The Longer Read

The ex factor: the very complex love life of Elon Musk

A new biography of the tech tycoon delves deep into his relationships with women, writes Stephen Armstrong – and offers a fascinating insight into the dark forces that drive the world’s richest man

Monday 18 September 2023 18:27 BST
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Elon Musk has been compared by his biographer to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But who is he really?
Elon Musk has been compared by his biographer to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But who is he really? (Getty)

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson was finally published this week, allowing the world to gain an insight into the mind of the man who controls Ukraine’s battlefield communications and Nasa’s satellite programme, and who dreams of an electric vehicle future and populating the moon.

Isaacson is an experienced journalist – he edited Time magazine for five years – and has written much-lauded biographies of Einstein, Henry Kissinger, Leonardo da Vinci and even Steve Jobs. He spent two years shadowing Musk, speaking to friends and family, ex-partners and former colleagues. He delves into 惭耻蝉办’蝉 average grades, his conviction that he was “born for war”, his struggle for emotional connection and his many personas.

Isaacson told one interviewer: “There’s no single Elon Musk. He has many personalities. Almost multiple personalities. And you can watch him go from being very giddy and funny, to being deeply in engineering mode. And then, suddenly the dark cloud happens. It’s almost like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.”

There are business decisions, rocket launches and erratic choices after nights playing video games, but he also gives us a unique glimpse into another side of Musk – the women in his life. And it’s complicated.

惭耻蝉办’蝉 love life has been a sporadic fascination, but when told as a single tale it is positively bizarre.

He has two ex-wives, three former girlfriends, 10 living children and one who tragically died within the first year. His first wife Justine Wilson is a writer, twice-wife Talulah Riley and former girlfriend Amber Heard are actors, his on/off girlfriend Grimes is an avant-garde singer, while Shivon Zilis, mother of his twins, is a Yale graduate and director at Neuralink. Three are Canadian, one is British, and one is from the US, and yet most of them have wound up in his orbit in California or Texas, usually within easy reach of a Musk industries corporate HQ.

Musk at his desk in 2004 in El Segundo, Los Angeles, California: ‘There is no single Elon Musk,’ says Walter Isaacson
Musk at his desk in 2004 in El Segundo, Los Angeles, California: ‘There is no single Elon Musk,’ says Walter Isaacson (Getty)

At least with a fortune of just under $200bn (?161bn), Musk can afford to support his seething brood. But drama is never far away. Isaacson himself was caught up in it on Twitter/X recently when 惭耻蝉办’蝉 penultimate partner Grimes tweeted him to beg that Musk let her see the child she co-parents with him. Specifically, she asked Isaacson to tell Zilis – the person with whom Musk fathered twins by IVF in 2021 – to unblock her on social media and tell Musk to let her see her child.

Luckily a few days later hatchets were buried, and Grimes and Zilis had made up by 10 September, when Grimes delivered a lengthy tweet announcing “I spoke with Shivon at length. This wasn’t her fault, plz don’t be angry at her! We respect each other a lot and we’re excited to become friends and have the kids grow up together.” Zilis in return called Grimes a “badass.”

Justine Musk, Elon’s first wife, pictured in 2014. The couple were married from 2000 until 2008
Justine Musk, Elon’s first wife, pictured in 2014. The couple were married from 2000 until 2008 (Getty)

All these women gave Isaacson plenty of time and were mostly kind about Musk… mostly. Wilson tells the story of him wooing her as a student with her favourite flavoured ice cream, but then it’s revealed how he whispered to her “I am the alpha in this relationship” as they danced following their wedding ceremony on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin.

Grimes recounts the story of Musk circulating a picture of her during her C-section, and Riley tells him that “deep inside the man is the man-child still standing in front of his father and how, for him, love and family were associated with psychological torments”.

Isaacson met Zilis at her Austin house she shares with Musk, where they are described as sitting on a suburban patio by a backyard swimming pool as two bright-eyed twins learned to toddle beside them.

Relations aren’t so amicable between Musk and his daughter Vivian who he had with Justine. Today, according to Musk, she is a 19-year-old “communist” and changed her gender to female and name from Xavier Wilson in 2022, as she “no longer wishes to be related” to him.

Musk and his then wife Talulah arrive for a state dinner hosted by Barack Obama in honour of French president Francois Hollande at the White House in 2014
Musk and his then wife Talulah arrive for a state dinner hosted by Barack Obama in honour of French president Francois Hollande at the White House in 2014 (Getty)

But where does this compulsion to create such a colourful personal life come from? While Isaacson does a masterful job attempting to get beneath what makes him tick – can anyone really understand a man like Musk?

In 2017, he launched the Tesla Model 3, driving on stage at the company’s vast Fremont headquarters in a bright red version, searchlights picking him out as power chords soared over concert arena speakers. He jumped out and waved to thousands of assembled fans, strode forward, crossed his arms and struck a pose. It was a classic CEO-as-rock star move.

As it happened, the Rolling Stone journalist Neil Strauss was profiling Musk at the time. After the event, Strauss asked – how did it feel standing on stage telling the world he had just bootstrapped a mass-market electric car? Musk heaved a sigh.

On the cover of Time magazine in 2013. Isaacson edited Time for five years between 1996 and 2001
On the cover of Time magazine in 2013. Isaacson edited Time for five years between 1996 and 2001 (Time)

“I just broke up with my girlfriend,” he said hesitantly, referring to Amber Heard. “I was really in love, and it hurt bad.” He paused and corrected himself. “Well, she broke up with me. I’ve been in severe emotional pain for the last few weeks. It took every ounce of will to be able to do the event and not look like the most depressed guy around. For most of the day, I was morbid.’”

He then asked Strauss to suggest or even introduce him to possible girlfriends because, he said, “it’s so hard for me to even meet people. I’m looking for a serious companion or soulmate. I know what it feels like being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there – and no one on the pillow next to you. When I was a child there’s one thing I said ... ‘I never want to be alone.’”

Musk was 46 years old at the time. He was the CEO of a publicly listed company talking to a journalist on the record and for publication about a share price-sensitive product launch… and he was begging his interviewer to find him a date because he hates going to bed alone. A throwaway unfiltered comment, or glimpse into a damaged soul?

Musk and his mother, supermodel Maye Musk, arrive for the 2022 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in May 2022
Musk and his mother, supermodel Maye Musk, arrive for the 2022 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in May 2022 (AFP/Getty)

Isaacson suggests that 惭耻蝉办’蝉 volatility can be traced back to a toxic childhood in South Africa, with his abusive father, Errol. “Everything is related to the traumas and the drives of childhood,” he says. “It made him adventurous. It made him so that he felt more comfortable with drama.”

Young Elon was born in Pretoria to the model and dietician Maye Musk – cover girl for Sports Illustrated’s 2022 swimsuit special aged 74 – and South African engineer Errol Musk. Isaacson reveals a toxic backstory. For his first eight years, he says Musk rarely saw either of his parents. He withdrew into his own world and was thought to be deaf. “I didn’t really have a primary nanny or anything,” he has said. “I just had a housekeeper who was there to make sure I didn’t break anything.”

He was relentlessly bullied at school and then at home by his father who apparently took his bullies’ side. When his parents split up, Musk felt sorry for his father and moved in with him. “It was not a good idea,” he said later. “He was such a terrible human being.” Musk has spoken of verbal abuse, his cousins told Isaacson that they were scared of visiting. Errol has always denied physically or verbally abusing Maye, and Elon has said his father was not physically violent with him.

Musk and Grimes attend the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & the Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018
Musk and Grimes attend the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & the Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018 (Getty)

When he made it to university in Pennsylvania, his college friend Adeo Ressi, now CEO of TheFunded, recalls that “Elon was the biggest dork I’ve ever met. He’s actually de-dorkified by a hundredfold. I was able to hang out with him, but back then it was kinda painful.”

Pictures of Musk when he was running PayPal back in 2001 prove the point – he was a round-headed, puffy cheeked chubby guy, close to losing most of his hair. Pictures of Musk this year show a hirsute high cheek-boned “iron man”. And when you think long and hard about a man who makes sports cars and rocket ships... you don’t have to be a deep Freudian to light on the phallic symbolism.

His mother, says Isaacson, thinks the danger for Musk is that he becomes his father. His demon mode has been on full display to anyone who has been close to him – and it is this manic energy that propels some of his wildest ideas. “Elon desperately wants the world to be saved. But only if he can be the one to save it,” says former business partner Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI.

All of these dreams began as he sat alone in Pretoria consoling himself with physics books, superhero comics, bottle rockets and toy sports cars. He’s still playing those games, only now in real life. But no matter where he’s been or what he’s done, despite all his relationships and children, to an outsider looking in at a man who “never wants to be alone”, it still looks lonely at the top.

Given his relentless pursuit of renewal and innovation in his love life as much as his working life – while looking to save the world – there is one question many will be left wondering at the end of it all: is Musk just looking for someone to save him from himself?

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