The only bright spot in Vanity Fair’s 8,000-word saga about the “Game of Thrones”-like deceptions governing ailing mogul Sumner Redstone’s final days — are his funeral instructions.
“He want[s] to be buried in a ‘simple pine box,’ ” William D. Cohan, the article’s author writes, using quotes as code for Jewish burial. He wants to be interred next to his parents “in a traditional Jewish graveside service in the ‘Galilee’ section of the Sharon Memorial Park, in Sharon, Massachusetts”; prefers the traditional “earth burial” to a mausoleum; and wants a chevrah kadishah to wash and prepare his body before interment.
The stark and modest burial plan is a surprising choice for a mega-mogul infamously lacking in humility and restraint. The 92-year-old Redstone is the majority stakeholder in CBS Corp. and Viacom, which owns Paramount Pictures, and is reportedly worth between $5 billion and $6 billion. His temperament is the stuff of Hollywood legend: “He’d fight with his wife; he’d fight with his kids. … He’d fight with everybody,” Viacom COO Tom Dooley has said. “He liked fighting, and he liked winning.”
At his funeral, he wants Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” to be played.
But if anything could be said of the antics transpiring around the mogul during his precipitous decline, it would be this: Things are decidedly not going his way.
Redstone is living out his last days up in the gated hills of Beverly Park, where some driveways go on like highways, and where for the past several years, he has been looked after by two female companions — Sydney Holland, 44, and Manuela Herzer, 51. The women were supposed to be primary beneficiaries of his personal estate — netting them $75 million each — and were entrusted to carry out his funeral arrangements. The bulk of Redstone’s business empire — worth $5 billion — was to go to his first wife, Phyllis, and his five grandchildren, through a series of trusts.
The situation for Redstone’s two children, Brent and Shari, is more complicated; Redstone has long been estranged from the former, and has engaged in a kind of oscillating estrangement with the latter. Loyalty in this family changes with the seasons, devotion left to the quaint domain of the working class.
At the moment, all of these parties — including the heir apparent of Viacom, Philippe Dauman — are embroiled in an epic legal saga that has resulted in Redstone’s female companions getting the boot from his Beverly Park home, the recalibration of his medical care and the reported resurfacing of daughter Shari, who may or may not wish to exert her will on his companies (she is vice chair of CBS and Viacom) and his funeral service.
The question at the heart of this battle is: Who are the rightful heirs? Are Redstone’s trusted female companions not to be trusted after all? Should Shari Redstone’s biology trump her tricky behavior? And what the heck is Dauman doing presiding over Redstone’s medical directives from Manhattan, where he is running a huge public company?
All I can tell you after reading two very juicy (and quintessential Vanity Fair) pieces is this: Nobody in this dog-eat-dog web of family and confreres is innocent. The famously controlling Redstone has completely lost control, and his enormous fortune does not afford him a shred of love or loyalty. Anyone who means anything to him wants a pound of flesh. Caring for him, Herzer explained, “it’s a job.”
“My Way” sounds like a cruel joke.
Not only is Redstone dying — a man who promised and professed again and again that he never would: “The people who fear dying are people who are going to die. I’m not going to die,” he famously said at the Milken Institute conference in 2009 — but the details of his sad and unseemly decline are being spilled onto the pages of magazines and tabloids in a manner reserved for those who think they’re immune to such indignities. Imagine: A man who meticulously built his empire and ran it like a proper capitalist tyrant is now described as a “living ghost” and “a corpse” by some who’ve seen him, while a group of ravenous vultures who double as his kin swoop overhead, clawing at each other on their dive down for his flesh.
It’s “an extraordinary turn of events for Redstone, a virtually self-made man who once upon a time, in a 1979 Boston hotel fire, clung to the window ledge of [a] burning building for dear life while flames lapped his body and melted his hand into a claw,” Cohan wrote.
Redstone survived more than 60 hours of surgery to repair burns that ripped across 45 percent of his body. But he won’t survive this.
Redstone’s amazing legacy is now marred by the dirty little secret that his billions and his power came at too high a price. For a while, his life looked a lot like the American dream — the version Donald Trump is selling with “Make America Great Again.” But I want to know: Is this dream so great? Is this what Redstone worked hard his whole life for? To return to his parents in death exactly as he started?
We need a new dream. We need a better ending, one in which the space between mergers and acquisitions equals something more than billions and billions of nothing.