Sumner Redstone was a media magnate worth about five billion dollars, through his innovations and investments in radio, television, and movies. In 2016, at age 92, he resigned from being the executive chairman of both CBS and Viacom because of a court-ordered examination by a geriatric psychiatrist. He was involved in litigation with Manuela Herzer, a former girlfriend who was 41 years younger than him. She claimed that after a more-than-20-year relationship in which he frequently demanded “sex and steak,” he kicked her out of his Beverly Hills mansion. Her lawsuit claimed that he was medically incompetent and a “living ghost.” He had also kicked another girlfriend, 44-year-old Sydney Holland, out of his Beverly Park mansion after she had lived with him for four years.
At age 91, he was reported to have heart disease and to have suffered several mini-strokes that prevented him from speaking intelligibly, caused him to doze and drool during board meetings, and forced him to use a feeding tube and a urinary catheter. The Wall Street Journal reported that he communicated primarily through an iPad that had his voice say: “Yes,” “No” or “F– you.” In the lawsuits, the geriatric psychiatrist reported that, “His mental status is severely compromised” and that in his opinion, Redstone suffered from moderate dementia. He was subject to uncontrollable anger, which impaired his reasoning, and had fits of “convulsive crying”. Uncontrollable anger can be an early sign of dementia.
He died at age 97 on August 11, 2020, most likely from heart failure, caused by several years of inactivity and several strokes.
Early Life and Career
I was struck by how much his early life looked like mine. He was brought up Boston’s West End, which at that time was one of the city’s poorest sections (I grew up in nearby Roxbury), by Jewish immigrant parents. He endured the Great Depression, passed the exam that got him into the city’s elite public school, Boston Latin School, and then went to Harvard. His father changed their family name from Rothstein to Redstone before Sumner entered Harvard.
Redstone was a 1st lieutenant in the United States Army during World War II, where he decoded Japanese messages. He then went to Harvard Law School where he received his degree in 1947. He served as special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, and then on to the United States Department of Justice Tax Division in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Meanwhile, his father had worked out of poverty to own a chain of drive-in theaters. In 1954, at age 31, Redstone joined his father’s theater chain, National Amusements, and in 1967 he was made CEO. He became incredibly rich as he progressed from owning drive-in theaters to owning Columbia Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Orion Pictures, Paramount Pictures, CBS, Viacom, the Smithsonian Channel, CBS Television Studios, Showtime Networks, Nickelodeon, Big Ticket Television, Domestic Media Networks, Networks International, Comedy Central, Miramax, and many others.
In 1947 at age 24, he married Phyllis Gloria Raphael and stayed with her for 52 years and then divorced her in 1999. At age 79, he married Paula Fortunato, a school teacher 39 years younger than him, and divorced her six years later.
On March 29, 1979, when he was 56, he was staying at the Copley Plaza hotel in Boston when a fire engulfed the hotel. He escaped from his room through a window and clung onto a third-story windowsill. A fireman saved his life by carrying him down a ladder from a fire truck on the ground below. He had burns over more than 45 percent of his body, which required five operations lasting more than 60 hours. He had to be pumped full of morphine just to have his bandages changed. He was left with scars over both arms and legs and his right hand was badly deformed. To play tennis, he had to strap the racket onto his right hand.
Lessons from Sumner Redstone
• Being successful and brilliant does not protect you from becoming demented in old age. Many very successful people have died from dementia: Eddie Albert, Glenn Campbell, Perry Como, Aaron Copland, Peter Falk, Rudolph Bing, Thomas Dorsey, Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson, and many others.
• Redstone suffered from heart disease, which markedly increases risk for strokes and dementia. You can reduce your risk for heart disease with an anti-inflammatory diet, regular exercise, and avoidance of overweight, alcohol, smoking and recreational drugs.
• Anyone who starts to lose mental function should have a complete medical evaluation for vitamin deficiencies, infections, genetic factors, brain tumors, auto-immune diseases and other possibly treatable causes.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com