Review: ‘A Passion To Win’

Sumner Redstone and late Paramount topper Martin Davis had a telling exchange as Redstone sought to buy Par from a reluctant Davis. "When this deal gets done," Davis said, "they'll build a big statue of you in the middle of Central Park and I'll be forgotten."

Sumner Redstone and late Paramount topper Martin Davis had a telling exchange as Redstone sought to buy Par from a reluctant Davis. “When this deal gets done,” Davis said, “they’ll build a big statue of you in the middle of Central Park and I’ll be forgotten.” Redstone replied: “No, they’ll build statues of both of us and I will be looking up to you in admiration.” Davis was one of his more insecure and irritating bargaining partners, and Redstone said what was needed to close the deal. The park has luckily remained clear of mogul statuary. Redstone, however, erects his own monument in this lengthy tale of an aggressive visionary who built a media empire virtually from scratch over half a century. Unfortunately, the writing is flat, often narrated in the simplistic, pep-rally tone Redstone uses at press conferences to tout MTV or extol corporate synergy. By the book’s end, you admire him. You recognize his passion, but don’t share it.

High drama is reserved for the opening, which has Redstone literally dangling by one hand out of a window of Boston’s Copley Plaza hotel during a 1979 blaze. “The heat and flames roaring out of the room burned off my pajamas and peeled away my skin,” the author recalls. “My legs had been burned to the arteries, now my arm was charring.”

The inferno and Redstone’s painful recovery draw us in as Redstone commences to trace his humble roots in a Boston tenement, the son of a linoleum peddler who started a chain of drive-in movie theaters and changed his family’s name from Rothstein to Redstone.

The son went to Harvard, on to crack Japanese codes in the war, to law school, the Dept. of Justice, into a private law practice and back to the family business, the seed of his media empire.

As for the fire, what will to live, what tenacity, you may think. And if you don’t think so, he’s happy to drive the point home. “My will to win, my tenacity had a lot to do with my recovery,” Redstone says. He follows with one of the many bromides that pepper the book: “It doesn’t take near death to return you to life. Life begins whenever you want it to begin.”

If they can survive the self-adulation and saccharine self-help, Wall Street junkies will like the back-room machinations of Redstone’s two fierce takeover battles (for Viacom in 1987 and Paramount in 1993-94). Media and entertainment types will enjoy his visceral pleasure in firing former Viacom CEO Terry Elkes, suing John Malone and besting Barry Diller, whose competing bid for Par jacked up the price.

“From that point on, over the course of several years, I kept referring to him as my $2 billion ex-friend. Finally he said, ‘lay off will you, Sumner, enough is enough.’ ”

He reserves his real venom for Blockbuster founder Wayne Huizenga, a “turncoat” Redstone partly blames for one of the blackest periods in his business career.

Viacom acquired the cash-rich video rental chain to help finance the Par takeover. Yet Redstone claims Huizenga, his partner, was knocking the deal all over town. That hit Viacom’s share price and made the studio more expensive. “Allies and enemies, sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart,” he says.

Redstone has also got a bone to pick with former Viacom CEO Frank Biondi, a nice and knowledgeable guy, he says, yet one who deeply offended Redstone’s competitive soul.

“Frank Biondi was not a negotiator. Frank’s transactional inclination was to figure out what the other side wanted and give it to them. ‘Let’s make the most aggressive offer we can,’ he would say to me. Worse, he would tell the other side the same thing.”

Though famously litigious Redstone also insists he hates to litigate and stresses the corporate life-or-death situation that prompted each big lawsuit, like ones against Walt Disney in 1981, Time Inc. in 1989 John Malone in 1993 — all key business partners and powerful adversaries.

His response when Viacom managers fretted: “You guys don’t get it. Your company’s future is at stake. Your integrity is at stake. Your life is at stake, the future of Viacom is at stake, and you’re afraid.” Whew.

Redstone offers few personal tidbits. He insists that he didn’t force his brother out of the family business, and says he was hurt when his wife Phyllis filed for divorce during the Paramount takeover battle only to withdraw the claim. She filed again, for good this time, during the CBS merger.

Unfortunately, Redstone, now 78, doesn’t discuss his vivacious social life (various girlfriends periodically grace the gossip pages of the New York Post). Nor does he address criticism that his book, published with great fanfare by Viacom-owned Simon & Schuster, is a bit of a vanity project.

The publisher’s Fred Hill, Redstone’s acknowledgements say, “edited the manuscript thoughtfully and with great attention to detail.” Duh.

A Passion To Win

Simon & Schuster; 352 pgs.; $26


Sumner Redstone, Peter Knobler

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