Mourn the poor rich man, who died in his prime and left a tremendous mess for his loved ones to clear up.
Tony Hsieh, the 46-year old retiree who once ran Zappos, the online shoe sales pioneer, died in a tragic blaze (as if there were any other kind) on November 18 last year. Mogul-rich, he was dreadfully unhappy, confused in his identity and relation to reality, i.e. the world outside his mind. Friends said he’d developed a fascination with fire.
Those friends say that early on, he lived life with great joy. Too much of the bottle, perhaps, and a taste for substances that healthy minds might brush off, but those unbalanced can’t handle. He was losing touch, drifting from trustworthy guardians, gullibly embracing enablers. Tony, genius and visionary, legally and responsibly made hundreds of millions, yet neglected to hire a financial advisor. He passed from this world without a will. This would seem unfathomable if it didn’t happen with the regularity of a clockwork lemming.
Soul singer Aretha Franklin built an $80mn estate, earning every penny by making people swing, yet died without a will, the establishment of a trust or the simplest instructions left behind to guide any financial legacy. Prince, ‘le petit violet’, went and did the same. My Minnesota family, still lamenting his loss, took me by his purple house last time I visited – those staid Norwegians loved their eccentric, good-humored neighbor, who cancelled out their uncool.
Prince died in 2016, and this January I read that his executors are still in mortal combat with the IRS over his estate’s value. Eighty million? One hundred and sixty? Nearly five years on, they’ve yet to reach square one.
Ghosts don’t care much, I’ve always figured. It’s good they leave us alone, as we can do without the haunting. Yet I wonder if family, in a moment’s relief from their grief, ever wished the loved one would come back and explain a few things.
Like those post-it notes Tony Hsieh left stuck all over his mansion. Most people today are too young to remember Howard Hughes, the first billionaire, a maverick who makes Bezos look like Bozo. He dated Rita Hayworth, built and flew what is still the biggest airplane that ever got airborne, produced great films, built Hughes Aircraft. An amazing fellow of the 1940s.
He also went comprehensively mad, a 1970s byword, locked up and drugged in his Vegas penthouse. Drugs, vampirish fiend-friends, enough money to indulge lunacy. A fantasy life turned foul, so watch it, now. Be thankful and take care with what you’ve got – that’s what folks would say.
Rebecca, Davíd and I, business partners and pals, play the Powerball monthly, and whenever we lose – and it happens with banal regularity – one or another will say: The only thing worse than losing at Powerball would be winning.
Tony had plenty of people depending on him – some vultures, many true friends, companions from early days, true believers in his ideals; loyal, deserving of a voice in running Tony’s legacy. He was a resident of Nevada, and its laws give direction: no will, no spouse, no children, and your estate goes to surviving parents. Tony’s father now sits in the driver’s seat, and it’s a hot one.
The estate reaches hundreds of millions. I won’t name a sum, as the IRS would likely dispute it. Even at today’s elevated tax exclusions, when the assets leave ‘tens of’ territory and head into ‘hundreds’, the tax bill is set for enormity. It would have been nice, maybe, for Tony to buy himself a life insurance policy – term or permanent; anything, really – to help his heirs pay off the coming tax bill without fire-selling his stuff. Shame on you, great Tony’s ghost.
Now, what the heck are those assets, anyway? Tony was wild with money, bought land here and everywhere, opened restaurants, clubs, crazy businesses, particularly in Vegas, where in the midst of the glimmer there’s poverty galore. He was trying to help his neighbors, the good fellow. Bless you, light spirit of Tony.
It turns out that there’s no central register of his holdings: securities portfolio, banked cash, bitcoins floating in ether, anything. Someone’s going to land a drab job sorting out those post-its, a fun project with the taxman leering o’er your shoulder, crying ‘boo!’
If there’s a funny side to the chaos, it’s a quote from a financial advisor who, commenting on the case, claimed: ‘I could fix that, easy’. I bet he’s right. Tony’s estate will require a big team: lawyers, accountants, forensic this-and-that, financial analysts. It will cost a fortune and take years – sue them if it goes too fast. If only Tony had called me, we could have jived the new-age talk he favored, and I know people, honest spirits, who would have helped, charged a reasonable fee, kept all aligned with the stars and tax laws. Poor Tony, he left too young, yet pity his old man, bereft of son, burdened with a Gordian puzzle.
Life ain’t just a party. The dangers are common, as the pandemic proves. In the US, the virus has swept away half-a-million souls, many passing without wills or organized finances. LIMRA, the life insurance industry association, says only 54% of American adults have life coverage, and many hold company group plans with insufficient coverage to support a bereaved family that’s lost a provider. Come on, now – Tony was nice guy, but don’t go his way.
And so my father lay dying. Father Metaxis came from Archangels Church, the one my family helped build fresh out of the old country, to administer last rights. ‘Alec’, – said our priest – ‘your whole family is here with you: wife, sons, daughters, grandson. Do you know what a treasure this is these days?’ “It’s great,” said dad, his last words.
Later in the afternoon, my brother and I went to the lawyer. Dad’s finances were simple and all in a row. Life insurance – sufficient. A small investment account – plenty for 20 years; mom was then 80. The house paid up, ready for sale. A bit in the bank. Social Security, papers stacked neatly. Simple Simon, all present and accounted.
Dad never had time for college. A wise guy, he was no Einstein, Jobs or Tony, though unerringly clever with duct tape. How simple to get things right. The last words I spoke to him, right after that trip to the lawyer, were: “You took care of us; everything’s cool; good job, old boy.”
And then I kissed him. I like to think his last conscious thought was, ‘you sap’. He always knew how to wrap things up right.