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6 Months : From Nov 2018 to May 2019
By Erich Schwartzel, Alexandra Berzon and Laura Stevens
One Saturday night last September, a crowd of celebrities, Silicon Valley titans and Hollywood executives gathered at television producer Mark Burnett's Malibu mansion for a birthday party celebrating venture capitalist Vivi Nevo.
The richest of them all was Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, whose stake in Amazon is worth about $125 billion. He sat in the middle of the action and appeared to relish the spotlight, said a guest who knows Mr. Bezos.
A flashy party is not the place many would have expected to find the billionaire, who until recently had usually taken pains to depict himself as an ordinary, even shy, family man. Some people walking by seemed surprised to see him in such a setting. "I just went, 'Wow,' " the guest said.
For more than two decades, Mr. Bezos had built a public persona of a low-key billionaire who did the dishes every night, had a happy home life, valued frugality and was a bit of a nerd at work. More recently, as Amazon has expanded into the world of entertainment, the e-commerce entrepreneur began to take on the trappings of a different kind of public figure. He began getting photographed by paparazzi and appearing publicly with movie stars -- and took up with a Hollywood girlfriend.
The shift became clear to the world a day after his Jan. 9 tweet announcing his pending divorce from his wife of 25 years, when the National Enquirer reported his affair with the wife of the chairman of a top Hollywood talent agency, a former entertainment-show host, including details of their intimate texts. Mr. Bezos last week hit back in an extraordinary public essay that accused Enquirer parent American Media LLC of extortion over the possible publication of embarrassing photographs. His essay also raised the specter of a politically motivated campaign against him.
News of Mr. Bezos' marriage breakup left employees and shareholders asking how it will affect Amazon, as well as his other holdings, which include the Washington Post and rocket company Blue Origin LLC. People close to Mr. Bezos believe the couple have no prenuptial agreement, which opens the possibility he could lose a chunk of his stake in the company.
The impact has reverberated through Amazon, where some senior leaders feel blindsided by the tweet and his subsequent missive, said people familiar with the matter. Other employees said Mr. Bezos' revelation of personal details humanized the executive.
Thus far, it does not appear that the tabloid storm has affected Amazon's operations. A person familiar with Mr. Bezos' schedule said he still spends the majority of his time in Seattle running the company's core businesses.
"From a shareholder's standpoint, what he does in his life, as long as it's legal, is not usually a problem," said Trip Miller, managing partner at Gullane Capital LLC, whose Amazon stake is valued at roughly $12 million. "If things that he does in his personal life become a distraction to his ability to run a company, then it becomes a concern."
Joshua Weinstein, a close Bezos friend since high school, said the two men have been in touch since the recent disclosures, and "he's the same lovely, wonderful Jeff I've known for 40 years."
Another longtime associate of Mr. Bezos', by contrast, was grasping for explanations and said he didn't recognize the executive. "Nothing about it seems like Jeff," the associate said.
The situation has become messy in other respects. Mr. Bezos' security consultant, Gavin de Becker, has identified Michael Sanchez, the brother of Lauren Sanchez, Mr. Bezos' girlfriend, as a subject of his investigation into the leaks, sparking a sharp battle between the two. Mr. Sanchez has denied he is the source of the leaks.
Amazon declined to make Mr. Bezos available for an interview. Amazon spokesman Jay Carney said: "I didn't realize The Wall Street Journal trafficked in warmed-over drivel from supermarket tabloids."
An American Media spokesman declined to comment, referring to a previous statement that "American Media believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos" and was acting in "good-faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him."
Mr. Bezos married MacKenzie Tuttle in 1993, soon after they met at New York financial services firm D.E. Shaw. They moved to Seattle to pursue his business idea, and she followed her creative-writing passion.
Mr. Bezos founded Amazon in a home garage in 1994, and Ms. Bezos was its accountant. She participated in general strategy meetings and helped pack books into boxes alongside Mr. Bezos and other employees. They worked 12-hour days and rarely took off weekends, said Tod Nelson, one of the first 10 employees. "She was our first CFO in some ways."
Soon after Amazon went public in 1997 and Mr. Bezos became a billionaire, he kept driving a Honda Accord, saying in a "60 Minutes" interview it was "a perfectly good car." In 1999, he traded it for a Volvo, and he frequented a neighborhood Indian restaurant, according to a Seattle Times article at the time.
In 2000, he said in a Playboy interview, "nothing has changed fundamentally," although he had bought a nice house. "Certainly people at Amazon.com, including me, were a kind of lottery winner. But since people's personalities are largely set by the time they're 25, winning the lottery doesn't change them that much."
After Amazon got off the ground, Ms. Bezos shifted to raising their four children, occasionally home schooling them while writing novels.
Mr. Bezos chased other endeavors, including founding rocket company Blue Origin in 2000, which he has called his true legacy and funds by selling $1 billion in Amazon stock each year. He has spent $42 million on a friend's effort to build a clock that will tick once a year for 10,000 years. In 2013 he purchased the Washington Post, boosting his profile in political circles.
The Bezoses appeared more often in public, attending one of their first major star-studded outings as Mr. Bezos was named honorary chair of the Met Gala in New York in 2012.
Mr. Bezos said in a 2014 onstage interview he did dishes every night he was home in Seattle, where he spent about 80% to 90% of his time, even as his wealth was soaring.
Having built Amazon into a shopping and cloud-computing giant, Mr. Bezos became more involved with Amazon's entertainment arm, a comparatively small endeavor. He has made his love of movies well known to subordinates, ratcheting up pressure to close those deals, said people familiar with the matter.
That year, Amazon Studios expanded in Los Angeles and began a heavy push into the entertainment industry. The studio, which one analyst estimated spent about $5 billion on programming last year, has had successes including the Emmy-winning "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," which had its debut in 2017, and Oscar-winning "Manchester By the Sea" in 2016.
The studio was initially designed to draw in Prime members, who then would shop more on Amazon. Mr. Bezos spent time on the fledgling unit, current and former colleagues said, much as he did on pet projects such as robots or drones as he delegated more of the company to deputies.
One of Mr. Bezos' key Amazon leadership tenets -- listed among its official principles -- is frugality. Amazon Studios has appeared more carefree in spending than its parent company, in part due to the nature of Hollywood.
When it bid for the rights to adapt "Lord of the Rings," Mr. Bezos -- an unabashed fan of the fantasy series -- emailed the estate of author J.R.R. Tolkien to assure that the novels were in good hands, said a person involved in the talks.
He signed off on a $250 million deal for the rights to adapt them into a television series, an eye-popping amount to many in Hollywood. With a per-episode cost of around $10 million -- on par with HBO's "Game of Thrones" -- plus marketing and budget overruns, the first 20 episodes could cost Amazon as much as $750 million, the former colleague said.
Mr. Bezos's emotional interest in the property appeared to increase pressure to close the deal, and led the executive to wonder if that contributed to the final price tag.
A senior Amazon Studios executive said: "Jeff's personal passion for it was helpful in tilting the estate toward us, but it wasn't driving the price we paid for it," adding that at least one rival studio outbid Amazon.
As Amazon's interest in entertainment grew, Mr. Bezos' association with celebrity did, too. The guest list at Amazon's Campfire retreat, an annual gathering of prominent thinkers, went from mostly novelists -- Ms. Bezos' area of interest -- to featuring celebrities and moguls such as Reese Witherspoon, said one attendee.
Mr. Bezos met the woman who would change his life, Ms. Sanchez, thanks to Amazon's burgeoning involvement in Hollywood. Her husband, Patrick Whitesell, along with Ari Emanuel runs Endeavor, the powerhouse talent agency founded in 1898 as the William Morris Agency. (Ms. Sanchez and Mr. Whitesell are separated.)
Mr. Whitesell introduced Mr. Bezos to Ms. Sanchez, now 49, and the two couples became friendly, even double-dating, people who know them said.
Mr. Whitesell, 53, has shepherded the careers of stars like Matt Damon and John Krasinski, star of Amazon's " Jack Ryan" series. Mr. Bezos became a regular at Endeavor's annual Oscar party, the kind of affair where Justin Timberlake holds court and Leonardo DiCaprio shows up late.
Ms. Bezos said in a rare interview in 2013 to promote a novel that while her husband was a "very social guy," she found cocktail parties "nerve-racking. The brevity of conversations, the number of them -- it's not my sweet spot."
Her husband appeared to embrace the scene. At the 2017 Golden Globes, Jimmy Fallon joked Mr. Bezos arrived the day before but no one was there to sign for him. The camera cut to the laughing billionaire, the only non-movie star in the crowd mentioned in the opening monologue.
That year, he bought a Beverly Hills property adjacent to a mansion he had owned since 2007. He became a regular subject for the first time in the online gossip blog TMZ, which started featuring him regularly.
He started serving more frequently as the face of Amazon, appearing for the first time in a company TV ad -- in a 2018 Super Bowl commercial for Alexa devices. He had bulked up, appearing at the annual Sun Valley, Idaho, media conference in 2017 wearing a skintight polo showing off his biceps.
He flew to the Los Angeles area on his private plane at least 25 times in 2018, flight records show, about twice as often as the year before.
In July, Bloomberg declared Mr. Bezos the richest person in modern history, even when adjusted for inflation.
A few days later, an old friend noticed pictures, video and giant headlines featuring Mr. Bezos on the TMZ home page after he was captured by a flurry of paparazzi cameras at Craig's restaurant, the West Hollywood celebrity magnet where a constant swarm of photographers often catch diners like Kourtney Kardashian.
"If you go there, you know there's going to be paparazzi," the old friend said. "When I saw it, I just thought, 'Look at that.' " A person close to Mr. Bezos said his restaurant habits haven't changed.
Mr. Bezos in a September onstage interview said he never sought out the world's-richest title, preferring to be known as an entrepreneur and father.
Starting that fall, Enquirer reporters began trailing Mr. Bezos and Ms. Sanchez to restaurants and hotels, the publication reported. The revelation that the couple were spotted in high-profile locations, such as the Beverly Hills Hotel, surprised some Amazon executives and acquaintances who said they had viewed him as more discreet.
Ms. Sanchez didn't respond to requests for comment. Since leaving television, she has built a helicopter filming company called Black Ops Aviation. Mr. Bezos asked her to undertake projects on behalf of his spaceflight company, Blue Origin, said a person familiar with the matter. She completed promotional videos for the company in December 2017.
The two grew closer after she began working on a documentary about Blue Origin, as well as a potential Super Bowl commercial, said the person familiar with the matter. She flew to various destinations to work on filming with Mr. Bezos, and they began a relationship last year, this person said.
They spent time together in March 2018, when Ms. Sanchez cheered on Mr. Bezos as he played Ping-Pong against a robot at an Amazon event in Palm Springs, Calif.
After his divorce announcement, Mr. Bezos stayed home from work in his Seattle-area home with his family for a few days, said one of the people familiar with the matter.
Depending on how the divorce proceedings unfold, Ms. Bezos could be entitled to half the couple's wealth, which could give her significant voting power at Amazon depending on the agreement they reach. The outcome will likely alter the CEO's Amazon stake, around 16% of its $780 billion market value, and cement Ms. Bezos' position as the richest woman in the world.
Ms. Bezos didn't respond to requests for comment sent through Amazon.
If the Bezoses file for divorce in Washington state, much information in filings could become public, said University of Washington law professor Terry Price, as the state's courts make it difficult to entirely seal cases. The couple might seek to avoid such disclosures, he said, by filing in another state where they own property.
Mr. Bezos planned to announce the divorce later this year but the Enquirer story forced his hand, said a person familiar with the matter.
--Joe Flint and Mark Maremont contributed to this article.
Write to Erich Schwartzel at email@example.com, Alexandra Berzon at firstname.lastname@example.org and Laura Stevens at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 10, 2019 17:46 ET (22:46 GMT)
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