Steve Bing: Man on a mission

The wealthy American known to most as the father of Liz Hurley's baby re-emerges in a key role in Bill Clinton's North Korean rescue act

It is not all that long since the efforts of journalists, private detectives and Hollywood gossips were combined in tracking the whereabouts of Steve Bing's sperm. But these days, the punditocracy and the political classes are more interested in tracking the whereabouts of his private jet.

Although the American multimillionaire real estate heir and sometime Most Hated Man in Britain is still more famous as Elizabeth Hurley's reluctant baby daddy, his role in the release this week of two US journalists held hostage in North Korea shows how he has quietly become a political powerbroker in his native country. It has been an extraordinary transformation. More precisely, it has been an extraordinarily expensive transformation.

The plane that touched down on Wednesday at Bob Hope airport close to Hollywood, bringing Laura Ling and Euna Lee back to the US in the company of Bill Clinton, was Bing's private Boeing 737, which he had lent to the former president at a personal cost of about $200,000. That's small change for a man who got the keys to an estimated $600m trust fund when he turned 18, and who has been casting around for ways to spend it for the past 26 years.

For a long time it seemed he was destined to fritter away the family fortune as a Hollywood playboy who collected brief flings with celebrities, showered money on Las Vegas strippers and on nights out at Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion. It is by showering money on liberal causes that he bought his way to a kind of legitimacy. By bankrolling the Democratic Party and causes close to the Clintons' hearts – and the Clintons themselves – the man the British press dubbed "Bing Laden" now thinks the world might remember him more for his good works than for his philandering. We'll see.

Stand for long enough at the busy intersection of celebrity, philanthropy and politics, and a guy with money is going to hitch a ride in some interesting directions. The rebranding of Bing goes back to a night, at the height of the furore over his caddish behaviour towards Hurley, when he found himself sitting next to Clinton at a fundraiser for the Natural Resources Defense Council. This is the august environmental lobby group whose trustees include the actors Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio, plus a scion of the philanthropic Rockefeller dynasty that Bing and so many other American rich kids model themselves upon.

Bing had become the NRDC's biggest donor; Clinton was guest speaker. The pair hit it off and Bing became a certified FOB, or Friend of Bill, hooking themselves together for a string of his post-presidential ventures. This year, when Hillary Clinton's appointment as Secretary of State necessitated the publication of donors to her husband's charitable foundation, it emerged that Bing was one of the top benefactors there, too, having put in somewhere between $10m and $25m.

Earlier, he had given around $50m to campaign for a California tax on oil companies to fund green energy, paying for ads that featured Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Then it was via connections at the Clinton Global Initiative that Bing found himself working with Brad Pitt to fund rebuilding in New Orleans, accompanying the star on a trip to Washington in March that took in the White House and Congress.

Bing had continued supporting Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, even as others in Hollywood were defecting to the upstart campaign of Barack Obama. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, kept up appearances at Bing's own events, such as the launch of a solar-powered aircraft hangar at the very Bob Hope airport where the pair met again this week.

This is the star-spangled aristocracy of America, and Bing is there, clad in the jeans and T-shirt that is the I'm-just-like-you uniform of the super-rich. And it's not just about money. Clinton actually likes Bing. Aides report that Bing is well read and interesting, and that he and the former president have a habit of staying up long into the night debating and chewing over issues – just the sort of thoughtful conversation that Clinton was addicted to in his White House days.

And of course, both are men of a certain, scandalish reputation. In fact, Clinton has formed a tight friendship not just with Bing but also with Ron Burkle, the 56-year-old supermarket mogul with a penchant for leggy blondes half his age. Burkle, himself great gossip-column fodder, has long been a buddy of Bing, with whom he also shares a love of movies. The trio have been spotted out on the town together in places as far flung as Paris. Hillary campaign insiders fretted so much about the friendships that their concerns spilled over into a Vanity Fair article last year, laced with anonymous quotes, that questioned whether Bill really should be "private-jetting around with a skirt-chasing, scandal-tinged posse".

Stephen Leo Bing was born on 31 March 1965, his middle name taken from his grandfather whose adventures in New York real estate in the 1920s were the bedrock of a family fortune that has been estimated at close to $1bn. His father, a benefactor of Stanford University in California, paid for an elite education for his son, but Bing dropped out of Stanford to spend more time with his money – and to pursue a career in Hollywood.

In a town where the gossip industry can fabricate whirlwind engagements and break-ups out of a single dinner in a restaurant, Bing has been linked to a string of glamorous actresses, including Farrah Fawcett, Sharon Stone and Nicole Kidman. But it was the 2001 relationship with Liz Hurley that pitched him into a different league of American bad boy. When she announced her pregnancy, he declared, with spectacular lack of gallantry, that they were "not in an exclusive relationship when she became pregnant" and it was "her choice to be a single mother". He demanded a paternity test, and the fur began to fly.

When he was found to be the father, he offered to pay £100,000 a year for Damian's upkeep, prompting a snide retort from Hurley: "I know that £100,000 is an enormous sum of money to Mr Bing and I fully appreciate his generosity towards his son." She did not take the money, and her current husband, Arun Nayar, is the one that Damian calls Daddy.

It didn't help Bing that, at the same time, it was revealed that he was also the father of a child by Lisa Bonder, wife of Hollywood billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who was going through a divorce that it would be an understatement to describe as "messy". Bing sued Kerkorian for hiring a private detective to go through his bins in search of dental floss to get DNA for a paternity test. Bing and the mogul settled.

As the press tore into Bing, they had much to deride among his professional achievements. As a film financier and producer, he had produced only turkeys, such as the 2000 remake of Get Carter. His finest screenwriting achievement was a movie about a kangaroo that bounced off with $50,000 in mob money. But here, too, Bing is enjoying the stirrings of transformation.

He made a giant bet on The Polar Express, one of the most expensive films of all time which raked in more than $300m at the box office. In the last two years he produced the star-studded Beowulf and the Martin Scorsese biopic of the Rolling Stones, Shine a Light.

To his personal satisfaction, he has managed to litigate his way out of the gossip columns. The press cuttings file is littered with little apologies, dictated by his lawyers to newspapers. No, he did not go on a "date from hell" with Pamela Anderson. No, he never actually "denied" paternity of Hurley's child. He just wanted it confirmed. And, yes, he is making financial provision for little Damian, whether Hurley likes it or not. Nervous about a legal onslaught, the press has largely backed off. And Bing himself is determined not to repeat the public relations disaster of his interview on the subject of Hurley, with Vanity Fair in 2002, when he rather ill-advisedly said that he wanted to settle down with kids someday – "kids, that is, that I voluntarily play a part in conceiving". As reporters deluged his office this week for comment on the North Korean mercy mission, they were told uniformly: Mr Bing does not give interviews.

This week, a tearful Laura Ling name-checked Steve Bing in her list of thank-yous to people who helped secure her release. Al Gore – whose TV station employed the journalists – did the same in speeches this week. Bing's public relations firm arranged that the homecoming be covered by all the world's media. Only money can buy that sort of good publicity.

A life in brief

Born: Stephen Leo Bing, 31 March 1965.

Early life and education: His grandfather, Leo Bing, left behind a sizeable real estate fortune. He attended the Harvard-Westlake preparatory school and enrolled at Stanford University, but dropped out after 16 months.

Family: Currently single, he has fathered two children: Damian, seven, with actor Elizabeth Hurley, and Kira, 11, with the former professional tennis player Lisa Bonder.

Career: After leaving Stanford, Bing moved into the film industry, with brief forays into acting and screenwriting. His directorial debut Every Breath went straight to video in 1993, but a more successful run in production followed, including the 2007 release Beowulf.

He says: "We [Bing and Elizabeth Hurley] were not in an exclusive relationship when she became pregnant."

They say: "To Steve Bing and all the folks who have made the flight possible, we say a word of thanks, deep thanks as well." Al Gore

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence