Sumner Redstone’s Burning Passion

As with most great leaders, his most valuable asset was self-confidence. When they took that away, he lost everything.

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Boston Copley Plaza Hotel fire March 29, 1979

Ask anyone who has worked closely with Sumner Redstone and they’ll say they knew they would eventually be fired, just not precisely when. It seems like Redstone shuffled chief executives the way people discard old tires. The distinguished club that worked for Redstone includes CEOs of Viacom and CBS who oversaw Paramount Studios, CBS Network, MTV, SKG Dreamworks, Comedy Central, and The Oprah Winfrey Show.

On the plus side, he paid well.

The problem is that Sumner Rothstein was a genius, a fact he was never shy about admitting. By genius, I don’t mean it in the sense of “you should meet my brother in law — he’s a genius.” Redstone had an IQ over 160. The reason I know that is he told me so. If you doubt the Redstone myth, look at the resume. He graduated Boston Latin School a year early, the most prestigious public preparatory high school in the United States, and landed first in his class. Naturally. He went to Harvard, where he graduated at age nineteen. Then the Encryption Corps, where he worked on complicated Japanese cipher codes. Then Harvard Law School. Like I said, genius.

Redstone’s first “coup,” if it can be called that, was after his high school graduation. He convinced his father that to succeed he “needed a better name.” It wasn’t a casual observation. It was a demand. The elder Mr. Rothstein built up a tidy little business called National Amusements that would become the cornerstone of Redstone’s empire. The son also rises as Hemingway might have said, and the family relinquished the Yiddish Rothstein for a British equivalent. The name means ‘red stone’ in Hebrew, and Sumner Redstone is what he became.

Redstone wafted a magic wand over Hollywood and New York for several decades, bullying and reshaping the entertainment industry, turning his platform into a mega content and digital colossus. At the time I met him, he owned 70% of Viacom and CBS. Redstone might just as well have changed his name to Midas. His net worth was over $5 billion.

At the time, I was the publisher of Forbes Magazine. We had spent time together on the slopes at Davos a few months earlier. After his call inviting me to lunch, I wondered as I got off the elevator on Viacom’s executive floor, what could he want?

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Sumner Redstone

The tycoon escorted me to the small dining room adjacent to his office. Shrimp the size of lobsters adorned the table. I stared at them to see if they were still alive. I thought you needed a license to kill things this size. I ate ravenously like a boxer preparing for a bout, Redstone didn’t touch the food. He was upset, which was a surprise. As he would say, “I give ulcers, I don’t get them.”

What had gotten to Sumner Redstone?

Redstone looked at me with those light green eyes that gave the distinct impression they know what you’re thinking, and asked with a half-smile, “Jeff, why would BusinessWeek hate me?”

As the publisher of Forbes Magazine, I wasn’t sure where to start. “Sumner, why do you think they hate you?”

Redstone answered, “because they say I lied about the fire.”

On March 29, 1979, the fifty-six-year-old Redstone was at the Boston Copley Plaza Hotel when it burst into flames. A disgruntled teenage busboy had lit the fire. As it made its way to the upper floors, Redstone climbed out on the window, hanging by his arm as the fire trucks made their way to him while he took turns burning one arm then the other. By the time they brought him down, over two-thirds of his body was burned. Surgeons predicted Redstone would never walk or be able to use his arms. Like many of his opponents, the doctors underestimated Redstone.

The surgical team took 30 hours at Massachusetts General Hospital, where the burn unit is named after him. It took Redstone 8 years and multiple more surgeries before he could say he was recovered. By the time the doctors were finished with him, Redsetone was playing competitive tennis (with a racquet taped to his hand). Most of us would be pleased to survive, Redstone had to show he could be better than before. That was about the time he launched his hostile takeover of Paramount. Redstone’s near-death experience turned into a realization that he could survive anything and anyone.

Redstone summarized the BusinessWeek article as a hatchet job gone wrong. “They said I lied about the fire. That I was not so badly hurt. They got a fireman that rescued me or said he did to dispute my version. He said I was in no real danger.” It was an existential moment for a titan who brooked no competitors, lost no battles, and took few prisoners. Sumner Redstone knew how to compete, but he liked holding the right cards and did not know how to deal with shame.

Redstone began to cry. As my shrimp was getting colder by the moment, tears ran down his face, and he wiped them with his right hand, more of a claw after the burn surgeries as if to prove the point. He looked at me with fear and dismay, “I am so depressed. I don’t know what to do.” The challenge to his integrity on top of the suffering was too much for him to bear. He was like a child beaten for something he didn’t do. He was lost and wanted help. It was why he called me.

Business Week wasn’t a gossipmonger. So the fireman’s story was true, or he lied. It turned out to be the latter. But why? Media falsehoods, what we call fake news these days, are usually unintentional. Most often, it is sloppy fact-checking. Warren Buffett once told me, “a bad story has a lot of momentum. People with an ax to grind feed the reporter with confirmatory evidence.”

In Redstone’s case, in the heat of the night, literally speaking, no one was thinking about injuries, just saving lives. Who would know that this guy hanging outside the window was a media tycoon? He was just another critical victim to a fireman.

Firefighters risk their lives every day, so trauma isn’t any big deal. It might be after learning it was Redstone that he saved, the fireman felt he was due some recognition, even a reward. He may have filed a grudge away for years. We can never know.

Redstone looked at me and asked, “Should I sue?”

War with the media reminds everyone of Mark Twain’s dictum, “don’t get into a letter-writing contest with people who buy ink by the barrel.” He was right. But that didn’t mean you had to sit on your hands.

I replied, “Sumner if you sue, you will draw attention to the negative part of the story. BusinessWeek will follow up, and I can assure you that people will line up to say things against you. There are enemies out there, and we both know you have a few.

“So what should I do? Would Forbes do a story?”

“Not just yet. I don’t trust our reporters any more than theirs. These stories have a life of their own. You want this story to die before you begin your retaliation.”

“So, what should I do?”

“Go dark. Shut down the Redstone news machine for three months.”

“What then?”

“By next Autumn, the story will be history. The fireman will go back to his beery retirement at the local tavern. Then give an exclusive on a big deal you are working on to The Wall Street Journal.”

“Will BusinessWeek try to retaliate?” Redstone asked, looking puzzled.

“They’ll be too busy trying to figure out why their reporters are missing the story. Your power lies in access. Use it.”

He asked, almost wistfully, “What then?”

“One year later, as you are talking about a deal, bring the Copley Plaza fire story up again and mention in passing the BusinessWeek article that didn’t check the facts. The world will remember your version of the story.” It’s always the last laugh in this game that laughs best.

Sumner went dark. He shut BusinessWeek off, they flailed and came up empty. Eventually, BusinessWeek ran out of cheap tricks and sold itself to Bloomberg for peanuts. They forgot the most important secret about Sumner Redstone. Despite all his schooling, he never learned how to lose.

Written by

Producer of Extraordinary Lives 2019 @TellyAwards for documentaries @ IconicVoices.tv; Author of Be Somebody @ jeffcunningham.com; ex-publisher @Forbes

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