Friday, March 15, 2019

Is Jeff Bezos a Tolkien Fan?

So, it's more than a full month since our quick visit to New York to see the Tolkien Exhibit. Accordingly, this seems like now-or-never time to add a brief postscript to my posts about the event.

First off, to repeat: this exhibit is a once-in-a-lifetime event, both in its Bodleian and Morgan iterations, and no doubt in the forthcoming Parisian Exhibit as well. I'm glad I got to go purely for the access to the items on display. But there was more: getting the chance to spend time with Tolkien friends, visiting New York City (albeit briefly) for the first time, hear some interesting talks, and in general enjoy being a Tolkienist among My People.

One interesting side-event took place when during Verlyn's lecture the person sitting next to me (Carl) asked in a whisper if  I recognized the person sitting at the end of the row in front of us. When I said no, he said "that's Jeff Bezos".

As in Jeff Bezos, president of Amazon. The richest man in the world. Sitting in the audience showing every sign of enjoying the talks along with the rest of us.

Later we saw him again at the reception, standing right in front of us during Simon Tolkien's talk about his grandfather, after which Carl spoke to him very briefly (some conversational pleasantry along the lines of 'glad to see you here, Mr. Bezos') and shook his hand. *

Afterwards I did a little digging and found there was precedent in his being at an event at the Morgan:  he had chosen the Morgan as the venue where he announced the release of the Kindle 2 almost exactly ten years earlier (Feb. 9th 2009).

Bezos has Tolkien connections as well, having personally intervened to seal the deal last year when Amazon was negotiating rights to make an ongoing streaming series as a prequel+remake of LotR (also known as 'the billion dollar deal').**

Finally, there was unadvertised presence of several members of the Tolkien family: not only did Simon Tolkien speak at the reception, but I was told that Michael George (JRRT's oldest grandson) was there as well; they also had announced a little earlier in the evening that Priscilla Tolkien had wanted to come but in the end not been able to make it.

Which casts interesting light upon comments made by Douglas Kane on my previous post in which he quotes some intriguing remarks by the head of Amazon Studios, the people who'll be making the new Tolkien adaptations:

In a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter, Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke was bizarrely quoted as saying in "early February" that "The Tolkiens are coming to New York, all those estate holders. The older ladies, who are now, I think, in their 80s and 90s. His daughters and the grandchildren, they're coming to New York, and Jeff Bezos, me, Jeff Blackburn, a team of us are going and they've invited us to a dinner and see some art, some creative work that they haven't shown the world yet." Setting aside the rather astounding fact that the head of the studio that is making this secretive new TV show apparently doesn't know how many daughters Tolkien had, it immediately occurred to me that you had mentioned that Simon Tolkien was in New York on February 7 (presumably just after she made this comment in "early February"). Were any other Tolkien family members present at the reception?

All this came on the same day that Mr. Bezos announced that he was the target of attempted blackmail by the NATIONAL INQUIRER,*** and just the week before Amazon abandoned their plans to set up a major new headquarters on Long Island, so there was clearly a lot in the works, both on the Tolkien and the Bezos front, that week in February.

Leads me to suspect that Paul Allen wasn't the only billionaire to be a Tolkien fan.

--John R.

*that I didn't recognize him myself is unsurprising (that pesky face blindness thing again), but then this is me we're talking about, a person who once walked past Kareen Abdul Jabbar at an airport and didn't notice him.

**more on the forthcoming series in an upcoming post



Ellie Keener said...

Since the Amazon series was announced, I've heard various rumors about Jeff Bezos being a big Tolkien fan, though some of them been circulating for much longer. While I can't say how accurate the "big" part is, here's a video of a much-younger Bezos talking about his love of SF/F, including "The Hobbit and Tolkien's trilogy".

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear U.

Thanks for the comment and the link, both of which I found quite interesting. I too remember at one time setting out to see if I cd read all the Newbery Award winners (of course there were fewer of them then). I didn't get through them all, but I read a lot of great books I wdn't otherwise have known of. In part Bezos' remarks tie in with the larger point about how Tolkien is becoming ubiquitous, but I suspect a lot of us interested in Tolkien now, like Bezos, have fond memories of some town library or school librarian who pointed us at the right books at the right time.*

--in Milwaukee, which was a big Irish city before it became a big German city (via a big shipwreck, a story told at Turners' Hall)

*I'm reminded of the line in a Don Henley song about "that same small town in each of us".

Doug Kane said...

Thanks for this, John. It pretty much confirms that my speculation was correct, I think.

I look forward to your post on the new series.