This is a story about the indulgence and vindictiveness of the mega-rich. About a man who stabbed his ex-wife in effigy in front of hundreds of people. And about how I sold my soul to witness it.
This article was originally written for VICE, but got spiked on account of legal issues. Accordingly, all names and some other details have been altered to prevent myself from being sued into oblivion.
In the early 2010s, I was working as a professional improviser in New Zealand. My troupe performed shows regularly, but what paid the bills was corporate entertainment. Most of our work involved going to an event, doing some improv, and getting out again. The highest-paying jobs though, were designed bespoke for the client. At the time, I was developing an interactive courtroom comedy to join our list of pre-packaged shows. It ended up receiving an incredibly strange maiden voyage.
Gus Kingstock was an Alabama-born rich-lister with a nine-figure net worth who made his first fortune in the oil business and counted US presidents among his contacts. In the late ’70s, he visited New Zealand, then moved there, founding Kingstock Luxury Hoteliers, which subsequently expanded to become one of New Zealand’s largest locally owned hotel chains.
Kingstock’s move to New Zealand coincided with the end of his 20-year marriage to Beatrice Clyde. It did not end amicably, and Clyde pursued Kingstock in and out of the courts for decades. Kingstock spent millions on the case over the years, but just prior to hiring us, he received a significant legal ruling in his favour. His fifth wife hired our company to perform at an enormous party celebrating this victory, and it was up to me to direct that show. Being the struggling artist that I was (hell, still am), I said yes.
In these cases, we solicit background information from clients so we can tailor the show to their desires. In this case, I received multiple emails, one nearly a thousand words in length, detailing the Kingstocks’ every beef with Beatrice, her accountant, the Texan legal system, and every single judge they felt had wronged them. Anecdotes. Details of personal, physical, and even racial defects. Suggestions of jokes at their expense that only a handful of audience members would get. What they wanted was a show trial.
I buckled. This sustained character assassination felt morally repugnant – mocking real people, behind their backs, for the benefit of clients with axes to grind. It also felt legally dubious, especially considering the show would be filmed. What would happen if any of these people found out? Judges have power. Millionaires have power, too, but judges don’t tend to metaphorically lynch people they don’t like.
Faced with this brief, I did something I’ve never again had cause to do: outright refused, on moral grounds. After some ethical massaging by my boss, we compromised: we would do an improvised courtroom comedy show, featuring characters loosely inspired by the real-life case, but broad and non-specific enough to pass as original creations. Some peace of mind, then, but still, every rehearsal we did was done with widened, incredulous eyes.
Arriving at the venue, the party’s scale became clear. Kingstock had rented a literal aircraft hangar, big enough to house multiple aircraft and still have room for a huge party. What blew our minds, though, was our performance space: a massive, detailed, purpose-built courtroom set.
Hundreds of people attended this party: young to old, all decked out in their finest, all with some relationship to the Kingstocks. The dress code was the letter B, presumably after Beatrice (and likely another “B” word), so the crowd was largely dressed in a sea of yellow and black stripes. Kingstock himself showed up in a suit made of money. “Bucks”. He encouraged attendees to call him “Mr Money.”
The actual show was a surreal, borderline out-of-body experience, performing for hundreds, but ultimately only to one. We did our best to entertain everybody, but the concept was so bizarre and specific that most attendees were simply baffled. Our jokes only truly landed at Kingstock’s table; they saw our comedy characters differently to everyone else. It felt like we were playing, desperately, for our lives.
We took our bows and were keen to get the hell out. But thanks to awkward staging and a strict schedule, we ended up stuck on stage as they wheeled out an enormous cake, decorated in the shape of a table-sized legal writ. We were asked to read a “proclamation,” written by the Kingstocks’ attorney to declare victory for “The Right and Honourable Angus of the Great and Noble Family Kingstock” over “the interminable inferno of the wrath of those who hereafter shall remain nameless and names left to the dustbins of time, but whose deplorable acts sought to wreak havoc upon the House of Kingstock.”
Our octogenarian hotel magnate host took a knife, but did not cut the cake. He simply stared at it, before flipping the knife around and stabbing it, shouting at the top of his ancient lungs: “Betty’s heart!” The crowd applauded, then the entire courtroom set revolved 180 degrees, revealing one of the region’s most in-demand party bands. We had no idea that was going to happen. We could only watch, dumbfounded.
After a ride home dominated by thousand-yard stares, I was shaken, compelled to Google deeper for the details of this case, about which I had only heard the Kingstocks’ side. Clyde’s story has not been told, and I honestly doubt either side is fully in the right or the wrong. But she claimed that Kingstock had removed over $25 million in shared assets from the United States, tying up his wealth in trusts and offshore accounts to avoid paying a settlement – though he was made to pay her legal fees because she lacked the means to do so herself. A sad story, whichever way you looked at it.
The whole shindig likely cost the Kingstocks six figures. It cost me my soul. My paycheque covered a couple months’ rent, and I won the Worst Gig Of The Year award within my company. The Kingstocks liked the show so much they even gave me a couple nights of free hotel accommodation.
It never ceases to amaze, the ways in which the mega-rich spend their money. To an ordinary person, throwing an expensive party to celebrate legally destroying a poor retiree is an appalling waste, an act of vindictive self-indulgence whose grandness is matched only by its pettiness. But for Gus Kingstock, it was a small price to pay to slander his hated ex-wife before a captive audience. I came away from that party wondering what other events unfold in the mansions of rich-listers with axes to grind.
Gus died a few years later. To most, it was a minor headline – but to me and my colleagues, it was a biting reminder of one of our strangest experiences. Kingstock died bitter, though: in the time between his party and his death, Beatrice had filed additional legal disputes against him. In his will, he directed that his estate use any resources available to fight her claims. The kids will get their inheritance later.
I ended up using that accommodation as a place to crash after a particularly boozy industry party. That makes me feel better. I might have sold my soul to Gus Kingstock, but at least I got to puke in his toilet.