Parting of ways for world’s richest couple

The great divide: The Gates fortune is estimated at $130bn. © AP

Is the old saying “Money can’t buy happiness” true? Yesterday one of the world’s richest couples, Bill and Melinda Gates, announced they were getting divorced after 27 years of marriage.

As romances go, it could hardly be called a whirlwind. When Bill Gates first invited Melinda French out on a date, he suggested an evening two weeks away. It was another seven years before they married on a Hawaiian golf course, after Bill had carefully listed the pros and cons on a whiteboard.

But their marriage was considered a solid one – so the news of their divorce came as a shock to many.

“After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” they said in a joint statement. Although they would continue to work together at their charitable foundation, “We no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”

Both have acknowledged that there were problems in their early days together. Bill was 31 when they met, and as the founder of Microsoft had just become the world’s youngest billionaire, but worried that he would not be able to combine work with a family. Melinda, eight years younger, felt isolated at home after the first of their three children was born.

But they had much in common. Melinda worked at Microsoft as a marketing manager, and she and Bill shared a love of games and maths problems. He was impressed when she beat him at Cluedo, and she was impressed when he did “astonishingly quick maths” to divide their wedding cake equally between all their guests.

When Bill gave up running Microsoft to concentrate on their charitable foundation, they seemed to have found a mission that brought them even closer. In 21 years they have given away over $50bn to causes including the eradication of polio and malaria, vaccination programmes for HIV and Covid-19 and children’s education.

Now, however, Melinda’s petition for divorce describes their relationship as “irretrievably broken”. A complicated question is how they will divide their assets, including several houses.

The main one, on Lake Washington in Washington state, is valued at $125m and includes seven bedrooms, 18 bathrooms, an Art Deco cinema, a trampoline room and a dining room that seats 24. The hall alone is the size of the average American house.

The garage has space for 30 cars, including Bill’s Porsche 930 Turbo, Jaguar XJ6 and Ferrari 348. The five-acre estate has a swimming pool with an underwater music system, an artificial stream and a beach with sand said to be imported from the Caribbean.

Then there is their ranch in Florida, worth $59m, and another in Wyoming, which once belonged to Buffalo Bill. The couple have two houses in California, one costing $43m and the other $18m; the latter includes a racetrack and stabling for 50 horses. On top of that, they own nearly 200,000 acres of farmland in five states.

Their collection of art and other treasures includes the Codex, a scientific notebook kept by Leonardo da Vinci, bought for $30m. There are also four rare copies of Bill’s favourite book, The Great Gatsby.

So, is the old saying “Money can’t buy happiness” really true?

Dollar dolour?

Some say that it clearly is. The Gates couple failed to find happiness despite being rich enough to buy anything they wanted. They could afford the best therapists and counsellors, but nobody was able to solve their problems. Many people find that giving to good causes cheers them up, but even making donations on a massive scale failed in this instance.

Others point out that they may not have found happiness together, but they still have a good chance individually. Few couples aged 64 and 56 would expect to “grow together”: most would think their lives as good as they were likely to get, and settle for that. Bill and Melinda’s money, however, gives them an opportunity to start afresh: they can do whatever they want, wherever they want.

You Decide

  1. How would you define happiness?
  2. Do rich people have a moral obligation to give some of their money away?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have been commissioned to redesign your school in the Art Deco style. Study its principles and, as a team, draw up designs for everything from the buildings to the furniture.
  2. Divide into pairs. To the tune of Waltzing Matilda, write a song entitled Courting Melinda.

Some People Say...

“There is no happiness in the world, but there is peace and having one’s will.”

Alexander Pushkin (1799 – 1837), Russian poet, playwright and novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the three other people with fortunes estimated at over $100bn have struggled to find happiness in their personal relationships. Jeff Bezos’s marriage to Mackenzie Tuttle ended in the most expensive divorce in history. Elon Musk divorced his second wife, remarried her, and divorced her again. Bernard Arnault’s first marriage failed, and he only really seems to derive happiness from work: he defines it as “leading the team and, if possible, leading them to the top”.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around what happiness is, and whether it is actually attainable. A famous saying from ancient Greece is “Count no man happy until he is dead” (or “until the end is known”). Virginia Woolf wrote that “Happiness is in the quiet, ordinary things. A table, a chair, a book with a paper-knife stuck between the pages. And the petal falling from the rose, and the light flickering as we sit silent.” Unfortunately, she suffered from depression and eventually committed suicide.

Word Watch

Charitable foundation
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest in the world. Along with Warren Buffett, the couple also launched the Giving Pledge, by which ultra-rich people promise to give at least half of their money to charity.
Children
Jennifer is aged 25, Rory 21 and Phoebe 18.
Cluedo
A board game in which players have to solve a murder mystery. It was invented by an English musician, Anthony E Pratt, in the 1940s.
Art Deco
The main decorative style of the 1920s and 1930s, characterised by strong geometrical shapes and vibrant colours.
Average American house
The median size of a home in the US is 2,435 square feet. The Gates house is almost 30 times that.
Buffalo Bill
The nickname of William Cody, a 19th-Century frontiersman who toured the US and Europe with his Wild West Show.
Codex
A Latin word meaning book or tablet.
Leonardo da Vinci
An Italian artist and inventor (1452 – 1519), considered to be one of the world’s greatest geniuses. He painted the Mona Lisa and designed an early flying machine.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.