Behind Steve Bing’s Sudden, Tragic End

Steve Bing - 34th AFI Life Achievement Award- Getty -H 2020
Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

Confidantes of the Hollywood financier, who died by suicide on June 22, reflect on the real estate heir’s complicated life: "His friends ranged from the White House to the poor house."

Among Steve Bing’s expansive circle of friends in Hollywood and beyond, there is grief with an undercurrent of anxiety. They are mourning the loss of a spontaneous and absurdly generous friend; a producer who backed some beloved films; a patron of progressive causes. But there is unease surrounding what may emerge about a life that undeniably had seamier aspects.

“There will be some women who come forward who will say crazy shit,” predicts Anthony Pellicano, the former private eye and fixer who spent years in prison for crimes including wiretapping and racketeering. Pellicano says he did work “for and with” Bing but won’t go into specifics. “The problem when somebody is dead and can’t speak for themselves,” he continues, “is there are all kinds of stories.” (That’s true; in the fever swamp of the internet there is unfounded speculation that Bing was murdered.)

On June 22, the 55-year-old heir jumped to his death from the 27th floor of the luxurious Ten Thousand Santa Monica building in Century City. Several who were close to Bing say they did not fear he was suicidal but acknowledge he was contending with a sea of troubles: depression, serious drug use, family rifts and rumored money pressures, and perhaps the toll of a pandemic on a single man who did not care to be alone.

A longtime backer of films including The Polar Express and Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones documentary Shine A Light, Bing’s circle of friends was extraordinary in its breadth. On social media, Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger paid tribute. Elizabeth Hurley, the mother of a now 18-year-old son that Bing had supported only after flaming his reputation in the British tabloids by demanding proof of paternity, posted an undated photo of herself and Bing on Instagram. They had been through “tough times,” she wrote, but had become close again: “It’s the good, wonderful memories of a sweet, kind man that matter.”

Mourners also include Die Hard and Field of Dreams producer Lawrence Gordon, who indisputably had one of the longest and closest relationships with Bing. As a young man interested in Hollywood, Bing courted relationships with a number of older men he admired: Gordon, James Caan, Warren Beatty, Jerry Bruckheimer. “Steve was truly a man for all seasons,” says Gordon, now 84. “His friends ranged from the White House to the poor house. I never met anyone who didn’t like him.”

Also on that friend list were people more known for their troubles: Heidi Fleiss, the notorious former Hollywood madam (who now devotes her life to rescuing parrots), has known Bing since she was 22. “I’m a felon,” says Fleiss, now 54. “I’m tremendously flawed. I love telling people Steve Bing was my best friend. Steve Bing is my royal flush. Try and beat it.”

And then there’s Pellicano, who says Bing was one of his most loyal supporters while he was locked up. “He confided in me about just about everything,” he says. “If he had a problem I would have straightened it out, prison or no prison, probation or no probation.” (Pellicano is still on probation.)

Bing was the type of person who was surrounded with people who felt that they were his particular friend; some now dismiss others who claim they were part of his inner circle. A veteran Hollywood insider privately scoffs at another, who posted a remembrance on social media, as a poser. Even between Bing’s convict friends there is static: Pellicano dismisses Fleiss’s claim that she was planning a July road trip with Bing as “bullshit.” Predictably, another Bing friend says he doubts Pellicano’s claim that he was deeply involved in Bing’s life.

What has Pellicano and some of Bing’s other friends concerned is what may be aired or alleged in the aftermath of his death, given his complicated and often dissipated life. There was on-again, off-again estrangement from his parents. Bing never married and for years seemed almost performative in dating all manner of dazzling women — Farrah Fawcett, Sharon Stone, Nicole Kidman, Playboy playmates and well beyond. He never met his son, Damian Hurley, now an 18-year-old model and actor, and only met daughter Kira Kerkorian, now 21, when she was an adult. But having initially fought public battles because he doubted his paternity of these children, he more recently went to court to ensure they would inherit a share of the Bing family fortune.

Friends also believe a recent attempt at sobriety had failed. “He had a problem with alcohol and a problem with drugs, back and forth, on and off,” Pellicano acknowledges. But he discounts that as the deciding factor in Bing’s decision to take his life. According to Pellicano, Bing suffered from depression and was intermittently suicidal over the years.

Then there is the question of money. Those who knew Bing paint a picture of a man-boy, always in a T-shirt and jeans, seemingly heedless of his unbridled spending. In the heyday of his dealings in the treacherous movie business, one prominent producer said Bing treated money “as if there are no consequences to losing it.”

He backed an array of films including the Sylvester Stallone flop Get Carter in 2000. He put $80 million into Robert Zemeckis’ 2004 Polar Express, which performed well. But the director's 2007 Beowulf didn’t succeed, and an informed source estimated then that Bing lost more than $50 million. More recently, Bing helped finance Warren Beatty’s failed 2016 dramedy Rules Don’t Apply.

A piano player who briefly tried running a record label, Bing financed music documentaries including Scorsese’s 2008 Rolling Stones film and Marley, about the reggae legend, in 2012. Bing, who had produced Jerry Lee Lewis' 2006 duets album Last Man Standing and gotten involved in the rocker's touring business, was immersed in a Lewis documentary project when he died. "We never called him a manager and he never wanted to be a manager, but he did all of the things a manager would do," says Lewis' publicist Zach Farnum. "It's hard to quantify it."

Bing also poured money into progressive causes. In 2002, he wrote the Democratic National Committee a check for $5 million, making him the second-largest donor ever at the time, behind Haim Saban. In December 2008, Bing was named among those who had contributed between $10 million and $25 million to the William J. Clinton Foundation and sources said his contribution was on the high end of that range. He backed Hillary Clinton in her unsuccessful run for the presidency.

At one time Bing started a green construction business and is reported to have paid Bill Clinton $2.5 million a year to serve as an adviser. He was reported to have spent nearly $50 million to finance Proposition 87, a doomed green-energy initiative on the California ballot in 2006. He gave millions to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and he contributed to varied other causes: schools in Haiti, the effort to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and more. In 2010, he supplied Bill Clinton with a Boeing 737 when the former president traveled to North Korea to free two American journalists.

Friends say Bing was also notably open-handed in his social life, frequently flying groups on jets to assorted destinations. Writer-producer Scott Rosenberg, who worked with Bing in the 1990s, remembers him as “incredibly generous” but also “profligate.” Rosenberg remembers many trips to Vegas on Bing’s plane. “He loved to gamble,” Rosenberg says, “He’d get the sickest high-roller suite at the MGM Grand or wherever and he would put these chips in front of you and you felt terrible when you lost his money. But you always had a good time.”

Says producer Brian Grazer: “Anything you brought up, he’d say, 'Let’s go. We’ll use my plane.’ He had a pretty big plane. If you were his friend and he liked you, he immediately wanted to pay for things and get things done. He was that guy — an extreme enthusiast. 'We’re going to Hawaii!’ 'Let’s have laughs! 'Let’s have fun!’ Insane. Wildly generous.” Yet he says he could ask Bing questions about American politics and get astute answers.

The ceaseless extravagance may explain why Bing seemed to be moving toward financial trouble following the 2008 recession, notwithstanding his vast fortune. There are rumors that money pressures were mounting, but even longtime friends say they don’t know the truth.

Bing’s grim ending was far from what agent and manager Gavin Polone had imagined in the mid-1970s when the two were in seventh grade at the Harvard School for Boys, as the precursor to Harvard-Westlake School was called. The two weren’t close later in life, but Polone vividly recalls Bing as a popular, good-looking kid whose attentiveness in class seemed to augur great things. “He would go home and rewrite the notes he took in class. He got straight As. He not only worked hard, he was smart. I remember thinking he was going to be a senator.”

Bing was not brought up in luxury, but at 18 he inherited at least $600 million from the real estate fortune built by his grandfather Leo. (“I’ve never met anyone who inherited vast wealth and didn’t turn out to be less than what I thought their potential was,” Polone observes.) Bing went to Stanford, where the family name is ubiquitous. Bing’s father, Peter, a doctor who worked for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson before turning full-time to philanthropy, and his mother, Helen, a nurse, have donated mightily, including a $50 million gift in 2006 for a concert hall. But Steve Bing dropped out of college (though he later pledged $25 million to Stanford) and began to pursue a life in the movie business.

Normally, Hollywood sees any wealthy outsider who wants to be in pictures as a fat pigeon asking to be feathered. It speaks to Bing's charm that he forged some real friendships — though of course plenty were happy to get a taste of the money. “There were very few people who didn’t take from him,” says one member of his inner circle.

Bing quit school to write for a series of Chuck Norris movies (the Missing in Action trilogy). He tried his hand at directing with the $2 million 1994 thriller Every Breath. Producer Brad Krevoy says he — not Bing — financed the movie. “It was more like a personal exploration,” Krevoy says. “The film was experimental so I don’t think it caught fire, but that’s our business. He did it on time, on budget, and he was very professional.”

After that, Bing moved mostly into producing, though he has one last writing credit on the 2003 comedy Kangaroo Jack. Writer-producer Rosenberg, whose recent screenplays include the Jumanji movies, says the two were drinking in a bar one night when Bing told him a story about two tourists and their misadventures in Australia. Rosenberg instantly thought they could sell the concept for a movie, and Rosenberg says they made a record-breaking deal for a comedy pitch at the time. Despite Bing’s open-handedness with money, Rosenberg remembers being surprised that Bing was always focused on their residual checks from the project. “I think he cared because these were genuine dollars that he had earned,” he says.

In the early 2000s Bing became tabloid fodder. After Hurley gave birth to a son in April 2002, Bing, who according to Vanity Fair had urged Hurley to have an abortion, went to court to demand a paternity test. The British papers attacked, referring to the then-37-year-old as Bing Laden. The Daily Mirror ran a wanted poster of him and published his phone number. Bing demanded retractions from news outlets that said he had hired Pellicano, now 76, to investigate Hurley in connection with her pregnancy.

The month after Hurley gave birth, there was another imbroglio. Billionaire Kirk Kerkorian said he believed Bing was also the father of then-4-year-old Kira, who he had previously been told was his own child by his ex-wife, Lisa Bonder. This time Pellicano worked for Kerkorian in his paternity investigation, but he stresses that, contrary to some reports, he wasn’t the one who retrieved dental floss from Bing’s trash that was used to establish paternity. (His refusal to do that, he says, caused him problems with Kerkorian.)

Given all of Bing's public and private pursuits over the years, even one of his closest friends says it’s understandable that his choices in life might have led to estrangement from his father and mother. “Imagine if you were a parent and you’re as upstanding as they were and you have a son acting that way,” he says.

In 2019, Bing’s father sought to revise a four-decade-old trust to eliminate Bing’s two children as heirs to the family fortune, arguing they’d been born out of wedlock and his son had never developed meaningful relationships with them. “To the best of my knowledge, Stephen has never met Damian, and Stephen only met Kira after she became an adult,” Peter said in an affidavit. He also said having never met either child, “I do not consider them my grandchildren.” (Peter Bing, who has not commented publicly on his son's death, could not be reached for comment.)

In court papers, Bing’s attorneys described it as unjust for Damian and Kira to be “denied their rightful share” because of “the life choices their parents made, and Steve Bing will not stand idly by as his family exploits those circumstances and tries to redirect funds from Steve Bing’s children to [his sister] Mary Bing’s children.” (In 2002, Mary Bing told Vanity Fair that her brother had been “reproductively taken advantage of.”)

Bing said in court papers that he found it “callous” and “especially alarming” that Peter had said in an affidavit that he wouldn’t consider Damian Hurley to be his grandchild even if Bing were to develop a relationship with Damian. But at the time of his death, that had yet to happen. A knowledgeable source says the two had never met, but Bing texted with Damian on his 18th birthday in April.

In the days before the pandemic closed Los Angeles down, a source says Bing was seen dozing at Crossroads Kitchen, the popular Melrose Avenue vegan restaurant in which he was an investor. A neighbor of Bing’s told another source that once the lockdown started, she talked to Bing every day and he was lonely. Krevoy thinks the lockdown may have been a factor in Bing’s final despair. “He’s a casualty of the pandemic,” he says. “He collected people. Maybe some were real friends and some were not, but he was always around somebody.”

Gordon says no one will ever know why his dear friend met such a tragic end. “I’m truly devastated,” he says. “The only thing that makes this bearable is I know Steve is resting peacefully."

Gary Baum contributed reporting. 

A version of this story first appeared in the July 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.