From the 27-year partnership of Bill and Melinda Gates to the 28-day union of Kirk Kerkorian, a look back at some of America’s high-stakes relationships.
News that Bill and Melinda Gates are divorcing after 27 years may have shocked the world, but probably came as less of a surprise to fellow members of The Forbes 400. They know all too well that money—even yachtloads of it—can’t buy happiness.
“You’re still dealing with the same human emotions, the same human problems,” says Michael Mosberg, a partner at Aronson Mayefsky & Sloan, a New York-based family law firm used by the ultra-rich. “Having wealth does not insulate you from that.”
In fact, America’s richest billionaires get divorced at similar rates to the average citizen, Forbes found after examining the relationships of the 50 richest people in the United States. These billionaires (each worth at least $13.2 billion) have said “I do” a collective 72 times—35 of which ended in divorce, putting their rate at 49%—in-line with the 40% to 50% rate among the general population.
So how do the moneyed elite handle matrimony? Some collect spouses like Basquiats and vintage Ferraris, while others have never bothered tying the knot at all. Many settled down after they got rich, while others married for love, years before they amassed their fortunes. And none ever really had to worry about the part of the vow that asks them to stay together “for poorer.”
For Bitter and For Worse
While the Gateses seem to be ending things on speaking terms—they will remain co-chairs of their charity, the largest private foundation in the world—some high society couples haven taken the low road.
When bond king Bill Gross split from his wife of three decades in 2016, their divorce immediately went nuclear. The couple fought in court (with dueling restraining orders) and in the real estate market (with each reportedly trying to buy up properties just to outbid the other). And that was the pleasant part.
After Sue Gross was awarded the couple’s Laguna Beach house, Bill allegedly stuffed dead fish in the air ducts of the home before handing over the property (he denied it at the time). Ultimately, Sue walked away with more than $1 billion, custody of two of the couple’s cats and some of their art collection—including Picasso’s 1932 Le Repos. But in one of the great divorce twists of all time, Sue already had the painting in her new home. Bill believed that the Picasso had been hanging above his bed, but his wife had already swapped it out for a replica she had painted herself. In 2018, a year after the divorce was finalized, Le Repos sold at Sotheby’s for $36.9 million, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity.
Hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin’s 2015 divorce from Anne Dias, his wife of 12 years, wasn’t exactly picture perfect either. That dissolution—which revealed details of their extravagant lifestyle (she claimed nearly $1 million per month in child-care expenses) and rocky relationship (Ken allegedly threw a bedpost toward Anne during an argument, which he denied)—centered on the couple’s prenup. It entitled Anne to a $25 million lump-sum payment, $1 million for every year they were married and joint ownership of their Chicago penthouse. Anne, who claimed she was coerced into signing the agreement the night before her wedding, sued for more. The couple reached a confidential settlement just before they were set to go to trial.
A prenup certainly would have come in handy for oil tycoon Harold Hamm, who spent years in court unwinding his marriage to his second wife, Sue Ann Arnall. In 2015, he ended up writing her a check from his Morgan Stanley account in the astronomical amount of $974,790,317.77. She deposited it, but continued to fight for a higher amount. An appeals court ruled that Sue Ann had agreed to the settlement by signing and depositing the check. So she took her millions and funded a political action committee that helped unseat the judge who oversaw the divorce.
Candy heir Jacqueline Mars’ divorce from her second husband, Hank Vogel, in 1994 was also more bitter than sweet. Vogel fought for a bigger piece of her fortune, reportedly claiming he had no idea that his wife was a billionaire. Mars, he said, had told him she was worth around $30 million when he signed an ironclad prenup; Forbes estimated Jacqueline and her siblings to be worth more than $4.6 billion around the same time. Mars won a lengthy court battle, but has never married again.
And casino magnates Steve and Elaine Wynn tried their luck at marriage twice—and lost both times. The Wynns’ first divorce was amicable; the second, not so much. Their 2010 settlement granted Elaine more than 11 million shares of Wynn Resorts, where she was a cofounder and board member. Two years later, she sued for the right to sell part of her stake and was booted from the board in 2015, amid an ugly proxy battle. Steve Wynn eventually stepped down as chairman and CEO in February 2018, following sexual harassment allegations, which he has denied. He later sold all his stock, leaving Elaine as Wynn Resorts’ largest individual shareholder.
I do, I do, I do
As Samuel Johnson famously remarked, a second marriage is the “triumph of hope over experience”—and billionaires tend to be optimistic when it comes to walking back down the aisle. Some do it every few years.
At 49, Elon Musk has already been married three times, including twice to the same woman, actress Talulah Riley. Netscape cofounder Jim Clark is on his fourth wife (model Kristy Hinze, some 35 years his junior), as is News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch (after splitting from Wendi Deng, who’s 37 years younger, he married model Jerry Hall in 2016). Oracle cofounder Larry Ellison, who has already been through four divorces, is back on the dating scene.
Ron Perelman has one-upped Ellison, tying the knot five times, a record among American billionaires. The Revlon boss spent 19 years married to banking heiress Faith Golding and nine years married to former gossip columnist Claudia Cohen. His bitter legal battle with third wife, socialite Patricia Duff, lasted longer than their three-year union. His fourth marriage, to actress Ellen Barkin, ended after six years and lawsuits soon followed. For his fifth try, Perelman married a psychiatrist.
Perhaps the best-known serial groom is Donald Trump, whose contentious divorce from his first wife, Czech model Ivana Trump, famously played out in early 1990s tabloid headlines, including one he apparently manufactured himself—that his new girlfriend, Marla Maples, had claimed he was “the best sex I’ve ever had.” He then married Maples in 1993 and, after that relationship fell apart, wed Slovenian model Melania Knauss in 2005. Heartless romantics have speculated about the fate of that marriage ever since the couple moved into (and out of) the White House.
Legendary oil wildcatter H.L. Hunt loved marriage so much he had three of them—including two at the same time. While married to one woman in Arkansas, he allegedly wed another woman in Florida under a different name. Later, after his first wife died, Hunt married a third woman, a former secretary with whom he had secretly fathered four children. Today two of his heirs—W. Herbert Hunt, from his first marriage, and Ray Lee Hunt, from his third—are billionaires.
The Open Marriages
Not all affairs end billionaire marriages—and some may even prolong them. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011, has been married to his wife, Wendy, since 1980. Yet Schmidt—dubbed “NYC’s hottest bachelor” by Page Six in 2019—has been linked to a number of women, including socialite Ulla Parker, fashion designer Shoshanna Gruss and former journalist Kate Bohner. A reported on-again, off-again relationship with ex-figure skater and doctor Alexandra Duisberg has kept Schmidt in the tabloid headlines.
Warren Buffett also had an uncommon arrangement with his first wife, whom he wed in 1952. Buffett spent five decades married to Susan Thompson, until her death in 2004. She was a driving force in his life, raising the couple’s three children and pushing Buffett to start giving away his fortune to charitable causes. But for much of their marriage, Buffett lived with another woman, Astrid Menks—after Susan fixed them up. All three remained close, even reportedly signing Christmas cards together, and Buffett didn’t marry Astrid until 2006, two years after Susan died. He renamed the Buffett Foundation for Susan after her death and donates Berkshire Hathaway stock worth hundreds of millions to it every year. “It worked well,” he said of his unusual union in the 2017 documentary Becoming Warren Buffett, “but I don’t think it’ll work well for lots of other people, necessarily.”
Some of the country’s youngest billionaires—including 26-year-old lidar mogul Austin Russell and 34-year-old Walmart heir Lukas Walton—have yet to marry. Neither have Apple CEO Tim Cook, 60, or entertainment mogul David Geffen, 78. When Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who never married or had children, died at 65 in 2018, he left his sister in charge of donating his vast fortune to charity.
And Oprah Winfrey may explore the unions of Prince Harry and other celebrities on television, but she has famously declined to wed her longtime partner, Stedman Graham. “For years, there were hundreds of tabloid stories, weekly, on whether we would marry,” she wrote last year. “In 1993, the moment after I said yes to his proposal, I had doubts. I realized I didn’t actually want a marriage. I wanted to be asked. I wanted to know he felt I was worthy of being his missus, but I didn’t want the sacrifices, the compromises, the day-in-day-out commitment required to make a marriage work. My life with the show was my priority, and we both knew it.”
Of course, Oprah is not the only billionaire married to her work. Alex Karp, the 53-year-old, never-married cofounder and CEO of data mining firm Palantir Technologies seems to have little time for a spouse. “The only time I’m not thinking about Palantir,” he told Forbes in 2013, “is when I’m swimming, practicing Qigong or during sexual activity.”
The shortest billionaire marriage was almost certainly the late Kirk Kerkorian’s 28-day love match in 1999 with tennis pro Lisa Bonder, 48 years his junior. But plenty of billionaires have stuck with it for decades.
High school sweethearts Mark and Robyn Jones were wed soon after graduating and have run Goosehead Insurance together for nearly two decades. Michael Dell and his wife Susan, meanwhile, have been together since 1989, five years after Dell founded his computer company from his University of Texas dorm room.
It’s been more than 40 years for former eBay and Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman and her husband, Griffith Harsh, a neurosurgeon. While Nike cofounder Phil Knight has been in a marathon marriage that has lasted more than half a century. Knight met his wife, Penny, when she was the best student in the accounting class he taught at Portland State University.
Then there’s 94-year-old cable billionaire Charles Dolan and his wife, Helen, who got their start producing sports newsreels for television from their home in 1950. “My wife and I edited the reel each week in our kitchen,” Dolan once recalled. They’ve been married more than 70 years, as have 95-year-old early Berkshire Hathaway investor David Gottesman and his wife, Ruth.
And it took death to part Walmart founder Sam Walton and his bride, Helen Robson. The couple were married on Valentine’s Day 1943 and remained together until he passed in 1992. “I always told my mother and dad that I was going to marry someone who had that special energy and drive, that desire to be a success,” she wrote in Sam’s 1992 autobiography. “I certainly found what I was looking for, but now I laugh sometimes and say maybe I overshot a little.”
Happily Ever After?
Some billionaire couples are even better together once they’re apart. “If we had known we would separate after 25 years, we would do it all again,” Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott wrote when announcing their split in 2019. “Though the labels might be different, we remain a family, and we remain cherished friends.” When Scott remarried earlier this year, Bezos—who transferred a quarter of his Amazon stake, then worth more than $35 billion, to Scott as part of their divorce—said he was “happy and excited” for the new couple.
Ted Turner’s decade-long marriage to Jane Fonda broke up in 2001, yet the Oscar-winning actress still calls Turner her “favorite ex-husband.” The media mogul speaks fondly of Fonda as well: “When you love somebody, and you really love them,” Turner told Piers Morgan in 2012, “you never stop loving them no matter how hard you try.”
That sentiment is echoed by pharmaceutical billionaire Stewart Rahr, who ended his marriage of 43 years in 2013 and promptly launched himself into the party scenes of Manhattan and Ibiza—but still found time to have lunch with his ex-wife every week. “My divorce with Carol was phenomenal,” Rahr told Forbes in 2013. “I love that girl.”