Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, as a Master of the Universe, is used to being in control of a situation.
But now, after announcing the pending divorce from MacKenzie Bezos, his wife of 25 years, the Amazon founder finds his personal life splattered across the pages of the National Enquirer and, subsequently, the internet and media landscape.
Such a development may be not only personally troublesome and embarrassing, but also potentially an issue for Amazon itself.
CEOs and business executives “don’t like allowing the world to see what is going on in their personal lives,” said Sheri Warsh, partner at Chicago law firm Levenfeld Pearlstein who has represents high-profile trust and estate litigation clients. “Whether they are CEOs or movie stars or celebrities, we do our best to keep it out of the courts so the world doesn’t see what is going on.”
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However, in Bezos’ case, it’s too late. The Enquirer has published a four-month investigation in which it acquired text messages supposedly shared between the Amazon CEO and former Fox L.A. TV anchor Lauren Sanchez, a family acquaintance with whom he reportedly developed a relationship.
One message the Enquirer includes in its report, a snapshot of which is published online and the rest in its current printed issue, has Bezos saying, ““I love you, alive girl. I will show you with my body, and my lips and my eyes, very soon.”
Sanchez, 49, is the wife of Hollywood talent agent Patrick Whitesell. She and Whitesell, who owned a home in Seattle and have socialized with the Bezoses in the past, are also divorcing, according to several outlets including People.com.
Also a helicopter pilot with her own aerial production firm, Sanchez was hired to shoot aerial shots for Blue Origin, a private space company Bezos founded in 2000, the New York Post reported. Bezos’ wife, MacKenzie, knew the two were dating, the Post reported, citing an unnamed person close to Bezos.
Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, told the Enquirer through an attorney that he “supports journalistic efforts and does not intend to discourage reporting about him.”
Drew Herdener, vice president of global corporate and operations communications for Amazon, told USA TODAY: “Jeff remains focused and engaged on all things Amazon.”
Still, it remains possible that publicity surround the breakup could potentially affect what appeared to be an amicable divorce, based on the public statement about their plans posted Wednesday on Twitter.
Since Bezos is the world’s richest person, worth an estimated value of $137 billion, the divorce settlement has the potential to be the largest ever and, should it grow contentious, could lead to additional laundry airing and asset forfeiture.
“Any human being, when they see negative press about themselves or their family it’s going to, or could, bring up resentment or anger, which may make an amicable relationship not so amicable any more,” Warsh said.
And the blowback could go beyond the Bezos’ divorce to the Amazon boardroom. “It ultimately could lead to discord within the company,” said Juda Engelmayer, a crisis management expert and president of New York public relations firm HeraldPR. If Bezos is not, “focusing on the business then you are not good for the shareholders And if he is doing things that are taking his mind off of that, he can end up getting himself into a bit more trouble.”
Such public airings have led to disruptions for other executives in the past. Nearly two decades ago, former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch saw his life become tabloid fodder when his second wife, Jane Beasley Welch, filed for divorce from him in 2002 after she found out he had an affair with the then-editor of the Harvard Business Review (he subsequently married the woman, Suzy Wetlaufer).
After Beasley Welch’s court filing, newspapers wrote about the $1.2 million in annual perks the Welches received, including company plane access, a Central Park West apartment, five country club memberships, sports tickets, and wait staff at four other homes – at a time when corporate largess was under attack. Welch was forced to give up or pay for many of the perks and settled out of court with Beasley Welch, who had sought $130 million of his $450 million net worth.
More recently, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich resigned in June 2018 as his past history of an affair with an employee was publicized in stories in The Wall Street Journal and other outlets. Krzanich, the company said, violated a non-fraternization policy enacted in 2011. The affair, which had ended, began before the policy was enacted and before Krzanich became CEO, which happened in 2013.
“Nobody likes their dirty laundry to be aired in public and yet it’s kind of the price of celebrity, whether you’re in Hollywood or you’re a rock star or a media mogul like (Rupert) Murdoch and Bezos, who’s so wealthy with the huge success of Amazon and then his role (as owner) at The Washington Post,” said Rem Rieder, a former USA TODAY media columnist who now teaches journalism at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania.
While tabloids “live for this,” Rieder doesn’t see the incident “really blowing up Amazon or the Post. I think that would be a stretch.”
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Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.