When a former air hostess named Grace Hightower was working as a meeter and greeter at Mr Chow in 1987, the Knightsbridge restaurant was a celebrity-spotter’s paradise.
It was where Eric Clapton, Michael Caine, David Bowie and Joan Collins sat down to over-priced Peking duck next to art world luminaries such as David Hockney, Peter Blake and Julian Schnabel.
And so it should have been no surprise to anyone when Robert De Niro, then one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood and son of a notable painter, turned up for dinner.
Even so, Ms Hightower, who was 32, insists she didn’t recognise De Niro, then 44, as he peppered her with questions on everything from the restaurant’s tables to its menus.
It was only when she complained about him to a colleague that she was told who he was. This revelation evidently led her to review her initial poor impression of him and the pair soon started a relationship.
Acrimonious: Robert De Niro with his estranged wife Grace Hightower during the ‘Begin Again’ film premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival in New York
‘It was an ease-in. It wasn’t a whirlwind,’ she has said of their early days together.
In fact, ‘whirlwind’ is about the best word for a turbulent on-off-on-off marriage which descended into mutual accusations of violence, alcohol and drug abuse.
A few days ago, the famously private couple — now engaged in a torturous divorce battle — clashed once more in a New York court during a virtual hearing over Ms Hightower’s spending habits.
De Niro has previously gone to extraordinary lengths to keep such discussions private and it’s not hard to see why. The jaw-dropping sums involved and the lavish lifestyles exposed don’t sit well with his image as a serious thespian and staunch, Trump-loathing Democrat.
The latest hearing answered many questions, not least why an actor widely regarded as one of the finest of his generation keeps making such utterly dreadful films.
According to his lawyer, Caroline Krauss, the star of Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and The Godfather: Part II nowadays makes howlers such as Dirty Grandpa and Little Fockers, not to mention commercials for baker Warburtons and car-maker Kia, because he has to pay for 66-year-old Ms Hightower’s extravagant spending habits. ‘Mr De Niro is 77 years old, and while he loves his craft, he should not be forced to work at this prodigious pace because he has to,’ Ms Krauss said.
‘When does that stop? When does he get the opportunity to not take every project that comes along and not work six-day weeks, 12-hour days so he can keep pace with Ms Hightower’s thirst for Stella McCartney? He could get sick tomorrow, and the party’s over.’
As well as spending profligately on the British designer’s clothing, Ms Hightower spent an average $215,000 (£154,000) a month on her credit card and another $160,000 (£115,000) in cash, said the lawyer.
In 2019 alone, she reportedly spent $1.67 million (£1.2 million), most of it on a $1.2 million (£860,000) diamond from a high-end New York jewellers.
On top of Ms Hightower’s rocketing financial demands, Ms Krauss revealed De Niro owes millions in unpaid taxes. She said the income from his next two films will be devoted to paying off this debt, which in 2015 was revealed to be $6.4 million (£4.6 million).
Naturally, the Hightower camp hasn’t taken all this sitting down. Her lawyer, Kevin McDonough, countered that his client was owed payments to ‘maintain the status quo’ lifestyle she enjoyed with De Niro during their marriage.
And the actor’s own habits, he claimed, have not been cut back at all. ‘When Mr De Niro goes to brunch on Sunday in Connecticut, he charters a helicopter up there,’ he claimed. ‘When he flies down to see his friends in Florida . . . it’s a private jet.’
De Niro leaving Manhattan Supreme Court after a divorce hearing in August 2019 in New York
(It should be said that the Hightower camp denied the diamond claim, while De Niro’s lawyer challenged the chopper allegation.)
Mr McDonough said that since the pair filed for divorce in 2018 (the second time they have done so), De Niro has been unfairly decreasing his payments to his estranged wife, including lowering her monthly American Express credit card limit from $375,000 (£270,000) to $100,000 (£71,900) as of January this year.
It was left to the judge, Justice Matthew Cooper, to remind the couple how ridiculous this all sounded.
‘There is nothing ordinary about these expenses. For 99.9999 per cent of the world, these are extraordinary to an almost unimaginable degree,’ he said. ‘I want to get Ms Hightower and Mr De Niro to go their separate ways. They will still come out of this richer than almost any human being who walks this earth.’
And, he could have added, many, many times richer than the woman Ms Hightower once was as the daughter of a farmer in Mississippi.
It’s easy to see De Niro and his estranged wife as two enemies united by their overweening greed, but an insider who has been involved in their feud told the Daily Mail this week that it’s more complicated.
De Niro, he says, isn’t so much venal as — in the ‘bohemian’ tradition of his artist father, Robert Sr — incredibly wasteful with money: ‘He fritters it away. His accountant used to tear his hair out.’
The actor — father of six children by three mothers — has also been generous to his myriad dependants and has simply wanted to ‘buy peace’ with his estranged wife. ‘They’re playing on Bob’s generosity,’ he said of the continuing court battle.
The insider describes Ms Hightower as a ‘little bit of a tiger’ but also as ‘flighty and irrational’, adding: ‘Matrimonial disputes are usually more about anger than money. She feels scorned and she’s never been successful in her own right.’
Part African-American, part Blackfoot Indian, she grew up with seven brothers and two sisters near the town of Kilmichael, in an impoverished corner of the Deep South.
Ms Hightower says she did odd jobs to support the family’s meagre finances — working at a local dime store and in a post room — before becoming a flight attendant for the TWA airline in her 20s.
She then embarked on a financial career trading mutual funds but it didn’t work out because, she says, she was too cautious about investing other people’s money.
De Niro in an advert for Kia. According to his lawyer, the actor makes such commercials because he has to pay for 66-year-old Ms Hightower’s extravagant spending habits
And so she gravitated to working in restaurants and relocated to London, where she met De Niro.
The actor, a compulsive womaniser according to biographers, has a penchant for statuesque, beautiful, black women, and the striking Ms Hightower certainly fitted the bill.
When they met, he was still married to Diahnne Abbott, but their 12-year marriage, which produced two children, ended in 1988.
All the signs are that De Niro’s relationship with Ms Hightower was by no means exclusive — at least in its early days. De Niro reportedly had a string of affairs — including with Bette Midler, Whitney Houston, Uma Thurman and even an English porn star — in the following decade.
Meanwhile, his longtime girlfriend, the model Toukie Smith, was still very much on the scene and, in 1991, the couple had twin sons conceived by in vitro fertilisation and delivered by a surrogate mother.
By 1996, Ms Hightower had won the battle for De Niro’s affections and a year later, with a reported $100,000 (£71,900) engagement ring, she married the Raging Bull star.
The wedding was appropriately splashy, attended by his fellow on-screen gangster friends Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, and included a five-course meal at a smart restaurant outside New York.
Some of his pals weren’t there, having already fallen out with his new bride. In fact, a few of them had even warned him not to marry her — advice which, with hindsight, he might usefully have taken.
They had a son, Elliot, a year after they married, only for the relationship to swiftly become toxic and De Niro filed for divorce for the first time in 1999.
When, two years later, De Niro went to court to challenge her for custody of Elliot, the gloves really came off. Alleging that he was concerned for Elliot’s safety, De Niro said Ms Hightower had a violent temper, once fracturing his ribs in a jealous rage on a yacht after accusing him of having an affair with another woman on board.
She countered that the actor had alcohol and drugs problems that made him an unfit parent. His lawyer denied these claims.
If that sort of frank exchange of views sounded like the finale of their relationship, astonishingly, it wasn’t. The divorce was never finalised and the couple renewed their vows in 2004 at De Niro’s upstate New York farm, watched by a celebrity crowd that included Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep and Ben Stiller.
De Niro even joked that he made sure two judges were on hand to officiate ‘so they can make sure this one sticks’ — an unwise remark if ever there was one.
Ms Hightower has done some modelling, had a few small acting roles and even sang a gospel song for the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning film Precious, whose director, Lee Daniels, is a friend. She also set up a company selling fair trade Rwandan coffee.
Although she generally avoids the limelight, she was dragged into it in 2004 when two ex-maids and a former driver testified that she was a raging bully who abused on a whim ‘the staff’ of their $125,000-a-month (£90,000) rented home on Manhattan’s Central Park West and even refused to give one of them three days off to attend her father’s funeral. The couple’s lawyers countered that the trio all had an axe to grind and their complaints were dismissed.
At the time, a source who knew the couple acknowledged to the New York Post that Ms Hightower could be ‘a pain in the a**’ but said the accusations were exaggerated. The insider added: ‘She carries herself as a tough broad, as a proud black woman. And they’re all like, “What a b****”.’
De Niro in an advert for Warburtons. ‘Mr De Niro is 77 years old, and while he loves his craft, he should not be forced to work at this prodigious pace because he has to,’ his lawyer said
In 2011, they announced they had a second child, Helen Grace, who was later revealed to have been delivered by a surrogate. In an interview two years later, Ms Hightower was asked about the secret to a successful marriage. ‘I would say a lot of give and take, standing your ground because then you keep the respect you started out with,’ she said.
In 2016, the couple stirred up controversy when De Niro defended the inclusion of Vaxxed, an anti-vaccine film directed by disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield, at the actor’s Tribeca Film Festival.
De Niro revealed that their son Elliot has autism (which Wakefield, using bogus research data, alleged was linked to the MMR vaccine) and claimed that Ms Hightower noticed him develop the condition overnight after he received a vaccine.
They separated again in 2018, returning to court for another gruelling and hugely expensive divorce battle which — three years later — clearly has yet to be resolved.
She has demanded half his fortune, which she estimated at $500 million (£360 million). This, she accepted, was far more than she was afforded by a pre-nuptial agreement she signed in 2004 which gave her a £4.7 million home, £393,000 in cash and — as long as De Niro was making at least $15 million a year (£10.8 million) — an annual income of $1 million (£720,000) a year.
However, Ms Hightower insisted that De Niro had hidden the extent of his wealth during their marriage and claimed she was entitled to a cut of 35 business ventures and 38 films he has made since 2004. On top of that, she also asked for 50 per cent of his earnings from his share in the Tribeca Grill and Greenwich Hotel in New York and his production company Canal.
Her lawyer said she earned just £11,800 a year and simply wanted to be treated equally.
De Niro’s lawyer saw it rather differently, telling the court: ‘She is seeking essentially every piece of paper of De Niro’s receipts for meals on movie sets, wardrobe, payroll records of every employee . . . credit card charges. This all goes back 15 years.’
The opposing camps are convinced the couple will never get back together as they did once before, and so the war goes on over the piles of money that have come to mean so much to them.