April 11, 1902, is the birthdate of Michael “Mickey” Redstone, the hard-driving founder of the family entertainment empire now headed by his ailing 92-year-old son Sumner. Sumner, until his “retirement” this February, was the executive chairman of both Viacom and CBS, and the center of a noisy and squalid legal struggle over his condition and the future of his holdings.
The saga of Sumner Redstone, however, begins with his father, who was born Max Rothstein, in Boston, Massachusetts, 114 years ago.
Ties with the mob
Mickey left high school before graduation and bought his first truck, a used one, when he got a carting contract from the city of Boston.
Boston politics at the time was largely controlled by an Irish mafia. Those with whom Rothstein had to do business included the city’s former mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, whose grandson, John F. Kennedy, would become U.S. president.
Rothstein also became close with the Jewish gambling boss Harry “Doc” Sagansky (a dentist by training), who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Mickey’s expanding business organization. It was with the assistance of Sagansky that Redstone bought his first drive-in movie theater in 1934, in Valley Stream, Long Island.
Two years later, Redstone founded the Northeast Theater Corporation, later National Amusements, which by the time of his death, comprised some 400 cinemas across the United States.
Mickey married Belle Ostrovsky, daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. The couple had two sons – Sumner Murray, born in 1923, and Edward Stanton, five years later.
Sumner Redstone, executive chairman of Viacom Inc and CBS Corp, at an event at the Milken Institute Global Conference, 2012. Credit: Reuters
In 1940, Mickey changed the family name to “Redstone.” It meant the same thing as “Rothstein,” but was less Jewish-sounding, and wouldn’t make people wonder if he was related to the well-known Jewish-America gambling boss Arnold Rothstein.
Sumner, the older and favored son, attended Boston’s prestigious Latin School, and then Harvard University, for both college and law school. In the mid-1950s, after having done service in World War II applying his mathematics skills to crack Japanese codes, Sumner began working for his father.
Driven by fire
So ambitious and hard-driving was Sumner, though, that Mickey Redstone began to feel as if it was he who was working for his son. Gradually, according to Judith Newman, Sumner eased his father out of the business empire he was growing. Similarly, Mickey’s other son, Edward, was gradually divested of a role in National Amusements, and in 1972, he sold his shares back to the company, setting the scene for intra-generational lawsuits of the future.
In the 1970s, even as he was running the family cinema business, Sumner was involved in politics (he managed Senator Edwin Muskie’s 1972 campaign for president, and was touted as a possible U.S. attorney general, in the event of a Muskie win). As late as 1980, he was still teaching entertainment law in the evenings at Northeastern University.
Something changed, however, after the 1979 fire in the Boston hotel where Sumner was staying. He nearly lost his life, and suffered third-degree burns on nearly half of his body. It was after that that he began assembling a global communications conglomerate.
In 1987, after a long and hard battle in which Sumner put up $400 million of his own money, National Amusements took over Viacom – at the time the parent company of MTV Networks and Nickelodeon, among other things. Acquisitions of Paramount Pictures and CBS followed, in 1994 and 1999, respectively.
Mickey Redstone died on April 4, 1987, in Bal Harbour, Florida, just a week short of his 85th birthday.
Just a concise list of the family legal struggles that have played out in three decades since his death would take up the space of another column, if not two. The most recent, however, has been the most squalid, as it has raised serious questions about the mental competency of Sumner, as it has pitted his daughter Shari against at least one of her father’s former caregiver-companions, who claimed that he had planned to leave her some $50 million, in addition to his $20 million mansion. (A settlement was apparently worked out in this case last week.) Beyond the juicy personal story, there is the more significant fact that Sumner’s consistent refusal to name his successors in the businesses he controls opens the door to many more years of legal wrangling after his death.