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