Elon Musk is used to making headlines. In fact, he seems to relish them. In late May, the 39-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur stood alongside Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Toyota Motors CEO Akio Toyoda and inked a deal to purchase a mothballed California auto plant for Tesla, his electric sports car company.
Two weeks later, he was in Florida, watching a Falcon 9 rocket, made by another one of his firms, SpaceX, blast off on its maiden voyage to orbit, and a potentially lucrative future hauling freight and astronauts to the International Space Station. On June 29, he and his 24-year-old fiancée, British actress Talulah Riley, toothily rang the bell to open trading on the New York Stock Exchange, as Tesla became the first automobile maker to go public in the U.S. since Ford in 1956.
Small wonder that director Jon Favreau and his star Robert Downey Jr. have hailed Musk—a dot-com millionaire by his mid-20s, philanthropist, and occasional Hollywood producer to boot—as the real-life inspiration for their portrayal of swashbuckling high-tech tycoon Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies. (“A Renaissance man in an era that needs them,” says Favreau, who gave Musk a cameo playing himself in the latest film.) But the guy who used to tool around Palo Alto in a $1.5-million (all ﬁgures U.S. dollars) gull-winged McLaren F1—only 64 ever made, top speed 372 km/h—is finding the spotlight a little too bright lately, thanks to a divorce battle, pesky reporters, and a novelist ex with her own blog and a full commitment to the life examined.
“Given the choice, I’d rather stick a fork in my hand than write about my personal life. Unfortunately, it seems that I don’t have any other option,” Musk wrote in an open letter on the Huffington Post website earlier this month. “Several awful things have been widely reported that are simply false, but a falsehood uncorrected may as well be the truth.”
The lengthy rant took the New York Times to task for suggesting he “ran off with an actress,” leaving his wife of eight years and five young boys behind. (Musk shares custody of the twins and triplets conceived through in vitro fertilization. And says he met Riley, who now studies astrophysics in her spare time, and wears an amethyst and diamond ring the “size of Cape Canaveral,” according to one British paper, in a London club a couple of weeks after his 2008 separation.) It also attacks a writer for VentureBeat, a high-tech website that has been critical of Tesla, as “Silicon Valley’s Jayson Blair.” The majority of the exegesis, however, was dedicated to the theme that his ex, Justine Musk—or Jennifer Wilson as she was known in her hometown of Peterborough, Ont.—is trying to take him to the cleaners. “The legal and accounting bills for the divorce total four million dollars so far,” wrote Musk. “Apart from the $170k average monthly legal bill, the rest of my living expenses are mostly nanny salaries and supporting Justine’s household.” A contribution, he says, that includes $20,000 a month for clothing, shoes and other “discretionary items.”
While Musk remains a very rich man on paper—his shares in the car company alone are estimated to be worth more than $500 million—he claims his current fiscal reality is far different. After Tesla, which has experienced its share of production delays and has never turned a profit, nearly went bankrupt in late 2007, he plunged virtually all his money into the firm. And as the legal costs for the divorce mounted (under California law he is paying his ex’s bills, too), he has been forced to take emergency loans from friends to make ends meet. “Relative to others with a similar net worth, I don’t spend much money on personal matters. I own no homes (not even my residence at this point), yachts, or expensive artwork. My clothes are mostly jeans and T-shirts and I almost never take vacations, apart from kid-related travel,” Musk wrote.
Justine, who has penned three post-apocalyptic, vampire-fantasy books—Lord of Bones, the most recent, ranks 442,980 on Amazon’s bestseller list—fired back with a post on her blog Love, Soul and Vision: Notes from a novelist’s life in L.A. “What I thought was interesting . . . was how he, unwittingly or not, invoked the age-old ‘madonna-whore’ complex,” the 37-year-old wrote. “By saying that he is ‘correcting the record’ about our divorce, by putting himself forward as the final and real authority on the situation, he is also defining a certain kind of reality in which his fiancée and I get slotted into our ‘proper’ places. And I must roll my eyes.” Far from a gold digger, she says she only wants a fair settlement from an ex who “works like a demon and deserves his success and his wealth.”
It’s an odd denouement for the pair who met as Queen’s undergrads. Elon, who was born in South Africa, emigrated to Canada at age 17 in 1989—his mother is originally from Regina—to avoid compulsory service in the then-apartheid state’s military. After working on a cousin’s grain farm near Swift Current, Sask., then in a B.C. sawmill cleaning out boilers, he chose a university in a time-honoured male fashion. “I visited Waterloo and there just weren’t a lot of girls. I figured there were a lot of chicks at Queen’s, so I’m going there,” Musk told the Toronto Star in 2009.
Elon transferred to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia after second year, to pursue degrees in business and physics, but the relationship continued. When he moved on to Stanford in 1995, for his grad work—dropping out after two days and forming Zip2, a Web company that was sold four years later to AltaVista for more than $300 million—Justine came too, sharing an apartment that doubled as staff flophouse and corporate headquarters. The pair married in 2000, shortly after Elon founded X.com, a company that became PayPal, and was acquired by Ebay in a $1.5-billion stock swap in 2002. (Musk pocketed more than $170 million in the two deals.)
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