High-profile goals, low-profile donor
Los Angeles is full of people with money. But few have as intriguing a profile as Stephen Bing: Hollywood producer, benefactor of environmental and Democratic political causes, Rolling Stones fan (and friend of Mick Jagger) and, as of this fall, the single largest contributor to a ballot initiative anywhere in the country -- ever.
So it was only fitting that Chad Griffin, the campaign manager for that initiative, Proposition 87, would stand on a ballroom stage at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, thanking staffers, volunteers and supporters Tuesday night, and singling out Bing as “the bravest of us all.”
Not that he was there to hear it. Although he pumped nearly $50 million into what turned out to be a losing campaign, Bing did not attend the election night party. Or a Proposition 87 event in Koreatown last week. Or a get-together at the Westside Democratic Party headquarters. He even passed on a Brad Pitt appearance on behalf of the initiative.
He leaves it to others to muse on his motivations. The search for Stephen Bing seems to lead to anyone but Stephen Bing.
The story goes that Bing, now 41, inherited his wealth -- a reported $600 million -- at 18. The source of that money was a family real estate fortune established by Bing’s grandfather, Leo Bing. (Bing’s middle name is Leo) The family has a history of being philanthropic, and the Bing name graces art museums and concert halls across the state.
But the grandson has not embraced the publicity that typically comes with such philanthropy. Indeed, if Bing gets a whiff of the press nearby, he vanishes. The few recent pictures of him snapped by news photographers capture his reluctance. He looks like a reticent high school boy -- despite the close cropped gray hair -- with hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans, his mouth an awkward cross between a grimace and a perfunctory smile.
None of that deters him from writing extraordinarily large checks to causes he believes in. Proposition 87 would have taxed companies extracting oil in California and set aside that money to fund development of alternative sources of energy. It lost by 9 percentage points in Tuesday’s election.
Bing was deeply involved in the campaign. He got movie stars to make public appeals for the proposition. He rubbed elbows with young staffers over pizza at Friday staff meetings and weighed in on campaign strategy.
He also got his friend former President Clinton to speak at a rally at UCLA on behalf of Proposition 87, where Bing made one of his rare public appearances, hugging the edges of the crowd.
When he does go to a high-profile event, Bing is generally in jeans and gym shoes and always low-key. “He’s not a glad-hander,” said one political consultant who has watched him non-work a room.
In the final week of the campaign, at Proposition 87 events from downtown to the Westside, that uniform of jeans and gym shoes was prevalent in the crowds. But a careful scan of tall men -- Bing is 6 feet 4 -- revealed that none of the wearers was the measure’s benefactor.
At a media event in Koreatown last week, there was Sen. Barbara Boxer passionately proclaiming, “This will not be the last time I fight the oil companies,” and there was actress Alyssa Milano in a flame-red Diane von Furstenberg dress, eye candy for the cameras.
But no Bing.
“He’s a believer. This is from his heart,” said Boxer, as she walked out of the room to a waiting Toyota Prius.
Bing also sat out a Sunday afternoon event at the Democratic Westside headquarters featuring Boxer and Leonardo DiCaprio.
On Monday afternoon, Bing missed a chance to hear Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Brad Pitt speak on behalf of Proposition 87 in a hot, cramped room at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor headquarters near downtown.
“He’s a fine man,” Pitt said later of Bing. “We’ve been friends for a while.”
Then there’s this: “He is not only passionate about environmental issues, he’s incredibly well-read, well-educated on the subject,” said David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate center in Washington, which is involved in the study of global warming. Bing gave the initial $10 million to fund the center and continues to contribute.
“I would call him impatient, not with people but with the status quo,” Hawkins said. “He’s constantly challenging people to think bigger, better.”
Tony Rubenstein, a boyhood friend from their days at the Harvard School (before it became Harvard-Westlake) started formulating the idea that became Proposition 87 two years ago and took it to Bing.
“That was a difficult call to make,” Rubenstein said at the election night party. “To be turned down by a stranger is one thing. To be turned down by a friend is another.”
After Bing put him through his paces, questioning him on his concept, the philanthropist agreed to provide the seed money 18 months ago, and he kept going after that.
“There are plenty of people in this town who are richer than Steve who call themselves environmentalists, and they didn’t step up. I’m grateful and awe-struck,” Rubenstein said.
Bing drives a Lincoln, of late ‘90s vintage, according to Rubenstein.
There’s a reason for that, says one source who has worked with him on environmental issues: “He says he can’t wait until they make a hybrid car for a tall guy.”
The tall guy is “very shy,” according to Bing’s publicist, Paul Bloch.
Of course, there’s nothing shy about what he does, whether it’s his involvement in the Clinton Global Initiative and environmental causes, his audaciously large commitments to movies and causes or his dating a movie star. (It didn’t help his attempt to be low key when he had a relationship with actress Elizabeth Hurley, who then became pregnant and declared Bing the father. He initiated legal proceedings to establish the paternity of the baby and his right to provide financial support. Their son, Damian, is now 4.)
Still, in his zeal to shield his private life from view, Bing has created something of a latter day Howard Hughes mystique. By all reports, he lived for years in the Hotel Bel-Air.
Ask people where he lives now, and you get a variety of answers: “I don’t know, I’ve never been there.” The Four Seasons. A “home that is modest by square-foot standards in Hollywood” but filled with energy-efficient technology, according to Hawkins. (Hawkins has never been to his home either.)
Bing’s voter registration files from two years ago list him at an address in Bel-Air.
On the other hand, there’s nothing truly reclusive about Bing.
He’s dined with Villaraigosa at the popular and always busy Jar restaurant, as well as at billionaire Ron Burkle’s house. Once, before a Rolling Stones concert here that he underwrote for the Natural Resources Defense Council, he took Hawkins backstage to chat with Jagger.
“He puts his money where his mouth is,” said producer Lawrence Bender.