Even by Hollywood's inflated standards, the gala benefiting the Natural Resources Defense Council in May was a glittering event. Tom Hanks emceed. Steve Martin performed. And the Wadsworth Theater crowd, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Dustin Hoffman, roared appreciatively.
The evening, which raised $1.6 million for one of Hollywood's pet environmental causes, was capped by a keynote speech by former President Clinton. Sitting next to Clinton all evening was a rangy figure, seldom seen at charity events but crucial in the council's effort to get the former president to attend. During his remarks, Clinton made sure to thank the man--Steve Bing--for playing host to him in Los Angeles.
Until eight months ago, few in the audience, save for friends like director Rob Reiner or Warner Bros. President Alan Horn, would have recognized Bing's name. Now, almost everyone in Hollywood knows him.
Bing, an heir to an estimated $600-million real estate fortune, had become involved in two highly publicized paternity cases. In one, he sued British actress Elizabeth Hurley to force a DNA test after she said he was the father of her baby. In the other, he sued Kirk Kerkorian for invasion of privacy after the billionaire's private eye took Bing's dental floss out of his trash can. Kerkorian, embroiled in a child support lawsuit with his ex-wife, wanted to collect DNA to prove that Bing was the father of his wife's daughter.
Bing has not welcomed the attention. In addition to suing Hurley and Kerkorian, his attorneys have filed libel actions against tabloids in England and the U.S., attempting to beat back the paparazzi who tail him.
But the press-shy 37-year-old scion is fast acquiring a Gatsby-esque allure and notoriety. He is putting the finishing touches on a deal with Warner Bros. that would in effect make him a one-man mini-studio under the Warner umbrella, giving him a distribution system for eight films he will personally finance.
And although his gift was not publicized, Bing is the largest donor in Natural Resources Defense Council history, having pledged a year ago more than $10 million over four years to build a climate center to focus attention in the United States on global warming.
Now unmistakably on the map as a high-profile Hollywood libertine, he is a man dedicated apparently in equal measures to philanthropy, politics and women. Which makes him an object of envy and of controversy.
Bing declined to comment. But two dozen of his friends and colleagues who agreed to talk describe an affable, 6-foot-4 former jock who tools around town in a '97 Lincoln, wearing jeans and ratty T-shirts, or occasionally a garish Hawaiian shirt. A determined bachelor, he lives in a small two-bedroom home in Bel-Air but has bought the seven adjoining houses with the intention of knocking them down and creating palatial grounds. He's a fan of strip clubs, has been a high roller in Las Vegas for years, and yet he can discuss the dense Robert Caro biography of Lyndon Johnson.
Twice a week, he rents a Beverly Hills screening room and projects old films for his range of pals, who include Dominic "Donny Shacks" Montemarano, a felon and onetime capo in the Mafia; shopping mall magnate Ron Burkle; such Hollywood fixtures as Reiner, Warren Beatty and William Goldman; and Dodger Chairman Bob Daly. He has an almost filial relationship with actor James Caan.
He dates prodigiously. Playboy playmates. Movie stars. "He's an equal-opportunity employer," one friend says with a laugh. "Girls are all over him."
His lifestyle makes him almost a caricature of what critics of Hollywood excess imagine goes on here. But to his admirers, there is much to covet. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, a friend and former writing partner, says, "My buddies back in Boston have the right attitude--this guy's awesome."
Befriending His Idols
Bing's ability to enchant older men seems to have facilitated his entree into Hollywood. On the tennis court of one of his Beverly Hills neighbors, he made his first contacts, including Castle Rock partner Andy Scheinman, director Garry Marshall and Caan. Caan enlisted the athletic teenager to help him coach his son's T-ball team and introduced him to the Playboy mansion.
"Steve's gotten to meet all his heroes growing up--Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty, William Goldman, Hugh Hefner, James Caan. They all call him their friend now. Who among us gets to meet our childhood idols and get them to befriend us?" Rosenberg says.
Bing's money comes from his grandfather Leo, who built luxury apartment houses in New York 80 years ago. His father, Dr. Peter Bing, worked on public health issues for the Johnson White House before relocating to Los Angeles, where he attends to the family business.