Ailing Sumner Redstone Has Become ‘a Living Ghost,’ Ex-Girlfriend Alleges in Lawsuit

Viacom founder's lawyers dismiss suit as 'preposterous'

Sumner Redstone
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

UPDATED: Media titan Sumner Redstone has become a virtual shut-in who barely eats or speaks and is totally reliant on a team of caretakers, while those around him fight over control of the Viacom and CBS chairman’s care, according to a petition filed in a Los Angeles probate court Wednesday morning.

Redstone’s one-time lover and long-time companion, Manuela Herzer, says in the petition and supporting declarations that she was improperly ejected from Redstone’s life in mid-October by one of his lawyers and that a court should restore her as his health care agent, in order to protect the billionaire’s well-being. The explosive court documents promise to touch off an intense struggle over the end-of-life care of Redstone, 92, as succession plans for his media empire remain unknown.

Lawyers for Redstone responded immediately, rejecting Herzer’s contentions in their own legal filing. “Ms. Herzer’s claim that she filed this lawsuit out of concern for Mr. Redstone is preposterous,” said Gabrielle Vidal, Redstone’s attorney from the firm of  Loeb & Loeb. “It is a meritless action, riddled with lies, and a despicable invasion of his privacy.  It proves only that Ms. Herzer will stop at nothing to pursue her personal financial agenda.”

Herzer’s papers paint a portrait of Redstone as a tragic figure who has become “a living ghost,” a decline that was exacerbated when he discovered in August that the most recent in a string of lovers, Sydney Holland, had been unfaithful, ending their five-year relationship. The legal documents describe a twilight life of bizarre paradoxes: Redstone is barely sentient, alternately weepy and combative. He’s unable to care for himself, but still fixated on eating steak and having sex daily, if possible, Herzer claims.

Both Holland and Herzer have received millions of dollars of financial support from the media magnate in the past, according to media reports. Herzer’s petition does not ask the Los Angeles court for money, but instead for a directive that puts her in charge of the nonagenarian’s medical care.

Redstone’s lawyers vehemently rejected Herzer’s contentions in a written response to the probate court, where a brief hearing was held Wednesday morning before Judge Clifford L. Klein. The judge set another hearing for Monday afternoon.

“This application is all about Ms. Herzer’s personal financial agenda,” the response reads. It adds that, after she was kicked out of the Redstone home in mid-October, “Ms. Herzer has been on a warpath. Why? Because she suspected that in the days or weeks following her removal from his home, Mr. Redstone would take action to amend his estate plan, and that whatever benefit might have previously accrued to her would be eliminated.”

Herzer’s lawyers also threatened to invite the website TMZ into Redstone’s home and to file a “multi-million dollar lawsuit” against anyone in the house who disturbed personal property she kept there, the Redstone lawyers’ response says. The Redstone response concludes: “These are not the acts or words of a person seeking to protect Mr. Redstone.”

Analysts following CBS and Viacom, the parent of Paramount Pictures, have been concerned for years about the apparent lack of a clear succession plan for the corporations after the once-dynamic corporate boss is no longer on the scene. After his death, Redstone’s controlling shares in CBS Corp. and Viacom will be taken over by a family trust run by seven trustees, who are expected to include his daughter, Shari Redstone, and Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman. But the long-term plan for the management of his empire remains very uncertain.

Sources close to the situation predict that legal action among various Redstone family members and his companions will ensue before any of the corporate issues are sorted out. The papers filed Wednesday by the law firm of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger do not address any of the corporate issues.

Herzer’s declaration does make clear, however, that she disagreed with Redstone family members about the family patriarch’s care. She depicts Redstone as estranged from daughter Shari, to the point that he said he would give family cemetery plots to the two women who cared for him, if his daughter contested his detailed funeral plans.

In mid-2014, Redstone became so ill with pneumonia and other symptoms that he could not eat, the legal filing contends. Herzer said she pushed ahead with a doctor’s recommendation to get the magnate a feeding tube, after Shari Redstone and a grandson opposed the move, saying it “was against the family’s Jewish religion.” The tube was installed and Herzer said a doctor told her it had prolonged Redstone’s life.

But even with the extraordinary care he has received, doctors have said Redstone “will never be able to eat, drink, or speak clearly again,” the Herzer petition says.

Herzer’s declaration depicts her as a close confidante and friend of the billionaire for 16 years, which began with the two dating for a couple of years. She describes how Redstone attended her family’s holiday functions and became close to her three children, looking on at important occasions like college graduations. Redstone once proposed marriage to her, but she turned him down, Herzer’s declaration says. They remained friends and she would even arrange dates for him.

Herzer’s filing notes that Redstone gave a statement to Vanity Fair magazine in June describing his relationship with his long-time companion. “I have known Manuela for over 20 years,” it said. “She and her children are family to me.”

In April of 2013, Redstone asked Herzer to move in to his Beverly Park home to aide with his care. Herzer’s petition says the elderly man’s care “has been the primary focus of Petitioner’s life” particularly after the departure this August of his mistress, Holland. Though he had already struggled with declining health, it was Holland’s “shocking admission” of infidelity and departure from the Beverly Park mansion that exacerbated Redstone’s downward spiral, the Herzer legal petition says.

“Those who know Mr. Redstone say it was like a switch had been flipped,” the legal papers say, “and his mental presence and acuity were faint shadows of what they had once been for the once vital, towering figure.”

The signs of Redstone’s decline were myriad, largely demonstrated by his loss of interest in long-time passions: sports, the news, his businesses, even his collection of tropical fish. It was shortly after Holland moved out of his Beverly Park mansion that Redstone also removed her from his advance health directive and made Herzer the sole agent who would oversee his health care needs if he was declared incompetent, the Herzer papers say.

Herzer said that she planned the most minute details of Redstone’s daily life, from doctor and nurse care, to his medication, to his social life and events like his Sunday “movie day,” when he would invite guests into his home to see upcoming releases from Paramount.

Like many billionaires, Redstone was never a conventional figure, and Herzer’s court action suggests that he has remained demanding about his personal wants, even during his decline.

Redstone “demands, to the extent he can be understood, to engage in sexual activity every day, even though [his doctor] has repeatedly recommended that he abstain from daily sexual activity,” the filing says, adding: “Mr. Redstone is either unwilling or unable to comply with his physician’s recommendations, thereby placing his health in jeopardy.”

The documents contains an account of Redstone’s sexual encounters as recently as October, when a “romantic partner” visited his home. The woman, who had dated him before his relationship with Holland, was ready to have sex with the 92-year-old. But because Redstone could not communicate clearly, a male nurse would “direct…the intimate actions” between the two, the papers say.

The papers added that the billionaire is also “obsessed with eating steak and does not seem to recall or understand why he cannot do so.” It offers no further details. Redstone, meanwhile, has lost interest in many other aspects of his life, including a memoir that he had launched with a ghost writer, Herzer’s filing says.

“He cannot converse, except for brief grunted responses to directed questions and, even then, he is nearly impossible to understand,” according to the Herzer papers. “He cannot initiate a conversation.” She says the once-powerful corporate baron is now reduced to “spontaneous crying spells for no discernible reason.”

Herzer says her separation from Redstone came suddenly and precipitously. On Oct. 11, the CEO had friends over for a regular Sunday movie session. Paramount’s “Steve Jobs” was on tap, but Redstone’s breathing difficulties made it difficult for him to watch. He had to have his throat cleared with suction, then left the screening early. That evening, he took no interest in a baseball playoff game, which Herzer said was “very troubling” given his passion for the game.

Herzer said she left the house the next day to do errands and that, when she returned, she was told by first Redstone’s driver and then a nurse that she was no longer welcome in the home. Redstone’s estate-planning attorney, Leah Bishop, reiterated this message, touching off a “frenzy,” according to Herzer’s account. Herzer insisted on talking to Redstone to ask him what was wrong. But she said that repeated attempts to get a response failed. He only made a “grunting noise” in answer to her entreaties, then “began crying uncontrollably,” according to Herzer.

“Seeing that Mr. Redstone appeared confused and upset, petitioner agreed to leave at that time,” her legal papers say. “As [Herzer] left the room, she looked back. Mr. Redstone was still sobbing.”

Herzer said that, after she was forced out, she called Bishop to try to learn what had happened. She said the estate attorney told her only that she had “lied” to Redstone. In a subsequent conversation with Viacom CEO Dauman, he told her that the dispute was related to Redstone’s unhappiness over charges his granddaughters had made on his credit card, Herzer said. An expenditure for a home video surveillance system was also disputed. Redstone had authorized both the use of his credit card and the camera installation, Herzer said, but, in his diminished state, had forgotten he had done so.

The response filed Wednesday by lawyers for Redstone reject Herzer’s portrayal of the magnate as incapacitated. They note that Herzer, herself, wants the court to rely on a health care directive that he signed in September. As recently as last week, Herzer reached an agreement with Redstone in which he allowed her to return to his home to reclaim her possessions, according to the Redstone response.

It was only after she picked up her things on Monday that Herzer’s lawyers gave notice that they intended to go to court to make her demands about his future health care, the Redstone lawyers argued. They rejected her depiction of herself as a selfless guardian angel. Herzer only wants to conduct discovery in her current petition to prepare for a fight over Redstone’s trust that she intends to bring after his death, they argue.

Her machinations “have nothing to do with any present (let alone urgent) concern for Mr. Redstone’s protection,” Redstone’s lawyers say in their filing. In fact, Redstone is still capable of making his own decisions and is receiving “the best medical care money can buy,” they contend. The Viacom chairman has appointed Dauman, the corporation’s CEO, to act in his stead, should he become incapacitated, the legal papers say. Dauman is described as Redstone’s “friend of 30-plus years.”

Herzer said in her filing that she has repeatedly attempted to see Redstone since the October blowup, but has been denied permission. Her legal papers called it “highly doubtful” that Redstone approved her ouster from his home. Even if he did, Herzer argues, the fading magnate did not have the mental capacity to “fully appreciate the nature and consequences” of removing her and, subsequently, ending her tenure as his health care agent.

If Redstone made such a decision it was a result of “undue influence” by unnamed parties, the filing declares. Herzer asks a probate judge to intervene and reassert her position controlling decisions over Redstone’s care. She cites the findings of a psychiatrist — who reviewed statements by Herzer, her brother and others — who declared that the billionaire would not have been competent in October to alter his own health care directive. Herzer therefore asks that the court immediately activate her powers under the health directive. She also calls for Redstone’s previous physician to be kept in place and for detailed records to be kept of all care.

The filing concludes that, when Redstone was lucid, he named Herzer “the one person in the whole world whom he trusted to be his health care agent.”

The response from Redstone’s attorneys scoffs at that notion. They call her application for control of Redstone’s care “a farce” that they argue should be summarily dismissed. Summing up, his lawyers argue: “If Ms. Herzer wants to challenge Mr. Redstone’s estate plan, the very least she could do is wait until he dies.”

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this article.