"I Was a Starter Wife": Inside America's Messiest Divorce

In the middle of her headline-grabbing divorce settlement, Justine Musk reveals the truth about her marriage to the multimillionaire cofounder of PayPal.

Lauren Greenfield

In the late spring of 2008, my wealthy entrepreneurial husband, Elon Musk, the father of my five young sons, filed for divorce. Six weeks later, he texted me to say he was engaged to a gorgeous British actress in her early 20s who had moved to Los Angeles to be with him. Her name is Talulah Riley, and she played one of the sisters in 2005's Pride and Prejudice. Two of the things that struck me were: a) Pride and Prejudice is a really good movie, and b) My life with this man had devolved to a cliché.

At least she wasn't blonde. I found that refreshing.

When I first met Elon, I wasn't blonde, either. I was an aspiring writer in my first year at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, sprung from a small hometown and recovering from a difficult case of first love with the older man I'd left behind. I liked older. I liked poetic and rebellious and tortured. I liked a guy who parked his motorcycle beneath my dorm-room window and called my name through the twilight: Romeo in a dark-brown leather jacket.

Elon wasn't like that. A fellow student a year ahead of me, he was a clean-cut, upper-class boy with a South African accent who appeared in front of me one afternoon as I was leaping up the steps to my dorm. He said we'd met at a party I knew I hadn't been to. (Years later, he would confess that he had noticed me from across the common room and decided he wanted to meet me.) He invited me out for ice cream. I said yes, but then blew him off with a note on my dorm-room door. Several hours later, my head bent over my Spanish text in an overheated room in the student center, I heard a polite cough behind me. Elon was smiling awkwardly, two chocolate-chip ice cream cones dripping down his hands. He's not a man who takes no for an answer.

He was a scientific type, at home with numbers, commerce, and logic. I was not the only woman he pursued, but even after he transferred to Wharton he kept sending roses. When he'd return to Queen's to visit friends, I found myself agreeing to have dinner with him. Once, in the bookstore together, I pointed to a shelf and said, "One day I want my own books to go right there." I had said this before to a girlfriend, who laughed and spun on her heel. But Elon not only took me seriously, he seemed impressed. It was the first time that a boy found my sense of ambition — instead of my long hair or narrow waist — attractive. Previous boyfriends complained that I was "competitive," but Elon said I had "a fire in my soul." When he told me, "I see myself in you," I knew what he meant.

After I graduated, I taught ESL in Japan for a year — Elon and I had by then gone our separate ways. Back in Canada I took a bartending job, worked on my novel, and debated whether to go back to Japan or to grad school. One night I heard myself tell my sister, "If Elon ever calls me again, I think I'll go for it. I might have missed something there." He called me one week later.

After graduation, he'd moved to Silicon Valley. He was sharing an apartment in Mountain View with three roommates and building his first dot-com company, Zip2. I soon flew out for the first of many visits. One night, over dinner, he asked me how many kids I wanted to have. "One or two," I said immediately, "although if I could afford nannies, I'd like to have four."

He laughed. "That's the difference between you and me," he said. "I just assume that there will be nannies." He made a rocking motion with his arms and said, happily, "Baby."

Then he took me to a bookstore and handed me his credit card. "Buy as many books as you want," he said. No man could have said anything sweeter.

Two years later — two months before our January 2000 wedding — Elon told me we had an appointment with a lawyer who was going to help us with a "financial agreement" that the board of his new company wanted us to sign. When I looked at him, he said quickly, "It's not a prenup."

Although I'd been dating a struggling 20-something entrepreneur, I was now engaged to a wealthy one. Elon had sold Zip2, which partnered with newspapers to help them get online, in 1999, the year before, and was worth about $20 million overnight. He bought and renovated an 1,800-square-foot condo: We now had a place of our own. He also bought a million-dollar sports car — a McLaren F1 — and a small plane. Our day-to-day routine remained the same (except for the addition of flying lessons), and 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. Instead, he proposed, getting down on bended knee on a street corner.

Most of his newfound fortune he rolled over into his second company, an online banking institution, X.com, that later became PayPal (the online payment company). It was this board that was supposedly urging him to get a "financial agreement." What I didn't understand at the time was that Elon was actually ushering me into a period of "mediation," which, I now know, means anything done or spoken is confidential and cannot be used in a court of law. But I had no time to research mediation, or learn that it rarely serves the interest of the less powerful person in the relationship. Years later, I came to learn these things. But two months after our wedding, I simply signed the postnuptial agreement. I trusted my husband — why else had I married him? — and I told myself it didn't matter. We were soul mates. We would never get divorced. A life without Elon was unthinkable, something I'd realized a few months before he proposed, as we napped together one spring afternoon before a friend's wedding. With my arm slung across his chest, I felt that he was my own private Alexander the Great.

Still, there were warning signs. As we danced at our wedding reception, Elon told me, "I am the alpha in this relationship." I shrugged it off, just as I would later shrug off signing the postnuptial agreement, but as time went on, I learned that he was serious. He had grown up in the male-dominated culture of South Africa, and the will to compete and dominate that made him so successful in business did not magically shut off when he came home. This, and the vast economic imbalance between us, meant that in the months following our wedding, a certain dynamic began to take hold. 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."

"If you were my employee," he said just as often, "I would fire you."

By the time eBay bought PayPal in 2002, we had moved to Los Angeles and had our first child, a boy named Nevada Alexander. The sale of PayPal vaulted Elon's net worth to well over $100 million. The same week, Nevada went down for a nap, placed on his back as always, and stopped breathing. He was 10 weeks old, the age when male infants are most susceptible to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). By the time the paramedics resuscitated him, he had been deprived of oxygen for so long that he was brain-dead. He spent three days on life support in a hospital in Orange County before we made the decision to take him off it. I held him in my arms when he died.

Elon made it clear that he did not want to talk about Nevada's death. I didn't understand this, just as he didn't understand why I grieved openly, which he regarded as "emotionally manipulative." I buried my feelings instead, coping with Nevada's death by making my first visit to an IVF clinic less than two months later. Elon and I planned to get pregnant again as swiftly as possible. Within the next five years, I gave birth to twins, then triplets, and I sold three novels to Penguin and Simon & Schuster. Even so, Nevada's death sent me on a years-long inward spiral of depression and distraction that would be continuing today if one of our nannies hadn't noticed me struggling. She approached me with the name of an excellent therapist. Dubious, I gave it a shot. In those weekly sessions, I began to get perspective on what had become my life.

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