There were just two things that kept Sumner Redstone happy each day in his final years, said a girlfriend — sex and steak.
He demanded both from the ‘nurses’ paid to attend him in his $20 million Los Angeles mansion, although — so frail that he was confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak — the billionaire media mogul found both a little taxing to enjoy.
Redstone, a tenacious and driven tycoon who turned his father’s cinema chain into a vast $40 billion empire that included Paramount Pictures, CBS, MTV and Viacom, liked to insist he would never die but passed away on Tuesday aged 97.
Although his last few years were dominated by court battles with girlfriends that revealed jaw-droppingly tawdry details of his personal life, he was known principally for what a rival described as his ‘business thuggery’ as he built one of America’s largest entertainment empires.
Indeed, Redstone was so cantankerous that even when he could no longer speak, he recorded three words or phrases on an iPad that could be played back to people: ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘F*** You’.
He expressed that last sentiment many times during his long and rambunctious life — from Tom Cruise, who he sacked over his Scientology proselytising and bizarre public behaviour, to members of his own family with whom he fought bitterly over his business empire.
He was a dangerous man to cross, compared to a mad dog ‘foaming at the mouth’ and once shouting so loudly during a business meeting that one of his teeth came out and shot across the room.
His grandchildren called him ‘Grumpy’ — a nickname that he suggested — and he could be so foul-tempered with waiters that he was banned from some restaurants.
Redstone, who famously liked to say that ‘content is king’, became the most powerful man in Hollywood relatively late in life.
Raised in a Boston flat that was so miserable that it didn’t even have its own lavatory, his father (the family surname was originally Rothstein but, like so many Jewish immigrants, it was changed) reportedly worked for the Mafia driving around bootleg alcohol during Prohibition.
Redstone Sr later set up a chain of drive-in cinemas, reportedly with Underworld money, undermining his son’s claims to have been entirely self-made.
Sumner went to Harvard, learned Japanese in a year and was enlisted to help break Japanese codes during World War II. He later joined the family business which he aggressively expanded across the country.
Redstone put his driving passion to win in business down to a near-death experience in 1979 when he was staying — with a mistress — in a Boston hotel that caught fire. As flames enveloped his room, Redstone, then 55, survived by hanging on to a third-floor window ledge until a fireman reached him on a ladder.
His girlfriend escaped largely unscathed but he suffered burns to 50 per cent of his body and underwent 60 hours of surgery. He was soon playing his beloved tennis again, but his racket had to be strapped to his right hand which had been melted to a claw.
He moved from multi-millionaire to billionaire status after buying Viacom, a cable TV company that owns the MTV and Nickelodeon channels, in a $3.4 billion deal in 1987 for which he borrowed heavily.
Much of his money came from canny stock market investments such as the five per cent stake he bought in 20th Century Fox — Redstone had gone to see Star Wars and, predicting it would be a monster hit, rushed out of the cinema to a petrol station payphone.
He immediately bought 25,000 shares in the company that had released the film, correctly predicting they would soar in value.
He soon added Paramount Pictures (whose films included his personal favourite, The Godfather), the Blockbuster video shop chain, publisher Simon & Schuster and CBS TV. He made sure Simon & Schuster published his 2001 autobiography, A Passion To Win, insisting that nobody else could tell his story but him.
However, he couldn’t prevent others recounting notorious episodes from his career — such as his decision in 2006 not to renew Tom Cruise’s contract with Paramount Studios.
Redstone complained that the Mission Impossible star was ‘getting paid $10 million, on the [studio] lot, for doing nothing’.
He was also irked by Cruise’s very public support for the controversial Church of Scientology and an alarming appearance on the Oprah Winfrey TV show in which he had leapt over her sofa in enthusiasm about the wonderfulness of his personal life.
Yet Redstone was very eccentric himself, shaving naked by the side of his swimming pool and paying flight attendants to clip his toenails.
Betsy Loomis, who worked on the Paramount Pictures private jet, said she refused to do it, describing his toenails as ‘like ancient sea scrolls’.
Although he indulged himself in luxury hotels (including Claridge’s in London) and fine restaurants, he was so mean he dyed his own hair — creating a disconcerting orange hue — and wore only cheap sack-like, oversized suits that he had his driver buy from a discount store.
He kept the modest suburban house he bought for $46,000 in Newton, Massachusetts, as a young man and sometimes lived in it.
He remained married to his first wife, Phyllis, for 52 years before she divorced him in 1999 after hiring a private detective who photographed him ‘canoodling’ with a younger woman in Paris. The divorce, in which she accused him of adultery and cruelty, cost him $3 billion.
Then aged 76, Redstone, who is said to have long regarded himself as ‘God’s gift to women’, belatedly embarked on a new life as a Don Juan.
His many attractive girlfriends were often even younger than his children, daughter Shari and son Brent. When he married again in 2002, it was to a woman 40 years his junior — Paula Fortunato, a former pastry chef he met on a blind date arranged by his bankers. They divorced in 2009.
The author Michael Wolff, famous for his recent book on Donald Trump, wrote of Redstone: ‘With a striking head of orange hair, Redstone is a vainglorious, old-school egomaniac who has an operatic personal life that has been largely kept out of the media undoubtedly because he controls so much of it.’
He was certainly deluded about his appeal to women. In his late 70s, Redstone boasted: ‘I know I don’t look my age. I know I look a lot younger.
I surely work a lot younger.’ He admitted that women were attracted to him by his power but said it would ‘bother’ him to think it was his money. ‘There are also such things as charm and charisma, you know. You don’t have to be young to have that.’
His incredible vanity looked all the more pitiful in recent years as it became increasingly clear his myriad girlfriends were certainly not unmoved by his vast wealth.
Beginning in 2015, Redstone was embroiled in a string of lawsuits and counter-suits involving two former longtime live-in girlfriends.
First Manuela Herzer, an Argentine socialite 42 years his junior, challenged his competency after being thrown out of his mansion and his will. She said he’d become a ‘living ghost’ in his home in the LA millionaires’ gated community of Beverly Park and that he was barely able to communicate beyond making grunts.
She was supported in her claims by another ex-lover, Sydney Holland, who had been similarly exiled from Redstone’s life after the two women gave an interview in which they said they had been Redstone’s devoted carers and gatekeepers
By then, Redstone — said to be worth $5.2 billion — had become estranged from his children after disagreements over money and his business empire.
He hadn’t spoken to his son, Brent, for years. His stormy relationship with daughter Shari, a divorced mother of three, finally blew up in after she refused to sell him her stake in the family business for $1 billion and — suspicious of his Herzer and Holland — hired private detectives to look into the women’s pasts.
Ms Herzer blamed Shari and Redstone staff for conspiring to have her thrown out of the mansion and taken out of his will. Ms Holland said she met the same fate after admitting to Redstone she had been unfaithful.
Herzer further alleged that Redstone — by then in his 90s — had become obsessed with sex but had been told by his doctors that he needed to limit his sexual activity to just once a week if he wanted to indulge his other passion for steak.
Otherwise, said the doctors, he wouldn’t have sufficient energy to swallow solid food without the aid of the feeding tube he was forced to use.
According to Herzer, Redstone would be visited by a string of women who would perform sex acts with each other, or occasionally with him, as he sat motionless in a chair.
Her claims about his string of kept women chimed with those of the tycoon’s former chauffeur, Tim Jensen, who said he had to deliver regular payments — each of several thousand dollars — to seven women around Los Angeles after they visited.
Insiders at Viacom countered that the fiery Manuela Herzer became an unbearable diva while Redstone’s lover, demanding VIP treatment for herself and her ‘entourage’ at Hollywood events, including personal introductions to stars.
‘How many times do I have to meet this lady’s kids?’ the superstar singer Justin Timberlake once reportedly asked an MTV executive in exasperation.
Redstone insiders also said Sydney Holland — who became his live-in girlfriend in 2011 when she was 39 and he was 89 (and insisted ‘I’ve never noticed his age,’) had almost unlimited access to his money, chartering private jets, buying expensive clothes, and starting businesses that included a film production company and a property developing business.
In a leaked 2011 email exchange with her lawyer, she boasted of receiving some $10 million in cash and presents from the tycoon.
The torrid court battle also included allegations that Redstone had given $18 million to a flight attendant on a CBS corporate jet and later slept with her sister, whom he gave $6 million.
Ms Herzer appealed and the case was settled last year. Redstone later sued both ex-girlfriends, Ms Holland and Ms Herzer, accusing them of manipulating and emotionally abusing him into giving them $150 million of presents over five years.
Holland claimed in court papers during the case that ‘Redstone gave tens of millions of dollars to various other women — who he had no intention of marrying and was not love with’ at a time when he was engaged to her.
But by then, he had been forced by shareholder pressure to resign as executive chairman of CBS and Viacom. He hadn’t appeared publicly for years before his death.
He controlled about 80 per cent of the votes in ViacomCBS and it will reportedly be divided up into two trusts. One will go to his descendants and the other to first wife Phyllis.
Given that he married again, yet another legal battle may be in the offing if — as some expect — his second wife challenges the arrangement. Sumner Redstone, who repeatedly sued members of his own family and who never shied from a fight, would probably be delighted.