A Passion to Win
Sumner  Redstone and
Peter Knobler

(Simon & Schuster)
Among other things, Sumner Redstone owns Simon & Schuster, so obviously, his autobiography should be published by S&S, right?

Well, in a word: no. If a publishing company is free and independent, its editors should not have to issue a polemic for their CEO unless it's a worthy piece of writing --- stirring, funny, insightful, witty, thoughtful --- a true contribution to the world of letters; as great, say, as the autobiographies of Ulysses Grant, or Richard Wright, or Jean-Paul Sartre, or Vladimir Nabokov.

A Passion to Win, no matter how passionate the author is to win, and no matter the depth of his balance sheet, doesn't and won't and will never garner the Booker, nor any other literary prizes --- except those funded by the author. Since Redstone runs Simon & Schuster's parent corporation, and since they've just published the book, that makes S&S the biggest vanity publishing house in the western world, n'est-çe-pas?

§     §     §

Redstone believes in Redstone. With a vengeance. He also believes his story is worth telling, which it is --- if you are interested in corporate back-stab, the egregious drive to turn millions into more millions, lawsuits cast out willy-nilly to scare the hell out of the competition, the whole astonishing ball-of-wax that makes American corporate culture so fascinating, if not soul-destroying.

"I grew up in a tenement in the West End," he tells us. "We didn't have a bathroom in our apartment." Well, maybe. Or maybe it was hidden behind the servant's quarters. Boston Magazine tells us that, during Redstone's youth, his father, Mickey Rothstein, has "a trucking fleet that won lucrative carting contracts with the city." There may have been no flowing water in the apartment, but there was certainly a rich flow of cash.

In fact, Rothstein had the assets, in 1934 --- during the worst of the depression --- to buy land for one of America's first drive-in movie theatres, on Long Island. Thus when Redstone tells us that the dime he spent on carfare to get to Boston Latin High School every day was a strain for his family, we should perhaps dub it as creative whimsy. Hell, I don't know: maybe A Passion to Win is fiction disguised as biography, much like Moll Flanders, or an Horatio Alger novel. The hero grows up poor as a churchmouse, then gets insanely rich because of his untrammeled drive. Only in America could a good middle-class fellow from Boston dwell on an imagined early poverty in order to win our hearts.

All good biographies should have a dose of pain. Redstone has had pain in spades. This is not to be doubted. There was a fire at the Boston Copley Plaza in 1979. He was in room 341. When he smelled smoke, he opened the door and a firestorm erupted into his room. He was severely burned over half of his body.

Later, he went through five operations, sixty hours in all. "The pain from having my skin removed from my body strip by strip was beyond imagining," he tells us. He had to learn to walk all over again.

I remember seeing a picture of Redstone in a trade magazine about that time. It was a startling sight: no hair, terribly seared face, one hand partially destroyed. The other thing that was astonishing was that he went right out in public, allowed his picture to be taken, kept up with business, in the public eye. Most who go through an immensely anguishing experience like that want to hide until their bodies can be rebuilt. Not Redstone.

And was he changed by his devastating experience? He asks,

    Was it some sort of cleansing fire in which I was transformed by a powerful encounter with death? Knowing how precious life is, did I grab it with more gusto than ever before?

    Absolutely not. Some people may want to believe that's what happened --- it's convenient, it's psychologically satisfying, it's an easy hook --- but I don't buy it. It's nonsense. I hadn't changed. I had the same value system, after the fire that I had before. Whether in high school or college or law school or building a theatre circuit, I have always been driven. I have a passion to win, and the will to win is the will to survive.

The message he is trying to purvey is quite clear. #1: I've suffered.

And #2: It didn't affect me a bit.

The truth is at once more strange and less captivating than that. It has to do with a well-disguised kind of self-pity that we disabled recognize clearly --- in ourselves, in others.

Those months in the Burn Center at Massachusetts General changed Redstone profoundly. He is now disabled, and --- like some of us --- he is not at all interested in acknowledging its profound (and often bitter) hold over him. He seems to demonstrate a carefully-contained self-pity (some call it "bravery"); the true agon lies buried deep within his soul.

Some choose to deal with it because of cascading loneliness, mordant self-loathing, virulent depression. Others, like the author, show neither the need nor the desire to go through this eviscerating procedure known as "facing up to the truth."

For the facts are universal. A person who goes through a firestorm --- emotional, religious, physical --- can never be the same as before. Being disabled forces one to change one's way of dealing with the world. The trick is that the implied change may not be what the public (or even the victim) wants or believes or wants to believe.

One disabled writer wrote,

    Great physical pain may make us more loving, caring, or tolerant --- but it also may make us more crafty. We may become more holy; but it's equally possible that we may become more ruthless. We may find ourselves --- after a particularly damaging trauma --- opening our hearts to the world; but we also may find ourselves shutting ourselves down to even the most loving of our friends and family.

All those who know Redstone tell us he is "driven" (even his grandchildren call him "Grumpy"). Sixty hours on the operating table, taking a year to learn to walk again did not leave him untouched. It was only after his siege of agony that he turned from being a ho-hum chief executive of a mildly successful drive-in theatre chain into a man driven passionately (his words) to dominate an entire segment of America's entertainment industry. It changed him so much that, a few years ago, his wife of some fifty-odd years filed for divorce. She's also asked for $3,000,000,000 --- but that's another story.

To do what Redstone has done in the corporate world is astonishing. He has not only driven himself and everyone around him relentlessly, he has also had to bet the whole farm to match his vision. This is not the same Redstone who, during the twenty-five years he ran National Amusements, paid cash on the barrelhead: instead of leasing lots for his drive-in theatres, he tells us, he bought the land outright, along with the buildings and their equipment. Thus the company grew slowly and always had the assets to back up any expansion.

Very recently, Redstone has come up with what one should think of as The Inevitable. That is, he is aging --- and at 92, his ship may be running out of steam, if not coming aground. His former ladyfriend, one Manuela Herzer, had been given power of "healthcare decisions" for him, but was recently dumped from such duties, and has now sued to be reinstated.

According to The Guardian,

    Herzer, 51, claims in the court documents that Redstone was hospitalised three times in mid-2014, twice for aspiration and pneumonia. This left him with a feeding tube, catheter and the need to have saliva and phlegm suctioned from his throat multiple times day and night.

    "His signature is like a straight line, she wrote, "appearing as if someone moved the paper under his pen."

    He can "barely vocalize" and is "emotionally distraught" at his inability to eat or drink, the documents claim.

She also says, tellingly, that he is given to fits of weeping.

So there he is, getting to the same place that all of us will ultimately get to --- with more or less frailty, with more or less "bravery" or "aplomb" or "grumpiness" --- the place where we no long run our world, no longer even run our own bodies.

The same old same old: we grow, we age, we wither, we die. After years of running things with his craft and sullen art, here he is now, still with his millions, ancient face shown in the newspapers, plagued by those who now figure him to be weakened, old, dying.

His face is straitened, his eyes skewed like those who know that --- just over the horizon --- there is coming, rapidly, a new and infinitely interesting change of our ways. His scarred skin has now turned blotched, his countenance is so like so many of us after we reach that place where we no longer measure our lives in coffee-spoons but in quick shots for the pain.

The grand journey isn't going to last much longer; the ballooning pleasures from back then (make-money, make-love, make-believe) that carried us along for so long will soon be edging down, the dying fall from today or tomorrow: the time, at last, when we will begin to entertain the notion that we are to be nothing more than mulch for the lovely, sweet, tender dark-eyed daisies, pushing up indeed.

--- L. W. Milam