On a winter’s night in Aspen in January, over Twisties and a cigarette, James Packer sat down for an interview with his biographer, business journalist Damon Kitney.
It was the first time a member of the Packer family had co-operated with a writer to tell their story.
In Kitney’s newly-released biography, The Price of Fortune: The Untold Story of Being James Packer, the billionaire delves into his rollercoaster life, including his 2016 break-up with Mariah Carey and his revelation in March that he was struggling with mental health issues.
In the following exclusive extract, Kitney reveals the deep concerns Packer’s inner circle harboured about his engagement to the pop star, and the dramatic intervention that ensued.
By the end of 2015, [Packer] had again taken on more debt than he could psychologically handle in an effort to pay [his sister] Gretel out. More threateningly, in light of the fallout between them, he had agreed to Gretel having personal guarantees over all his assets. He was terrified she could one day take everything from him.
The life of dating a diva was also starting to take its toll, and Packer’s friends were seriously concerned about his mental and physical welfare.
Packer now recalls sitting at his home in Aspen in February 2016 when the house phone rang. ‘It’s a call I will never forget. It was from a man I once knew who lived in Israel. I thought the world of him. He said, “Jamie, I’m worried about you. You’re unwell.” He told me to rely on my friends nearby to tell me what to do next. That was code for [relying on] Kerry Stokes,’ he says.
Stokes had been spending the American ski season, as he does each year, at his hunting lodge – a two-storey, six-bedroom, six-bathroom penthouse for which Stokes had paid $US15.5 million for in 2002 – at the exclusive Beaver Creek in Vail, Colorado, two hours’ drive from Aspen. Also there was Packer’s good friend Thom Knoles, a maharishi (or master teacher) of Vedic meditation.
“My wife, Christine, and I went up to Aspen. We took a fair bit of time out of our schedule. We cared for James. When you are close to somebody, you have to try to help them,” Stokes says. In this vein he then made a remarkable decision: to unilaterally take charge for a time of Packer’s personal affairs. “It just needed to be done,” Stokes says, without flinching. It was a remarkable move by someone already chairing his own public companies, Seven West Media and Seven Group Holdings.
“With due respect, those around James and those executives (like Robert Rankin), they accepted I did have authority (to manage James’s personal matters). I made the decisions,” Stokes says. “It was easy for me to say, ‘No, you are not spending $250,000 on a wedding dress. No you are not moving this here. You are not doing that’.”
“All I did, in effect, was put in place some controls that made it easier for people there to do their jobs. It was never envisaged previously that James would not be there,” Stokes says.
After having endured the horrors of the GFC, Packer’s debt phobia was beginning to have telling physical effects, which were horrifically apparent to Stokes and Knoles in Aspen.
“I was in a bad way, a bad way,” Packer recalls. A blizzard in West Buttermilk meant his Global Express jet couldn’t make it into Aspen airport. Instead it flew into Rifle, an hour and a half’s drive away. Stokes helped a panic-stricken Packer into the front seat of Knoles’s car, which Knoles then drove the 70 miles to Rifle where Packer’s plane was waiting to take him to Israel. Knoles recalls of the day: “I thought, ‘Now we are going to get somewhere.’ I felt, ‘Now we are at the moment of truth, now we are going to get some decisions made’.”
Stokes says Packer, at the time, was “confused”. We agreed it would be good if he spent some time in Israel. Away from all the controversies and the pressures and the intensities … My concern was that [he and Mariah] were both in bad places and that James needed some space. He had friends in Israel who were concerned about his welfare. I felt comfortable he would be looked after there.’
Stokes was always worried that Packer and Carey had both fallen into the relationship on the rebound from bad break-ups. And he was concerned about their fast-paced lifestyle. After Packer’s arrival in Israel, Stokes organised for Packer’s pilots to take his plane in for unscheduled maintenance to ensure Packer wouldn’t be able to leave Israel quickly. “He wasn’t happy at one stage. In good humour, of course. But I certainly incurred the wrath at the time of his fiancée and her agent [Stella Bulochnikov]. They were threatening to go to the police for me kidnapping James. There were some strong words said. They wanted to charter a plane from Las Vegas to Israel, and I wouldn’t approve it. I was accused of separating the lovebirds,” Stokes says, before adding with a proud grin: “I said I was prepared to pay two economy fares to Israel if that was helpful.” Packer’s memory of the time is hazy, but he recalls, “Mariah was very upset when I was in Israel because I had just disappeared.”
Stokes also did more than physically separate the then not-so-happy couple. In hindsight, it proved to be the ultimate act of friendship from a one-time adversary. “I did postpone his wedding,” Stokes volunteers without inching. “We did have some issues at the time because Mariah’s agent was most insistent that they would not be separated and the wedding take place … James was upset at not seeing [Mariah]. But he wasn’t sure. He was obviously engaged to her. He was obviously emotionally involved. The fact that it was postponed, he was happy to get the chance to get himself into a better place.”
When Packer eventually returned to America in March to be reunited with his fiancée, he still had wedding bells on his mind. But Stokes had quietly ensured the moment had passed. “James was still reasonably intent on marrying her [after Israel]. But the boat had been moved, the occasion had been cancelled, circumstances had changed. To restart it all was not easy. During that process it [the wedding] all fell apart,” Stokes says. “In retrospect that was good for James. James’s welfare was paramount. He needed care at that stage.” Stokes stresses he had nothing against Carey. In fact, he liked her and enjoyed her company. “I saw Mariah and James together. The times they were together, they seemed truly happy with one another. I just thought it had moved too quickly for James and he was being railroaded. I was more concerned about the influence of her agent.”
This is an edited extract from The Price of Fortune by Damon Kitney (HarperCollins).