MacKenzie Scott: How the former Mrs Bezos became a philanthropist like no other

Since divorcing Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2019, Scott has been ‘emptying the safe’

Billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott once recounted, in a television interview, a Chinese folk tale sometimes known as “The Lost Horse”. The story is about the reversals of fortune a farmer experiences after his prized stallion runs away. It can also be read as a summary of Scott’s philosophy.

“You never know where it’s going to end up,” she told television host Charlie Rose in 2013, after relating the parable to him. “Good luck, bad luck, it’s not the way that we really need to look at things.”

The hardships we experience “are the things that we’ll look back and be the most grateful for,” she said during the interview. “They take us where we need to go.”

Her own life has taken sharp turns that have shaped her choices, including her extraordinary leap into philanthropy, which in less than three years has exceeded $12 billion(€11 billion) in grants.


A privileged child, she left a Connecticut boarding school after her family declared bankruptcy. In college, a loan from a friend helped keep her from dropping out. That allowed her to carry on studying creative writing under acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison, who would become her mentor and help her achieve her own life's goal of becoming a novelist as well.

And as a recent college graduate, working in recruitment at a financial firm, she married the man in the office next to hers, Jeff Bezos, and moved to Seattle to help him pursue his dream of an online retail empire – one that would make each of them among the wealthiest people in the world even after their marriage dissolved.

Scott has a fortune that hovers around $50 billion (€46 billion), according to Forbes magazine

A few months after their divorce was finalised in 2019, a new shell company was quietly set up in Delaware called Lost Horse, LLC. Soon, representatives from Lost Horse were calling nonprofits around the country about multimillion-dollar donations from an anonymous giver.

The secret benefactor turned out, of course, to be Scott. Her sudden spate of giving has now reached 1,257 groups, from little-known charities to mainstream organisations like Habitat for Humanity, which last month received $436 million (€400 million), her largest known gift.

The $12 billion in grants she has announced add up to more than the total lifetime giving of Eli Broad and his widow, Edythe, renowned for their generosity in Los Angeles, not to mention far richer couples, like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. Scott's former husband, Bezos, has pledged $10 billion to combat climate change. Forbes in January calculated that he had paid out $2.1 billion in charitable giving so far.

But as Scott’s fame for giving away money has grown, so too has the deluge of appeals for gifts from strangers and old friends alike. That clamour may have driven Scott’s already discreet operation further underground, with recent philanthropic announcements akin to sudden lightning bolts for unsuspecting recipients.

Attempts to reach Scott and her husband, Dan Jewett, a chemistry teacher, for this article – which was originally published by the New York Times – by phone, email and letter, directly and through intermediaries, were met with silence.

Instead, the newspaper relied on interviews with more than two dozen friends, teachers, former colleagues and acquaintances from every chapter of her life, as well as public records and the rare interviews Scott has given, generally in conjunction with the publication of one of her novels. This article is also based on previously unpublished letters between Scott and Morrison, kept in the Nobel laureate’s archive at the Princeton University library.

Three decades after worrying about making rent, and even in the wake of her recent gifts, Scott (52) has a fortune that hovers around $50 billion (€46 billion), according to Forbes magazine. She has set about disbursing her enormous wealth with unprecedented speed and directness to frontline charities and nonprofits with a stated emphasis on advancing social justice and combating inequality, all while trying to keep herself out of the spotlight.

Her approach to public life and charitable giving has echoed her approach to storytelling. “Writing something long,” she said in the 2013 television appearance, reflecting on Morrison’s greatest lessons to her, “is all about the timed release of information.”

Even her new last name, Scott, is one of her own choosing.

Scott was her grandfather’s name. G Scott Cuming was an executive and general counsel at El Paso Natural Gas, a powerful energy company that faced antitrust actions over its acquisition of a pipeline company. His wife, Dorothy, volunteered with the March of Dimes and with an organisation for breast cancer survivors.

Their daughter, Holiday Robin Cuming, was born on Christmas Day in 1943. She married Jason Baker Tuttle, and the couple had three children. The eldest and youngest were boys, and the middle child was a daughter, MacKenzie.

I went off to college knowing I was going to have to work a variety of jobs to put myself through school

Jason Baker Tuttle worked as a financial adviser while his wife stayed home with the children. The family had an expensive home in the Pacific Heights neighbourhood of San Francisco and another house in the town of Ross, what The San Francisco Examiner at the time called “the bosky dell in Marin County for the well-to-do”.

In the afterword to her first novel, Scott tells the story of how, when she was just six years old, she wrote a 142-page novel called “The Bookworm,” which she described as “a chapter book about the adventures of a worm who loved to read”.

“It took me almost a year of afternoons lying on our living room carpet with a stack of Oreos, a sheaf of kindergarten newsprint, and a fat pencil,” she wrote, “and I distinctly remember the moment when it first occurred to me that I loved writing differently than I loved riding my bike or swimming.”

Scott’s father ran an investment advising firm called J Baker Tuttle Corp., which by her teenage years was paying him about $360,000, or over $900,000 in today’s dollars (€827,000), according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The firm was covering his personal and business expenses, as well as four mortgages on three properties. Scott was attending the Hotchkiss boarding school in Connecticut, while her older brother was at Georgetown University.

Classmates at Hotchkiss said they remembered Scott as disciplined about her work, gentle with others and humble in her manner. A friend from Hotchkiss, Margot Bass, described her as original in everything from how she dressed – eschewing the Laura Ashley prints many women wore on campus – to how she saw the world. The two friends painted, with Scott producing a memorable portrait of her younger brother.

Shortly before Scott’s 17th birthday, her family’s fortunes took a sudden turn. Her father’s financial firm declared bankruptcy and so did her parents. Scott graduated from Hotchkiss, where tuition rivalled the cost of college, after three years instead of four. In her final year, she took on extra coursework, completing a special seminar in fiction-writing arranged by the head of the English department that ensured she met the school’s four-year English requirement.

With the help of a scholarship, Scott still managed to go to Princeton, albeit with a new, heavier burden. “I went off to college knowing I was going to have to work a variety of jobs to put myself through school,” Scott has said, worrying about how she was going to juggle waiting tables with a full course load.

Like many other working students have found before her (and, with soaring tuition costs, even more since) it wasn’t easy. Last year, Scott recalled that period and the help she received to make it through. “It was the local dentist who offered me free dental work when he saw me securing a broken tooth with denture glue in college,” she said. “It was the college roommate who found me crying, and acted on her urge to loan me a thousand dollars to keep me from having to drop out sophomore year.”

In the meantime, an administrative law judge for the SEC barred her father from associating with any investment adviser for “fraudulent, deceptive actions,” shutting the door on an easy comeback for the family’s fortunes. The administrative ruling was first reported by Medium Marker.

By the early 1990s, her parents had left behind their two houses in California and transplanted themselves to Florida, settling in an apartment building in Palm Beach where at the time units rented for around $800 a month, or roughly $1,500 today (€1,380). Her mother began working at a women’s boutique on fashionable Worth Avenue a short walk away.

Scott's first book, The Testing of Luther Albright, based in part on her undergraduate thesis about Luther Augery, took her close to a decade to complete

With the sought-after prize of Morrison as her thesis adviser, Scott had written a 168-page work of fiction called “The Fathering Water,” in which the father, Luther Augery, keeps hidden that he has quit his job and settled for a low-paying one. He lies about his work and showers his wife with expensive home appliances to compensate. “He could not afford it,” she wrote, “pretending he had a job that made money and also pretending he could spend it.”

Morrison has called Scott an "extraordinary writer, almost full-blown,” and indeed the novella is strikingly assured, as well as a little bloody, macabre and almost Gothic in places. In one scene, Luther’s daughter and the undertaker’s son steal away during a wedding at a the funeral home and kiss next to “the rolling shelves for storing bodies.”

After graduation, Scott went back to Hotchkiss and taught a summer creative writing program. Then, like Princetonians at least as far back as F Scott Fitzgerald, Scott moved to New York City to pursue a career as a novelist.

Scott found herself juggling waiting tables and writing, staying for a stint in the New York City apartment belonging to the family of her Hotchkiss friend Bass.

Waitressing was hard and something was not clicking yet with her goal of writing a novel. She was invited for an interview at a hedge fund, DE Shaw. “I wasn’t quite ready to write a book. Truthfully it wasn’t going that well and I was having a lot of trouble making ends meet,” she said of that period. “Would I have ever considered a job in finance if I hadn’t been having those difficulties?” she asked. “Probably not.”

She was interviewed for the hedge-fund job by a fellow Princeton grad, Jeffrey Preston Bezos. In another letter to Morrison, she wrote that he hired her “based largely on a transcript of your phone recommendation.”

She settled into a routine balancing work and writing. “I’m finding I have much time to write, all in the early morning, which probably displeases the accountant who lives below me although I recently invested in a rug to muffle my 5 am trips to the kitchen for coffee,” she wrote to Morrison.

Scott landed in the office next to Bezos. She said that she fell for his famously booming laugh and pursued a relationship. They dated for three months before getting engaged and were married three months after that. She was 23 and he was 29.

“He edited what was my first and, happily, last piece of financial marketing literature, and after our wedding I started working full time on a novel,” she wrote to Morrison of that period.

It was shortly thereafter that the couple entered the rarest lore of high-tech startups. Bezos wanted to quit his job at DE Shaw to take a chance on selling books over the primitive dial-up version of the internet. Given the financial instability of her teenage years, it would have been understandable if Scott had discouraged him from taking the risk. She not only supported his dream, but also worked alongside him to build the company.

“I’m not a businessperson, but to me what I am hearing when he tells that idea is the passion and the excitement,” Scott has said. “Couldn’t wait to hop in the car.”

The car was a Chevy Blazer, a gift from Bezos' father. The two flew to Fort Worth, Texas, where they picked it up. Then, she drove them to Seattle while Bezos worked on the business plan in the passenger seat. They rented a house in nearby Bellevue, where Amazon was founded in the garage in 1994.

Scott’s first book, The Testing of Luther Albright, based in part on her undergraduate thesis about Luther Augery, took her close to a decade to complete.

The more she avoided the spotlight, the more it seemed to find her

She had advantages over other first-time authors when the novel came out in 2005. Now a Nobel laureate, Morrison connected her own powerful agent, Amanda Urban, with her mentee and even gave her a coveted blurb for the cover of the book.

Her husband was by then one of the most famous men in America, but he was best known at the time for destabilizing the staid publishing industry to the detriment of local bookstores. Many in publishing were resentful.

Promotion and public events also did not come easily to Scott. “I am not a natural for big groups because I am such an introvert,” she told The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “I had that feeling of stage fright before a firing squad for my first reading.”

Another hallmark of Scott’s personality on display in her writing life was her dedication to intense research. Like the child rifling through the botany book for plant species, she reached out to a plumber to understand her protagonist’s home repairs and spent time with a civil engineer to grasp the details of his work building dams.

There was also a nascent sense in the book of philanthropy as a good. Liz, the wife of the protagonist, Luther, pins a clipping of a San Francisco Chronicle article about Bay Area philanthropy to the refrigerator, with a picture of her sister and two daughters on the porch of their Victorian. Luther asks Liz if her life with “no black-tie fundraisers. No big house. No girls in velvet dresses,” was disappointing. “Oh Luther,” Liz answers. “I don’t envy Trish because her life is fancy. I envy her because she’s so important.”

Scott and Bezos began to take their own steps into the charitable world. In 2004, the couple joined the board of the Bezos Family Foundation, a charitable vehicle of Bezos’ parents, who became rich in their own right from their early infusions of capital into the fledgling Since Bezos and Scott joined the board, tax records show, the foundation has given away more than $300 million.

In 2011, Bezos and Scott donated $15 million to Princeton for a centre to study the brain. The next year they gave $2.5 million in support of a same-sex marriage referendum. “Their gift was incredibly consequential,” said Zach Silk, campaign manager of Washington United for Marriage, completely changing the scale of what had been a “pretty scrappy” but somewhat underfunded effort.

When Scott’s second novel, Traps, was published in 2013, the extremely private Scott cracked the door to her life open to the public again to promote her book, sitting for a profile complete with photos by Vogue magazine, meeting the reporter at a Thai restaurant in Bellevue, Washington. Scott took pains on her publicity tour to demonstrate how normal she was, how she drove a regular Honda minivan when she took their four children to school.

One of the main characters in Traps is a famous actress named Jessica, who worries about security and employs a bodyguard. At one point, as she approaches the bodyguard’s car, Jessica thinks: “She will not try to influence this woman’s opinion. She will not work to project what she wants others to see (Kind! Down-to-earth! Humble! Normal!)”

The year after the book appeared, in April 2014, Scott started her own organisation, Bystander Revolution, which was a “website offering practical, crowdsourced advice about simple things individuals can do to defuse bullying and help shift the culture.”

But after a big launch, the site seemed to fizzle. The private Scott was founder and executive director but seemed to prefer not to serve as the organisation’s face, instead letting the stars take centre stage.

Yet the more she avoided the spotlight, the more it seemed to find her. In 2018, Forbes magazine named Bezos the richest man in the world, bringing a new level of attention and scrutiny on him, on his company and, by extension, on her.

In January 2019 Scott and Bezos jointly announced on his Twitter account that they were divorcing

The couple travelled to Florida in May 2018 for a dazzling celebration of Scott’s parents’ 55th wedding anniversary. Holiday Tuttle has been actively involved in a women’s group associated with St Edward Catholic Church, where the Kennedy family was once known to attend Mass, and Jason Baker Tuttle has served on the board of directors for the couple’s condominium association in a gated community with a golf course in West Palm Beach.

It is not clear how the Tuttles revived their fortunes. In addition to Holiday Tuttle’s work at boutiques, public records indicate that before the subprime meltdown, Jason Baker Tuttle was licensed in Florida as a mortgage broker, a real estate broker and an assistant appraiser and registered half a dozen shell companies with names like FAMCO Group and REALCO Group.

Calls to the Tuttles for comment were not returned.

The luminaries in attendance at the anniversary party, aside from Bezos and Scott, were of a decidedly right-wing bent. According to The Palm Beach Daily News, radio host Rush Limbaugh, Fox News personality Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter were all in attendance, as was Roger Ailes’ widow, Liz. Records show that Jason Baker Tuttle made a small contribution – $25 – to Ron DeSantis’ campaign for Florida governor that year, while the Tuttles had each previously contributed $500 to the Republican National Committee.

That same year, in September, Bezos and Scott pledged $2 billion to open Montessori-inspired preschools and support homeless families. It was their biggest commitment to charity yet and most likely among their last as a couple. In January 2019 Scott and Bezos jointly announced on his Twitter account that they were divorcing.

Her first big statement as a newly single woman came less than five months later on the website of the Giving Pledge, started by Bill Gates, Melinda French Gates and Warren Buffett as a place where billionaires promised to give away at least half their wealth. Scott went further, promising to "keep at it until the safe is empty".

The Giving Pledge is a public promise and little more. It has no donation schedules, no reporting requirements and no enforcement mechanisms. Still, it was a significant statement.

Nonprofits soon began receiving calls and emails about enormous grants from an anonymous donor, often the biggest donation in the group’s history or the equivalent of a full year’s budget. Some of those approaches were from staff members at the influential nonprofit consultancy Bridgespan, others from representatives at Lost Horse. The chosen charities were told they could not announce the gifts until the donor did.

On July 28th, 2020, Scott tweeted a link to a post on the website Medium, where she unveiled the scale of her ambition as a philanthropist. In the Twitter post, she added a parenthetical: “(Note my Medium account is under my new last name – changed back to middle name I grew up with, after my grandfather Scott.)”

She gave big. She gave fast. She gave with few strings attached. And unlike with Bystander Revolution, she was front and centre.

“My own reflection after recent events revealed a dividend of privilege I’d been overlooking: the attention I can call to organisations and leaders driving change,” she said, in her first public catalogue of her giving. She put herself out there but not at the public events that, by her own admission, made her uncomfortable, yet using the skill she’d been honing since she was eating Oreos and reading botany books: her writing.

Her gifts were the talk of charitable circles. It did not escape notice at the Ford Foundation, for instance, that more than half the groups she had given to were among their grantees.

Commentary was overwhelmingly positive, but philanthropy experts raised significant questions. Scott did not have a foundation that would have to file detailed tax returns. Instead, she gave through the lightly regulated vehicles known as donor-advised funds, which meant she could make large, tax-deductible donations with no transparency requirements.

Scott had pledged to give "until the safe is empty" but her remaining Amazon shares were worth more than at the time of the divorce

If there were causes she supported but did not want the world to know about, she could simply choose not to include them in the Medium post.

“Her preferences are shaping the face of American civil society because of the size of the funding she’s providing,” said Rob Reich, co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University. “That power deserves civic scrutiny and attention.”

Those concerns were temporarily overshadowed when, less than five months later, on December 15th, 2020, Scott announced another, even bigger round of giving, $4.2 billion to 384 organisations, including hundreds of Easterseals, United Way, YWCA and YMCA chapters, groups that were doing a lot of good on the front lines during the pandemic but not the kind of innovation-focused giving that the Silicon Valley set prioritises. Some were groups that her mother might have gone to a luncheon for in Palm Beach, or her grandmother in El Paso, Texas.

Three days later, on December 18th, 2020, the change of her last name to Scott was legal and official, according to court records from Bellevue. In a deeper sense, her public identity had also changed. She was no longer seen publicly as Jeff Bezos’ former wife first. She was MacKenzie Scott, the novelist upending philanthropy. She had found a way to be important with no black-tie fundraisers and no velvet dresses.

Last June Scott announced another round of giving, $2.7 billion this time. She had pledged to give “until the safe is empty” but her remaining Amazon shares were worth more than at the time of the divorce, the result of a soaring market that fuelled further debate over billionaires and income inequality.

That was when she published a new letter this past December, the one where she opened up about her struggles during college, showed more of herself, but with the headline, “No Dollar Signs This Time,” which meant both that the symbol “$” wasn’t used, but also that she did not say how many billions had gone out the door since June. She was removing the spectacle from the proceedings.

Her approach to press inquiries, she wrote, involved 'respecting the autonomy and role of journalists by doing nothing to try to influence or control what they report'

Critics complained that she had retreated into less transparency rather than share more information, as nonprofit governance experts had called for. But something unusual happened. Scott, who follows no one on Twitter, and who has given no interviews about her philanthropy, responded to the discussion with another note including “a paragraph I wish I hadn’t cut from the essay,” about releasing more data in the year to come. She had meant to say that her team was building a website, the plans for which included a “searchable database of gifts.”

On paper, Lost Horse’s headquarters are a law firm office in a downtown Seattle skyscraper and a tax firm in Los Angeles that handles family offices for high net worth individuals.

Public records also show that Lost Horse has an office of its own in a brand-new eco-friendly building in Seattle. In keeping with the absolute secrecy surrounding Lost Horse’s operations, there is no name plate in the lobby and the slim rectangular window on the Lost Horse floor is papered over. On a recent morning no one answered the door or the phone.

A man who appeared to be a security guard at an address linked to another shell company in an affluent corner of Seattle said, “They’re not available at the moment.”

Shortly after a reporter appeared at those addresses seeking comment last month, Scott published her latest missive on Medium, announcing another $3.86 billion in gifts, and returning to her practice of noting the total dollar value of her gifts.

In it she seemed to address the contradictory urges of preserving privacy while commanding attention for the causes she supported. Her approach to press inquiries, she wrote, involved “respecting the autonomy and role of journalists by doing nothing to try to influence or control what they report”.

"We are all human," she wrote in the post. "And we all have enormous energy to devote to helping and protecting those we love." – This article originally appeared in The New York Times