Elon Musk: In the name of the father
The family of Elon Musk, the world's most colourful and controversial tech billionaire, has been torn apart by a dark drama involving his father. Our reporter looks at the story
Even amid the ridiculously wealthy, blue-sky thinking billionaires of Silicon Valley, Elon Musk has always stood out like a beacon. When the South African entrepreneur recently launched the world's most powerful rocket and released footage of his self-invented electric car, the Tesla, floating in the cosmos, to strains of David Bowie's Space Oddity, these were just the latest stunts in a career built on outrageous statements and jaw-dropping engineering.
Last year Musk announced his intention to put a million people on the planet Mars by the year 2025, in a society that will be complete with "iron foundries and pizza joints". He has already created three billion dollar companies - PayPal, car manufacturer Tesla and space travel company SpaceX. He has proven himself a formidable opponent of his fellow tech billionaires - he recently irked Mark Zuckerberg by leaping on the delete Facebook bandwagon. And he's earned a reputation as one of the playboys of the tech world - he was linked to the actress Amber Heard.
He has been credited with getting the American public excited about science fiction possibilities and has been called a modern Bond villain, albeit one who dances in Copper Face Jacks on his visits to Dublin.
The writer Neil Strauss called him "a totally original mind in a totally original body".
Still, for all their originality, technology gurus tend to be made as much as they are born, and the parents of Zuckerberg and Bill Gates played key roles in their developments.
With Musk, the received wisdom was always that he had grown up in privilege - his family were so well off they had trouble closing their safe and he was ferried to school in a Rolls Royce - and it was thought that Elon had absorbed his aptitudes from his engineer father, Errol.
By the age of 15 Elon was spending hours in his bedroom tinkering with a computer. "I came in one day and saw a grey box with a red light going on and off," Errol once recalled. "And Elon told me, "Dad, that's a modem. I can connect my computer to a computer in Oxford, England. One day everybody will have one of these and they will all connect, all over the world."
Three years ago Forbes ran a profile on Errol, entitled 'How To Raise A Billionaire'. Errol was said to have provided support even after Elon became an adult. It was said he gave Elon $25,000 to found his first company. Errol also told a radio station in South Africa that the boy's abilities had been obvious early on: "The kind of things he would come up with as a youngster was always surprising. When he was very small, he would ask me 'where is the whole world?' when he was three or four. It was these sorts of questions that made me realise that he was a little different."
In fact just a few years later, when Elon was eight, Errol split from Elon's mother, Maye, a model and former Miss South Africa who has since appeared in a Beyonce video and on a Times Square billboard. During this period Elon and his younger siblings - Kimbal and Tosca - stayed with their mother.
But, Musk recalled in a recent Rolling Stone interview: "As a child I felt sorry for my father, because my mother had all three of us kids. At first he seemed very sad and lonely by himself. So I thought, 'I can be company'." Elon shared his technological skills with his father - both could rewire a house, for instance, and understood how explosives are made - but, without getting specific, Elon recently hinted that his relationship with Errol was more difficult than many had imagined.
"He was such a terrible human being," he told The New York Times. "You have no idea. My dad will have a carefully thought out plan of evil. He will plan evil." He denied that this was by way of intimating that his father had been physically violent but added: "You have no idea about how bad. Almost every crime you can possibly think of, he has done. Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done."
As Elon grew into an adult he went on to have a fractious relationship with his father.
The Rolling Stone interviewer, Neill Strauss, concluded that there was something terrible that the younger Musk wanted to share about that relationship, but that he could not bring himself to do so, at least not on the record. The writer recorded that tears streamed down Musk's cheeks as he struggled with the revelation. "In my experience, there is nothing you can do," he said, weeping. "Nothing, nothing. I wish. I've tried everything. I tried threats, rewards, intellectual arguments, emotional arguments, everything to try to change my father for the better, and he… no way, it just got worse."
Elon elsewhere described his childhood as 'painful and isolated', and characterised his father as resentful of his eldest son's budding scientific brilliance.
Errol recently returned fire at his son in the press, telling the Daily Mail: "Elon has repeatedly told a story of me telling him computers were a waste of time. That's untrue."
Recounting early signs of his son's intellect, he insisted: "Elon has been generous enough to admit that he inherited his scientific genius from me. He also added that Elon was 'spoiled' and needed to 'grow up' and 'get over himself'.
He disputed his son's portrayal of him but has admitted shooting dead three intruders in his home in South Africa, for which he pleaded self-defence to a manslaughter charge and was acquitted. It was speculated that a deeper cause of the discord between father and son had perhaps been Errol's decision to move the family from South Africa to Malibu when Elon was a child, something that had always rankled with the younger man. Errol had fanned the flames of this rumour by telling the Daily Mail that "Elon is upset with me, he says. He is furious that he can't force me to love America the way he does. I refuse to live there. I tried it, and came back home".
However, in the last week the more probable source of Elon's ire has become more clear. In an interview with The Sunday Times, Errol admitted that he had formed a sexual relationship with his - Errol's - stepdaughter, Jana, and fathered a son by her.
Errol said the baby, 10-month-old Elliot, is "an exquisite child". He said he did not consider Jana (30) his stepdaughter as he claimed she was raised away from the family for long periods of time. He and Jana's mother, Heide, had divorced after 18 years together, and Jana had sought him out as an adult, he explained. She was dealing with the aftermath of a difficult relationship, he said, and he did "everything in my power" to help her. "We were lonely, lost people," Errol added. "One thing led to another - you can call it God's plan or nature's plan."
However, when Jana got in touch a few months later to say she was pregnant. Errol assumed the ex-boyfriend was the father so insisted on a DNA test, which proved his paternity.
An unnamed relative told the Daily Mail: "The whole family was outraged when we found out. This is the reason why Elon is so angry with Errol. He is the only father [Jana] has ever known. And now he is the father of her child as well."
Errol also spoke to the paper, saying: "I told my daughter Ali about [Elliot] because I thought she would be supportive and understanding. She said I was insane, mentally ill. She told the others and they went berserk. They think I'm getting senile and should go into an old age home, not have a life full of fun and a tiny baby."
The situation with Errol and Jana has been compared by some to Woody Allen and Soon Yi Previn and it remains to be seen whether the Musk family feud remains as bitter and long lasting as Allen's.
If Elon was horrified by his father's peccadilloes, the tech billionaire's own romantic life was not entirely conventional or without drama either. Elon has said that he has to be in a relationship to feel complete. "If I'm not in love, if I'm not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy," he told Rolling Stone. "I will never be happy without having someone. Going to sleep alone kills me. It's not like I don't know what that 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. F***. How do you make yourself happy in a situation like that?"
He married his first wife, Justine, in 2000, by which time he had already made hundreds of millions of dollars from his first two companies, Zip2 (a web software company) and X.Com an online payments company which later became subsumed into PayPal. The couple had five sons together, but as Elon's star rose throughout the noughties, so the marriage began to hit the rocks.
"The vast economic imbalance between us, meant that in the months following our wedding, a certain dynamic began to take hold," Justine later explained. "Elon's judgment overruled mine, and he was constantly remarking on the ways he found me lacking.
"I am your wife," I told him repeatedly, "not your employee." She would later write: "Elon's wealth seemed abstract and unreal, a string of zeros that existed in some strange space of its own. I made uneasy jokes that he was about to dump me for a supermodel."
Not a model, it would turn out, but an actress. In 2008 he told Justine he was divorcing her and six weeks later she got a text from him saying he was engaged to a gorgeous British actress in her early 20s who had moved to Los Angeles to be with him. Her name was Talulah Riley, and she played one of the sisters in 2005's film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. They married in 2010, then divorced two years later, then remarried the following year, then filed for divorce again, then withdrew the filing, then re-filed for divorce and finally followed through with it.
They remained on good terms and ironically Justine and Talulah ended up getting along quite well, with the first wife telling the second that she "would rather live out the French movie version of things, in which the two women become friends and various philosophies are pondered".
Musk began dating Johnny Depp's ex, Amber Heard, in 2016 but their relationship was never stable and when she broke it off with him he confessed to suffering "severe emotional pain".
"She broke up with me more than I broke up with her, I think," Musk said recently. "I was really in love, and it hurt bad."
Errol, for his part has said that this split was the real reason behind his famous son's recent broadsides at him: "His girlfriend (Amber Heard) had dropped him and I believe he was crying for himself over the heartbreak."
Whatever the real reason, the family drama has at times looked like it might eclipse even Elon's newsworthy business coups.
And while the fabulously wealthy entrepreneur continues to set tongues wagging with his business stunts - one of the latest offered flamethrowers for sale online - the bitter saga of his family feud may be unravelling for some time to come.
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