As HBO’s acclaimed satire Succession begins its fourth and final season this week, fans will be asking: “How will it all end?” The story of the machiavellian media mogul Logan Roy, played so menacingly by Brian Cox, and his power-hungry children has been must-see viewing for anyone interested in the machinations of high-profile billionaires and their damaged families.
Said to be inspired by the dramas of media dynasties such as the Murdochs and the Redstones, Succession has been justly lionised for its biting wit and savage characterisations. But what has been more overlooked is that the show’s creators, led by Briton Jesse Armstrong, have envisioned a credible world of superrich movers and shakers by scaling down the action from the operatic behaviour of real-world counterparts.
In satire the usual rule is to exaggerate reality, but the narrative lines of the Murdochs and Redstone families over the years have meant dramatic amplification was not really a viable option.
In Succession Logan Roy is a King Lear-like figure who sets his offspring against one another for the prize of taking over Waystar Royco, the family multimedia business. He is ruthless, cunning, full of intrigue and prepared to lie at any moment to protect his assets. In other words, a standard personality for a billionaire businessman. But he has only been married three times, once to a cold-blooded aristocrat and most recently to an understated Lebanese woman in middle age.
Last week Rupert Murdoch announced that his fifth marriage was to be with 66-year-old Ann Lesley Smith, a former model, Christian minister for a police department and widow of a country and western singer. They are, said 92-year-old Murdoch, “both looking forward to spending the second half of our lives together”. It’s not clear if he was joking or is the beneficiary of an undisclosed cryogenic procedure.
The announcement comes less than 18 months after his divorce from Jerry Hall, also a former model,, albeit a slightly more renowned one, and one-time wife of the consummate rock star, Mick Jagger. Marriage to Hall followed Murdoch’s divorce from Wendi Deng (38 years his junior), who was believed by some around the Murdochs to be a Chinese intelligence asset, after he suspected she was conducting an affair with former prime minister Tony Blair (which both have denied).
Try pitching that plot line in a writers’ room meeting and see if anyone would swallow it.
Yet Murdoch has been a Trappist monk by comparison with the late Sumner Redstone, who until his death in 2020 controlled the multibillion-dollar media conglomerate ViacomCBS. Redstone was only married twice but he was obsessed with sex deep into his 90s, lavishing money on a succession of much younger women.
According to a court testament from one of them, although the old man was hooked up to a feeding tube and a catheter, she performed sex acts on him under the careful direction of his male nurse.
Now it’s beyond question that Succession has featured some weird scenes. Who can forget, for example, Roy’s son-in-law Tom Wambsgans’s own unusual sex act at his dissolute bachelor party? And the honking spectacle of the Boar on the Floor game was as bizarre as it was disturbing. Still, neither comes close to rivalling the geriatric debauchery that took place with medical staff in attendance at Redstone’s Beverly Park mansion.
For some time it looked as though Redstone was going to leave all his money to the two much younger women with whom he lived at the mansion – Sydney Holland and Manuela Herzer. Of Argentinian descent, the multilingual Herzer was introduced to Redstone by the late film producer Robert Evans. Holland met Redstone through Patti Stanger, the host of a dating show called Millionaire Matchmaker, after Holland’s previous lover died from “cocaine toxicity” while, according to a new book about Redstone, they were having sex.
Try to imagine the feverish inspiration required for a scriptwriter to come up with that extraordinary scenario, and the inevitable verdict of the showrunner that the audience would not be able to suspend disbelief. That is the unfair advantage that billionaire lifestyles have over even the smartest attempts to satirise them.
For several years Redstone was determined to leave his billions to Holland and Herzer rather than to his two children – in particular his ambitious daughter Shari. Instead Redstone discovered that Holland was conducting a secret affair with a loquacious ex-con and former actor called George Pilgrim, whom she had installed in a house in Arizona she had bought with Redstone’s money. She flew back and forth to her lover on a private jet, making sure she was with Redstone each night in time for bed.
The equally blindsided Pilgrim only found out that his wealthy girlfriend was also Redstone’s girlfriend when he read about it in a Vanity Fair article. The resulting fallout, and Holland’s failure to secure Pilgrim’s silence, led to her expulsion from Redstone’s life and will. In the end, Holland and Herzer had to struggle on with only the $140m they had been given by Redstone before they fell from grace. Again Succession’s scriptwriters would have to reject such material as too melodramatic for the show’s mordant intentions.
Even the scandal that rocks Waystar Royco in Succession is arguably less shocking than those that have afflicted some well-known billionaires. In the fictional version, the company’s cruise liner division, led by Lester McClintock (known as Mo Lester) is caught covering up a series of sexual assaults and even, potentially, murder.
Inevitably, the still-reverberating crimes and abuses committed by Jeffrey Epstein come to mind, but both Murdoch and Redstone also had to reckon with foul skeletons hidden in their corporate cupboards. In 2011 Murdoch was forced to close the News of the World newspaper after extensive phone-hacking allegations culminated in the revelation that a private investigator working for the paper had intercepted the voicemail of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. Andy Coulson, the paper’s former editor, who had gone on to be prime minister David Cameron’s director of communications, was sent to jail for authorising phone hacking, and Coulson’s ex-lover, Rebekah Brooks, something of a surrogate daughter to Murdoch who he had made head of News International, was found not guilty of the same charges.
The bad publicity scuppered Murdoch’s plans to have Ofcom disbanded – the quid pro quo, it is alleged, for getting the Sun newspaper to back David Cameron in the 2010 election – so he could take full control of Sky TV. Similarly the cruise-ship allegations in Succession put paid to Roy’s attempts to expand his business.
Five years later the Murdochs were preparing for another attempted buyout of Sky when allegations of sexual harassment were made against Roger Ailes, the chief executive of Fox News.
As the accusations mounted, Ailes was forced to resign. But any sense that Murdoch had acted swiftly was undermined the following year when it emerged that Fox had paid out millions of dollars to silence complaints of sexual harassment against the network’s star presenter, Bill O’Reilly. Although the Murdochs hastily ousted O’Reilly, the Sky bid was once again profoundly damaged.
In 2018 Redstone’s right-hand man, Leslie Moonves, also resigned as chief executive of CBS after allegations of sexual assault and abuse, which he has denied. And the same year the Competition and Markets Authority not only ruled against the Murdoch bid for Sky but also prohibited any member of the Murdoch family from serving at the company again. Ironically, perhaps, Succession is broadcast in the UK on Sky.
In a sense, all of these scandals are mere historical footnotes when set against arguably Murdoch’s most egregiously reckless act – the creation of Donald Trump. Without first the Murdoch-owned New York Post and then later Fox News, Trump might still just be a narcissistic property developer from Queens with a bad haircut.
But it was Murdoch’s media might that helped turn the man he is alleged to have referred to as a “fucking idiot” into arguably the most dysfunctional president in United States history, and reshape the American political landscape into one of culturally entrenched hostilities. That is a legacy of which Murdoch’s second son, James, is said to be ashamed, and within which his eldest son, Lachlan, appears to thrive.
As its title suggests, Succession is most obviously concerned with the fight to take over from the ruthless patriarch. It’s essentially a three-way battle, with Kendall, Shiv and Roman seeking to thwart and humiliate each other as they attempt to take control.
With the Murdochs, despite occasional interest from Elisabeth, the main struggle has been between James and Lachlan. Initially Lachlan, the older son, who is said to be more right-wing than his father, was the chosen heir. But, being hot-tempered and disinclined to compromise, he fell out with key executives and quit the family business with a £100m payoff.
James, a moderniser, relatively liberal and a moderating voice, was then in the ascendant, looking, like Kendall in the first season, as if he was being groomed to take over. But Lachlan, who as a young man culled kangaroos with a shotgun, appeared to remain his father’s favourite, and he returned to the fold in 2015.
Just as Logan tried to use Kendall as the fall guy for the cruise ship scandal, so was James saddled with responsibility for the failed Sky bid, not least by Lachlan, who Murdoch effectively made his brother’s boss. The de facto demotion prompted James to walk out of a lunch and fly to Indonesia, the way you do when money is absolutely no object.
Like Kendall, he believed he’d given years of his life to supporting his father while Lachlan was spearfishing and making bad deals in Australia. And, like Kendall, he has a point, although the far more glaring injustice is the belief that the most fitting leader of a multibillion-dollar business is going to come from the owner’s minuscule gene pool.
Perhaps Murdoch, who has never seemed a great supporter of the hereditary principle elsewhere, came to realise the folly of his ways. In any case, he sold his Sky shares and his controlling interests in 20th Century Fox, in a deal in which he pocketed $4bn, taking his net worth to $18bn, and each of his six children picked up $2bn.
So, along with the Times, he and his heirs are left with Fox News and the Sun, the two institutions that have done most to spread Murdoch’s illiberal vision, and more money than they can ever spend. That’s unlikely to be the Roys’ denouement. They can take solace in knowing that for once they will almost certainly reach a more dramatic climax than the real-life competition.