August 11, 2013 2:09 pm

Jeff Bezos is a disrupter, only not at home

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The vitamins-socks-wife combo was not quite Watergate but hints at something slightly creepy

When I heard Jeff Bezos had bought The Washington Post my mind skipped – as it always does when I hear his name – to socks and vitamin pills.

Fifteen years ago I interviewed the founder of Amazon – then a relatively tiny company worth a mere $6bn – over a croissant in a London hotel. It did not go terribly well as the entrepreneur was itching for the interview to be over so he could get back to selling books. On either side of him sat a minder, one of whom was holding a tape recorder.

Just as my time was up, Mr Bezos took out a little plastic bag containing five pills, which he proceeded to swallow. He explained that when he travels, his wife inserts vitamin pills into his socks. She packs one pair of socks for every day he is away and slips a bag of tablets into each – on the principle that she trusts him to change his socks daily but not to take his vitamins. “She doesn’t want me to die,” he said, and let out one of his crazy laughs. “Ah! ha! ha! ha! ha!”

I don’t have the first idea why Mr Bezos has bought The Washington Post or what he thinks journalism is all about. But for me, what it is about is getting scoops like this. The sheer eccentricity of the vitamins-socks-wife combination struck me as a brilliant story. It’s not quite Watergate but still offers a rare glimpse into a life and hints at something enigmatic and slightly creepy. It was made all the sweeter as the only other personal detail that anyone seems to know about the opaque Mr Bezos is that he likes Star Trek – which isn’t especially interesting. A geek who doesn’t like Star Trek – now, that would be a story.

So what exactly does vitamins-in-socksgate tell us about the US’s newest newspaper proprietor? For a start it shows that he is a man of contradictions. At work, he applies his formidable intelligence to data. He starts every meeting with his senior team in silence that can last up to half an hour while everyone reads briefing papers and absorbs the facts before sounding off. Yet when it comes to taking vitamins – the rough equivalent of believing in UFOs – he seems to disregard the advice of most doctors who say adults with normal diets don’t need supplements. If you have scurvy, vitamin C helps. If you’ve had a gastric bypass you also need vitamins. Otherwise you don’t.

More interesting is what my scoop suggests about the Bezos household. The Amazon boss has recently been crowned by Fortune “The Ultimate Disrupter”. He has disrupted more industries than anyone else alive, from bookselling and publishing to music to every sort of retail, to tablet manufacture and database software. But when it comes to marriage, not only has he not disrupted anything, he seems to have reverted to a model barely seen since the 1950s, when wives packed husbands’ luggage. Mackenzie Bezos, a banker turned novelist, not only seems to mollycoddle him in a sweetly anachronistic way, but does not trust him to carry out the most basic functions.

At first I thought this a bad sign: if Mr Bezos can’t remember his pills, what hope is there of him remembering anything? But actually Amazon is all about finding the right system. The sock thing might sound a strange system to me – not least because it creates a new risk of crushing vitamin pills between your toes – but it appears to work. He took the tablets right under my nose.

As a control, I’ve tried to find out if the wife of Sergey Brin – the dotcom superstar who last week decided to invest his small change in futuristic burgers – also puts vitamins in her husband’s socks. It appears she does not. Instead Anne Wojcicki has her own start-up, wears a hoodie and recently told Inc magazine that she likes to begin every day by putting both her children – who were then aged three and seven months – into a backpack and carrying them both to a café to get on with her work.

She may be living up to the stereotype, but all that lugging, especially by one of the richest women in the world, strikes me as almost as batty as vitamins-in-socks.

I’m still here

Some readers may be surprised to find me still employed. Last week I said at the start of this column that my job had expired, causing all sorts of people to write in to say goodbye. Had they read on they would have seen it was part of a laboured joke: I’m still here.

But I’ve learnt two things about journalism that I really ought to have worked out by now. First, complicated jokes are best avoided and second, even though you must try your hardest to get people to read on, you must never assume you’ll succeed.


Letters in response to this column:

Romance is alive in 2013 (and yes, wives still pack) / From Mr William Maunder Taylor

Print subtleties in ironics typeface / From Dr John Doherty

Jeff Bezos’s sock vitamins / From Ms Jane Sandiford

Lives are saved by warm, dry socks / From Dr Michael Komie

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