SMIRK (audio version)
Chapter 14, Part 4: Sister Wives

Chapter 14, Part 4: Sister Wives

Whatever I was getting into with Martin Shkreli, I had a sense that it would not be monogamous. Fortunately, there was a template for a kind of big, happy family he could emulate.

A lot of wannabe billionaire hustlers, including virtually all reasonably well-read finance and tech bros, idolize Warren Buffett — and not only for his business acumen. Martin Shkreli was no exception.

Along with being one of the most successful investors on the planet – Berkshire Hathaway was just a humble textile maker before he turned it into a massively profitable conglomerate – Buffett is a weirdo. Especially in the context of the tradition-loving Silent Generation, of which the 92-year-old is a part, Buffett famously bucked trends, bubbles, and social norms, including expectations that he behave like an “elite.”

The world’s fifth richest human has lived for many decades in the same five-bedroom stucco house in Omaha. He does not have a vast array of luxury homes in more exotic locales, nor has he ever owned a yacht. Instead of exclusive restaurants or the latest health-food craze, he prefers McDonald’s. Instead of being mocked as gauche, though, Buffett has usually been framed in the media as a brilliant eccentric. It probably didn’t hurt his image that he had a fondness for newspapers

In one regard, Buffett did act like other billionaires: He had multiple women in his life, and he was not at all monogamous. As described in detail by author Alice Schroeder in Buffett biography “The Snowball,” he effectively had two wives: Susan Thompson, who passed away in 2004, and long-term companion Astrid Menks, whom he legally married in 2006. Thompson and Menks were friends and the wholesome triad signed Christmas cards together.

Illustration of Warren Buffett, Susan Thompson and Astrid Menks.
Illustration of Warren Buffett, Susan Thompson and Astrid Menks.

While all that was going on, Buffett also developed a close friendship (which turned romantic) with Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. If you know nothing else about Graham, you may recall she was played by Meryl Streep in 2017’s “The Post.” The movie, correctly portraying Graham as a badass, detailed the newspaper’s 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the U.S. government’s lies about the Vietnam War. Graham’s memoir “Personal History” also inspired my budding journalistic ambitions when I was in college.

And there may have easily been other women in Buffett’s life, too. Schroeder, for instance, has tended to respond coyly when asked about her interactions with Buffett – who gave her virtually limitless access for “The Snowball” and demanded nothing in return, including any review of her material. (This relationship has never aroused much public suspicion, though. Perhaps they were “just friends.”)

It’s interesting to look at Martin’s choices in the context of Buffett’s personal life. Back when Martin and I first started talking about me writing a book, he immediately suggested a similar arrangement to what Buffett had with Schroeder. He would give me access to whatever I wanted and I would have full editorial control. 

Also mirroring Buffett, Martin turned cold on me for publicly revealing what he considered to be an awkward aspect of his personal life (dating me). Buffett, who was uncomfortable with discussion in “The Snowball” of his wife Susan’s unhappy moments, did the same with Schroeder.

Schroeder’s “The Snowball” and Graham’s “Personal History.”
Schroeder’s “The Snowball” and Graham’s “Personal History.”

Looking at Buffett, and Martin, and numerous wealthy, powerful (heterosexual) men, it’s hard not to wonder: Do they secretly, or not-so-secretly, all harbor a desire to be polygamous, like stallions or silverback gorillas? Sure, there are women who are sexually forward and have multiple partners. But for the most part, exploring outside the boundaries of monogamy or straight-up cultivating a “harem” is a dude thing. 

Through our contemporary first-world perspective, polygamy especially is considered an abusive, narcissistic dude thing, relegated to fundamentalist Mormons, cult leaders, and societies where women lack human rights. I’m not sure if having a series of clandestine affairs is a better option, though.

At least Buffett was reasonably honest with the women who were involved about what he was doing. Plenty of other billionaires who have racked up affairs and gargantuan divorces wouldn’t be able to say the same. 

While I was dating Martin, I felt I had to grapple with the existential question: Could I handle non-monogamy? Try as he might to assure me that he was done playing the field (yeah, right)...

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SMIRK (audio version)
My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
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Christie Smythe