Elon Musk is the world’s richest person, a billionaire tech CEO and controversial owner of X, formerly known as Twitter. Yet he remains something of an enigma, whom many have tried and failed to understand.
Acclaimed biographer Walter Isaacson is the latest to take on this daunting task. For his new book, Elon Musk, he shadowed the mogul for two years – watching him rule over his tech empire, poring over emails and text messages, speaking to those closest to (and most estranged from) the 52-year-old. The result is a 615-page behemoth that chronicles the life of the unnervingly candid Tesla and Space X billionaire – about whom so much has also previously been written about – in surprising detail.
Against the backdrop of Musk’s stratospheric rise – including revolutionising the EV industry and charting the path to space – Isaacson examines the tech CEO’s tumultuous romantic relationships, his early life in South Africa, and his inherent “compulsion to stir up drama”. He does all of this in the hope of answering a single question about one of the most influential men in the world: “Are the demons that drive Musk also what it takes to drive innovation and progress?”
Here’s a look at some of the most intriguing and startling revelations in Isaacson’s book:
On Errol and Elon Musk
Isaacson’s book details the troubled relationship between Musk and his father Errol Musk, “an engineer, rogue, and charismatic fantasist who to this day bedevils Elon”.
From siding with his bullies in school and verbally denigrating Musk, Errol allegedly tormented Musk all the way until he left his father’s home in the South African capital of Pretoria and moved to Canada, at the age of 17.
The book says that Musk has also struggled to reconcile his father’s relationship with Errol’s stepdaughter Jana Bezuidenhou, 35 with whom the 77-year-old shares two children.
Despite their difficult relationship, some of the interviewees Isaacson spoke to suggested Musk could suddenly take on a remarkable likeness to his father.
“It made me realise how difficult it is not to be shaped by what we grew up with, even when that’s not what we want,” Musk’s first wife, Justine Wilson, tells Isaacson, while examining the similarities between her ex-husband and Errol.
Life at home with Errol was unpredictable, Musk’s sister, 49-year-old filmmaker Tosca, reveals. “His mood could change on a dime. Everything could be super, then within a second he would be vicious and spewing abuse.”
Musk’s cousin Peter Rive suggests the SpaceX founder inherited these mood swings from Errol: “When Elon’s in a good mood, it’s like the coolest, funniest thing in the world. And when he’s in a bad mood, he goes really dark, and you’re just walking on eggshells,” he says.
However, Justine also highlights the “fundamental” way in which the father-son are different.
“With Errol, there was a sense that really bad things could happen around him,” she says. “Whereas if the zombie apocalypse happened, you’d want to be on Elon’s team, because he would figure out a way to get those zombies in line.”
On Musk’s love life
“Musk was not bred for domestic tranquility,” Isaacson writes, adding that most of his relationships “involve psychological turmoil”.
According to the biography, “the most agonising” of Musk’s affairs was his romance with Amber Heard, amid her divorce from Johnny Depp.
“It was brutal,” Musk says of their year-long relationship from January to December 2017. Breaking up for brief period in July, Heard and Musk would continue dating for another “tumultuous five months”, Isaacson writes.
Their relationship ended during a “wild trip” to Rio de Janeiro, when Heard allegedly locked herself in their room and became paranoid she was going to be attacked and that “Elon had taken her passport”.
The Aquaman actor, who was also interviewed for the biography, admits she “got rather dramatic” during the argument in Brazil, but tells Isaacson they made up afterwards.
At one point, Musk’s chief-of-staff Sam Teller compares Heard to the Joker in Batman.
Elsewhere, Musk’s brother Kimbal highlights: “The way she can really create her own reality reminds me of my dad.”
Another one of Musk’s former partners, Grimes (real name Claire Boucher), said Musk is attracted to “chaotic evil” while discussing his relationship with Heard.
“My Dungeons & Dragons alignment would be chaotic good. Whereas Amber’s is probably chaotic evil,” she explained, referring to her and Musk’s shared love for the fantasy game.
“He’s attracted to chaotic evil. It’s about his father [Errol] and what he grew up with, and he is quick to fall back into being treated badly. He associates love with being mean or abusive. There’s an Errol-Amber through line.
On his crusade against the ‘woke mind virus’
Decoding Musk’s 2021 tweet about the “woke mind virus”, Isaacson notes how the tech entrepreneur had begun campaigning against extreme political correctness and woke culture.
The tweet that, Isaaacson writes, was reflective of the shift in Musk’s politics, was triggered partially by his daughter Jenna Wilson’s transition, according to the manager of his personal office Jared Birchall.
“He feels he lost a son who changed first and last names, and won’t speak to him anymore because of this woke mind virus,” Birchall says.
“He is a firsthand witness on a very person level of the damaging effect of beijng indoctrinated by this woke-mind religion.”
Musk was also apparently becoming increasingly convinced that “wokeness was destroying humour”. Isaacson details how Musk’s jokes are littered with “smirking references to 69, other sex acts, body fluids, pooping, farts, dope smoking, and topics that would crack up a dorm room of stoned freshman”.
On buying Twitter
When it first became clear Musk was set on becoming the new owner of Twitter, chaos ensued. His takeover wasn’t smooth either; site-wide outages, layoffs, the death of the blue tick, and its recent rebrand as X sent the platform’s users into meltdown.
The new book recounts how Musk decided to put in an offer for the social media platform last April, after he stayed up till 5am playing a new war and empire building game called Elden Ring with Grimes at her apartment in Vancouver.
“He really wants smart people to have kids, so he encouraged me to,” Neuralink executive Shivon Zilis, who shares twins with Musk, tells Isaacson.
Musk and Zilis never dated, with the Twitter boss donating his sperm so that her children would genetically be his.
Zilis recalls thinking Musk wouldn’t be a big part of her children’s lives; instead, she was surprised when he began spending time with the twins – a boy named Strider Sekhar Sirius, and a girl called Azure – and bonded with them “albeit in his own emotionally distracted way”.
Some pictures from my Musk book. pic.twitter.com/lZGRwey7z5
— Walter Isaacson (@WalterIsaacson) September 10, 2023
The book also recounts how Grimes, who was in a relationship with Musk at the time, was unaware Zilis was pregnant with his children.
Further, Zilis’s pregnancy coincided with Grimes and Musk’s decision to have another child, after the birth of their son X, now three. They decided to use a surrogate because the Canadian musician had experienced a difficult first pregnancy.
At one point, Grimes and Zilis were in the same Austin hospital, but Grimes was completely unaware of this.
Isaacson also reveals that Grimes and Musk secretly welcomed a third child, a son named Techno Mechanius or “Tau”, but did not disclose his age.
Musk has fathered 11 children, including during his relationships with Grimes and Wilson. He does not have any children with his second wife Talulah Riley, who he married twice.
Elon was almost ‘Nice’
Isaacson discovers Musk was almost named “Nice” after the French city where he was born, as American journalist notes “history may have been different, or at least amused, if the boy had to go through life with the name Nice Musk”.