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In Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalists James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams chart the byzantine corporate maneuvering and salacious personal embroilments that brought disgrace to billionaire Viacom owner Sumner Redstone and longtime CBS head Les Moonves — as well as trouble for their allies, sycophants, rivals and shareholders. The book, published Feb. 14, relies on exclusive access to key documents and participants in the soap-operatic drama to examine alleged sexual assault, elder abuse, financial shenanigans, legal negligence, boardroom power politics, executive cover-ups and the doomed dynamic in the relationships between a very wealthy, very old man and two very clever younger women.
Those two women, Sydney Holland and Manuela Herzer, who for a time toward the end of the mogul’s life resided in Redstone’s Beverly Park mansion, ended up rich. By the time he ultimately rid himself of them, the authors report, citing a lawsuit, the pair had taken him for more than $150 million. (Holland and Herzer, who were described in the press at the time as his girlfriends, didn’t respond to the authors’ efforts to interview them.)
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Stewart and Abrams about their book, its novelistic cast of characters and what they learned in their reporting.
Why should readers care about your telling of this saga, whether they’ve known nothing about it or they’ve been closely following previous press coverage over the past decade?
Rachel Abrams: This book is about the collision of the #MeToo movement with corporate governance. It’s a look in real time at a company that was slow to adapt to modernity: technologically, culturally. I think it is very illustrative of the ways that corporate governance can completely fail. Also, this is a window into the way one institution was run by aging men who held certain beliefs and treated people a certain way, and how that really affected their ability to run their companies. These are public companies. There are shareholders. They have enormous cultural influence. So, I think this is really a window into the vulnerabilities in corporate America, and a window in which there are growing pains to adapt to shifting cultural landscapes that we’re all talking about right now.
Jim, you previously published DisneyWar, an inquiry into the executive machinations during the two-decade reign of its onetime CEO Michael Eisner. Are there any parallels between Disney during that period and Viacom during the era covered here?
James B. Stewart: Definitely. Starting with the fact that the boards were captive of the chief executive. The board is supposed to represent the shareholders. I mean, to me, the most vivid example was that the head of the compensation committee during the Eisner years was Eisner’s own lawyer. He negotiated Eisner’s compensation. Now, there’s nothing quite that blatant in this case. But even when the New Yorker story comes out [which exposed sexual misconduct allegations against Les Moonves by a group of women], the board is in a chorus, saying, “Well, we’re standing behind Les.” Or, you know, “We all did that.” The corporate governance is revealed.
Are the workplace failures you reveal at CBS and what was then Viacom specific to their cultures and structures, or are they emblematic of larger issues and currents in corporate America?
Stewart: Imperial CEOs who are surrounded by people that are loyal to them, who are also of their ilk: there’s no reason that that would be unique to entertainment.
It’s difficult to discuss this book without invoking Succession, which was inspired in part by the Redstone family saga.
Abrams: One of the reasons why people love that show is because it’s, at heart, about a dysfunctional family — with multibillion-dollar stakes. That’s what this story is. At its core, it’s a human story about love, vulnerability, the desire for companionship, the desire for approval from one’s parent who is withholding. These are things that so many of us have experienced in one way or another in our own life. So, I welcome the comparisons with Succession.
So has Unscripted been optioned yet?
Stewart: Let’s just say there’s a lot of interest.
The book documents casual and overt sexism and misogyny at CBS and Viacom. How did this affect Shari Redstone, who had to deal with her father and his male executives and is now chair at Paramount Global?
Abrams: Shari was really disrespected within this company. She was called ‘Sumner in a wig.’ She had a harder hill to climb than she would’ve otherwise if she were a man.
Stewart: All children feel the need to prove themselves. But she was really under a burden here. I think one of the most poignant scenes in the book is at the end. Shari loved her father and desperately wanted his recognition and approval. There’s a poignant scene at the end where, after his funeral, she goes to her father’s closest confidant, an old friend and business colleague, and asks him, essentially, “Do you think he loved me?” I mean, I’m telling you, it almost makes me cry. It’s so sad that she had to ask that.
The lurid drama between Redstone, his two live-in “girlfriends,” and a third woman is just so wild. It’s out of the fantasies of Aaron Spelling or Jackie Collins. How did you frame it between yourselves?
Abrams: I keep joking that this is a cross between King Lear and Weekend at Bernie’s.
There are many colorful characters here. But the most vivid may be George Pilgrim, a magnetic onetime soap star and convicted felon who became Sydney Holland’s frustrated inamorato while she herself was living at the Redstone mansion in Beverly Park.
Abrams: I spent a very memorable Memorial Day weekend in Sedona, Arizona, with George Pilgrim, just driving around where he and Sydney spent magical evenings together before she had to fly back to be in bed with Sumner before he would notice. He is handsome. He is very charismatic. He is outrageous. He’s a reporter’s best kind of source because he’s kind of shameless. I really enjoyed my time with him. If he’s a con, I like to say that this man is a very bad one because, as the book describes, he could have had $10 million for keeping quiet about his relationship with Sydney, and he blew up the deal. I think this guy is kind of what he presents himself to be: erratic, charismatic, perhaps a bit reckless. I can imagine why a woman who is cooped up in a mansion with a man who’s 90 would be attracted to him.
It was at times difficult to discern who played who in Pilgrim and Holland’s relationship.
Abrams: Jim and I had so many conversations about him. He just kind of took over the story. He’s arguably the reason why, ultimately, Shari Redstone wrested control of her family empire. The butterfly that flaps his wings.
There’s a lot going on with Pilgrim. You note that he’d previously claimed to be a Hearst family heir and got sued by that family, and that he did so while appearing on a VH1 reality series called Hopelessly Rich — where he courted Louise Linton, the controversial producer and wife of Trump administration Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. What did he have to say about her?
Stewart: I don’t know that we can repeat it without risk of getting a lawsuit.
Many observers couldn’t understand why Viacom’s then-CEO Philippe Dauman was able to retain his position for as long as he did despite the company’s poor performance during his tenure. The book reports that, as co-trustee of Redstone’s trust, he was aware of Redstone’s extravagant payouts to a number of women in the tens of millions of dollars, and also his boss regarded him as a surrogate son.
Stewart: Sumner is — you can criticize him for many things — but he’s a human being. He had a son [Brent] reject him and turn his back on him. That had to have made some kind of impression. Then here’s someone ready, willing, and able to step into the void. I think that bond was very, very profound. There’s a scene where Shari criticizes [Dauman] and Sumner says, “Well, I’m not firing him. Don’t ask me to fire him because I’m not gonna do it.” He was extremely defensive and rewarded Philippe’s pretty much blind loyalty with blind loyalty in return. It’s fascinating, but there it is.
What surprised you most in working on this book?
Abrams: I feel like one of the things that maybe isn’t surprising, but was nonetheless shocking, was even if you are a billionaire, you can still be taken advantage of in this kind of way by these kinds of people. I was amazed. You’d think that when you have all the resources in the world, there will be safeguards around to prevent you from being taken advantage of. These women reduced him to a crying mess who was unable to not only advocate for himself, but they had isolated him in such a way … It really makes you think that if this can happen to somebody with all the means and the resources and a family — Shari wasn’t disconnected from him — then it really can happen to anybody.
Stewart: There’s a scene where Sydney [Holland] and Manuela [Herzer] get him to wire $45 million to each one of them one afternoon. They walked away with that money. They’ve got all that. That kind of blew me away.
Abrams: One could argue that his money and his wealth made him more vulnerable to these types of people. But it’s also amazing that there weren’t safeguards around him for those very reasons. This is one of the things that makes the story so relatable. I think everybody can understand that no matter how rich or powerful you are, everybody wants companionship. We saw in this case how it made him vulnerable to people who seem to not have good intentions.
What do you think Sumner Redstone would think of the state of play for his company today?
Stewart: I can assure you that he’d be apoplectic at the stock price.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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