Jeff Bezos in Seattle, Aug. 27, 2017. Just a year ago, the world’s richest man seemed to have a pretty low-key life. Times have changed. (Kyle Johnson/The New York Times)
SEATTLE — When Jeff Bezos and his former wife, MacKenzie, celebrated what would be their last anniversary together around Labor Day 2018, they arrived at a Miami nightclub with no fanfare. His table was booked online, which is “totally what tourists do” and “totally dorky,” the club’s celebrity liaison said in an interview at the time.
Almost a year later, Bezos arrived at a hot Miami seafood restaurant in grander fashion, on a 90-foot-long Leopard superyacht in what The Miami Herald called “the most extravagant entrance ever.”
It was not his only superyacht of the summer. He lounged with his girlfriend on media mogul David Geffen’s boat in the Mediterranean, along with supermodel Karlie Kloss and former Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein. Bezos, 56, was also spotted on a ship owned by Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller off the coast of Venice, Italy. After gossip sites gushed about the $260 purple octopus swim trunks he wore in many photographs, the swimwear quickly sold out.
At the beginning of 2019, Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, was widely regarded as a low-key guy — or at least about as low-key as the world’s richest man, and one of the country’s top executives, could be. He’d geek out over “Star Trek,” and he publicly joked that washing dishes every night was “the sexiest thing I do.”
That image exploded by the end of January, when the National Enquirer reported about his affair with Lauren Sanchez, a former TV personality, including contents of intimate text messages between the two. After the Enquirer reporting, Bezos said he had opened up an investigation into how the paper acquired the messages, hinting that Saudi Arabia may have been involved because of his ownership of The Washington Post.
This week, the United Nations released a statement, based largely on a forensic report commissioned by Bezos’ investigators, that essentially accused Saudi Arabia’s crown prince of hacking Bezos’ phone to spy on him. The Saudi government called the claims “absurd.”
The report did not provide evidence that hacked material ended up in The Enquirer. But it did provide a potent reminder of how much has changed in a year. Bezos had become a tabloid fixture, with yacht appearances, evening strolls and romantic dinners captured in detail.
For people who know Bezos or have worked with him for years, the shift to the glare of The Daily Mail and Page Six is almost an out-of-body experience.
“It is a story that is pretty much irresistible to anyone,” said George Rush, who co-wrote a gossip column with Joanna Molloy in The Daily News for 15 years.
“It has changed the public perception of him,” Rush added.
Jay Carney, Amazon’s spokesman, said Bezos remained much the same.
“In the senior leadership here, which includes some of the people who have known and worked with Jeff the longest, there is a lot of empathy for what he’s had to deal with and a lot of admiration for his remarkable ability to tune it out and focus on what matters,” Carney said.
Bezos remains deeply engaged with his work at Amazon and committed to the mission of The Washington Post, Carney said. “None of that has changed.”
Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos worked together to start Amazon 25 years ago. He was the chief executive, and she was the first accountant and an influential adviser in its early years.
MacKenzie Bezos later focused on novel writing and studiously protected her family’s privacy. Jeff Bezos’ own employees used to tease him about his cargo pants. At one large staff meeting early in the company’s history, someone asked what exactly he had in all those pockets. Among other things, Bezos pulled out a Swiss Army knife, to everyone’s laughter, according to a longtime Amazon worker.
Even as the company grew, Bezos did relatively little press for a tech executive and was far from a jet-setter. In a 2014 interview, he said he didn’t like being on the road because it made him “feel disconnected from the office.” He estimated he traveled as little as 10% of the time.
As Amazon became ascendant and Bezos was on his way to becoming the world’s richest man, his profile rose. He put on Oscar parties, supporting the company’s investment in Hollywood, and bought The Washington Post. He began putting a billion dollars a year into his space company, Blue Origin.
But only rarely did he become a subject of celebrity news and tabloid publications. In the summer of 2017, he strutted through the Allen & Co. Sun Valley Conference, an event swarming with prominent executives, bulked up with muscle. “Swole Bezos” became a viral sensation. Soon after, The New York Times Style section said he had “steadily, and stealthily,” transformed into a “full-fledged style icon.”
Then came the Enquirer revelations about the affair a year ago, supported by publishing photos and texts. It was juicy gossip but received little sustained mainstream news coverage until February, when Bezos snapped back.
He published a post on Medium, an online publishing platform, accusing the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media, of blackmail and extortion. He said the publisher had threatened to print a “below-the-belt selfie” of Bezos and other embarrassing photos if he didn’t back off his claims that the paper’s reporting was politically motivated. His post said American Media had motivations to please President Donald Trump and the Saudi government. American Media said it acted lawfully.
Suddenly the saga involved sex, wealth and politics. “That is the perfect cocktail for a tabloid story,” said Ryan Linkof, who wrote a history of the tabloid press.
The headlines have continued ever since, bouncing back between tabloids and mainstream news organizations, depending on the topic. The gossip columns showed the couple at Wimbledon, walking the streets of St. Tropez and holding a party in New York for one of Meghan Markle’s “BFFs.” They zoomed in close on Sanchez’s right hand, where she sported a large diamond ring.
There were less glamorous news moments, like the former couple’s divorce proceedings. After the split, Jeff Bezos retained 75% of their Amazon stock and all of their ownership of The Post and Blue Origin. And then this week, the U.N. experts released their statement, in advance of a documentary screening at the Sundance Film Festival about the murder of a Saudi critic who was a columnist at The Post.
Rush said in his long career covering the romps of the rich, he could not recall an affair where the political dimensions were as large as this story. “It is hard to humanize a multibillionaire,” he said.
But Bezos’ resistance to American Media and exposing the potential Saudi hack makes him “more heroic,” Rush said.
“Regardless of where his relationship with Ms. Sanchez goes,” he added, “people will be waiting for the next episode.”
©2019 New York Times News Service