MacKenzie Bezos: How the wife of Amazon's boss became its most loyal ambassador

Couple have decided to divorce and will continue 'as friends'

Jonah Engel Bromwich,Alexandra Alter
Sunday 13 January 2019 14:13
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie Bezos at the headquarters of publisher Axel-Springer where he received the Axel Springer Award 2018 in Berlin, 24 April 2018
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie Bezos at the headquarters of publisher Axel-Springer where he received the Axel Springer Award 2018 in Berlin, 24 April 2018

In her 25 years of marriage to Jeff Bezos, MacKenzie Bezos has been a loyal ambassador for Amazon, the company that made her and her husband the richest couple in the world.

She was an integral part of its origin story, driving to Seattle in 1994 while Jeff Bezos sat in the passenger seat, working on the nascent company’s business plan. She was Amazon’s first accountant and was involved in its transformation from a small online bookseller to the e-commerce behemoth it is today, the second company in American history to be valued at over $1 trillion.

MacKenzie Bezos, 48, is a novelist. But Amazon has defined her public image almost wholly. The announcement this week that she and her husband would be getting a divorce may soon change that. A statement signed “Jeff & MacKenzie,” which was first posted to Jeff Bezos’ Twitter account, read: “After a period of loving exploration and trial separation, we have decided to divorce and continue our shared lives as friends.”

The couple, who have four children, wrote that they see “wonderful futures ahead, as parents, friends, partners in ventures and projects, and as individuals pursuing ventures and adventures.”

Over the last few decades, as Amazon grew, MacKenzie Bezos appeared with her husband at some high-profile events, including Vanity Fair’s Oscar parties and the Golden Globes; in 2012, she was a host of the Met Gala. (Amazon also underwrote the event.) But for the most part, Ms Bezos has guarded her privacy, preferring to focus on writing and her children. She could not be reached for comment on this article.

She has made infrequent forays into the public eye to promote her books and to defend her husband’s company. In 2013, she posted a scathing one-star review on Amazon of “The Everything Store,” a book about Amazon by Brad Stone, to say it was plagued by “numerous factual inaccuracies” and “full of techniques which stretch the boundaries of non-fiction.” (Mr Stone is a veteran technology reporter. Michiko Kakutani, reviewing his book for The New York Times, said he told “this story of disruptive innovation with authority and verve, and lots of well-informed reporting.”)

Still, little is known about this private woman who may be awarded one of the largest divorce settlements to date.

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‘The Book Worm’

MacKenzie Tuttle, an aspiring novelist, met her husband at D.E. Shaw, a New York hedge fund where Jeff Bezos, a computer scientist by training, had become a senior vice president.

She told Vogue that she took the position of administrative assistant to pay the bills while she worked on her novels, but she soon found herself enamoured with the laugh of the man who worked in the next office over. As MacKenzie Bezos put it in a 2013 interview with Charlie Rose: “It was love at first listen.”

Within three months of dating, the two were engaged; they married shortly thereafter at a resort in West Palm Beach, Florida. Jeff Bezos was 30; MacKenzie Bezos was 23.

She often described herself as a bookish introvert, especially compared with Jeff Bezos, a swaggering, infinitely expansive businessman whose chief romantic desire, he told Wired in 1999, six years after his wedding, had been to meet someone “resourceful.” (That type of attraction seems to be mutual. In 2017, at a Summit panel, Mr Bezos said that one of his wife’s sayings is: “I would much rather have a kid with nine fingers than a resourceless kid.”)

MacKenzie Bezos’ literary ambitions began early. According to interviews and her author biography on Amazon (where she coyly notes that she “lives in Seattle with her husband and four children”), she started writing seriously at age 6, when she finished a 142-page chapter book titled “The Book Worm.” It was later destroyed in a flood; Ms Bezos has said that she now meticulously backs up her work.

At Princeton, she studied creative writing under Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, who hired her as a research assistant for the 1992 novel “Jazz” and introduced her to her high-powered literary agent, Amanda Urban.

In Vogue, Morrison hailed Ms Bezos as a rare talent, calling her “one of the best students I’ve ever had in my creative writing classes.” In 2005 she gave Ms Bezos a glowing blurb on her debut novel, “The Testing of Luther Albright,” calling it, “a rarity: a sophisticated novel that breaks and swells the heart.”

After graduating from Princeton in 1992, six years after Jeff Bezos graduated from the same university, MacKenzie Bezos took the job that introduced her to the future e-commerce titan. The couple married in 1993 and moved to Seattle in 1994, the same year Amazon was incorporated.

Quickly, Ms Bezos’ identity became enfolded into her husband’s company, even as she sought to make her mark in a publishing industry that he worked tirelessly to upend.

Amazon Ambassador

From the start, Jeff Bezos knew he wanted to disrupt traditional retail businesses using the internet. He quickly established Amazon as a successful internet bookstore and then began to diversify, selling music (when that was still viable), videos, medication and other consumer goods.

His vision, as told to Chip Bayers and published in a 1999 Wired profile, was prescient. Mr Bezos predicted that in 2020 "The vast bulk of store-bought goods – food staples, paper products, cleaning supplies, and the like – you will order electronically. Some physical storefronts will survive, but they’ll have to offer at least one of two things: entertainment value or immediate convenience."

MacKenzie Bezos, who first lived with her husband in a rented home in an East Seattle suburb, was heavily involved in the business at the start: In addition to working as an accountant, she helped brainstorm names for the company and even shipped early orders through UPS, according to “The Everything Store.”

“She was clearly a voice in the room in those early years,” Mr Stone said in an interview for this article.

In 1999, they moved into a $10 million mansion in Medina, Washington, and she became pregnant with their first child. As they rapidly accumulated wealth, the Bezos family took pains to preserve the trappings of normalcy.

MacKenzie Bezos often drove the four children to school in a Honda, and would then drop Jeff Bezos at the office, Mr Stone wrote.

As the company flourished, MacKenzie Bezos stepped back and focused on her family and her literary ambitions.

“Business wasn’t her passion, and when Amazon took off she wasn’t as involved in the day-to-day business,” Mr Stone said.

She spent a decade on her first novel, often getting up early to write, and signed with her mentor’s literary agent, Urban at ICM Partners, who also represents Cormac McCarthy, Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro.

“The Testing of Luther Albright,” which was published by Harper in 2005 and was widely embraced by critics, tells the story of an engineer whose professional and home lives begin to unravel in the 1980s.

In a review in The New York Times, Kate Bolick called the novel “quietly absorbing.” The Los Angeles Times named it one of the best books of the year, and Publishers Weekly praised Ms Bezos’ “subtle imagination and a startling talent for naturalism.”

In 2013, Ms Bezos published her second novel, “Traps,” which follows the journey of woman named Jessica Lessing, a reclusive film star, as she emerges from hiding to confront her father, a con man who has been selling her out to the paparazzi for years. Jessica drives to Las Vegas to meet him, and encounters three other women: a teen mother, a dog-shelter owner and a former military bodyguard, who become her allies.

“I would say the biggest theme in the book is the idea that the things that we worry over the most in life, the things that we feel trapped by, the mistakes we’ve made, the bad luck that we come across, the accidents that happen to us, the paradoxes – in the end, oftentimes those things are the things that we’ll look back and be the most grateful for,” Ms Bezos said of the novel during an interview with Charlie Rose. “They take us where we need to go.”

Throughout their marriage, Jeff Bezos was an enthusiastic supporter of MacKenzie Bezos’ fiction, and would clear his schedule to read drafts of her novels, MacKenzie Bezos told Vogue. In the acknowledgements of “Traps,” she called him “my most devoted reader.”

But Ms Bezos' literary career may have been complicated to some extent by her high-profile husband, who has done more than perhaps any individual in recent history to transform and sometimes destabilize the book-selling business. Many independent booksellers, publishers and agents blame Amazon for building a monopoly that has put independent stores out of business and poses a dire threat to once thriving chains like Barnes & Noble.

Even though Amazon splashily introduced its own publishing imprints, Ms Bezos still chose traditional houses for her books: Harper and Knopf. (When asked by an interviewer why Ms Bezos wasn’t publishing her books through Amazon’s fiction imprints, Jeff Bezos jokingly described his wife as “the fish that got away.”)

Sales of her books have been modest: The novels have sold a few thousand print copies, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks some 85 per cent of print sales. Some independent booksellers refused to stock Ms Bezos’ novels, according to a publishing executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Urban, Ms Bezos’ literary agent, declined to comment for this article.

Billion-Dollar Divorce

The Bezoses were the richest couple in the world; their divorce exists at a level of wealth that is virtually unprecedented. There have been billion-dollar divorces, like that of Steve and Elaine Wynn who owned casinos together, and certainly, technology entrepreneurs have been in and out of divorce court – most notably Larry Ellison, a co-founder of Oracle who has been wed and unwed four times.

But there has never been a divorce with a couple worth an estimated $137 billion, as Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos are.

Little is known about the couple’s financial arrangements. Divorces are governed by state law, and the Bezoses primary residence and business are in Washington state, a community property state where any income earned or wealth created during the marriage is to be divided equitably between spouses.

But some lawyers think it is unlikely that Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos will adhere to that guideline in a predictable manner. If they were to split assets equally, Jeff Bezos could find the 16.1 per cent of Amazon stock he owns halved.

“I’d imagine they didn’t fight at all over how much wealth each other gets,” said William Zabel, a founding partner of the law firm Schulte Roth and Zabel, who has handled many high-profile divorce cases but not worked with the Bezoses. Probably, he said, “they fought about control.”

Zabel represented Wendi Murdoch and Jane Welch in their separations, and said he thought the Bezoses would almost certainly negotiate a way to split the value of the Amazon shares while allowing Jeff Bezos the leverage he might need. The length of time such an agreement remains in place would be part of the negotiations.

MacKenzie Bezos has kept a low profile in recent weeks, and has not been photographed since the divorce was announced. (Jeff Bezos, by contrast, has continued to appear publicly and was pictured this month at a Golden Globes after-party with Lauren Sanchez, a former television anchor he is reportedly seeing.)

It is unknown what MacKenzie Bezos will do next, and how the divorce will play out.

There will be inevitable questions, for instance, about her plans regarding philanthropy. The Bezos’ charitable contributions have been modest in the past. In 2011, they donated $15 million to their alma mater to create a centre to study the brain. The following year, they gave $2.5 million to support a same-sex marriage referendum in Washington.

In 2017, Jeff Bezos asked his followers on Twitter for ideas about how better to give, and in September he and MacKenzie announced a $2 billion fund to help homeless families and start a network of Montessori-inspired preschools. But MacKenzie could pave her own philanthropic path, like Laurene Powell Jobs, who started her own foundation, the Emerson Collective.

And if MacKenzie Bezos continues to write and publish, perhaps she could find a more receptive audience among independent booksellers. Some publishing executives, who declined to be quoted on the record, spoke gleefully, at least, of the blockbuster potential if she decides to write a memoir.

The New York Times

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