Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy
By James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams
Penguin Press
ISBN: 1984879421
416pp.

The great Sumner Redstone, media mogul and the founder (and chairman) of Viacom and chairman of CBS among other concerns, died in his late 90s in 2020 after having lived a life that was both impressive and controversial.

His father, Michael Rothstein, who was a native of Boston, changed his name to Redstone at the request of his son. This ostensible concealment of their Jewish roots does not detract from the fact that Sumner was every inch a Shylock-figure in terms of his superb business acumen. He enhanced the family fortune from millions to billions by dint of sheer perseverance, dedication, commitment and a staunchly hands-on approach to management (especially in his youth and middle-age).

He was also an inordinately strong person in the psychological sense. An especially gripping anecdote recounts how Sumner held on to a burning building in spite of the utterly excruciating pain that the fire was inflicting on one of his hands. Letting go would have meant instant death on the pavement below. Like he survived many crises over the course of his life, the businessman survived this one, too.

Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy is structured as an expose, and writers James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams should be given credit for pulling Redstone’s life out of tabloid territory into that of more respected readership.

A biography structured as an expose of an American media mogul is a cautionary tale that reflects the intensely ugly ways in which money and power can corrupt people

Shrewd readers might feel that far too much of it dwells on the toxic relationship between the geriatric Redstone and his live-in girlfriends, Manuela Herzer and Sydney Holland. However, since the book is very obviously an expose as opposed to a biography, the authors may be forgiven for such deliberate oversights. The mogul’s empire still manages to produce gems like the recent Top Gun: Maverick (released by Paramount), one of the only films that engrosses me enough to merit multiple viewings.

Always a man with a roving eye, Sumner’s affairs began early in his life and were a source of constant grief to his first wife Phyllis. However, it was his increasingly callous attitude towards both her as well as his son Brent and daughter Shari that finally led Phyllis to file for divorce.

Readers need to keep in mind that many of the relationships between Sumner and his trollops (which is how the media and tabloids regarded these modern day concubines) took place well before the day and age of the irate #MeToo movement. His henchman, Les Moonves, chairman of CBS as well as its chief executive officer, had a similarly roving eye, and the latter part of the text focuses on an expose of his position as a sexual harasser.

Ironically what bothers me more is not that Moonves sexually harassed actress Bobbie Phillips (whose case provided the most damning testimony against this remarkably successful man who initiated many sublime projects including Friends). What truly sickened me was that the patriarchy attempted to punish Bobbie by offering her a role later in life which specifically, though subtly, was an exercise in fat-shaming. It implied that the ageing former actress had lost her figure, and hence most of her looks.

I am a hardened realist when it comes to the types of outlets the masculine gender requires when the pressures of corporate life on them turn obscenely difficult (no one in their right minds can claim that Sumner Redstone or Les Moonves had easy professional lives); however, even I cannot argue that a man should remain unaware of his limits.

It is this element of adding insult to injury that makes Unscripted go a step beyond the popular TV series Succession, based on the life of Rupert Murdoch, to which it has been compared in popular culture.

Stewart and Abrams are to be credited for grimly underscoring that men pull no punches when it comes to punishing women for what the former term loose-lipped indiscretion. But to be fair, albeit strict, the writers themselves pull no punches when it comes to their treatment of women in the book.

Holland and Herzer may have grossly encroached on Sumner’s life and living quarters, and their collective ostracising of his daughter was reprehensible in the extreme. But there was no question about the fact that both ultimately lived in dread and fear of him.

Nevertheless, their treatment of males over whom they exerted power, regardless of whether those were nursing staff or lovers with far less money and influence than Redstone, is described as nothing short of cruel and amoral.

Manuela Herzer was a greedy and grasping woman, but her downfall came when she did not accept a legal settlement offered to her that was greater than the one she actually got.

Moonves was far more philosophical and intelligent about negotiating his professional exit; but that was to be expected. It was stupidity as opposed to sin that ultimately brought down most of the individuals described in the Stewart and Abrams panorama.

Perhaps this is the reason why Shari, Sumner’s long-suffering daughter, emerges as a pyrrhic winner. She had to deal with all types of devious machinations made against her, by both family and corporate boards; naturally the most hurtful of those were instigated by her unapologetically callous father.

However, unlike other individuals portrayed, Shari Redstone comes across in Unscripted as a person who knew her limits, probably because she had a trifle more of what Shakespeare terms “the milk of human kindness” running in her veins.

The only genuinely humane moment in the book was the dignity and love she displayed at her father’s funeral. I am sure that when he was examined by a psychiatrist and found non compos mentis (although he scored well on part of the test, he failed the rest of it) she must have felt sincerely distressed. One can draw valid parallels between their relationship and that of Lear and Cordelia.

It will be difficult for those who possess sensitive temperaments not to peruse this book with horror. In spite of being somewhat uneven, the text is as remarkable as the legendary man about whom it is written. In aggregate, it is an important cautionary tale of great magnitude, which holds up a mirror that reflects the intensely ugly ways in which money and power can corrupt people, regardless of gender or background.

Academically gifted, Sumner Redstone held a degree from Harvard, and had determinedly worked his way up to become the crème de la crème of American society. He may be hated beyond the grave still but, to be fair, he deserved every ounce of both the pain and pleasure that life handed to him.

Such are the workings of karma when it comes to the human condition.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal sciences at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 8th, 2023

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