May 27, 1923— Sumner Redstone, who used his
brilliant intellect and self-described “passion to win” to become an envied,
feared, often toxic media-entertainment mogul, was born in humble origins in
Just as Orson Welles and co-screenwriter Herman
Mankiewicz interspersed episodes in the lives of Samuel Insull and Joseph
Pulitzer to augment their thinly veiled portrayal of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane, so have the
creators of Succession used tales surrounding Redstone and Donald Trump
to bolster their Rupert Murdoch-based depiction of Logan Roy.
Unlike Murdoch or Trump, but like Logan Roy, Redstone not
only grew up in a lower-class neighborhood but briefly lived in a house with no
Like Murdoch and the fictional Roy, Redstone had
seemingly groomed younger people (including his children) to take over from
him, only, in his 70s and even 80s, to dismiss them with little to no warning.
Far more than Trump and even Murdoch, he left rivals
alternately worried and fuming about his next negotiating gambit, leading Barry Reardon, a distribution executive at rival studio Warner Brothers, to moan to Premiere Magazine in 1994: "Being a competitor of Sumner Redstone’s is a fate
worse than death. He never lets up. He’s
Redstone's corporate buccaneering amassed
a fortune that enabled him to control, at one time or another, CBS, the
Paramount film and television studios, the publisher Simon & Schuster, the
video retail giant Blockbuster and a host of cable channels, including MTV,
Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.
And, in a way it has not yet become painfully obvious
for Trump or Murdoch, debility at the end of his life exposed Redstone’s
troubled relationship with a daughter he had teased with the prospect of
The driving force behind Succession might be the
same joke used by Murdoch and Redstone as octogenarians: that they had no intention
of ever dying. That disbelief in the iron law of mortality underlies the power
struggle in both the series and the lives of Sumner and Shari Redstone.
In his appearance and conversation, Redstone worked
overtime to counter any impression that the years had diminished his faculties.
He dyed his hair red, bragged to talk-show host Larry King in 2009 that he had “the
vital statistics of a 20-year-old,” and even lied about his age (lopping off 20
Perhaps as much to persuade himself as King’s millions
of viewers, Redstone continued: “Even 20-year-old men get older. Not me. My
doctor says I’m the only man who’s reversed it. I eat and drink every
antioxidant known to man. I exercise 50 minutes every day.”
At the time of the King interview, it was already apparent
to Daily Beast editor at large Lloyd Grove, that Redstone was less like
a 20-year-old than like King Lear: “With his empire crumbling, his family fractured,
his legacy in doubt, and his grasp of the true nature of his predicament not
immediately evident, Redstone resembles a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s
By the middle of the next decade, charges that Redstone
was no longer competent to run his affairs—let alone his company’s—had burst
into public view, courtesy of litigation by Shari—though Sumner would hang on,
a hideous husk of his former self, until he was 97.
At the time of Redstone’s death in August 2020, his
story as a self-made man led many, even among the overwhelmingly liberal
reading audience of The New York Times, to overlook the gamier aspects
of his life.
And indeed, there is much to admire in a man who took
the modest perch provided by his father (who himself rose from linoleum peddler
to owner of a small chain of drive-in theaters) and graduated first in his
class at Boston Latin, the city’s leading public school; went to Harvard on a
scholarship; cracked Japanese military and diplomatic codes as part of a team
of cryptographers in WWII; became partner in a leading DC law firm after the
war; then abandoned all that to begin building a series of holdings that would
eventually be valued at more than $80 billion.
But the window that began to open up in the last
decade of Redstone’s life revealed after his death “an astonishing saga of sex,
lies, and betrayal,” according to Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy, by New York Times
journalists James Stewart and Rachel Abrams.
According to this account, Redstone:
* spent $500,000 promoting the Electric Barbarellas, a
talentless all-girl band;
* amended his trust more than 40 times to add or
* dated women who became increasingly younger as he aged;
* sent a flight attendant he was pursuing a
crystal‑encrusted handbag in the shape of a panther, along with the (surely redundant)
note, “I’m a panther and I’m going to pounce”;
* reportedly tried to date grandson Brandon Korff’s
girlfriends, annoying the 25-year-old so much that he sought out TV’s “Millionaire
Matchmaker” Patti Stanger to find a companion for the lecherous old man—a move
that backfired when that companion, Sydney Holland, and another Redstone
girlfriend siphoned off $150 million from the increasingly senile businessman
before being ushered out of his life at last;
* badmouthed Shari for so long that she was
ignored when she warned about the perilous course set by Viacom CEO Phillipe
Dauman, and wrestled with CBS CEO Leslie Moonves for control of National
Amusements, the entity owned by Sumner and Shari.
If Sumner Redstone’s empire had been built by his personal tenacity (he survived a Boston hotel fire by hanging off a window ledge, leaving a hand maimed for the remaining 40 years of his life), it teetered at the end of his long life because of his toxicity.
His wealth and position couldn’t disguise the fact that he had degenerated into a dirty old man, endangering the sprawling conglomerate he had built over a lifetime through his personal caprice and the maddeningly complex corporate structure that had allowed him to operate for so long without contradiction by those who worked for him.
The attached image of Sumner Redstone is from Kingkongphoto
& www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA; © copyright John
Mathew Smith 2001.