The Worth of a Billionaire’s Words
You’re at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles, scanning the spines of the memoir section, when you notice a familiar name. But the name isn’t familiar to you as an author. You recognize her name because she’s the former wife of the second richest person in the world. You pinch the book by its spine, pull it out from the shelf, flip it to the back cover, and there she is—Mackenzie Bezos. Her bio is minimal. “MacKenzie Bezos lives in Seattle, Washington. This is her first novel.”
The book has been misshelved. It’s not a memoir, it’s fiction.
You’d learned a bit about MacKenzie after her divorce from Amazon founder and then-CEO Jeff Bezos, and you became intrigued by her when you read about the billions of dollars in no-strings attached donations she started making with her settlement money to HBCUs, HSIs, Tribal colleges, and rural universities. But somehow you had missed the part about her being an award-winning author.
The back cover of The Testing of Luther Albright has three different price tags adhered one on top of the other. The most recent one, dated March 2021, prices the book at $1.00. The original price, printed below the ISBN code, is USA $13.95 Canada $17.95; however, if it was purchased on Amazon, the previous owner may have bought it for only $11.99.
Your surprise continues when you notice the cover quote: “A sophisticated novel that breaks and swells the heart,” and back blurb: “A surefooted excavation into the nuances of everday terror…” are both written by one of the greatest writers of all time — Toni Morrison. You want to know how a Nobel laureate whose life’s work was centered around writing “without the white gaze” came to laud MacKenzie’s work. Your curiosity is at an all-time high, and it only continues to pique as you open the novel to its dedication page:
and to Jeff,
for similar things
Standing in an independent bookstore with an especially ironic name, looking at a dedication page to the very man who created the beast that has the potential to decimate the store you find yourself in, you cannot help but think about Amazon’s direct link to the struggles of small bookstores and independent publishers. What to do with this new knowledge that its founder was married to a novelist for twenty-five years? And what to make of the MacKenzie-Morrison connection? And who is this Granyan she mentions in her dedication? And what are the “similar things”? You obviously purchase the book—with a single dollar bill and some coins (remember tax? Clearly, Bezos doesn’t)—and make your way home to do some sleuthing in the hopes that these questions can be answered.
You haven’t even read the book yet. The book stands in as a physical object of your fascination—sitting on your desk reminding you to keep investigating. You find one mention of Granyan in an excerpt from Brad Stone’s The Everything Store—a book documenting Amazon’s history. In this excerpt, you learn that Granyan is MacKenzie’s grandfather, and from her Wikipedia page you learn that she’s named after this maternal grandfather—G. Scott Cuming—a former “natural gas” executive. Scott was her middle name at birth, but when she divorces Jeff Bezos, she doesn’t keep her married name, nor does she return to her maiden name of Tuttle. Rather, she becomes MacKenzie Scott.
You have admittedly vilified Jeff Bezos, have called him evil countless times. But now, in researching his marriage, you’re forced to consider him as a human with a loving backstory. He’s the person MacKenzie told Charlie Rose “it was love at first laugh” with, the person she said is her first and best reader, the person she said takes days to be left undisturbed to read her manuscripts, then marks the places where he laughed and the three places that made him cry. You’re now forced to imagine Jeff Bezos crying, at least three times. That he is able to exhibit empathy for fictional characters reminds you of the limits of empathy, when you consider how he works effortlessly to bust unions while he has grown 57% richer during the pandemic.
Not only did MacKenzie support Bezos’s vision for Amazon, she helped him build the company and worked alongside him. When she left the company to focus full-time on her writing, she remained its biggest fan, saying things to Vogue like, “I think Amazon has been great for readers,” and telling Rose, “My favorite website on the internet is thesaurus.com, right after Amazon, of course.” But you have to think that somewhere down the line something shifted for her, since she now pens essays on Medium about her wealth distribution and acknowledges that she has a “fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change.”
In her interview with Rose, MacKenzie mentions something that Toni Morrison taught her as a freshman at Princeton that sticks with her to this day. Morrison said, “Writing a novel is all about the timed release of information.” You can’t help but wonder what kind of long game MacKenzie—who revealed she’s never been interested in short stories and has pledged to give away most of her wealth—is playing, what the next plot twist could be in this longer narrative.
You still haven’t read The Testing of Luther Albright, though you’re admittedly more intrigued to start with her second novel, Traps—a thriller that centers around four disparate women whose lives become entangled. But honestly, neither book is at the top of your list. There are still too many Morrison books that you have yet to read. This is all to say that were MacKenzie not one of the richest people in the world, she, like so many other gifted writers, could easily be destined for obscurity. What you remain fascinated by is the gap between one dollar and the additional nine zeros that turns it into one billion. You believe it’s in this gap where her richest story lies. Your final question is if she’ll opt to tell it—and if so, will it be written as fiction or memoir? Were she to tell this story, it might be wise for her to bear in mind what Morrison said in her 2004 commencement address to Wellesley College: “Know and identify the predators waving flags made of dollar bills. They will say anything, promise anything, do everything to turn the planet into a casino where only the house cards can win—little people with finite lives love to play games with the infinite.”
Kirby Chen Mages is a writer and interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. They currently attend Antioch University’s Low-Residency MFA program, where they are pursuing a dual concentration in poetry and creative nonfiction while serving as Lead Editor in Translation for Antioch’s literary journal, Lunch Ticket. They are the recipient of the Elizabeth Kray Poetry Prize, and their poems have been published in Prolit.