AS UNLIKELY as it sounds for a man who left court this week gleefully flicking a middle finger at the world, James Stunt has spent the past 20 years trying to cultivate an air of mystery.
He is forever wearing a strange little smile, as if he is keeping some tantalising secrets, and travels around the West End in a cavalcade of big, black supercars, accompanied by men with earpieces.
He has allowed a mythology to grow up around his wealth, never taking the trouble to deny reports that, at just 35, he is a multi-billionaire, or to explain how he acquired all this money (if he actually has it at all).
Over the years, he has cultivated various idiosyncrasies, one of which is to carry a small water bottle said to contain lemon, cayenne pepper and maple syrup wherever he goes. When someone once asked him why, he replied: “Someone might poison me.”
His international man of mystery act is all well and good, but a fluctuating weight and preference for shiny suits combine, at times, to give him the air of a David Brent rather than a James Bond.
His carefully cultivated public persona is at odds with how Mr Stunt is said to behave in private.
Amid aggressive gestures inside and outside the Central London Family Court this week, the man behind the make-up (he favours pale foundation, mascara and lip gloss) was laid bare for all to see.
The occasion was a hearing following the demise of his marriage to Petra, the 28-year-old daughter of the billionaire former Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone. Mrs Stunt wanted him evicted from the £68 million ($A116 million) property in Chelsea from which she fled a few months ago with their three young children.
During Wednesday’s dramatic one-day hearing, Mr Stunt, with his barrister David Sherborne, who has many celebrity clients, was in a perpetual state of fury.
He allegedly made a gun gesture with his hand at his 86-year-old father-in-law Bernie, mouthed obscenities at him and even tried to punch him before storming from the court to make that obscene gesture to photographers. An indicator of his rattled state was that he carried two water bottles.
After hearing that Mr Stunt was “violent and abusive” towards Petra during their marriage and had taken “overdoses”, the judge ruled that he must leave the house by the end of this week.
Yesterday afternoon, looking in a sorry state, Mr Stunt was driven out of the Chelsea property in the back of a Rolls-Royce. One of his entourage drove his black Lamborghini behind.
He was wearing a black baseball cap with a Lamborghini motif, puffing a cigarette and, bizarrely, clutching a porcelain cat and balancing another in his lap. He was still wearing his wedding ring.
It may be far from over, but Petra and her family will be immensely relieved. Next month, divorce proceedings are due to begin at the High Court and, given Mr Stunt’s current volatility, there is no telling what might happen.
According to friends, Petra’s family have been trying for some time to persuade her to leave him but she was too scared to do so.
“Bernie will say of James: “What a dreadful man he is,’ that is his view,” says a friend of Mr Ecclestone. ‘But he sat on his hands because he knew that if he interfered it would only bounce back to him. He did not want to become estranged from Petra.
“He was aghast by everything he heard about James’s behaviour and was desperate for her to get rid of him, but knew better than to say that.
“The family have been afraid for Petra because she is very fragile. She weeps easily and lacks confidence.
“Bernie is very much behind Petra and supporting the divorce — that much was signalled by him coming to court with her.”
A friend of Petra’s 33-year-old sister Tamara said: “The marriage has been terrible for a year and tricky for two. Slavica (Petra’s mum) is so delighted she has had the courage to split from him that I think she is going to throw a street party. She and Tamara have been worried sick for ages and the whole family has felt that he traded on the Ecclestone name.”
Interviewed earlier this year, Petra wasn’t exaggerating when she said there had been much “drama” in her life of late. In April last year, a petrol bomb was thrown into the grounds of her Chelsea home by persons unknown. Petra, James and their children were away at the time but it was naturally very disturbing.
Then, in September, James’s elder brother, Lee, 37, was found dead at his parents’ property on the Wentworth Estate in Surrey. There was speculation he took an overdose but the cause of death is as yet undetermined.
James Stunt has always been loud and brash, the polar opposite of his brother, whom friends say was ‘a lovely, completely ordinary person’, who lived in an attractive but modest property with his wife, Lizzie, near Bracknell, Berkshire. The brothers grew up with their parents, Geoffrey, 67, a publishing director, and Lorraine, 65, at their home in Virginia Water. The family is wealthy but possesses nowhere near the sort of money James gives the impression he has.
A friend of the family says that his parents put James ‘on a pedestal’ as he was growing up. According to his profile on the Stunt & Co website, he attended Bradfield College, a Berkshire public school, before attending the European Business School in Regents Park.
He then went off to make his fortune — but if his billions really do exist, how precisely did he make them?
The Stunt & Co website says only that he has been involved with “highly successful ventures in the gambling, art, mining and transcontinental shipping industries”.
Unusually, the share capital for Stunt & Co, and another company he owns, Stunt Acquisitions, has been funded by two unnamed works of art, one for each company, worth £4.4 million ($A7.5 million) and £3.5 million ($A6 million).
Accounts up to June 2016 show Stunt & Co had a turnover of £43.5 million ($A74.5 million) but made a loss of £842,000 ($A1.42 million). For the same period, Stunt Acquisitions, which concerns Mr Stunt’s art dealing, saw its net worth fall from £2.78 million ($A4.76 million) to £1.89 million ($A3.2 million).
None of which demonstrates that Mr Stunt is a billionaire, and one person said to be perplexed about his apparent wealth is his father-in-law.
By the time James Stunt met Petra in 2006 on a blind date arranged by mutual friends, he was already as flash as he is now.
Petra, shy and still not emotionally recovered from contracting viral meningitis at 14, which might have killed her, was rather taken by this young buck.
In turn, Mr Stunt found Petra sweet and stunning, as well as having a father with £2.5 billion ($A4.2 billion).
They married in 2011 at the Castello Odescalchi outside Rome — where another ill-fated couple, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, wed in 2006 — and reportedly cost £12 million ($A20.5 million) — wine alone was said to be £4,000 ($A6850) a bottle.
They needed a place to live and chose The Manor in Los Angeles, a French chateau-style mansion with 123 rooms, which had been the home of the late Aaron Spelling, producer of Dynasty and Charlie’s Angels. It had been on sale for US $150 million but Petra and James reportedly bought it for US $85 million — believed to have come out of the Ecclestone family coffers.
In 2015, Mr Stunt found himself at the centre of another court case, this time involving not his wife but former butler Carl Hajik.
Mr Hajik, who is gay, alleged that Mr Stunt called him a “lady hater who should be wearing a dress”, spat at him and pushed him into a wall during a row at The Manor, which reportedly started after the butler accidentally tripped Mr Stunt’s niece, Sophia (daughter of Tamara and her husband Jay Rutland). Mr Stunt denied the allegations.
A couple of years ago, the couple, by now with three children, daughter, Lavinia, now four, and twin sons, James Jr and Andrew, two, bought the property in Chelsea and did extensive renovations.
Petra wished to live a quiet, albeit extravagant, life there — then came the arson attack. “It was pretty bad, it doesn’t normally happen in Chelsea,” said Petra in an interview in February this year.
Asked if she felt her wealth made her a target for violence, she replied: “I think it’s just been a bad few years. That’s part of it. Another part is just having bad luck. In the last two years there has been so much happiness with the kids’ arrival, but a lot of drama.”
First the arson, then the sudden death of her brother-in-law, then the raid on her husband’s offices.
Last October, he became director of another company, Shadow International Ltd, said to deal with “consumer services”. In spring of this year, Petra left him. By then, their LA mansion had been put up for sale for US $200 million.
Mr Ecclestone told journalists at the hearing: “She has suffered an awful lot and I couldn’t bear for her to suffer any more. She tolerated it for quite a long time. He has caused enough aggravation for Petra.” He may be gone from the house but until it’s all over and the divorce settlement finalised, few doubt that the man in the shiny suit swigging from a bottle, is going to cause a whole lot more.