During my flying visit to The Writers’ Block in Vegas this week, co-owner Scott asked me if I’d read the new book about Tony Hsieh.
I didn’t even know there was a new book about Tony Hsieh. So I bought a copy, and yesterday read it in a single sitting.
A quick disclosure: A couple of years ago, I put together a proposal for my own book about my old friend/investor/journalistic subject, and the years I’d spent in the Downtown Project witnessing first hand his genius and his (ultimately deadly) obsession with turning the world into a giant college campus with him at the center. The book was rejected by two dozen publishers, all with variations on the same blunt theme: A previous book about Tony and the Downtown Project didn’t sell and we’re not convinced readers care enough about him to warrant another one.
Happy At Any Cost, written by Wall Street Journal reporters Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayer, seems determined to prove those skeptical editors right.
The subtitle of the book is “the revolutionary vision and fatal quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh” but in reality the focus is heavily on the second part of that title: Tony’s “fatal quest” to Park City, Utah where, enabled by a gaggle of parasitic and sociopathic hangers-on, he spiraled deep into drug addiction and mental illness before suffocating, alone, in a locked, burning shed surrounded by empty whippet canisters.
In telling that story, the reporters have done an excellent reporting job: Speaking at length with Tony’s “friends” who were with him in Utah in the weeks and months before he died, and the local officials tasked with piecing together the tragic events of November 17 2020. They also had access to family members, and even the mental health professional who tried to perform a “wellness check” on Tony in his final months. The result is a meticulously detailed account of Tony’s death that at times feels like a report from an official enquiry – laying out the facts and letting readers make their own judgement as to who was to blame.
If I were one of those hangers on – one of two in particular – I’d be (unjustifiably) furious about the book, and deeply panicked given the impending lawsuits. Grind and Sayer paint a stark picture of how some of the people closest to Tony extracted more and more cash from a clearly deeply troubled man as he was spiraling towards oblivion. Anyone who spent a jot of time in Tony’s world – even during the good times – will believe every word is true.
As COVID sent everyone into isolation, the only people who still wanted to cram themselves onto a tour bus or indulge in “cuddle puddles” were those for whom the potential financial rewards of proximity to Tony outweighed the risks. As he spiraled further into obvious mental illness, even many of those fell away, leaving just the most willfully blind, or unforgivably cruel.
The scene where the last members of his entourage sit, shocked, as Tony’s lifeless body is carried away on a stretcher reads like Lord of the Flies as written by Æsop: A group of monstrous children who suddenly realize their golden goose is dead.
Reading as someone who knew Tony, both as a friend and sometime fiercest critic, the rest of the book felt both unsatisfying and unfair. By starting at the end of Tony’s life, the authors deny readers the context of the “real” Tony – the one most of us knew and loved, long before the drugs and mental health crisis took hold. Instead, with images of messianic episodes and pyromania firmly planted, we are stuck with the impression of that same drugged, deranged cult leader/victim somehow building LinkExchange, Venture Frogs, Zappos (2.0) and the Downtown Project.
Holacracy wasn’t a terrible idea because Tony was mentally incapacitated when he adopted it (he wasn’t), Jody Sherman didn’t die because his key investor was on ketamine (he wasn’t) and Amazon, for all its flaws, certainly didn’t buy a company built by a shirtless man who believed he had the secret of the universe scribbled inside a small cardboard box. The Tony at the end of his life was unrecognizable from the earlier “revolutionary visionary” who could and should have changed the world.
I get it. And publishers get it. Tony was not Steve Jobs: neither by impact, nor fame. There is already a book about the Downtown Project, and it sold only a handful of copies. Fans of Tony’ entrepreneurial triumphs have already read Delivering Happiness. His death is what makes his story gripping to readers, and potentially to Hollywood.
But if mass appeal was the goal for “Happy At Any Cost”, then the book has an even bigger flaw. Despite conducting more than two hundred interviews with Tony’s friends and associates, the authors still failed to find a single likable, relatable participant in the story for readers to identify with, to make them feel the tragedy of Tony’s death rather than simply to acknowledge it. Without that person – without letting us inside their head as the story unfolds – the book reads like a very, very long Wall Street Journal article rather than the tragic, human, gripping book it could otherwise have been.
We never learn what lies Tony’s entourage had to tell themselves to watch a man slowly killing himself as they sing and clap along to Jewel. Tony’s family members – who tried desperately to intervene and save his life – are rendered flatly and factually on the page. Even Steve-O, Tony’s loyal and tireless driver for more than a decade, is confined by the group, and the narrative, to a succession of motel rooms. (Sidenote: If any of Tony’s employees deserves a giant payout from his estate, it is Steve.)
Speaking of Jewel, she is the nearest person the book has to an emotional hero. Briefly we see the singer arrive at Tony’s compound and witness first-hand the squalor, the fire hazards, the madness. She extends her trip, stages a intervention with his entourage, then ultimately returns home defeated…
“Before Jewel left, she told the head of security, Shawn Kane, ‘If he kills himself and everyone else in there from a huge fire, you can’t say you weren’t warned.”
She later wrote Tony letter, begging him to seek help. Tony’s friends stuck the letter to a cork board, annotated with mocking post it notes.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting Jewel should have been the protagonist of the book. Nor that family members should have set aside their grief to play that role. Just that someone should have played that role – even if it was the two reporters themselves, trying to chase down the story when so many of their sources were sociopathic, complicit liars.
Maybe the authors felt that inserting themselves into the story would be tacky, or a cliche (although they do insert themselves briefly at the end, with an odd anecdote about calling Zappos customer service and everyone being very nice.)
Maybe their decision not to focus on any one particular “character” in Tony’s life for more than a few pages was a deliberate one, made for journalistic or even legal reasons.
I hope one of those explanations is true, because the alternative is too tragic to contemplate: That, despite all those interviews and all that reporting, the authors tried and failed to find a single person in Park City, at the end, who wasn’t related by blood to Tony but still cared deeply enough about his life or death to make readers do the same.