The town of Medina, sittting on a peninsula on the edge of Lake Washington, often starts the morning partly obscured by mist or fog. As the day proceeds and the weather shifts, the mist lifts or is burned off by the sun. The town has fewer than 3,000 residents, many of them wealthy; two of them — Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos — spectacularly so.
For many years, Gates and Bezos, both in long marriages, were perceived in sharply different ways: Gates the nerdy do-gooder who was seeking to fix the world’s most pressing challenges such as the climate crisis and global health, and Bezos an expansion-obsessed tycoon who wanted to fly to Mars but did not appear to care too much about Planet Earth.
Yet one uniting factor has caused both of them to be reassessed in the eyes of the public. In the past two years, first Bezos and now Gates announced that those long marriages were coming to an end. The divorces have thrown a little light inside the lives of these fabulously rich men, as well as their spouses, Mackenzie Scott Bezos and Melinda French Gates. A little of the mist has lifted.
This week, Gates, 65, the founder of Microsoft and said to be worth $130bn, has been fighting off multiple assertions — that he discussed his “toxic marriage” with Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier accused of sex trafficking or celebrities; that he had an affair with a Microsoft employee 20 years ago; and that his wife was angry about the way he handled a sexual assault claim. All of these were factors in Melinda Gates’s decision to end the marriage, it was reported, and she had been consulting with a divorce lawyer since 2019, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Watch: Bill Gates reportedly left Microsoft amid investigation over affair with employee
When the Gateses announced their plan to go their separate ways, saying neither believed they “could grow” as part of the marriage, it reverberated through the worlds of philanthropy and global health. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that holds close to $50bn in assets, funds work in at least 135 countries. There was a relief when both said they planned to continue their duties with the foundation, based in Seattle.
One former senior member of staff told The Independent they were not in the least surprised when the Gateses announced their divorce.
“There were rumours in Seattle, going back four of five years, that they were each living in different wings of the mansion,” said the former employee, who asked not to be named.
The ex-employee added that Gates had a reputation for being very socially awkward, that he found it difficult to make conversation with his staff, and that he appeared to show little interest in them: “Before I briefed him for the first time, I was told not to shake hands and not to give him my name, because he was not interested in that. You were just supposed to give him the information you had for him, and then get out.”
In some respects, said the former staff member, the foundation already operated in two distinct parts, with Melinda Gates more focussed on the health of newborn babies around the world, which makes up a large part of the foundation’s focus, and Bill Gates intrigued more by technical solutions to challenges, such as the use of vaccines.
News of the Gates’ divorce announcement came as the United States appeared to be turning the corner on the pandemic, with at least 37 per of the population fully vaccinated, and with enough vaccine for those willing to have it. Gates, who was falsely denounced by some anti-vaxxer conspiracists as wishing to force people to be vaccinated, spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help develop a drug to combat Covid-19. Under normal circumstances, he might have been celebrating the success of the various vaccines and the subsequent success of the rollout programme. Instead, he is now busy denying allegations about his association with Epstein, who took his own life in the summer of 2019 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
Over the weekend, the Daily Beastalleged Gates had complained to Epstein about his “toxic” marriage on a number of occasions between 2011 and 2014 at the late financier’s home in New York. It added they discussed Epstein becoming involved with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The foundation did not respond questions on Monday, but a spokesperson denied the claims in a statement to the Daily Beast. “Your characterisation of his meetings with Epstein and others about philanthropy is inaccurate, including who participated,” the spokesperson said. “Similarly, any claim that Gates spoke of his marriage or Melinda in a disparaging manner is false.”
Watch: Bill Gates reportedly hoped Jeffrey Epstein would help him win a Nobel
The spokesperson added: “Bill never received or solicited personal advice of any kind from Epstein — on marriage or anything else. Bill never complained about Melinda or his marriage to Epstein.”
When the 57-year-old Bezos announced he was getting divorced, many Amazon employees were surprised. They were even more startled when he claimed he was being blackmailed by the National Enquirer in a scheme that supposedly involved Saudi Arabia. The tabloid and Saudi authorities have denied any connection to such blackmail.
The pandemic boosted the fortunes of Bezos and Amazon, which has also spearheaded carbon neutral initiatives to help confront climate change. He is now worth close to $200bn. Earlier this year, it was announced that his ex-wife planned to marry a high school chemistry teacher, Dan Jewett. The writer is worth $63bn herself after the divorce.
Gates dropped out of Harvard to co-found Microsoft with schoolfriend Paul Allen in 1975. Last year, he stepped down from the helm of the company to focus on philanthropy. Meanwhile, earlier this year, Bezos said he was stepping down as CEO of Amazon, to be replaced by Andy Jassy.
What’s really going on in Medina? What will we find when the mist lifts entirely? As the information floodgates open and rumors swirl, it seems that the answer will end up being: far more than we had ever previously assumed.