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Sumner Redstone's extraordinary life from an army cryptographer to media tycoon

Sumner Redstone in 1988, after he took over Viacom and while he was making a play for Paramount Pictures

Sumner Redstone in 1988, after he took over Viacom and while he was making a play for Paramount Pictures 

Sumner Redstone’s death on Tuesday comes after a colorful life that began humbly in Boston and saw him rise bombastically through the TV and movie world, collecting film studios and cable conglomerates all while juggling two marriages, a string of messy affairs, family feuds and mammoth business deals.   

The ViacomCBS giant died aged 97, his family revealed on Tuesday, after a sad existence in recent years. 

After being hospitalized in 2014 with pneumonia and having ingested food in his lungs, he spent much of the last six years unable to speak. 

He communicated through an iPad and was cared for round-the-clock by nurses who have claimed he was often reduced to tears and screaming by an ex-girlfriend, Sydney Holland, who they say tried to keep him from his family. 

That life in his final days is a far cry from the trail he blazed in the world of entertainment over the last 50 years. 

Born Sumner Rothstein in Boston in 1923, his father Max sold linoleum from the back of a truck and his mother was a housekeeper. When he was a teenager, his father changed the family name to Redstone.  

Redstone was dismayed and thought his father was trying to abandon their Jewish heritage. Friends close to the family have since suggested that Max did not want the family to be associated with the famous gangster, Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the world series. 

After high school, he enrolled at Harvard, on a scholarship, and graduated within three years. He was so skilled in languages that he was invited to Washington during World War II to work as an army cryptographer to decipher Japanese military codes. 

In 1947, Redstone married his first wife, Phyllis. They welcomed their children Shari and Brent and the family lived for a time in San Francisco, where he worked in a law firm and later teaching at a university. 

Redstone’s first foray into the world of TV and movies came in 1954, when he abandoned his law career to join his father who had saved enough money to buy a drive-in movie theater. 

Together and with the contribution of Sumner’s brother, they bought 11 more. 

Redstone married his passion for movies with his legal expertise to sue film studios which, at the time, didn’t allow drive-ins to lease first-run films.

In the early 1960s, as the appetite for drive-in theaters declined, he tore them down and started building multiplexes in their places.

Redstone became CEO of his father’s company – National Amusements Inc – in 1964. For the next several years, he invested on he side in studios but his quickly ascending career was brutally halted in 1979 in a hotel fire.  

In 1979, Redstone was staying at The Boston Copley Plaza when a fire tore through the hotel. He was staying with his mistress and escaped by clinging on to a window ledge as flames burned his hands

In 1979, Redstone was staying at The Boston Copley Plaza when a fire tore through the hotel. He was staying with his mistress and escaped by clinging on to a window ledge as flames burned his hands

Redstone was rescued from the hotel on a ladder. He later wrote in his autobiography: 'The fire shot up my legs. The pain was searing. I was being burned alive'

Redstone was rescued from the hotel on a ladder. He later wrote in his autobiography: ‘The fire shot up my legs. The pain was searing. I was being burned alive’

Sumner Redstone with his first wife, Phyllis, in 1997. The pair were married for 52 years, during which time he had several affairs, before they divorced in 1999

Redstone was in the hotel fire with his then mistress, Desla Winer. She escaped with fewer injuries. The pair remained friends for years and are pictured in

Redstone was in the hotel fire with his then mistress, Desla Winer (together, right). She escaped with fewer injuries. The pair remained friends for years. He was married at the time to his first wife, Phyllis (together, left in 1997). The pair were married for 52 years, during which time he had several affairs, before they divorced in 1999

Redstone circa 1981, in another portrait shot by The Boston Globe

A portrait of Redstone shot by the Boston Globe in 1986

Redstone circa 1981, in another portrait shot by The Boston Globe (left) and in 1986 (right). By then, he’d recovered from the fire injuries and was quickly charging ahead with buying up movie studios 

Sumner (center) with Shari (second from right) and Phyllis (far right) along with children believed to be Shari's kids and TomF Freston and Michael Stipe in 1993

Sumner (center) with Shari (second from right) and Phyllis (far right) along with children believed to be Shari’s kids and TomF Freston and Michael Stipe in 1993

Redstone was staying at The Copley Plaza with his mistress, Delsa Winer, when a fire tore through the building. He was 55 at the time. 

 ‘The fire shot up my legs. The pain was searing. I was being burned alive,’ 
Redstone in his autobiography, describing surviving the 1979 fire at the Copley Plaza Hotel where he was spending the night with a mistress when flames engulfed his room  

He climbed out through the window and clung to the window ledge as flames burned his hand and 45 percent of his body until he was rescued by fire fighters. 

‘The fire shot up my legs. The pain was searing. I was being burned alive,’ he wrote in his autobiography. 

Redstone had to undergo five surgeries but nothing could correct the damage to one of his hands. He would later say that he felt lucky to be alive. 

In 1987, he went after Viacom, his biggest business play to date. He bought it was $3.4billion. Next, he bought Paramount in 1993 for $8.2billion. 

CBS was folded into Viacom in 1999 through a stock merger worth $37billion – the largest deal in media history at the time. He separated the pair in 2006 and put Les Moonves in charge of CBS. 

Shari brought the two companies back together with her coup over the last few years which resulted in the ViacomCBS merger, a $30billion deal.








Redstone with Bill Clinton during Clinton's presidency in 1996. He remained friends with the Clintons for years and fundraised for their charity enthusiastically

Redstone with Bill Clinton during Clinton’s presidency in 1996. He remained friends with the Clintons for years and fundraised for their charity enthusiastically 

Redstone married New York City teacher Paula Fortunato in 2003

Redstone married New York City teacher Paula Fortunato in 2003

Wife number two: Redstone married New York City teacher Paula Fortunato in 2003. The pair were married were five years before he filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences, in 2008. They divorced in 1999. Under the terms of their prenuptial agreement, she got $5million – $1million for every year they were married 

Redstone receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame i 2012

Redstone receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame i 2012

Sumner, at the time of his death, owned 80 percent of the company and Shari owns 20 percent. 

His shares will be divided now into two trust; one for his two children – Shari and Brent – and their kids, and one for his first wife, Phyllis. 

Phyllis remained married to him until 1999 – staying by his side throughout many affairs, including with Winer, who he was caught in the fire with. 

Three years after divorcing Phyllis, and at the age of 79, he married 40-year-old New York City public school teacher Paula Fortunata. 

They were married for five years before Redstone filed for divorce. The pair had a pre-nuptial agreement in place which awarded her $1million for every year they were married.

It was during those years that Manuela Herzer, one of the ex-girlfriends he accused of stealing $150million from him, claims they cemented their relationship. 

In court documents, she said they were close friends and confidantes since 1999. Herzer worked in his home while he was in a relationship with Sydney Holland.  

Details of their complicated relationships became public in 2015, after he’d thrown both women out of his home. 

By then, his health had all but diminished and his family, namely Shari, feared for how the women were controlling him. 

In 2014, Redstone’s health took a drastic turn for the worse when he was hospitalized with pneumonia. 

Redstone boasted famously that he'd never die. In an  interview with Larry King (above) he said: ''The people who fear dying are people who are going to die. I’m not going to die.'

Redstone boasted famously that he’d never die. In an  interview with Larry King (above) he said: ”The people who fear dying are people who are going to die. I’m not going to die.’

In 2006, Redstone separated CBS from Viacom. He'd folded it into Viacom as part of a $37billion merger but when the Viacom stock price started stagnating, he took them apart again and put Les Moonves in charge of CBS. Moonves is shown with him in 2013. He was ousted from CBS during the #MeToo movement as allegations of sexual misconduct emerged. The two men are shown with Moonves' wife, Julie Chen, and Redstone's then-girlfriend, Sydney Holland. It was one of his final outings before his health took a drastic downturn

In 2006, Redstone separated CBS from Viacom. He’d folded it into Viacom as part of a $37billion merger but when the Viacom stock price started stagnating, he took them apart again and put Les Moonves in charge of CBS. Moonves is shown with him in 2013. He was ousted from CBS during the #MeToo movement as allegations of sexual misconduct emerged. The two men are shown with Moonves’ wife, Julie Chen, and Redstone’s then-girlfriend, Sydney Holland. It was one of his final outings before his health took a drastic downturn 

Sumner Redstone in 2014 with the cast of Teenage Mutant Turtles, including Megan Fox, in 2014.

Sumner Redstone in 2014 with the cast of Teenage Mutant Turtles, including Megan Fox, in 2014. 

He’d ingested food into his lungs and by the time he emerged from the hospital, could no longer speak. 

Manuela Herzer sued after being thrown out by Redstone. She claimed she’d been unfairly iced out by him and his family. A judge ordered her last year to repay $3million in gifts that he lavished on her 

Redstone had such difficulty speaking in the past several years that he has had to communicate with an iPad loaded with recordings from past interviews along with buttons for ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘f*** you’. 

Shari wrote in emails to her relatives that the gilrfriends tried to keep her and other members of the family out of the home and that her father’s nurses told her they filled his head with claims that his children and grandchildren didn’t love him.  

‘I just called to tell him that I love him and that I would be there tomorrow and all he kept saying was, ‘Leave Sydney and Manuela alone,”‘ Shari wrote to her children, according to an email obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. 

‘He said it 100 times. He was not interested in the fact that I love him or that [her son] Tyler and I were coming out,’ she went on. 

Shari and her son went to the home the next day but were asked to leave at Sydney’s instruction.   

Joseph Octaviano, one of Sumner’s nurses, later emailed Shari, saying: ‘One time Manuela told your dad that none of his family loves him except them.’ 

Sumner had given both Holland and Merzer tens of millions of dollars throughout their relationships. He begged Shari not to go after the women for it, asking her to give him ‘peace of mind’. 

In 2015, his household staff and nurses filed a police report alleging that the two women had been emotionally and financially abusing him. 

It drew Shari into a fight to defend her ailing father, with whom she’d been at war with for decades.

Disturbing details of how they abused him emerged in emails from the staff. They told of hearing him cry and scream when Sydney tried to stop him from seeing his grandchildren or great-grandchildren. 

Eventually, a judge sided with Shari. 

The two women now are not thought to have any claim to Redstone’s private wealth – estimated to be some $3billion – or ViacomCBS shares. 








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