Big Tech czars scarred by billion dollar divorces

We are firmly in the era of billion-dollar bust-ups among the uber-rich

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By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Wed 22 Jun 2022, 10:06 PM

Marriages may be made in heaven, but typically, hell hath no fury like divorce proceedings. Considering the pathology attached to the dissolution of marriages, the rifts that are landing several high-profile, rich-people unions in Splitsville -- the marriages of Amazon founder-CEO Jeff Bezos, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and now Google’s Sergei Brin, among them -- seem amicable enough, although the exact terms of “undearment” are yet to become public.

Rumors that Bezos merely commanded “Alexa, end my marriage!” to his virtual assistant -- resulting in “Alexit” -- are vastly exaggerated, or Alexa-ggerated. The 25-year-old union, comfortably outperforming the median 11-year length for a marriage in the US today, was apparently past prime delivery, and the couple called it quits gracefully – at least in the public eye. So did Gates -- although there was some sullied reputation there -- who had the windows and doors closed on him after a marriage that lasted more than 25 years.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, the world’s 6th richest person, is the latest to join ranks after only three years of marriage to his second wife, illustrating that command over a search engine is not enough to find the right person. Lurking in the mix is the world’s wealthiest man Elon Musk, married and divorced thrice, twice to the same partner, demonstrating that you can make an identical mistake twice, and the same mistake thrice. Small wonder he is seeking to establish a colony on Mars.

The United States has an outsized reputation as a “divorce-prone” country. The status is consonant with Groucho Marx’s sage observation that “marriage is the chief cause of divorce,” in the US, although Spain, Russia, and France record more divorces. Divorce rates are also on the rise in the Middle East, with Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt topping the list.

While nearly half of all American marriages end in divorce or separation, more recent surveys indicate that US millennials, marrying at an older age when education, careers, and finances are stabilized, are bucking a trend that reached its peak with baby boomers, who married young, divorced, remarried and generally made a meal of life. Newer marriages in the Microsoft/Amazon/Google/ Tesla age come with free shipping. Mutually consenting parties don’t always obsess about the lolly; they keep their money and their mouth shut as they ship out.

Some tech tycoons don’t even go close to marriage, preferring mergers and IPOs to matrimonial mishaps. Among them, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, Telegram messenger Pavel Durov, Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison, and Uber co-founder Garrett Camp -- all 30+ billionaire singles who, at least for now, are testing the description of a bachelor as a “selfish, undeserving guy who has cheated some woman out of a divorce.”

Indeed, financial squabbles and money issues often ranked among top reasons for divorces in the past. The aftermath was played out in all its bitterness in courts. “Ah, yes, divorce... from the Latin word meaning to rip out a man’s genitals through his wallet,” lamented the late Robin Williams, as if in response to a female entertainer who gloated that when she divorced she “went through the various stages of grieving: anger, denial, and dancing around with my settlement check.” This is patently unfair to women, who are often seen as undeserving gold diggers, a view furiously expressed by the writer Norman Mailer who said “you don’t know a woman till you’ve met her in court.”

A generation prior to this was wedded to marriages for different reasons and was leery of divorces despite differences, a sentiment best expressed by the comedian Jack Benny who revealed that he and his wife “have been married for forty-seven years and not once have we had an argument serious enough to consider divorce. Murder, yes, but divorce, never.” This ran contrary to the feelings of comedienne Roseanne Barr, who, after surveying the wreckage of her marriage, remarked, “I’m not upset about my divorce. I’m only upset that I’m not a widow.”

With US divorce rates dropping 18 percent from 2008 to 2016 – a trend that briefly took a beating during the pandemic years – there are two kinds of people who are feeling cheated: the paparazzi and the lawyers. Both feast on the misery and moolah that flow from broken vows. There have been half-dozen or so busted marriages with billion-plus payout in the modern era – going back to Adnan Khashoggi’s divorce from Soraya Khashoggi in 1980 that cost him an estimated $874 million, which would be an inflation-adjusted $2.5 billion today. Even that would seem like chump change compared to the $60 billion and $38 billion that Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos had to pony up to untie the knot with their spouses. Evidently, the person who remarked that “marriage is grand, but a divorce is hundred grand,” needs to factor inflation into marital deflation. We are firmly in the era of billion-dollar bust-ups among the uber-rich.

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