The Packer family – Sir Frank Packer, Kerry Packer and James Packer – has dominated Australia’s media and gaming world for decades. In 2019, James Packer opened up about life with his family. Damon Kitney was given exclusive access by James to tell the story. Damon Kitney is the author of The Price of Fortune, The Untold Story of James Packer. He is also the Victorian business editor at The Australian after a long career in journalism. On Thursday 6 December 2018, Damon Kitney addressed The Sydney Institute to talk about the experience of writing his book about James Packer and the world he lives in.
JAMES PACKER AND HIS WORLD
Thanks very much for having me speak here this evening.
I also give my great thanks to Mr Packer himself for the time he put into this project and for the honesty that you will read in this book. It is incredibly raw. And it’s to his great credit that he was willing to take that risk, if I can put it that way, to be so honest. I would actually challenge many business people, and certainly politicians, to show the level of honesty that he has in this book. It really is a rarity.
I first met James Packer in the second half of 2002, more than a year after the collapse of One.Tel. Then Publishing and Broadcasting (PBL) chief executive Peter Yates introduced us over lunch in Kerry Packer’s famed fifth-floor dining room at the company’s Park Street offices.
I remember James being extremely courteous and respectful, although you always sensed a short fuse lurking beneath. When you struck a match – for instance, by raising the subject of my employer at the time, Fairfax – he was not short of a vocal opinion or an expletive.
I remember James being extremely courteous and respectful, although you always sensed a short fuse lurking beneath.
Back then I was the companies editor and media writer at The Australian Financial Review. Over the coming years, we lunched – just the two of us and always totally off the record – a few times a year in the PBL dining room. I would meet James outside his third-floor office and we would take the lift to the fifth. On one occasion when his father was in the building, James turned to me as we got in the lift and whispered, “If Dad gets in the lift, you are not a f—ing journalist, okay?!.”
That never happened. It is one of the regrets of my life that Kerry Packer passed away before I had the chance to meet him. Meeting James’s father – one of the nation’s most colourful, combative, controversial and larger-than-life figures – would have helped me better understand his son. Their father-son relationship is a very powerful backdrop to James’ life. In fact, it’s more than a backdrop, it’s a very powerful factor in so many parts of his life.
Their father-son relationship is a very powerful backdrop to James’ life. In fact, it’s more than a backdrop, it’s a very powerful factor in so many parts of his life.
It hasn’t all been rosy for me and James. During the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2009, I – like many – became persona non grata in James’ world when I wrote several articles in The Australian Financial Review that he didn’t appreciate. I wasn’t alone. There were plenty that wrote negative things about him around that time because he made some bad calls, some bad investments. The company lost more than a billion dollars. I received several angry emails. When I reached out to catch up on one occasion, he snarled back: “Why would I bother?”
I received several angry emails. When I reached out to catch up on one occasion, he snarled back: “Why would I bother?”
The turning point came in September 2010 when I travelled to Macau for the premiere of Franco Dragone’s water-based stage production, The House of Dancing Water, at the City of Dreams casino. To be honest, one of the prime reasons I went was not for the story, but to see James, to look him in the eye and say, “I’m still here, I haven’t gone anywhere.”
When we bumped into each other at the gala reception for the event, there was only small talk, but it broke the ice. By then I was working for The Australian newspaper and had seemingly earned myself a chance at redemption.
We have maintained a cordial, professional relationship since.
Until this book happened, I’d never been on a plane or a boat with James Packer. Even from this book, I still haven’t been on a plane with James Packer. I spent two days on a boat where I interviewed two people. That was my first time I actually got inside his world. I’d also never been to one of his houses, other than one quick dinner I had at Bondi when I was working at The Australian Financial Review for a profile I was doing on James. So, to be able to see his world was a big, step. For this book, I saw him in Argentina, in Aspen and in Los Angeles. I got to see him in all his different worlds.
Until this book happened, I’d never been on a plane or a boat with James Packer. Even from this book, I still haven’t been on a plane with James Packer.
James never wanted this book to happen. I know you might find that strange given the level of honesty that’s in it. When I visited him in Argentina in October 2017, for an article for the Weekend Australian Magazine, I asked him that day if he would ever tell his extraordinary tale in a book. He looked at me and smiled before he said, “No way.” But as I walked out of the room he added, “If I ever do a book Damon, I will do it with you”.
He looked at me and smiled before he said, “No way.” But as I walked out of the room he added, “If I ever do a book Damon, I will do it with you”.
I thought that would never happen, so I didn’t take much from that conversation. But it was quite a telling comment and it worked to my advantage because when I got back to Australia after that magazine article appeared, I was actually approached by a publisher, completely out of the blue. I had no intention of writing a book. Then a publisher said to me, “We’ve read that piece from Argentina. We really like it. You seem to have an affinity with James to get him to talk honestly. We’d like you to write his biography.”
I gave them the response that he gave to me in Argentina. I said, “No chance.” They asked me to try again. I still remember the day I got the phone call from one of James Packer’s advisers after I’d had the request in for a couple of weeks. When I picked up the phone, he said to me, “I believe I’m talking to James Packer’s biographer.” I could not believe it. Within a minute, I had received an email from James where he said to me, “Looking forward to the journey together.” It was a dream come true, if you can call it a dream because, as I said, I never thought this would happen.
When I picked up the phone, he said to me, “I believe I’m talking to James Packer’s biographer.” I could not believe it.
But once James had resolved in his mind that he was assisting with it, he threw himself into the project.
We did countless hours of face-to-face interviews on three continents and even at sea – our final meeting was on his new superyacht in France. There I met his spiritual guru, a guy called Tom Knowles. By chance, another guy turned up on that boat called Arki Busson. He’s the ex-husband of Elle Macpherson and Uma Thurman. And he ended up doing an interview for the book as well.
By chance, another guy turned up on that boat called Arki Busson. He’s the ex-husband of Elle Macpherson and Uma Thurman.
We exchanged hundreds of emails and texts and spoke on the phone. James is a voracious emailer. Some days I would wake up and there would be 20, even 50, emails from him that had come overnight. Some of them would be a quote. Some of them would be document. Some would be a photograph. Some would just be – and he wouldn’t mind me saying this – a long rant about something that was on his mind. It was incredible to be able to get all that information from him in these outpourings because it told me so much about him and the troubles that he’d been through in his world.
James told me on several occasions how much the project was taking out of him, physically and emotionally. The manifestation of that became shockingly apparent and publicly revealed on 20 March 2018 when he resigned from the Crown board, citing mental health reasons.
James told me on several occasions how much the project was taking out of him, physically and emotionally.
Five days earlier James had decided to spend his first night in Los Angeles since October 2016 after lunching earlier in the day with Warren Beatty. He stayed at the Peninsula hotel after visiting his children and their mother, Erica. It was an exciting but stressful event given the bad memories of his turbocharged life in Hollywood and the failed romance with Mariah Carey.
An additional source of stress was the Easter travel plans for Erica and the children, who were heading to Australia, the country he had grown to fear.
I had a clue something was amiss in a series of emails I exchanged with Packer on 18 and 19 March. In one he told me, “I’ve had very little sleep these last few days and am feeling unwell.”
For two and a half weeks he didn’t reply to any of my messages as he was treated at the Pavilion clinic in Boston.
For two and a half weeks he didn’t reply to any of my messages as he was treated at the Pavilion clinic in Boston.
They were two of the most stressful weeks of my life. I didn’t know if I would still have a book. At the start of March, I hadn’t written a word on paper for this book; so I resolved that the best thing I could do, with a deadline of July, was just to get on with it. I buried myself in writing.
They were two of the most stressful weeks of my life.
When he finally responded on 9 April at 10.20pm Melbourne time, he was back at peaceful Ellerstina. And he explained to me what had happened. And I’ll just read you what he said to me.
I’ve been sober during 2018 and in March this year I was experiencing major panic attacks and felt extremely depressed and paranoid. It was scary, very scary. Especially as I was sober and I thought I’d been improving. It was very hard to come to any other conclusion than my problems and condition were not getting better. It felt like they were getting worse. I was desperately worried and that’s why I got off the Crown board and why I said what I said publicly. I feel fine now. There are a lot of moments where I regret getting off the Crown board because I think I’m fine. I feel fine now. There are a lot of moments where I regret getting off the Crown board because I think I’m fine.
I feel fine now. There are a lot of moments where I regret getting off the Crown board because I think I’m fine.
The most important line in this email was the final one, when he honourably recommitted to the project, vowing to continue to be as transparent and honest with me as possible. It was a huge breakthrough and a huge relief.
At the outset, James said he did not want to read the manuscript, nor know the title of this book. He kept his word right throughout the production process.
One evening, I was sitting typing away and a text popped up. And all it said was, “I know your title…” There was nothing that followed for another minute. And that was another scary minute. Thankfully a smiley face followed. He did like the title. But he thought it summed up our experience in doing the book.
One problem with James not reading the book is a number of extracts as you know were published in The Australian and others. James read every word of them. He found them very confronting, in particular the first one that appeared in the Weekend Australian which had the photo of him and Warren Beatty on the cover. A person who was with him in Argentina the day that story was published said to me that James was “shattered”.
James read every word of them. He found them very confronting, in particular the first one that appeared in the Weekend Australian which had the photo of him and Warren Beatty on the cover.
I reached out to James on the Sunday after that was published and said I hoped he was okay. He replied, “I’m not feeling good. Reading your chapter didn’t help.”
This is one of the challenges of the whole process. Other revelations that came out in the two weeks, three weeks, that followed, did upset him. But, on a positive note, I know he received countless messages of support from people that really mattered to him –he told me that a couple of times – which helped balance things out.
In particular, I’ve had people come to me over the past month who haven’t spoken to him in ages and they’ve asked for his details because they wanted to reach out to him. That meant a lot. The storm now appears to have passed. James even asked me, unprompted, how the sales of the book have been going.
The storm now appears to have passed. James even asked me, unprompted, how the sales of the book have been going.
What I have tried to do is tell the human story of being James Packer: the son of one of the toughest and most famous fathers of them all, the brother of Gretel, the lover of celebrities, the husband of Jodhi and Erica, and the father of Indigo, Jackson and Emmanuelle. And the businessman who almost lost it all yet managed to survive – but at a cost, reflected in his addictions, broken marriages, lost friendships and his eventual admission that, despite his vast wealth and fortune, he needed help.
I would like to thank the more than 60 people who contributed to this book, including his sister and his ex-wives. James first wife Jodhi Meares, who contributed a great deal, kindly came to the launch event in Sydney in October.
The honesty of the stories, the insights, the colour really helped give the book so many different dimensions. In particular the relationship between James and his father. You will read the comments of a number of people in the book. People like Alan Jones, Peter Barron, Graham Richardson, John Alexander, people who saw that relationship up close. They all talk, I would argue, in the most open way you’ve ever seen about the relationship between James and Kerry.
They all talk, I would argue, in the most open way you’ve ever seen about the relationship between James and Kerry.
But I guess most of all I want to say thanks to James for having the guts to do this.
I know it’s been a painful experience for him. But he trusted me to be fair and accurate, for good and bad, and that is what I believe I have been.
He’s told me several times that he will never read it. But one day I truly hope he does because for all the pain in its pages, I truly believe this book will help him. And I actually hope that his children read it one day too.
But time will tell……