Opinion

The problem with the media’s portrayal of the ‘world’s most expensive divorce’

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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There is no evidence that Mackenzie Bezos is out to ruin her husband – but you wouldn’t know it from some reports.

It takes 42 hours to drive from New York to Seattle, depending on how steady your foot is on the gas pedal. The route, which meanders through the upper half of the country, is one of the most cinematic in existence, a drive that begins with rote freeways until it spits you out round about Montana in the middle of a soaring snow-capped mountain range.

From there, it’s smooth driving all the way to Seattle, America’s windy, rainy city, famous for Starbucks coffee and Nora Ephron movies and being the headquarters for Amazon.com.

It was on that 42-hour drive to Seattle that Jeff Bezos, the founder of the online megastore, dreamt up his audacious business plan while his wife MacKenzie sat at the wheel. The year was 1994 and the pair were just months into their marriage. They met the previous year when Jeff interviewed MacKenzie for a job at a Wall Street hedge fund, and their romance blossomed over spreadsheets and lunch breaks.  

Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos in 2003

“My office was next door to his, and all day long I listened to that fabulous laugh,” MacKenzie has said of the early days of her relationship with Jeff. “How could you not fall in love with that laugh?” 

It was that laugh, and the drive of the man behind it, that saw the pair engaged after just three months of dating and married three months after that. From there, the only way was Seattle. “I have no business sense whatsoever,” MacKenzie has said, of the move. “But I saw how excited he was.” When they arrived in Seattle, MacKenzie became one of Amazon’s first employees, working as the accountant and negotiating the company’s pioneering freight contracts from the cafeteria of a Barnes & Noble bookshop.

Twenty-five years since their marriage and that long drive to Seattle, MacKenzie and Jeff are divorcing. The news was announced on 10 January on Jeff’s Twitter account, with a message that read: “If we had known we would separate after 25 years, we could do it all again. We’ve had such a great life together as a married couple, and we also see wonderful futures ahead, as parents, friends, partners in ventures and projects, and as individuals pursuing ventures and adventures.” 

The announcement came after tabloid magazine National Enquirer published 11 pages of images of Jeff and his alleged new partner, television journalist and helicopter pilot Lauren Sanchez. The scoop was served alongside transcripts of sexts and, because this is 2019, a rumoured cache of d*ck pics.

It also came with a raft of headlines crowing over what would come next for the couple worth £107b ($137 billion). “How much will Jeff Bezos’ divorce cost the world’s richest man?” Yahoo demanded to know. “Jeff Bezos… now braced for record $137 billion divorce,” The Daily Beast exhaled. “What could possible go wrong?” “No prenup, $67b on the line,” Fox News crowed. “MacKenzie could fetch as much as $66 billion,” Page Six reported, as if the Bezos marriage was a prize cow going into auction. As CNBC put it, the Bezos divorce could be “the most expensive” in history. Expensive as in an expense for Jeff. Not the fair and adequate division of assets acquired over the course of a marriage that lasted 25 years. 

The subtext was clear: Jeff was stupid enough to get married without a prenup and the couple live in an American state where marital assets are split equally down the middle in the event of a divorce. So now his calculating wife is going to take him to the cleaners. As Donald Trump – who has long loathed Jeff for his ownership of liberal newspaper The Washington Post –put it when asked about the divorce: “Well, I wish him luck. It’s going to be a beauty.” 

Jeff and MacKenzie at the Vanity Fair Oscars after party

Hardly. The Bezos divorce isn’t a question of a gold-digging wife taking her ex-husband for all he’s worth. MacKenzie Bezos isn’t just the wife of Jeff, she is one of Amazon’s earliest supporters, the mother of four children and an author, philanthropist and entrepreneur in her own right.

MacKenzie studied creative writing at Princeton under the tutelage of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison. “[MacKenzie was] one of the best students I’ve ever had in my creative writing classes… really one of the best,” Morrison said of her former student, for whom she is a mentor to this day. 

She went on to write two novels, the first of which won the 2005 American Book Award and was named a Los Angeles Times book of the year. She is the founder of an anti-bullying organisation called the Bystander Revolution. For a long time, she stopped working so that she could be a stay-at-home mother for her and Jeff’s four children.

In their eagerness to carve up such an eye-watering fortune, these headlines immediately jump to presumptions of exploitation, complete with imaginings of MacKenzie lawyering up to pillage Jeff’s coffers. That’s what women do when they get divorced, these casually sexist articles suggest: rinse their soon-to-be-ex-husbands for all they’re worth.

Such notions are not only sexist but factually incorrect, too. According to a London School of Economics study, women are likely to see a 20% decline in income after getting divorced, while men see their pay cheques triple in value. The number of women living in poverty after divorce is also three times higher than the number of men. According to research by the Chartered Insurance Institute, the average divorced women has only £9,000 in her pension, while the average divorced man has £30,000. Women aren’t taking men to the cleaners during divorce proceedings. If anything, it’s the reverse. 

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What all these headlines about the Bezos divorce miss is the fact that neither MacKenzie nor Jeff seem particularly interested in playing into these sexist stereotypes of the money-grabbing ex-wife. The joint statement that they released refers to themselves as “cherished friends” who will “continue our shared lives” after the divorce. They speak of working on projects together and continuing to “remain a family” even “though the labels might be different”.

These don’t sound like the words of someone gearing up to wring every last cent from their ex, nor someone keen to guard his (hundreds of) billions from a gold-digging wife at all costs. These sound like the words of a couple who believe that their extreme good fortune in life is a shared one and that whatever gains they have made over the course of their relationship have been the result of both partners and not merely one.

What Jeff knows, and has repeatedly said in interviews about his wife – including a 2013 Vogue profile in which he called her “resourceful, smart, brainy and hot” – is that without the support of MacKenzie, Amazon would not be the company that it is today. “Family is very important to Jeff, and he absolutely relies on her to create that stable home life,” Danny Hillis, a friend of the couple, told Vogue.

So let’s stop referring to MacKenzie Bezos as merely Jeff Bezos’ wife. She’s so much more than that. And if she ends up walking away from her divorce with $67 billion to her name, then it won’t be a question of gold-digging to get there. It will be because she’s earned it. 

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel. Follow her on Twitter

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