Why the Bezos Divorce Is So Riveting

Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos.
Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos arrive at the Axel Springer Award ceremony on April 24, 2018, in Berlin. Jorg Carstensen/dpa/AFP/Getty Images

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, announced on Wednesday that they are divorcing after 25 years of marriage. The couple announced the split in a statement posted to Twitter, which appeared to have been composed in the typeface and layout of an Amazon Kindle page. The tone they struck was the conscious-uncoupling style of our era, a blissed-out encomium that included the phrases “loving exploration,” “shared lives,” “incredibly lucky,” “deeply grateful,” and “wonderful futures ahead.” If you read too quickly, you might have thought it was an anniversary announcement.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Obviously we don’t know who initiated the breakup, but just to engage in some irresistible conjecture: About 18 months ago, Bezos debuted a jacked-up physique and sleek shaved head, a midlife transformation so striking that “Swole Jeff Bezos” quickly became a meme. His social profile has also shifted, as he’s been spotted partying in Miami and Los Angeles; just this weekend he was surrounded by “statuesque”—Amazonian, perhaps?—women at a Golden Globes party.

The last time Jeff was single, in his 20s, he developed a system he called “women flow” to find a mate. As Wired explained, it was a play on the Wall Street term “deal flow,” in which traders assess the value of the opportunities that come their way. He asked his friends to find him “a woman who could get me out of a Third World prison,” he said. Now, he’s back on the market, a swole billionaire with a high profile and property all over the country.

Hours after the couple announced the breakup, the National Enquirer teased the results of what they characterized as a “a blockbuster four-month investigation.” [Update, Jan. 9, 2019, at 8 p.m.: This turned out to be a report that Bezos has allegedly been carrying on an affair with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez, the wife of his friend Patrick Whitesell.] Why is the Bezos split so riveting, even for those of us who had never heard of MacKenzie Bezos before Wednesday morning? First, of course, there’s the astonishing amount of money on the table. MacKenzie Bezos would become the richest woman in the world if the couple split their fortune equally. That would leave her with $69 billion and drop her husband below Bill Gates on the list of the world’s richest people. Washington state, where the couple lives, is a “community property” state, which means wealth accumulated during the marriage could be split evenly between them. But that dramatic outcome seems unlikely: As some observers have pointed out, Bezos would have to sell Amazon shares to fund that kind of payout, which would shrink the family’s long-term assets to her detriment.

There’s also an element of pathos in the end of a relationship that seemed like a true partnership, in the model of Bill and Melinda Gates. Or at the very least, a relationship with an origin story that was very evocatively publicized. Both Bezoses went to Princeton, though they graduated six years apart. MacKenzie studied fiction there under Toni Morrison, who told Vogue in 2013 that she was “one of the best students I’ve ever had in my creative-writing classes.” They met after she graduated, when Jeff interviewed MacKenzie for a job at a hedge fund. “I think my wife is resourceful, smart, brainy, and hot,” Jeff told Vogue, “but I had the good fortune of having seen her résumé before I met her, so I knew exactly what her SATs were.” (Amazon is famous for asking many job applicants about their SAT scores too. The man knows what he likes!)

MacKenzie got the job, and they embarked on a whirlwind romance. She pursued him, inviting him to lunch after crushing on his “fabulous laugh.” The couple married in 1993, six months after they started dating. They soon moved from New York to Seattle, where they lived in a one-bedroom rental while Jeff worked to launch Amazon in 1994. They’re the parents of four children, including a daughter adopted from China.

Jeff has said he prefers the term “work-life harmony” to “work-life balance,” because “the ‘balance’ part of it is implying you’re equally dividing time and energy, which isn’t necessarily the case.” MacKenzie, meanwhile, has founded an anti-bullying organization and works on the couple’s philanthropic efforts, but she took long periods away from her work to raise their children. She has also written two novels, including one whose protagonist Vogue describes as “a middle-aged father whose inability to express his inner life nearly chokes his family to death.”