By Alice Thomson
TEXT The Times/The Interview People
The first time I met Melinda French Gates, in Seattle five years ago, we talked about Bill and sex. “Of course, I absolutely use contraceptives,” she told me. “Every year, more than a billion couples have sex and, yes, not surprisingly, we do too.” The billionaire’s wife could have discussed private jets, yachts or diamonds, but what she really wanted to talk about was the transformative effects of birth control. She was just as impressive as her husband, determined to campaign for women around the world.
The couple had matching glass offices side by side, with identical desks at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Towards the end of the interview, Melinda shouted to Bill to remember that it was his turn to check on the kids’ homework. “The youngest has an assignment for tomorrow,” she explained. On most days, they drove home together to have supper with their three children, discussing vaginal gels and sewerage systems rather than which Impressionist to buy next. They were both on a mission to save lives.
For much of their marriage Melinda’s husband had had more money than any other human on the planet, but she wasn’t going to let him become too spoilt.
“He does the washing up, he takes the kids to school and walks the dogs.” Nor was he allowed to get away with much. “Sometimes, he is just wrong,” she told me.
Yet, she obviously adored him. The economics and computer science graduate loved talking about how they met. “I’d started working at his company Microsoft and we were both late to a trade dinner. Bill sat next to me in the last chair. He was funny and very high energy. At the end of the evening, he said a bunch of them were going dancing, but I had other plans.”
Melinda had lots of other boyfriends; this was not a woman who was desperate to snare her boss. “Months later, we met in the parking lot and Bill asked, ‘Would you go out with me two weeks from Friday night?’ I said, ‘That’s not spontaneous.’ He called me at my apartment two hours later and said, ‘Is this spontaneous enough for you?’”
This is a man who admits that as a co-founder and chief executive of Microsoft, “I learnt all my employees’ number plates by heart so I could check what time they were leaving every night.” When after seven years they couldn’t decide whether to marry, he drew up the pros and cons on a whiteboard.
“But inside was this very tender, warm-hearted, curious person,” Melinda said.
She laughed when I suggested that it was impressive that she and Bill had stayed together so long.
“It’s hard to sustain a normal family life, but I started dating Bill when he was already in the public eye so I saw the benefits and the downsides,” she explained. “And we both knew we wanted to change the world.”
It took years to drag the workaholic on holiday. It was during a safari in Kenya with friends when they were engaged. “I hated holidays and wasn’t that keen on animals,” Bill later told me. However, they were welcomed into a Masai village, where they realised the scale of difference between their west coast tech world and the villagers’ problems. That was when they both knew that they wanted to refocus their lives towards helping to eliminate disease.
Bill, now 65, may have built Microsoft into the most successful company on the planet, but it felt as though she was the driving force behind them becoming philanthropists. Soon, it became Bill’s mission to eradicate polio and stamp out malaria, while Melinda, now 56, was most interested in transforming the lives of women and children. Over 21 years, they have given away more than US$50 billion ($66.2 billion) to good causes. She admitted that, while going around the world to look at their various projects, she would sometimes be left sobbing while Bill would bury himself in more research. “He’s more science, I’m more humanistic,” she explained.
To relax, they would meditate. “Not cross-legged or anything but on chairs next to each other,” Bill once explained to me. They set up a book club together. Their latest shared novel was A Gentleman in Moscow but their favourite book has always been The Great Gatsby. They had the “Gatsby” quotation in their library: “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.” Bill picked it, he said, because Gatsby’s wooing of his beloved Daisy reminded him of their courtship.
In homage to the book and Daisy, when they started dating, Melinda would switch on a green light in her office when she was free. Years later, when they walked through the woods in Seattle, he would still always go first to check the way because “Melinda doesn’t like cobwebs”. They were thoughtful about each other, she said. This was a marriage of minds.
I talked to her a couple more times over the years about her campaigns and her book The Moment of Lift on how empowering women changes the world. She was always fantastically down to earth; her clothes were practical and efficient, usually black slacks and a colourful blouse. No one could call her a trophy wife. It never looked as though she had done any Botox and her nails were clear rather than painted.
She admitted that at times, it could be hard when the three children were young and her husband was travelling so much. He could cover India, China and Africa in a month while she stayed at home keeping the children grounded, organising playdates and sports fixtures — “being a regular mum”.
She worried about becoming invisible. Once she broke down on him. “I was so frustrated. I just said, ‘It’s so much and you’re not home.’ And he put his hand on my knees and said, ‘Melinda, wherever we are going, we’re going there together.’”
Bill was harder to get to know in interviews. His sisters said that he was highly introverted as a child. Melinda brought him out of his shell but it was clear that he still preferred data to descriptions, substance over style. Then two years ago, I went to Ethiopia with him for a few days. I soon realised that he had the same pragmatic approach as his wife on tours. He wore V-neck jumpers, chinos and loafers and carried a white tote bag filled with his books. Yet, where she was more heart and emotion, he was facts and stats.
He stayed in his hotel suite and talked to dozens of African prime ministers and presidents, all eager for his advice, which he gave generously while drinking copious amounts of Diet Coke. The left-hander was always scribbling and drew me a series of graphs to explain population growth. He stayed in the luxury suite of a five-star hotel but never even ventured out into the garden.
I went to visit some of his projects without him. The spa and swimming pool remained unvisited. Wouldn’t he like a quick dip? “No.” Or a massage? “Definitely not.”
His mind was constantly whirling as he challenged everyone around him to keep up with his relentless schedule. His ability to read the future was uncanny. What keeps you awake at night, I asked him in one of his few idle moments. “The thought of a pandemic,” he replied immediately. “It’s been 100 years since we had a huge flu epidemic. People travel more today so the speed of spread would be faster if you had a respiratory transmitted disease. The numbers could be horrific.”
He was punctilious and courteous to everyone he met. Only once did he look irritated, when I suggested that he should wear a seat belt as we hurtled around Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. I can imagine that he could be extremely stubborn and the couple are highly competitive.
I would hate to play cards with them.
Yet, Bill obviously loved Melinda and regularly mentioned her. We were both celebrating 25th wedding anniversaries, so we briefly discussed how to make a marriage work. “We listen and respect each other,” he explained. “Melinda’s a lot like me but better with people than I am, a tiny bit less hardcore. She does most of the parenting.”
They appeared to complement each other perfectly. On their silver wedding anniversary, Melinda posted a video on Facebook of Bill trying to cut the cake after their marriage.
“We told you it was time to cut the cake,” she wrote. “You thought that meant you needed to cut a slice for everyone and did some astonishingly quick math to calculate exactly how big each slice should be. I thought my heart was full that night, but the last 25 years have taught me just how full a heart can get.”
Their staff obviously adored them too, although when Bill returned from Ethiopia on his private jet, they all flew back on commercial. “He’s a bit intense for that long,” one explained.
They both hid their lifestyle, neither wanting to talk about the trappings of wealth. Their home in Seattle is a sprawling 66,000 sq ft mansion with 18 bathrooms and one of Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific notebooks. They also own a US$59 million holiday home in Florida and a ranch in Wyoming. Yet, Melinda, in particular, seemed underwhelmed by the glitz.
They appeared to have found a winning formula. So the announcement of their divorce last month surprised both staff and friends. The strain of lockdowns could have done it. Suddenly, they were no longer flying around the world, but it wasn’t as though they were doing nothing. I interviewed Bill twice during the pandemic, with Melinda joining the second time. He was not only the man who called the pandemic years before everyone else, he then spent months working out how to contain it.
The couple poured money from their foundation into helping to combat Covid-19 and have spent the past year ensuring that any new vaccines could be produced quickly globally. Bill seemed mildly annoyed that he was being painted as some evil plotter and couldn’t understand the conspiracy theorists; Melinda was more phlegmatic and had focused on helping women and families through the past year of lockdowns.
They both admitted that they were tired; Bill had lost his father in the past year to Alzheimer’s. “Pretty much all we want to do after dinner is binge watch something,” Bill said. “We took turns to throw something in the microwave,” Melinda added.
They seemed the only billionaire couple who had managed to remain grounded and make their marriage work. By giving away so much money, they appeared to have stopped themselves from becoming trapped in a gilded Seattle cage. Unlike Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, they weren’t “careless people”; they had come together to save the world.
In the Netflix documentary Inside Bill’s Brain, director Davis Guggenheim tells Gates: “You are lucky in life.” Bill’s immediate reply is: “And love too.” No one ever knows about anyone else’s marriage, but like the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s, I thought this one would endure.
I can’t imagine them arguing about their US$126 billion in assets. Their mission has always been to give away their massive wealth, although their children will each inherit $10 million. At the end of The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald writes: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” But neither of these two tend to look backwards. They are both optimists, constantly smiling.
Maybe we should look at their marriage as a triumph — 27 years together, three wonderful children and millions of lives saved. What an astonishing partnership.