The bedrooms and boardrooms of the rich and loathsome — all in a media-business book
Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy
By James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams
Penguin Press: 416 pages, $32
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Sex plays an important role in “Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy,” a guilty-pleasure exposé on boardroom and bedroom maneuvering between Viacom and CBS. Sometimes it is taken at will by men in charge. To some, mainly men, this sort of behavior was a revelation when #MeToo became the most popular hashtag of 2018. To others, mainly women, not so much. Both will be riveted by the new book.
New York Times reporters James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams weave together court files, interviews and news stories into a gripping and illuminating account of C-suite shenanigans and intrafamily strife. Entertaining on a gut level, it is populated by those we love to hate — horrible rich people, sleazy, greedy and driven by lust; even the most sympathetic of them, Shari Redstone, is a Trump supporter.
Her father, media mogul Sumner Redstone, is the book’s villain turned victim. He went to Harvard on a scholarship where he later attended law school. An accomplished linguist, he cracked enemy codes during World War II before returning home to Boston and working for his father. Turning a pair of drive-in movie theaters into multiplexes (a term he invented), Redstone laid the foundation for National Amusements, the holding company at the core of an empire that would include Viacom, Paramount and CBS, which was acquired in 1999, spun off in 2006 and re-acquired in 2019.
After divorcing Phyllis Gloria Raphael, his wife of 52 years, Redstone married Paula Fortunato in 2002. At the same time he embarked on a rash of affairs with women a fraction of his age, on whom the octogenarian lavished Viacom stock, houses, horses and millions of dollars. Those he really liked he would put in his will. But if they betrayed him, he would take them out again and make room for the next model or actress.
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According to the pilots who flew the company jet, he made a habit of harassing women in the passenger cabin and then having them fired. Christine Peters, ex-wife of Hollywood producer Jon Peters, dated him before becoming a longtime platonic friend. She claims he was banned from every restaurant in L.A., recalling an incident in Hawaii in which he threw a steak at the chef, alleging it was overcooked. When Peters asked him why he was so mean to people, he allegedly replied, “I don’t care. I’m going to hell anyway.”
Two that remained in his inner circle were ex-girlfriends Manuela Herzer and Sydney Holland. With his speech severely impaired by a series of strokes, the wheelchair-bound mogul grew isolated. Herzer and Holland resided in his Beverly Park mansion and took over his life, controlling who he communicated with. Blocking his family, they convinced Redstone he was abandoned, often leaving him in tears, according to the book.
In 2014 alone, according to “Unscripted,” Herzer and Holland ran up more than $3.5 million in charges. Over the course of several years, according to Redstone, they managed to skim roughly $150 million from his fortune. But when Holland was found to have a boyfriend — “Guiding Light” actor George Pilgrim, living in an Arizona home paid for by Redstone — the jig was up. Redstone excised Holland from his will and banished her from his home. According to the book, the move made Herzer sole manipulator of his fortune. But Shari, with the help of concerned household staff and nurses, engineered a coup, rescuing her father and effectively locking Herzer out by revealing her many transgressions.
With the family happily reunited, Shari turned to reviving Paramount. Led by her father’s hand-picked successor, Philippe Dauman, the studio had been reporting one disappointing quarter after another. One solution was to remove Dauman in May 2016, then re-merge Viacom with CBS, which under the stewardship of Les Moonves had become an industry leader. With the board behind him, Moonves was resistant to a merger. But cord-cutting and the transition to streaming were rapidly making a dinosaur of network television, weakening his hand.
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Posing a greater threat were persistent rumors about a pending New Yorker article by Ronan Farrow, which dropped in July, 2018. Actor Illeana Douglas said Moonves forced himself on her; another actress, Bobbie Phillips, said he did the same to her. Producer Phyllis Golden-Gottleib filed a police report against him. And Dr. Anne L. Peters also claimed she was fondled by Moonves.
The “Unscripted” authors report that when CBS Communications Chief Gil Schwartz was told of Peters’ claim by Vanity Fair writer William Cohan, he responded, “This doesn’t sound like Les,” claiming Moonves was a “blow job guy,” not a “masturbation guy.” He might have been basing it on reports that one of Moonves’ assistants was on call for whenever the former was required.
When urged by Peters to forgo his nomination to the CBS Board on account of Moonves’ behavior, veteran producer Arnold Kopelson (“Platoon”) reportedly said her concerns were “trivial,” noting, “We all did that.” Which might be why it was so easy for Moonves to lie when confronted by Shari about the claims. “Look me in the eyes,” he told her. “There is nothing there.” Despite all who came forward, Moonves was never charged with a crime; Los Angeles County prosecutors said the allegations exceeded the statute of limitations. Nor was he sued civilly.
Stewart won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism and is the author of 10 books, including the 1991 bestseller “Den of Thieves,” about white-collar gangsters Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. Abrams was part of the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Together they paint a lurid portrait of Sumner Redstone’s dissolution while also meticulously stitching together a day-to-day and sometimes moment-to-moment account of a riveting power struggle. The book features a cast of dozens, adroitly differentiated by the authors, making internecine corporate warfare digestible without dumbing down for the uninitiated.
Redstone’s lasting imprint will be accelerating media consolidation and hard-fought battles to build, then maintain his empire.
Confronted with her father’s hostility (he called her a “c—” in front of company executives), Shari also faced down a sexist boardroom that turned a blind eye to Moonves’ crimes. Her journey brought her face-to-face with the rotten truth about corporate governance: Chief executives tend to dominate the boards that are charged with overseeing them.
When Sumner Redstone died in August 2020, his funeral was attended by only family, mainly as a result of COVID restrictions. Shari reportedly wept furiously at his graveside and — per his request that the Sinatra classic “My Way” be played — sang the lyrics off her daughter’s phone. She had prevailed, wresting control of CBS away from Moonves and assuming the position of chair of the newly formed ViacomCBS, now Paramount Global. Like this book, the record shows she, in fact, took all the blows, and did it her way.
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