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The Gates divorce

Bill and Melinda: what went wrong?

Michele Crowe/CBS/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe Bill and Melinda Gates are getting divorced, says Alice Thomson in The Times. Unlike so many celebrity couples, the Microsoft founder, 65, and his wife, 56, seemed truly settled. They told me that they meditated together – “Not cross-legged or anything,” said Bill, “but on chairs next to each other.” When they went for a stroll in the woods, Bill would go first to check the path because “Melinda doesn’t like cobwebs”.

They met in 1987, when Melinda became the first female MBA graduate to work at Microsoft and Bill the world’s youngest billionaire. They were placed next to each other at a business dinner, she says in her memoirs, and a few months later Bill asked her out in the office car park – are you free for dinner in two weeks’ time? “I laughed and said: ‘That’s not spontaneous enough for me. Ask me out closer to the date.’” Two hours later Bill rang her at home, suggesting supper that evening. It went well. He loved that she could beat him at Cluedo. She loved his methodical mindset. At their 1994 wedding – a $1m ceremony in Hawaii – Bill did mental maths to cut the wedding cake fairly. Every guest got an identically sized slice.

So what went wrong? Why have the couple, who have three children, declared their 27-year-marriage “irretrievably broken”? Maybe it was because Bill negotiated an annual weekend away with his ex-girlfriend, software entrepreneur Ann Winblad. Each year Bill and Ann retreated to her North Carolina beach house for a weekend of hang-gliding, long walks on the beach and crazy golf. It was strictly a meeting of minds, Bill told Time magazine in 1997. “We can play putt-putt while discussing biomechanics.”

Or maybe it was their Seattle mansion. Bill built the $123m property when he was a bachelor, and you can tell, says Fortune. The lavish pad has 18 bathrooms, a Leonardo da Vinci notebook, a trampoline room and “enough software and high-tech displays to make a newlywed feel as though she were living inside a video game”. It was not Melinda’s style. “We won’t have that house for ever,” she told The New York Times in 2019. “I’m actually really looking forward to the day that Bill and I live in a 1,500 sq ft house.”

It’s going to be an expensive break-up, says Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic. The couple own more farmland than anyone in the US, as well as $26bn in Microsoft stock. That’s the trouble with super-rich divorces. “The usual dilemmas of who still hangs out with which friends and where the kids go for the holidays are mixed in with the fate of enormous charitable efforts and large tracts of land.”