In the Year Before Tony Hsieh's Death, an Unraveling

The 'Wall Street Journal' looks at the Zappos founder's life in Park City, Utah
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 4, 2021 1:38 PM CDT
Inside the Risky and Unconventional Life of Tony Hsieh
In this Sept. 30, 2013, file photo, Tony Hsieh speaks during a Grand Rapids Economic Club luncheon in Grand Rapids, Mich.   (Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

By now, you've likely heard the grim story of Tony Hsieh, the Zappos founder who died of smoke inhalation after being pulled from an on-fire shed in a Connecticut yard in November. Relying on interviews, personal documents, public and court records, emails, and more, the Wall Street Journal digs in to the last year of Hsieh's life. It was mostly spent in Park City, Utah, with a group of former employees and friends who had followed him to his 17,350-square-foot mansion and were living off his largesse, which came in the form of giant salaries and commissions. Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayre writes that the group was in theory supporting Hsieh as he sought his next major project. "In practice, Mr. Hsieh stood at the center of a communal enterprise where followers enabled his drug and alcohol habits while jockeying for control of projects that paid financial rewards."

Grind and Sayre delve into his use of and belief in nitrous oxide (Hsieh thought inhaling it would usher people toward spiritual enlightenment), the group's unconventional lifestyle (a desire to be "close to nature," they write, led the group to leave faucets running to sound like waterfalls and choose not to pick up dog poop), and the group's devotion to Hsieh and competition for his favor and funds. Singer-songwriter Jewel, who had long been friends with Hsieh, visited his home in August and afterward sent him a two-page letter of concern that read in part, "You need to ask yourself one question: do you want to die this year or next—are you done helping the world? I say this with love, and as possibly the only person in your circle not on your payroll." The letter was posted inside his home, encircled with sticky notes bearing comments that took on a mocking tone. A little more than two months later, he was dead. (Read the full piece here.)

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