Jeff Bezos was late. Amazon’s senior executives were meeting for the first time since the shocking revelations had ricocheted around the globe: the world’s richest man was romantically involved with a married former television host and getting divorced from his wife of 25 years.
As they waited for their boss that afternoon in February 2019, the conference room at Amazon’s Seattle offices vibrated with even more anxiety than usual. Finally, Bezos strode in and took his seat, looked up and surveyed the assembled group.
‘Raise your hand if you think you’ve had a harder week than I’ve had,’ he said, momentarily cutting through the tension by leading the group in a hearty laugh.
Lauren Sanchez and Jeff Bezos attend the Amazon Prime Video celebration on January 16, 2020
Jeff Bezos (L) and MacKenzie Bezos attend the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, California
‘Just to set the record straight,’ he started slowly, ‘I did have a relationship with this woman. But the story is completely wrong and out of order. My wife and I have had good, healthy adult conversations about it. She is fine. The kids are fine. The media is having a field day. All of this is very distracting, so thank you for being focused on the business.’
With that, Bezos picked up a schedule outlining a new set of goals across the company, indicating it was time to get back to work.
As boss, he had always demanded that his staff behave with discretion and impeccable judgment. He ripped documents in half and walked out of rooms when employees fell short of expectations. By conducting an extra-marital relationship so carelessly that it became fodder for a salacious spread in the National Enquirer, he had failed to meet his own high standards.
Dozens of current and former executives would later say they were surprised and disappointed by Bezos’s affair. Their infallible and righteous leader was, after all, a flawed human. However, the revelations seemed to explain some curious changes in his recent behaviour.
Bezos had been increasingly hard to find in the Seattle offices over the past year. Meetings had been delayed or postponed.
There were also the inexplicable requests for helipads at Amazon’s new headquarters in Long Island City and Northern Virginia.
Now it transpired that Bezos’s new girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, was a helicopter pilot, and that he had taken flying lessons himself.
For the first time in his career, Bezos was cornered.
Amid the collapse of his marriage and the start of a new relationship, Bezos faced a scheming Hollywood fixer looking to peddle his most intimate text messages, a trashy supermarket tabloid bent on humiliating him, and a zealous media ready to lap up the whole drama and tear down the planet’s richest person.
And on the other side of the world, there was Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, embittered over coverage in the Bezos-owned Washington Post of the Saudi-ordered murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Some cyber-security experts would come to believe the Crown Prince had even hacked Bezos’s mobile phone.
The entire episode – tawdry and completely uncharacteristic of a man who had extolled the virtues of his wife and family – belonged more to the pages of a trashy novel than the business tomes that Amazon inspired.
It was also Bezos’s biggest challenge to date: a test of his personal character and his extraordinary ability to navigate out of a jam.
For years, he had woven the story of his courtship and marriage to his wife MacKenzie into his public persona. In speeches, he routinely joked about his quest to find a woman resourceful enough to ‘get me out of a third-world prison’, as if the bookish MacKenzie, a novelist and English graduate, might one day abseil from the roof of a Venezuelan jail with a lock pick in her teeth.
But while Bezos crafted the image of a doting husband and family man, the couple were developing different interests.
In the years following the creation of Amazon’s TV and film company Amazon Studios, Bezos was drawn to the energy and dynamism of Hollywood.
He relished the limelight. He was no longer the spindly tech nerd from Seattle with a boisterous laugh but a fashionable dresser with the physique of a private trainer, to add to his exorbitant wealth and fame.
By his wife’s own admission, she was not a social person.
Friends said she and Bezos were committed to keeping their four children as far as possible from the corrosive impact of celebrity and garish wealth.
But by early 2018, Bezos was seeing Lauren Sanchez while keeping up the appearance of an intact marriage. Two months later, MacKenzie was absent from the annual Amazon Studios Christmas party at the couple’s palatial home in Beverly Hills. By Bezos’s side was Lauren Sanchez, with her older brother, Michael. Ebullient and curvaceous, she was in many ways the opposite of MacKenzie, both then aged 48.
Lauren was an exuberant extrovert who knew most of the celebrity guests at the party, including Brad Pitt, Barbra Streisand, Katy Perry and Jennifer Lopez.
Like Bezos, now 57, Lauren was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A former TV news reporter and occasional actress who ran a helicopter company, she’d had a son with an American football player before marrying Hollywood super-agent Patrick Whitesell.
She and Bezos reportedly met through Whitesell and they reconnected at an Amazon Studios party in 2016. After her marriage faltered, she bonded with Bezos over their shared love of flying.
In April 2018, Lauren introduced her brother to her new beau and the two men hit it off.
A handsome, gay Trump supporter, Michael Sanchez ran a talent and PR agency representing Right-wing TV pundits and reality television stars. He and his sister had bickered about financial issues over the years and were frequently estranged, but when she started a secret exchange of text messages and intimate photographs with Bezos, she often forwarded his messages to Michael.
Bezos was enthralled by the adventurous Lauren and by nature was not predisposed to be paranoid or immediately sceptical of anyone – especially not the brother of his new girlfriend.
Over the summer of 2018, as the romance intensified, the editors of the National Enquirer started investigating Bezos’s personal life. The famously voyeuristic US tabloid had suffered a catastrophic few years.
In addition to declining sales, its publisher, David Pecker, had instructed the paper to buy and kill negative stories about his friend Donald Trump’s alleged marital infidelity, drawing the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc (AMI), into the bottomless pit of Trumpworld scandal.
When Bezos’s Washington Post aggressively covered these problems, Pecker’s Australian deputy, Dylan Howard, enthusiastically authorised a tough look at its wealthy owner’s life.
What happened next is difficult to dismiss as simply a coincidence, though we can’t categorically call it anything else.
On September 10, Michael Sanchez emailed an LA-based reporter for AMI, offering a hot tip. A friend, he said, worked for a well-known ‘Bill Gates type’ who was married and having an affair with ‘a B-list married actress’. The friend, Sanchez wrote, had compromising photos of the couple but wanted a six-figure sum for the scoop. Sanchez claimed to be working as the middleman.
The Enquirer’s editors could only guess at the identities of the mystery lovers. For weeks, Sanchez kept them guessing and tried to bump up his asking price.
Finally, on October 18, Sanchez called Howard and revealed that it was Jeff Bezos.
Sanchez and AMI then signed a contract, entitling him to a fee of about £140,000 – the most the Enquirer had paid for a story – as well as a promise of anonymity.
Sanchez didn’t yet reveal the woman’s name but the Enquirer sent photographers to track Bezos’s jet and soon got photos of him and Lauren Sanchez disembarking from his private Gulfstream.
Michael Sanchez corroborated what the Enquirer now already knew. He also showed them texts from Bezos to his sister as well as personal pictures the couple had exchanged, and intimated that he could show them a more explicit ‘selfie’ Bezos had sent to Lauren.
For the rest of that autumn, the Enquirer worked on the story with Michael Sanchez’s help, though the promised selfie didn’t initially materialise. When Sanchez finally showed a picture, it was an anonymous photo of male genitalia he had taken from the gay escort website rent.men.
The media, most observers and his own extended family would later condemn Sanchez for his astonishing act of betrayal. But, distorted by bitter resentments, years of feuds with his sister and the dysfunctional dynamics of a complex family, he believed he was cleverly manipulating the Enquirer.
Had Bin Salman’s regime learned of Bezos’s relationship with Lauren Sanchez and tipped off the National Enquirer or even supplemented the information it received from her brother?
His sister and Bezos were conducting their relationship out in the open and it was only a matter of time before their families and the wider world discovered it. Sanchez was trying to ‘bring the 747 in for a soft landing’, as he later put it, adding: ‘Everything I did protected Jeff, Lauren, and my family.’
David Pecker, the Enquirer’s temperamental boss, was alternately energised about and fearful of the Bezos story. Terrified of getting sued by the world’s richest person, he demanded the story be ‘100 per cent bulletproof’ and vacillated about when and even if they should publish it.
That September, AMI had signed a non-prosecution agreement with the Department of Justice over the allegations that it had tried to buy and bury negative stories about Trump. The deal required its executives to operate in the future with unimpeachable honesty. Breaking the agreement could mean financial ruin for AMI.
In January, 2019, Enquirer editors sent a pair of text messages to Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, starting with a single, incendiary sentence: ‘I write to request an interview with you about your love affair.’
With what must have been substantial alarm, the couple moved swiftly in response.
Lauren turned to the person closest to her who knew the tabloid industry best: her brother. He signed an £18,000-a-month contract to act as her representative.
Michael Sanchez was now playing both sides.
Racing to get ahead of the story, Bezos instructed Amazon’s PR department to release the news of his marital break-up on his official Twitter account.
The Enquirer posted its first story online that evening. ‘Married Amazon Boss Jeff Bezos Getting Divorced Over Fling With Movie Mogul’s Wife,’ screamed the headline. This was designed not only to expose Bezos’s extra-marital relationship but to humiliate him, calling him a ‘billionaire love cheat’.
Trump, who regularly railed against Bezos’s Washington Post and accused Amazon of not paying its fair share of taxes and under-paying the US Postal Service, piled in, tweeting: ‘So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post.’
Bezos gave his security consultant Gavin de Becker whatever budget he needed to establish how the paper had obtained his private exchanges with his lover.
After a series of phone calls and text messages with Michael Sanchez, the veteran investigator sensed there was a mole in Camp Bezos, and that it might actually be the person most eagerly offering help.
An article for news site The Daily Beast mysteriously identified Michael Sanchez as a possible culprit, and also tied the Enquirer’s investigation to Trump and the President’s campaign against The Washington Post.
Inevitably, this increased the pressure on the Enquirer, whose boss fretted that even the rumour of its involvement in such a plot might undermine AMI’s non-prosecution agreement. In an attempt to head off a Washington Post story that planned to question whether the exposé was ‘just juicy gossip or a political hit job’, the Enquirer’s chief content officer Dylan Howard started showing his cards to Bezos’s lawyers, referring to nine personal photos that Bezos and Lauren Sanchez had exchanged, as well as the ‘below-the-belt selfie’ held by Michael Sanchez.
Finally, the tabloid offered not to publish or share any of the unpublished images or texts if Bezos publicly rejected the notion that the Enquirer’s reporting was influenced ‘by external forces, political or otherwise’.
This was easily viewed as extortion, and Bezos reacted by posting online a 2,000-word essay. It was a masterstroke. To readers unaware of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, Bezos was taking a brave stand by casting himself as a defender of the press against the devious tactics of Trump’s tabloid allies, while vulnerably offering his own embarrassing photographs as collateral.
Whether Bezos knew the Enquirer’s threat to publish an explicit photo (which, in truth, was not authentic) was hollow is unclear.
He also made the startling suggestion that the Enquirer may have been in cahoots with Saudi Arabia. He pointed to its parent company’s failed attempts to get investment from the Riyadh government. His own relationship with Mohammed Bin Salman had cooled dramatically since The Washington Post had criticised the desert kingdom over the death of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
In October 2018, Khashoggi, who had criticised the Saudi regime’s vicious turn to authoritarianism, had gone into the country’s consulate in Istanbul to get a marriage licence and was murdered inside.
Following his essay riposte, public sympathies immediately shifted to Bezos. The Enquirer quickly moved into damage-control mode. Howard was blamed for the entire debacle and removed from his position. ‘I paid the ultimate sacrifice for a story that was 100 per cent true,’ Howard told me, adding: ‘I was tarred with the unfounded allegation that I did it with political motivations.’
The Enquirer also decided it need not honour its confidentiality promise to Michael Sanchez and identified him as its source.
Bezos’s staff then suggested another layer of hidden truth in the whole ordeal – that the Saudis had access to the Amazon boss’s phone in order to obtain private information.
Like other US business leaders, Bezos had cultivated a personal relationship with Bin Salman when the young Saudi appeared committed to liberalising the religiously conservative country and weaning it off its dependence on oil revenues.
The two men met during the prince’s spring tour of the US and exchanged numbers. They kept in touch and discussed Amazon’s plans to spend £1.4 billion putting data centres in Saudi Arabia.
The Crown Prince then sent Bezos an encrypted video file that appeared to contain a promotional video, touting his country’s low broadband prices. Bezos was befuddled by the message, which was in Arabic. ‘Impressive numbers and video,’ he eventually replied.
A few months later, Jamal Khashoggi was murdered.
Over the next few weeks, The Washington Post investigated its columnist’s killing, while its opinion writers condemned the Saudi government and called for US companies to sever ties with Saudi business interests.
Curiously, the Crown Prince continued to text Bezos, including sending a WhatsApp message that appeared to allude to Bezos’s marital problems, which were still secret. ‘Arguing with a woman is like reading the Software License agreement,’ he wrote, alongside an image of a brunette who resembled Lauren Sanchez. ‘In the end you have to ignore everything and click I agree.’ In early 2019, as his battle with the Enquirer burst into the open, Bezos had additional reasons to believe his smartphone was compromised.
On February 16, after he had aired his suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the story, the Crown Prince again texted him, writing a message in English replete with typos: ‘Jeff all what you hear or told to it’s not true and it’s matter of time tell you know the truth. There is nothing against you or amazon from me or Saudi Arabia.’
An examination of Bezos’s iPhone X concluded that the promotional video about broadband prices that Bin Salman had sent the previous year probably contained a copy of Pegasus, a piece of nearly invisible malware created by an Israeli company.
Once activated, the volume of data leaving Bezos’s smartphone had increased by about 3,000 per cent. This massive ‘exfiltration of data’ coincided with Bezos’s exchange of text messages and personal videos with Lauren Sanchez.
In 2020, a report produced by United Nations human rights investigators confirmed with ‘medium to high confidence’ that the Saudis had hacked the phones of Bezos and other political and media figures, part of a wide attempt to try to control media coverage of its government.
Had Bin Salman’s regime learned of Bezos’s relationship with Lauren Sanchez and tipped off the National Enquirer or even supplemented the information it received from her brother?
From my vantage point, there’s no conclusive evidence to support the hypothesis that the Saudis alerted the tabloid paper to Bezos’s affair – only a fog of overlapping events, weak ties between disparate figures, and more strange coincidences.
For Bezos, though, such a cloud of uncertainty was, at the very least, distracting from the more unsavoury and complicated truth.
As the story quietened, Bezos and Lauren Sanchez started appearing together in public.
In the summer of 2019, they watched the Wimbledon men’s final from the Royal Box, three rows behind the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. For two decades, Bezos had singularly focused on his business and his family. But his astonishing wealth, insatiable curiosity about interesting people and thirst for new experiences, as well as his relationship with Lauren Sanchez, had clearly changed him. It turned out that he relished the trappings of his extraordinary success.
Bezos’s divorce was finalised. His wife received 19.7 million shares of Amazon stock (worth about £27 billion) and made a commitment to give away more than half her wealth. During 2020, she donated almost £4.3 billion to organisations such as food banks, community groups and historically black colleges.
Michael Sanchez, meanwhile, moved to San Francisco with his husband. His family – apart from his mother – stopped speaking to him. He unsuccessfully sued the Enquirer and Bezos who, earlier this year, asked a court to compel Sanchez to pay £1.2 million in lawyers’ fees, though the judge lowered the sum to £155,000.
For his part, Bezos quickly moved on. As he bought a nine-acre Beverly Hills estate for £117 million – a California real estate record – his colleagues could only watch and wonder: Did their boss still belong to them, or to some alternate dimension of wealth, glamour, and international intrigue?
One clue to that question could be found in the shipyards outside Rotterdam where a 417ft-long, three-masted schooner was secretly being built. For the same high-end client, there would also be an accompanying support yacht. This one had been expressly commissioned and designed to include – you’ve guessed it – a helipad.
© Brad Stone, 2021
- Edited extract from Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos And The Invention Of A Global Empire, by Brad Stone, published by Simon & Schuster at £20. To order a copy for £17.80, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before May 23.