Sumner Redstone Dies at 97; Built Media Empire and Long Reigned Over It

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When he was stymied by competitors or exasperated with big client companies, he did not hesitate to take them to court, and almost invariably won or got them to settle on his terms. At one time or another, he sued almost every major film studio and the leading cable operators. Using the courts as a weapon of business would become a signature move, helping him expand his empire.

“I would rather handle disagreements through discussion and accommodation,” Mr. Redstone wrote. “But if that fails, and it often does, litigation is an appropriate tool.”

In the end, new media trends and old age proved Mr. Redstone’s implacable foes. A younger generation had turned increasingly toward video streaming rather than broadcast and cable television, and his obvious infirmities had weakened his ability to lead a business on so vast a scale.

Mr. Redstone was born Sumner Murray Rothstein on May 27, 1923, in Boston, where he grew up in the predominantly Jewish West End. His father, Max Rothstein, peddled linoleum from the back of a truck, and his mother, Belle (Ostrovsky) Rothstein, was a housekeeper.

Sumner was accepted to Boston Latin, the city’s leading public school, and drove himself hard there, in part to please his demanding father. “Whatever we did was not quite good enough,” he wrote in “A Passion to Win.” He emphasized his early ambition throughout the book:

— “I got up every morning, took a streetcar to school, and from that moment on I lived in terror. I wanted to be No. 1 in my class, and I did nothing but study.”

— “All I had going for me was an education. We certainly didn’t have any money. The 10 cents a day I spent on round-trip streetcar fare was a significant sacrifice for my family, and I had to justify that sacrifice.”

— “I had to know my subjects cold, with not even the most minimal margin for error. There could be no slips now, no lapses, and there would be no mercy if I made them.”

— “I had no social life. I had no friends. I knew people only because I sat next to them in class or because they were my closest competitors for the school awards.”

When a bout of scarlet fever forced him to miss school for a month, he worried about falling behind academically. But he was a standout on the school debate team and graduated first in his class — “with the highest grade point average in the 300-year history of Boston Latin,” he boasted in his autobiography, without specifying the number.

It was during the summer after high school that his father changed the family name to Redstone. The family had been observant Jews, and Sumner had studied the Talmud, so he was surprised by the change. “It’s a much better name,” he quoted his father as saying. He enrolled at Harvard, on a scholarship, as Sumner Redstone.

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