What does MacKenzie Bezos want?

MacKenzie Bezos doesn’t seem to want us to get to know her.
MacKenzie Bezos doesn’t seem to want us to get to know her.
Image: Reuters/Danny Moloshok
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Truth be told, I feel a little bad for MacKenzie Bezos, and not because she just divorced the richest man in the world, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. That part seems fine, and she likely meant what she said when she announced on April 4, in her first and so far only tweet, that she’s “excited” about her own plans and “looking forward to what comes next.” 

The Bezoses announced the dissolution of their marriage in January and finalized the divorce just days ahead of her 49th birthday. MacKenzie is now worth about $36 billion, making her among the richest women on the planet. In her divorce statement, she said she was “happy” to give her ex-husband 75% of her Amazon stock and voting control over what she retains, while he takes complete ownership of the Washington Post newspaper and Blue Origin, his rocket venture. 

Some have argued that, as the loyal wife who stood by her husband’s side while he turned his online bookshop into a behemoth flea market in the ether, MacKenzie must get half of all assets. “Empires like Amazon and Apple are not created by a single man in a vacuum; they are the product of a mix of luck and contributions from an entire team—including from a founder’s spouse,” Louise Matsakis wrote in Wired.

Legally, it seems she could have claimed half of the Bezos fortune, not the quarter she settled for. The couple married in 1993 and reportedly had no prenuptial agreement. Although they’ve got lots of property all over the place—a $23 million home that used to be the Textile Museum in Washington DC, two adjoining abodes in Beverly Hills, a ranch in Texas, four condos on the upper west side in New York, a gated 5.3-acre compound containing two houses in the upscale Seattle suburb of Medina neighboring the Bill and Melinda Gates estate—their residence is Washington. It’s a community property state, meaning all assets acquired during marriage are split evenly when a couple divorces. But the argument that MacKenzie didn’t get her fair share of the Amazon fortune is flawed: it assumes that she is primarily motivated by money.

In her few public statements and in her writing, MacKenzie has made it clear that she instead values privacy, resourcefulness, and self-reliance, that she isn’t defined by her wealth and wants to be known as a writer. That’s why I feel just a little bit of pity for this billionaire mom and two-time novelist who seems to have it all. Jeff’s astounding success and the Amazon billions seem to have required her to compromise her very nature, which is reclusive, and have undermined this alleged quest for independence.

MacKenzie may have it all, almost. But she can’t ever own her story the way she owns estates.

Love and laughter

MacKenzie Tuttle was born in California in 1970 and raised in San Francisco. Her father was a financial planner. Her mom stayed home. MacKenzie was, she says, bookish and shy, taking refuge in writing early in life. When she was six, MacKenzie wrote a 142-page chapter book entitled The Book Worm, which “was reduced to a soup of pulp in the drawer of an old roll-top desk” during a flood, she says in her Amazon author bio.

In 2013—when the Bezoses were worth a mere $20 billion—she told Vogue in a rare interview that she is “a lottery winner of a certain kind,” but that money and Jeff’s success weren’t “the lottery I feel defined by.” Instead, she said, “The fact that I got wonderful parents who believed in education and never doubted I could be a writer, the fact that I have a spouse I love, those are the things that define me.”

She fell in love with her now ex-spouse at work. They met in 1992 when Jeff interviewed her for a job as a research associate at the hedge fund DE Shaw in New York. She was fresh out of college, an aspiring novelist who’d graduated from Princeton and needed a job to pay the bills while she wrote literary fiction. He was also a Princeton alum and already a boss, six years her senior. She got the job. The story she told Vogue is that Jeff’s infectious laugh in the office next door caused her to fall in love. She asked him to lunch. Within three months they were engaged, and three months later they were married at the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach.

Jeff was by then ready to settle down after many years of unsuccessful dating. He was, by his own admission, not that popular with the ladies, and MacKenzie’s interest was no doubt flattering. He didn’t make the first move because he was her supervisor, but he did have some idea of what he was looking for in a partner. “The number one criterion was that I wanted a woman who could get me out of a third-world prison,” Jeff said, according to Richard Brandt’s 2011 book One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of “What I really wanted was someone resourceful.”

He’d quickly determined that MacKenzie fit this description, later telling Vogue, “I think my wife is resourceful, smart, brainy, and hot, but I had the good fortune of having seen her résumé before I met her, so I knew exactly what her SATs were.”

Soon after the marriage, when he learned that internet usage was growing at 2,300% per year, Jeff got the idea that would make him famous. At a 2010 Princeton commencement address, he explained:

I’d never seen or heard of anything that grew that fast, and the idea of building an online bookstore with millions of titles—something that simply couldn’t exist in the physical world—was very exciting to me. I had just turned 30 years old, and I’d been married for a year. I told my wife MacKenzie that I wanted to quit my job and go do this crazy thing that probably wouldn’t work since most startups don’t, and I wasn’t sure what would happen after that. MacKenzie…told me I should go for it.

She apparently didn’t totally get it but was supportive. “I’m not a businessperson. So to me, what I’m hearing when he tells me that idea is the passion and the excitement,” MacKenzie told CBS in 2013. “And to me, you know, watching your spouse, somebody that you love, have an adventure—what is better than that, and being part of that?”

They were living in New York City’s posh Upper West Side, but they pulled up stakes and flew to Texas, where Jeff’s parents lived. The movers were instructed to drive westward and await information on the final destination, which was as yet undetermined. He convinced his parents to invest about $250,000 in his new online venture and to lend him their SUV.

The Bezoses alighted on Seattle as their destination, reportedly because the city was recommended by a friend, and drove north with nothing but their dreams, the borrowed vehicle, and a hefty chunk of change to invest. MacKenzie drove while Jeff typed up his business plan on a laptop.

Like all great tech company origin stories, the Amazon tale began in a converted garage. The Bezoses rented a house for $890 a month in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, bought computers, set up makeshift desks fashioned from doors, hired employees, and registered on Feb. 9, 1995. MacKenzie did the books, managed the office, and was the secretary. Ironically, the staff sometimes met for coffee at a nearby Barnes & Noble, the bookseller whose very existence would soon be threatened by Amazon’s success.—which Jeff tellingly initially wanted to call—went live on July 16, 1995, and his idea soon proved lucrative. By September, Amazon was selling $20,000 worth of books weekly and the dream was turning into a reality.

Jeff’s dream, however, was a nightmare for some Amazon workers. MacKenzie hasn’t said much in public other than when promoting her novels, and even then she’s hardly what you’d call revealing. But she broke her usual silence in a scathing Amazon review of the 2013 book by journalist Brad Stone, The Everything Store, about the company’s beginnings. Jumping to her husband’s defense in response to criticism about the demanding company culture, she wrote that she knew better than anyone what really happened at Amazon. “I was there when [Jeff] wrote the business plan, and I worked with him and many others represented in the converted garage, the basement warehouse closet, the barbecue-scented offices, the Christmas-rush distribution centers, and the door-desk-filled conference rooms in the early years of Amazon’s history. Jeff and I have been married for 20 years.”

She provided literary proof that the book was not to be believed, which is only fitting considering MacKenzie studied under the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrisson at Princeton and served as her research assistant in 1992 when Morrisson was working on the novel Jazz. The Everything Store claimed that Jeff was inspired to start Amazon after reading Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro and that existential reflection and avoiding regret were on his mind when he launched the company. “It’s a good beginning, and it weaves in nicely with what’s to come,” MacKenzie wrote. “But it’s not true. Jeff didn’t read Remains of the Day until a year after he started Amazon.”

MacKenzie gave The Everything Store one out of five stars in her online review, entitling it, “I wanted to like this book.”

A dream deferred

Still, MacKenzie hadn’t actually worked at Amazon the whole time, so she couldn’t know everything about the everything store. As the company grew, her involvement in its daily affairs lessened. By 1999, the Bezoses were rich. That year, the couple bought a $10 million mansion in Medina and MacKenzie became pregnant with their first child. She had three boys in relatively rapid succession and adopted their fourth child, a girl from China, so she was mostly focused on raising the brood.

Despite their wealth, the Bezoses opted not to have nannies, and MacKenzie deferred her dream of writing while the children were young. She has since repeatedly noted in interviews that novelists aren’t needed. “Writing is such a pretend profession,” she told Vogue. “Nobody is counting on you at all. You can’t pretend to be a lawyer or a teacher…Kids, on the other hand, have an urgent need to be taken care of. After the third child, I knew I couldn’t be the kind of parent I wanted to be and continue writing. Those years were just too busy.”

She found the kids “fascinating” and “fun.” Plus, the Bezos approach to childrearing appears to be creative. They tried homeschooling the kids for a time, for example, which involved “all sorts of things, including off-season travel, kitchen-science experiments, chicken incubation, Mandarin lessons, the Singapore math program, and lots of clubs and sports with other neighborhood kids,” MacKenzie told Vogue.

According to Jeff, who spoke about their parenting at Summit LA in 2017, the Bezoses focused on making their kids self-reliant and resilient. They wanted to teach them how to help themselves. He explained:

My wife has a great saying—we let our kids use, even now they’re 17 through 12, but even when they were four, we would let them use sharp knives. By the time they were, I don’t know, maybe seven or eight, we would let them use certain power tools and my wife, much to her credit, she has this great saying, “I would much rather have a kid with nine fingers than a resourceless kid.” Which, I just think, is a fantastic attitude about life.

The children managed to keep all their fingers growing up and, in the interim, MacKenzie took up writing again. She woke up before dawn and put in a few hours in “sterile, windowless places” and “closets” where she could best concentrate while her family slumbered. “Writing makes her really happy,” Jeff told Vogue. “The days she gets up early to write are always good ones in the Bezos household. By the time I come down, she will be literally dancing in the kitchen, which the kids and I love.”

She’d return to her work after dropping off the kids at school (for many years, she reportedly also drove Jeff to Amazon in a Honda that in no way reflected their net worth). In a 2013 interview with Seattle Met, she explained, “I like the balance of those two things: Writing and parenting are so different. With writing a novel, nothing really comes out of the pipeline for a long time and you don’t really solve the problem for a couple years, and also nobody needs you. Parenting is pretty much the opposite—you’re solving tons of little problems and the need is really urgent.”

Autobiography of a coward

After a decade of work—and, MacKenzie has said, lots of tears—in 2005, something finally came out of the literary pipeline. The Testing of Luther Albright was published. MacKenzie Bezos, previously known only as the wife of Amazon’s founder, was finally a writer, making good on her early promise.

Although she dismisses the utility of writing, spinning fictional yarns is her primary ambition. “I’ve had a lot of jobs along the way: I’ve been a waitress, a dishwasher, a warehouse worker, a bookkeeper, done data entry at a test control company, clothing sales, nanny,” she told Seattle Met. “I’ve done a lot of things, but this is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I don’t even really have any hobbies.”

Morrison, her mentor and former professor—who has called MacKenzie one of her best creative writing students ever—recommended her to Amanda Urban, the high-powered literary agent who also represents Morrisson. This put the brand-new novelist in the esteemed company of notable writers like the aforementioned Ishiguro. Morrisson also wrote a blurb for the book cover, which was an auspicious start for the newcomer married to the man disrupting publishing. It was a lyrical assessment. “MacKenzie Bezos has produced a rarity: a sophisticated novel that breaks and swells the heart. A sure-footed excavation into the nuances of everyday terror—the kind that turns devotion into despair, trust into treachery, love into loss. Its pull is irresistible,” Morrison wrote.  

Indeed, the tale was well-received by many, if not everyone. It won an American Book Award and Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, with the publication calling MacKenzie, “a smooth and terrifying writer, incisive…a noticer of the tiniest moods and gestures in relationships.”

The New York Times (paywall) book reviewer wasn’t quite as enthusiastic, saying the novel reads “like the autobiography of a coward.” The story about Luther Albright—an emotionally repressed civil engineer in Sacramento with a beautiful wife, beloved teenage son, and a handmade house—and its many construction metaphors was deemed “overwrought.” But the review noted that the details were “wholly original,” saying the “vivid specifics” caused “the slow pileup of events to [take] on an unexpected, if mild, urgency.” Still, the reviewer warned, “This is not to imply that The Testing of Luther Albright is a page turner.”

That is putting it mildly. The book is excruciating at times, going into the minutiae of home improvement. It’s good writing, technically, that sets a mood, but it’s a dull, tense mood. As an author, MacKenzie seems to hide behind descriptions of small things. This creates a sense of just how mundane life is even while characters are feeling very deeply. The book didn’t swell my heart. It made me impatient, so much so that I actually missed the super-muted climax as I read it, forcing me to go back over the “joyless protagonist’s” reflections again.

Luther is emotionally evasive, and his creation feels like an act of evasion on the author’s part. MacKenzie seems to have taken refuge in a mastery of technical facts meant to lend authenticity. She explains in “a conversation with the author” at the end of the text that she researched Albright’s work in libraries and onsite in Sacramento after realizing he’d be the voice. As seems to often be the case, she got lucky. “I also contacted the California Department of Water Resources, and I consider it one of those lightning bolt strikes of luck that the person who answered the phone transferred me to a senior dam safety engineer who was a reader and writer of literary fiction himself.” He helped her turn technical facts into literature.

Reading the book, I felt the author tried too deliberately to write a story that wasn’t at all about her, choosing an older, male protagonist to prove she wasn’t, in fact, writing her own autobiography. However, like all authors, she ended up accidentally revealing something very personal.

Now, having considered the woman and the work at length, the protagonist seems to be a lot like MacKenzie, after all, despite superficial differences. And the world he lives in—where women stay home to raise kids and are beautiful mysteries to their emotionally closed husbands—seems to describe her upbringing, if perhaps not precisely her whole adult life.

Luther is more like MacKenzie than is apparent at first blush. He’s way into details, just as MacKenzie’s writing is practically pornographically specific about the mundane. He tries to minimize the emotional burden he puts on others. He loves being needed. He doesn’t like speaking. Even MacKenzie’s friend, Alexa Albert, a Seattle psychiatrist, sees the similarities, telling Vogue, “She’s not Luther, but, like him, she is so psychological.”

MacKenzie also seems similar to Luther in her extreme restraint. This was evidenced by her divorce finalization tweet that showed absolutely no signs of acrimony about the fact that her billionaire husband was just in a public dispute with the National Enquirer tabloid over dick pics he sent to another woman. Not only was she happy to give away the house, as it were, detailing the business specifics of their split—which Jeff never mentioned—MacKenzie said she looked forward to their continued friendship.

Notably though, there was not a single “I” when summing up the union in the statement, though arguably every sentence could have started with an “I.” She was there but not totally—effacing herself even as she appeared on Twitter for the first time.

Literary analysis

You will not find MacKenzie talking to reporters or opining on social media. When I contacted Urban, her literary agent declined to comment and said that MacKenzie isn’t doing interviews. And she rarely is. From the looks of it, she speaks to the press only when one of her books is released. So far, there have been two books, which means that in the 25 years she was married to Jeff, she has barely ever said anything on the record and rarely sought the public eye.

In MacKenzie’s first novel, Luther Albright’s prestigious career was undone due to a single phone call with a reporter the one time he was uncharacteristically unwary. This may be an indication of MacKenzie’s own view of the media. Certainly, she has opinions about journalism. In her Amazon review of The Everything Store, she chides the scribe, Brad Stone, writing:

One of the biggest challenges in non-fiction writing is the risk that a truthfully balanced narration of the facts will be boring, and this presents an author with some difficult choices. It may be that another telling of the Amazon story…would strike readers as less exciting than the version offered here. I sympathize with this challenge. But when an author plans to market a book as non-fiction, he is obliged to find a suspenseful story arc that doesn’t rely on mischaracterizing or avoiding important parts of the truth.

It’s a particularly interesting point because MacKenzie argued that the story was incomplete but didn’t really want to fill it in either—she doesn’t indicate that she spoke to Stone, and the reporter, in a recent interview with the New Yorker, repeatedly states that Jeff is “fiercely private.” In more than five years of covering Amazon for Newsweek and the New York Times, and writing the book, and in the years since, Stone says he spoke to Jeff “maybe five to ten times over the years.”  

Luther Albright, who is of course a fictional character, says, when his son confronts him with questions about his past, “I would tell no lies but would rely heavily on omission.” It practically sounds like a description of MacKenzie’s modus operandi, given her longstanding reticence to speak to the press and her determination to stay on message when she finally does. 

But we should all keep her warnings in mind. Perhaps another telling of her story—one in which I, the writer, simply said that no one knows what to make of MacKenzie because she’s not a talker—would strike readers as less exciting yet would come closer to the truth, which seems to be that she doesn’t want to share herself.

And this is why I started out saying I feel a little bad for MacKenzie, despite her extraordinary good fortune. As she becomes one of the wealthiest women in the world following her divorce, one thing that everyone wants from her—dare I say, needs?—is her take on her own story. They’d love to  know what her interests are, and what she might do with all that money that is newly in her sole control. Forget fictional characters. It’s MacKenzie people want to see. Meanwhile, she—who is so keen on being needed—doesn’t want to be seen.

All she’s ever wanted was to be a writer, yet the book the world desires from her is nothing like those she hopes to produce. And despite acclaim for her work and the fact that she doesn’t define herself by the lottery win of having had a successful husband, she will probably always be most interesting to people because of him and his riches, not her literary fiction.

Sales of her two books have been modest: The novels have sold a few thousand print copies, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks 85% of print sales. If she wrote a memoir, it would surely be a blockbuster, if the recent response to the book Small Fry, by the daughter of Steve Jobs, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, is any indication of the public’s appetite for insight on the personal lives of tech CEOs. But MacKenzie probably won’t, unless she radically transforms after the divorce. Revealing herself isn’t really her deal, and she certainly doesn’t need the money.

Book two

In 2013, MacKenzie released her second novel, Traps. It is the tale of four female characters whose lives intertwine over the course of a few days. Again, she showed her preoccupation with minutiae in writing that’s technically deft but not a riveting read. The New Yorker, in a recent article entitled “The Idealized, Introverted Wives of MacKenzie Bezos’s Fiction,” assessed Traps as follows:

It’s fatally sentimental and, at times, improbable, even as it labors for realism. Bezos recounts, in migraine-inducing detail, every single physical movement a character makes—just how she tears open a tea bag or pulls the zipper on her backpack…Traps feels “writerly” after the fashion of the MFA studio, as if the book had internalized the metrics of literary gatekeeping that Amazon aimed to upset.

Indeed, MacKenzie didn’t publish the novel with Amazon’s new fiction imprints but went with a classic, Harper and Knopf. The reasoning seems obvious to me—to publish with Amazon would have undermined any claim she hoped to have to independent legitimacy as a writer. She’d gotten the imprimatur of approval from Morrison before she met Jeff and won awards for her first novel, but as far as the world would be concerned, any success, even the fact of having been published, would seem to be related to Amazon’s mammoth reach and her insider status (frankly, she’s still subject to this suspicion). Jeff told Vogue that at Amazon’s publishing arm she’s referred to as “the fish that got away.”

Traps is a conventional story about four wounded women of different ages and professions who are each somehow made whole by an experience with children or parents. The tale is too neat and not very meaty. But the writing is fine. MacKenzie won’t blow your mind with her ideas or imaginative use of language. Still she does the work in her circumspect but professional way, a Luther Albright of writing.    

The women in Traps—a prostitute, a security guard, a recovering alcoholic who runs a rural dog shelter, and a movie star—are all restrained, reticent, and behind the scenes. Even the movie star is in hiding. MacKenzie describes the embarrassment the star feels at having a security detail and imagines how ridiculous these guards think she is. She feels pitiful in comparison to the people who protect her so ably and live in anonymity.  

It’s safe to venture that this is an aspect of the character that MacKenzie understands personally. The writer has taken great pains over the years to appear normal while accumulating massive amounts of wealth and power. She told Vogue that she favors jeans and t-shirts and that Jeff buys her designer dresses and bags. Sure, she may, when Amazon is cosponsoring the event as happened in 2012, show up at the glamorous Met Gala and don slinky gowns that boast her small waist and toned billionaire body, but she seems to see herself as simple nonetheless, giving the impression that she does it for Jeff because she is ever-cooperative.

The New Yorker called Luther Albright’s fictional spouse, “The Giving Tree of wives,” and MacKenzie might well be described similarly. She gave her support for Jeff’s wild dream, her youth to his company and their children, and gave up about half of the half of the fortune she could have gotten if she’d insisted on a divorce according to community property law. But she’s a simple, resourceful woman, after all, and it probably would have been unseemly to her to haggle over additional billions when she can manage with “less.”   

The end is the beginning

MacKenzie has been, until now, the perfect opposite of her husband—his good-looking, soft, modest, domestic, kind, and shy side. She raised the kids and made him look less monstrous to the public as tales of his cruel company culture proliferated.

Accounts of employee bullying and underpayment at Amazon bother MacKenzie, as evidenced by her uncharacteristically harsh and public 2013 attack of The Everything Store. The following year she started an anti-bullying organization for kids, called Bystander Revolution to encourage the spread of “simple habits of kindness, courage, and inclusion.”

It was quintessential MacKenzie. While Jeff envisioned the future, the big picture, she sweated the small stuff, just like when she took the wheel driving to Seattle while Jeff planned the business he’d build and again when she did the books during Amazon’s early years. Even the name was an apt encapsulation of her contradictions. Bystanders by definition cannot start a revolution, an overthrow of prevailing norms, because that requires passion and action, jumping into the fray. But that doesn’t seem to be her cup of tea, personally, in writing, or in life. Speaking to the Christian Science Monitor about her organization in 2015, she explained her motivation, “Everyone remembers small acts of kindness from friends and strangers years later. It’s exciting to me to think about all the good that can come of individuals making this kind of effort.”

Now MacKenzie is on her own. Though she may remain friends with him, as both have promised, she’ll be able to repurpose her identity, becoming more than just the perfect ex-wife who masterfully handles the postmodern art of “conscious uncoupling.”

No one knows what her “exciting” plans are. Probably, she’ll be writing. Perhaps she will surprise and write a first-person account of her own life. However, that seems unlikely based on her recent disinclination to use the word “I” at all and her general reticence.

After spending days trying to find ways to reach MacKenzie, unsuccessfully, and calling various now-disconnected numbers and writing to email accounts that bounce back, and weeks reading what I could find about her, and many hours reading her books with an eye to reading the writer herself, I believe it’s clear that MacKenzie was sincere when she said she’s looking forward to the future, and not because she’s now independently wealthy. Perhaps Traps was more aptly named than we know. Maybe she was saying something about her own life, trapped behind the gates of too many mansions, protected by security details, watching her husband with the once-charming laugh turn from visionary shlumper to billionaire fashionista with big guns and a penchant for vulgar puns (see No thank you, Mr. Pecker).

Or maybe it’s more abstract. She told Seattle Met that the characters in Traps “were unified by an idea that had been preoccupying me for a while, which is that oftentimes the things we think of as our bad luck or our misfortune or mistakes that we’ve made—things that we feel trapped by—might lead us to some of the good fortune in our lives.”

MacKenzie had apparently been considering the long view, examining the big picture—and not just those painstaking details she’s so good at writing—realizing that, as the Tao Te Ching puts it, “Gain is loss. Loss is gain.” This year, MacKenzie lost a husband, but she gained $36 billion to spend as she wishes and the freedom to discover who she is after 25 years of marriage, a relationship that spanned most of her adult life. It probably really is exciting.

She may never reach the literary heights of her mentor, Morrisson—and even if she did, it’d be tough to escape the shadow cast by the Bezos name, which will surely be associated with business and not literature in the history books. As MacKenzie writes about the starlet-in-hiding in Traps, “[E]veryone deserves to feel known for the things they choose to offer up themselves.”

She isn’t likely to have that, though she may well deserve it, too. MacKenzie will mostly be known for the things Jeff chose to offer. But few of us do exactly what we set out to in life and she’s already won the lottery a few times over, so there’s no reason to believe that her lucky streak will end now.