Saturday, May 27, 2023

This Day in Business History (Birth of Sumner Redstone, ‘Relentless' Media Empire-Builder)

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 Boston.

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 inside bathroom.

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 relentless.”

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 succeeding him.

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 years).

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 tragic hero.”

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 remove beneficiaries;

* 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.

(That structure was analyzed in 2018, at the height of the Redstone family litigation over CBS and Viacom, by Eduardo Gentil, on the Website of Cambridge Family Enterprise Group.)

The attached image of Sumner Redstone is from Kingkongphoto & from Laurel Maryland, USA; © copyright John Mathew Smith 2001.

No comments: