He was born Sumner Rothstein. Anglicizing a surname (Rothstein means ‘red stone’ in German) when your career is taking off isn’t so unusual. Still, a 17-year-old boy convincing his father to change the family name is remarkable. The spirit of determination was there early.
Redstone was a genius. He graduated first in his class from the prestigious Boston Latin School, which is to preparatory high schools what Arnold Schwarzenegger is to weight lifting — then he finished Harvard at age 19. In WWII, he decoded Japanese messages for the OSS, a forerunner to the CIA. From there, he went to Harvard Law School, and by his graduation in 1947, he was ready to take on the world.
His family was in the movie theater business and built a small company called National Amusements, which today is the owner of Redstone’s estate. From that modest platform, Redstone invented the Hollywood entertainment conglomerate on a global scale, sculpting Viacom out of lumps of Paramount, Nickelodeon, BET, Comedy Central, MTV, and CBS through deal-making and risk-taking, and bludgeoning Barry Diller along the way.
He also developed the ‘godfather’ style of corporate leadership, where power resides in the throne but is delegated for short stretches until the consigliere runs out of time or luck. The sagas of Frank Biondi and Philippe Dauman (I served on a corporate board with him) attest to Redstone’s treatment of underlings who became confused and believed they were a boss.
My own Sumner story goes back to when he was in the headlines for dealmaking rather than million-dollar mistresses. The episode I witnessed showed a more vulnerable side which you aren’t going to get through a Google search.
“It’s Sumner Redstone,”…my admin whispered with hushed urgency.
I was the publisher of Forbes Magazine. I picked up the phone, and Sumner was on the line.
“Jeff, can you come to my office.”
When Sumner calls, you don’t ask why.
The next day I was seated in front of a lavish lunch buffet in the anteroom next to Redstone’s palatial office on Broadway in New York City’s Times Square. The shrimp were the size of lobsters. The deviled eggs must have been laid by Martha Stewart’s chickens. Neither of us touched the food. He looked soulfully at me. His eyes grew bigger.
“Business Week wrote a story that said I lied. They claimed the fire wasn’t a danger to me and that I made up my agonized rescue. I am distraught and I need some advice.”
Business Week (now Bloomberg Business Week) questioned the integrity of his Copley Plaza fire story. In this case, the magazine coerced a comment from the rescuing fireman that made it appear Sumner exaggerated his ordeal.
Sumner looked me in the eye and said, “I want to sue the bastards.”
“That never works,” I said.
In 1979, Redstone was staying at the Copley Plaza hotel in Boston when a raging fire broke out. As flames entered the doorway, he was unable to leave, and crept outside the window where he was hanging on by one hand. By the time rescue arrived, he had extensive burns on over 90% of his body. The surgery took 30 hours at Massachusetts General Hospital. He spent eight years in and out of rehab. But in a short time, he was playing competitive tennis.
From time to time, people underestimated Redstone, at their peril, as his board found out when they required him to take a psychological exam. They may have forgotten to think back to that night at the Copley Plaza.
There was always something there that was going to triumph.
Then, I responded, “There are only two ways to handle this. Your PR person writes the editor asking for a retraction. The magazine will run it, but no one reads it or remembers. There is a better way.”
I blurted out, “Go dark.”
“What does that mean?”
“Going dark means dropping out of sight. Talk to no one. Zip it up.”
“After three months, few remember the story. Then you leak something no one knows to the Wall Street Journal. Business Week will be lining up at the trough to get their share. Then come out with a second story a few weeks later and leave them hanging again.”
“What if they retaliate?”
“More likely, they’ll be embarrassed by the scoops. Your power lies in access to your thinking. Use it.”
Sumner went dark. He gave his next stories to Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes. To my knowledge, Business Week — which sold itself for peanuts to Bloomberg — never got another story.
The moral for those who would take Redstone on was don’t mess unless you plan to outlive him. Perhaps their time has come.