remorseful.” She also admitted to knowingly harboring a woman brought to the U.S. on a fake visa and helping Raniere use a deceased woman’s credit card.

Some think her money and her name have helped Bronfman avoid more charges and a longer sentence. Others believe she’s a victim. While her fate is currently being debated in court, it’s time to look at what comes next for the woman who decided to take a much different path than the one laid out for her by her family, and how she got here.

Growing Up and Joining Nxivm

For the most part, Clare Bronfman’s childhood had all the stereotypical benchmarks of children born into wealth. She attended multiple boarding schools, first in England, then Connecticut. While in school in England, she and her sister Sara would visit their mother, Rita “Georgiana” Webb, who was living in Kenya at the time. Her parents were married and divorced twice. After the tenth grade, Clare dropped out of high school to join her father on his estate outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Edgar Bronfman, Sr., was the son of Samuel Bronfman, a Russian immigrant who founded the Distillers Corporation in Montreal, Canada, in 1924. The family sold liquor to northern cities in the United States during the Prohibition era, and then acquired Seagram Co. in 1928. Edgar went on to become the president, treasurer and CEO of Seagram’s and donated a large portion of his money to Jewish causes. He previously had five children with his first wife, investment-banking heiress Ann Loeb. Those children were all in their teens and 20s when Sara and Clare Bronfman were born.

In a 2010 Vanity Fair profile, a friend of the youngest Bronfman sisters said, “They were the last two of seven children, and there was a significant age gap, and they really weren’t always under the umbrella of the Bronfman family. It’s noticeable, when you’re with them, that they were not always sitting at the exalted Bronfman table.”

It was Clare’s sister Sara, the more outgoing of the two, who first introduced the family to Nxivm. Sara, who has not been charged or implicated in the Nxivm case, found a self-improvement group in Albany, New York, that had been founded by Raniere and Nancy Salzman, a trained nurse. According to Forbes, the group offered “life coaching classes mixed with a little neuro-linguistic programming and group therapy techniques.” Within the group, Raniere was known as “Vanguard” or “Grandmaster” and Salzman was “Prefect.” About 16,000 people took Nxivm courses, which The New York Times reports cost more than $5,000 each. The group revolved around Raniere, who personally claimed to be one of the world’s “top three” problem solvers. His birthday was celebrated over the course of about 7-10 days, called “Vanguard Week,” and members were taught that he was the “smartest and most ethical person.”

The side of the leader that his followers knew was a facade of charisma and intellect, but underneath it all, a darkness lurked. Raniere was once called a “compulsive gambler, a sex addict with bizarre desires and needs, and a con man that specializes in Ponzi schemes” by one of his former girlfriends, Toni Natalie, according to the Times-Union. He usually slept all day and would wake up at night to play volleyball or take walks with female acolytes. During Raniere’s trial, jurors were shown sexually explicit images of a 15-year-old girl that Raniere allegedly kept in his study. One witness, Cult Education Institute executive director Rick Ross, compared Raniere to Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard.  

According to another cult expert, Cathleen Mann, who has followed Nxivm for 15 years, there are three components to what makes up a cult. The first is a self-appointed leader who controls all information and has no checks or balances to their power. The second is that the group observes undue influence, which is a “type of indoctrination or manipulation of people without their acknowledgment or consent.” And finally, the group practices deceptive recruiting, which means that a person is not told the true purpose of the group or presented with the information they need to make an informed choice about joining. By the time they’ve figured out what is actually going on, “they’re usually too involved in it to just leave.”

Nxivm checks all three of those boxes. In the case of Clare, the third component may have been what drew her in. Sara, who was 25 at the time, convinced Clare, who was 23, to start taking classes with her. Rick Ross, who was involved in a 14-year lawsuit with Nxivm for publishing critical reports of Nxivm on his website, tells InsideHook that he believes Clare originally pursued the group hoping to fulfill her dream of making a huge impact.

“She grew up in a family where her father had made a significant difference in the world. It wasn’t just that Edgar Bronfman was a wealthy man, a multi-billionaire … he really affected many, many lives,” says Ross. “So if you’re Clare Bronfman and you live in the shadow of Edgar Bronfman and his achievements, you’re thinking, ‘Well how can I change the world? I don’t need money, but I do need meaning and I want my life to mean something besides just being rich.’”

Ross says that the primary demographic for groups defined as cults tends to be 18-26, because that is when people are most vulnerable, amenable to new ideas and searching for who they are and what they want to do. Raniere capitalized on these internal dilemmas within Clare.

“I think she was rather naïve and she was quite young when she came across Keith Raniere,” says Ross. “And of course, Clare Bronfman became controlled, enthralled by Keith Raniere and intoxicated with his promises, his philosophy, which he described as a cure-all, virtually a magic bullet to resolve anything in a person’s life.”

According to Ross’s testimony during Raniere’s trial, Nxivm’s literature redefined the meanings of the words “good” and “bad” and had a 12-point mission statement that featured the line “There are no ultimate victims.” Raniere used to tell people he was going to “change the world,” and it seems like he hooked Clare Bronfman at the moment she was looking for a way to do just that. He convinced the young heiress that her family money was “evil, and that she had to purify it by spending it on ethical things, like Nxivm,” according to an interview Forbes did earlier this year with Steve Pigeon, a political consultant employed by Nxivm.

Barbara Bouchey, a former Nxivm member and Raniere’s girlfriend until she left the group in 2009, also told Forbes that both Bronfman sisters “stepped into a role feeling they could make a difference in the world, and this became a very purposeful career path for them.”

A Rift Grows

The girls’ participation in Nxivm piqued their father’s interest, so he started taking classes in order to learn more about what his daughters were involved with. At first, Edgar was supportive of the group, but he lost enthusiasm for it after finding out that Clare had loaned Raniere and Salzman $2 million. In 2003, Forbes published an article about Raniere and the group that included a startling quote from Edgar: “I think it’s a cult.”

From there on out, Raniere claimed that Clare had committed an “ethical breach” for telling her father about the loan. Ross tells InsideHook that these ethical breaches were Raniere’s way of avoiding responsibility for anything related to Nxivm — he would blame someone else.

Clare’s relationship with her father, meanwhile, only became more strained. During Raniere’s trial, it was revealed that Nxivm members hacked Edgar’s computer to spy on his emails. According to a witness in the trial, it was Clare who installed the program onto Edgar’s computer directly.

Raniere continued to disrupt the father and daughter’s relationship. During Raniere’s trial, Stephen Herbits, a longtime associate of Mr. Bronfman, said that there was a period of time where Clare claimed her dad had funded Rick Ross’s investigation in an effort to destroy Nxivm. While on the stand, Herbits recalled a “fairly hostile” communication between the father and daughter in which Edgar denied ever funding Ross. During a phone interview with InsideHook, Ross himself denied such an arrangement. He says that years before, Edgar Bronfman had donated money to a legal defense fund for one of his cases (Ross was being sued by a group called Landmark Education). The money went to “the law firm that had helped pro-bono with costs.” But that was the “last money Bronfman ever gave me,” says Ross.

“The idea that (Edgar Bronfman) was involved in a conspiracy, that he was funding me, it was just ridiculous. At best it was a paranoid delusion, at worst it was a deliberate attempt by Raniere to turn Edgar Bronfman’s children against him and drive a wedge between them and him. Which was a horrible thing for him to do, because Edgar Bronfman died — as far as Sarah and Clare Bronfman were concerned — sad regarding what was going on with those two children.”

Edgar couldn’t cut off his daughter’s access to their money because of the way their trusts were set up. In an email exchange shown as evidence during Raniere’s trial, dated January 6, 2011, Edgar tried to convince his daughter he was not funding any of the group’s detractors or Raniere’s perceived enemies.

“Whether or not you want to believe me, I do not lie, and I love you two very much,” Edgar Sr. wrote to Clare. “Someone is not telling you the truth. Why don’t you try and figure out who that might be? Who has something to gain? Certainly not me. What would be my motive?”

He signed the email: “Tons of love, even if not requited, Pops.”

Edgar Bronfman died two years later, in 2013.

“The only good thing Clare Bronfman can say is, ‘Thank god my father is dead, and he did not live to see this,’” Ross says.

Funding Nxivm’s Litigation Powerhouse
After the initial arrests of Nxivm members, including Keith Raniere and Allison Mack, Clare Bronfman established a trust to fund the defense of Raniere, herself and other accused Nxivm members, but it was unclear how much money was in it. Earlier this month, it was reported by The New York Post that she gave more than $14 million. The trust has one other donor: former high-ranking Nxivm member Jack Levy, who donated $1,030.

But this is just a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money Bronfman put into litigation against people who left Nxivm or who Raniere perceived as an enemy: an estimated $50 million.

Peter Skolnik, an attorney who fought against Nxivm for over a decade, told Forbes that over 15 years, it is “estimated that (Clare) hired 50-60 lawyers from about 30 law firms to pursue cases against nearly a dozen Nxivm critics.” Rick Ross tells InsideHook that his 14-year case likely would have cost him 2-3 million dollars if his legal team hadn’t worked pro bono (Skolnik was on his team). Raniere had “basically unlimited funds” thanks to the Bronfmans and could therefore hire an “army of lawyers.”

“(Bronfman’s) role has been to display unquestioning devotion,” Janja Lalich, a specialist in cults, extremism and coercive influence and control, told InsideHook via email. “She would do anything to protect her master. I’m sure he preyed on her emotions to get her to support harassment suits of critics, to put fear in defectors who think they will get sued, and to defend him at all costs. It may not even seem like a lot of money to her, while those of us on the outside may find it incomprehensible.”

Ross tells InsideHook about a time when he was sent to a mediation during his legal battle with Nxivm. Clare Bronfman was there to “represent the interests of Nxivm,” but she was unable to make a decision. Eventually, Ross says, professional court mediators came to the same conclusion that Ross had come to long before the mediation: nothing could be done without Keith Raniere’s approval.

“Without him there she couldn’t make up her mind about anything because he made up her mind about everything for many years,” Ross continues. “She really, in a sense, lost herself. And it was very sad. I felt very sad for her, but more sad for the fact that she enabled Raniere through her money and her contacts to go on and on and hurt more and more people.”

Forbes reports that at least three people who defended themselves against Nxivm in legal battles eventually filed for bankruptcy, including Raniere’s ex-girlfriends Barbara Bouchey and Toni Natalie, as well as former consultant Joseph O’Hara. Nxivm also, unsuccessfully, went after journalists who reported on the group, including James Odato, who published a revealing series in the Times-Union, and Vanity Fair’s Suzanna Andrews.

“There was never a way you could walk away from Keith Raniere unscathed,” Ross says.

Besides footing the bill for all this litigation, Bronfman also paid for private air travel for Raniere. She and her sister Sara paid over $26 million on a Los Angeles real estate project. They also spent $2 million to get the Dalai Lama to visit Albany in 2009 and meet Raniere to boost Nxivm’s credibility.

What’s Next?

“I can’t think of any cult group in history, and there’ve been hundreds, that have had this kind of level of financial support. I mean that’s really the key to understanding how this group was able to remain secretive and dangerous for so long,” Cathleen Mann tells InsideHook. “And the Bronfman’s are still paying lawyers to protect this group. So it sounds like they’re still indoctrinated to me.”

Another trait of a cult is a system of levels, and each level has its own reward, but you have to spend money or complete courses to get to that level. Some cults rely on subscription services to make money, while others sell training or course materials to members. Scientologists reportedly spend thousands on books written by funder Ron Hubbard, courses and therapy. Some have high-profile donors (Scientology has Tom Cruise, for example), though not to the extent the Bronfman’s did.

A lot has been revealed during the past few weeks of Raniere’s trial. Witnesses have testified that he whipped and beat members of the organization. Women “slaves” within a secret society of Nxivm were held down and branded with a cauterizing device. Women were forced to give collateral — nude photos or other embarrassing material — and were threatened with its release if they didn’t have sex with Raniere. Women were forced to starve themselves in order to look a certain way. A witness claimed that at one point, Allison Mack subsisted on just 500 calories a day. Mack told the witness that Raniere “wouldn’t care about her” if she gained weight; she weighed about 107 pounds. Mack herself had “slaves” who were forced to take a group nude photo every week. Daniela, the witness who read Edgar Bronfman’s emails, said she was imprisoned in a room for two years as punishment for falling in love with another man besides Raniere. One witness testified that Raniere had sexual relationships with about two dozen women in the group, including Clare Bronfman, and that Bronfman was forced to wear a jock strap because she was a “know-it-all.”

“Keith Raniere is the stereotypical cult leader and what’s unusual about this case is that he’s had a lot of help, I don’t think he could’ve accomplished what he did without the help of the women in his inner circle,” Mann tells InsideHook. “And regardless of the fact that they pled guilty and testified against him, they’re still largely responsible for creating such a destructive group. He didn’t do it on his own.”

But how much blame can you put on the women involved? Though that question is at the center of this case, it is unlikely to be answered before the trial ends.

“It’s important to get across … the power of peer pressure and this kind of coercive influence,” Janja Lalich told InsideHook in an email. “It’s possible (Bronfman’s) just a bad person with no conscience, but more likely she was just another pawn of Raniere and his inner circle at the time.”

Immediately following her arrest, Clare Bronfman seemed to stand by Raniere. She set up the trust to pay for everyone’s legal fees and she has yet to say anything to distance herself from the Nxivm or apologize for any harm she may have caused.

But during a hearing on March 27, after Judge Nicholas Garaufis asked her if she had been consulting with the notorious lawyer Michael Avenatti and if she knew he had been indicted on charges that he tried to extort tens of millions of dollars from Nike, Bronfman grew very pale and fainted, according to reports.

Rick Ross believes her fainting in court showed for the first time that Clare Bronfman hit a wall and realized where she was. Because of how Raniere had “spoon-fed his control and nurtured it and nursed it along,” by the time someone like Bronfman is asked to do terrible things, they have been “broken down and changed and locked into a mindset that they never expected or agreed to in the beginning,” Ross explains.

“In the end you’re in a place you never imagined you’d be in,” Ross continues. “When [she] fainted in court, to some extent that realization hit her — where am I, what happened to me?”

Bronfman faces sentencing on July 25. At the time of publication, her lawyer could not be reached for comment on this story. But it is likely that this stigma of being the “fuel to the engine known as Nxivm run by the engineer Keith Raniere,” as Ross puts it, will never leave her.

“I think a lot of people will not be that forgiving of Clare Bronfman and her enabling of Keith Raniere,” Ross says. “Maybe if she gets help and she really drills down into what happened and she has some kind of deep realization and understanding about it and comes forth and helps other people through her experience, maybe that would be redemptive, but without some kind of balancing of the scales in which she really does good, I don’t see her being acceptable.”

Update: Rainere was found guilty on all counts.

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