‘He is driven by demons’: biographer Walter Isaacson on Elon Musk

It is late morning on a Friday in Galatoire’s Restaurant on Bourbon Street, New Orleans — a road famous for multicoloured buildings and wild bars — and I seem to be almost the only sober customer in the joint. 

On one side of me a group of women dressed in Barbie pink are shrieking and waving lurid cocktails; on the other, rowdy men are hosting a pre-wedding party. Purple, green and gold balloons hang across the restaurant, which has the ambience of an old-fashioned French saloon.

“It’s a scene!” yells the American writer Walter Isaacson, straining to be heard above the cacophony. 

I reflect to myself that it seems like an odd place to meet someone who is famous for tackling high-minded questions such as how to unleash innovation in America or navigate artificial intelligence. Or maybe not. The trigger for our lunch is that Isaacson, 71, has just explored these issues by writing a biography of a man who is as zany, loud-mouthed, unpredictable and wild as any New Orleans bar: Elon Musk. The book’s contents were being kept closely guarded ahead of publication day on Tuesday.

Chasing a controversial innovator was not a novel task for Isaacson: he has already penned hefty, bestselling biographies of Steve Jobs, Jennifer Doudna, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. I ordered these books before our lunch and the resulting stack of paper was almost a foot high.

However, exploring the mind of Musk was “not quite like anything I have ever done before”, he says, as we sit down. “I told him at the beginning [of the project] that if I am going to do this I have to be at your side for two years and I want to talk to you almost every day — I want to be like Boswell doing Doctor Johnson.” 

That delivered “a wild ride”, says Isaacson. But it also left him (and everyone else) grappling with big questions: do you have to be half-crazy to be truly innovative, or a genius? And how do you stop a brilliant mind from spinning out of control?

“He told me he thinks he is bipolar — but has never been diagnosed,” Isaacson shouts a few minutes later, as I push the microphone into a wine glass beneath his mouth to contend with the hubbub. “But I think it is more complicated.” Indeed.

We have met in this unlikely venue because Isaacson is a local luminary: his family have lived in the city for several generations and he grew up close to Bourbon Street, a historic district known for its tourist crowds and Creole culture. “I had a magical childhood,” he confides, with a slight southern twang. “Very different from Musk.” 

As a young adult, Isaacson studied at Harvard and Oxford, fell in love with journalism and, after working for Britain’s The Sunday Times and a New Orleans paper, moved to New York, where he had a storied career: he became editor of Time magazine and chief executive of CNN before running the Aspen Institute, a think-tank, and transforming its fortunes. 

But when Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown in 2005, it left him aching to reconnect with his roots. So he moved back a few years ago and now teaches history at Tulane University, while tirelessly championing the city and its icons. 

Galatoire’s is an upmarket French Creole-inspired restaurant founded in 1905. “It’s a piece of history,” declares Isaacson as we arrive and the restaurant manager and waiters rush up, greeting him as a regular. The Democrat strategist James Carville — another New Orleans local — appears at our table, eager to swap gossip about US president Joe Biden. Then other guests swarm in, escaping the August street heat: 35C with 90 per cent humidity. 

“What’s good to eat?” I shout, yearning for a light salad.

A waiter called Billy dumps big white bread rolls on the table and recommends starters of a local crab dish and shrimp remoulade, followed by fish. Lemon fish, red fish or pompano? Isaacson chooses pompano; I settle on red fish. Vegetables? Isaacson shakes his head, so I furtively order spinach. Cocktails? I mentally prepare to embrace the Creole spirit. But Isaacson orders a modest glass of white wine — “it’s a house blend, very good” — and I follow suit. 


Galatoire’s Restaurant
209 Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA 70130, US

Crab with anchovies and mushrooms $20
Shrimp remoulade $15
Pompano $43
Red fish $44
Side of spinach $6
Glass of white wine x 2 $30
Total (incl tax) $174.52

As the wine arrives — mercifully crisp and cold — I ask Isaacson how he persuaded Musk to back his project. When he wrote his biography of Jobs, a decade ago, the Apple co-founder was willing to chat because he was battling cancer and mindful of his legacy. But Musk is young and still in a feverish expansion mode; why talk now?

“In 2021, I was kicking around looking for my next book, and a lot of friends, including Mike Bloomberg, said I should do Elon,” Isaacson explains. “So someone set up a phone call with him and we talked for an hour and a half, and I told him that if I do this I need total access, and you have absolutely no control over the book. None.”

Did he accept that? Musk is (in)famously obsessive about controlling even the small details of his life.

Isaacson nods. “He just said “OK!” Then he asked me if I minded if he told other people [about the book] and, of course, I said no.” Then, a few minutes later, Isaacson met up with friends who told him that Musk had dispatched a tweet — even during the phone call — announcing that Isaacson would be his biographer. Isaacson was shocked. “It was the first example [I saw] of him being totally impetuous.”

Why did Musk agree? “He loves history and he has a big enough ego that he thinks of himself as a historical figure — and he has a desire to surprise people with his openness and brutal honesty,” Isaacson says. Had Musk done his research before agreeing, by reading Isaacson’s searing biography of Jobs (which Jobs’ family disliked)? “No.”

A creamy dish of crab festooned with anchovies, mushrooms and green onions appears, next to orange-coloured shrimp remoulade. Both are delicious, but also very rich. 

Isaacson duly started shadowing Musk, expecting “this to be easy”, since his new subject was riding high. A decade earlier two of Musk’s companies — Tesla and SpaceX — had almost drowned in debt. But by 2021, Tesla had sold almost 1mn cars and SpaceX made 31 successful launches. That rebound had made Musk the richest man in the world; and Time magazine and the Financial Times named him “Person of the Year” for his vision in transforming green transport and space travel.

But then “everything was going so well that [Musk] became uncomfortable”, Isaacson says. “He doesn’t like things when they are going well. He is addicted to drama.” So, perhaps out of boredom, Musk hatched a plan to take over Twitter, the social media giant now known as X. “When I heard that, I knew I would have a rough ride [as his biographer],” Isaacson notes. “I thought it was insane — Musk doesn’t have empathy and so Twitter was not a good fit for him.”

Quite so. In the spring of 2022, Musk offered $44bn for Twitter and plunged into a damaging war with its staff, the media, users and liberal politicians. But Musk did not kick his biographer out; instead, Isaacson says, “I sat week after week on the sidelines taking notes. I was in the conference room at all the corporate meetings, attended his Zoom calls. I was at family dinners with his kids.”

But didn’t that breach commercial secrets? My mind boggles at what Tesla shareholders, say, might think. “I worried about that [privacy issue] more than he did,” Isaacson notes tartly, explaining that he was there during the intense internal debates when Musk decided to change Tesla’s approach towards self-driving cars away from one that used pre-designed rules for the artificial intelligence (say, to not run red lights) into one that studied Tesla video feed from onboard cameras to see how humans actually drive, and mimic them (even if, say, this means sometimes crossing a red light).

Even more explosively, Isaacson watched Musk embark recently on a hitherto-secretive drive to create an AI company, where he apparently hopes to use the vast stores of data from Twitter and Tesla to leapfrog other AI companies such as OpenAI. This could have huge commercial significance for the AI sector.  

More controversial still, Isaacson observed Musk’s negotiations with the Ukrainian government in late 2022, when its army was using SpaceX’s Starlink communications system to support its military. Musk prevented the system from being used in areas claimed by Russia. “I have these [messages] in real time as he is turning off Starlink around Crimea because there was a secret drone attack,” Isaacson tells me, noting that Musk gave him all the encrypted messages with [Mykhailo] Fedorov, the Ukrainian digital minister, seemingly without asking the Ukrainians, and some of these are in the book.

I am shocked. Might that not put lives at risk in Ukraine? Or hurt the country’s western backers? “These text messages are a few months old. If there would have been operational [issues] I would not have published them,” Isaacson insists, noting that SpaceX subsequently cut a deal with the Pentagon that puts control into the hands of the US military. (Musk and Isaacson have been revising the details of the story in recent days, suggesting that the service was already deactivated in Crimea at the time of the attack.)

Musk fell into the habit of calling or texting him late at night to reflect on whatever dramas he was engaged in that day. “Elon is very mercurial, but he never told me not to put anything in the book.”

Did you ever feel like you were becoming his therapist, rather than his biographer? At the Aspen Institute, Isaacson was famously skilled at stroking powerful egos, even while challenging them intellectually. Isaacson bristles. “I never wanted to be either his therapist or adviser.” Fair enough. But their relationship does highlight the challenge of writing about a living person: how do you get close enough to capture their essence without being captured yourself?

“I learnt not to fill his silences,” Isaacson explains. “Sometimes it would be Elon and me alone after a [company] meeting and I would ask him a question and he didn’t answer, and there would be four or five minutes of silence where he was processing. That is hard — we journalists sometimes don’t have the ability to stay silent for four minutes!” 

At first Isaacson was baffled by this. But then “Shivon Zilis [an executive at Musk’s Neuralink company who has had twins with him] told him that “Musk engages in batch processing — he sequentially processes information and at times he zones out”.

This makes him sound like a computer, I reflect. But this robotic analysis was interspersed with wild mood swings. “In front of me he would go into multiple Elon Musk personalities. There are times he gets really dark and he goes into what Grimes [the Canadian singer who is Musk’s on-off girlfriend] calls ‘demon mode’.” He will become angry. “But then when he snaps out he will hardly remember what he did in demon mode and turns from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde.” Yikes.

Why? In a recent New Yorker profile of Musk, the writer Ronan Farrow suggested that excessive ketamine use might explain his volatility. But Isaacson disagrees: “I don’t think it’s a medication issue — he has been this way for a long, long time.” Instead, he cites the “pain of his childhood”: Musk grew up amid violence in apartheid-era South Africa, and had a difficult relationship with his father; he was left “feeling like an outsider” and haunted by a need to prove himself. 

“He is driven by demons,” Isaacson calmly notes — and then points out that this is not so unusual since many of the brilliant innovators he has previously studied were also haunted by feeling marginalised, whether it was the Jewish Einstein in early 20th-century Germany or the female Doudna operating in a male scientific world, or the illegitimate Leonardo.

Billy the waiter collects our dishes, and I realise that I have eaten most of the crab; it was deliciously succulent. Then two plates of fish, smothered in more crab, appear; I gingerly poke at mine, already feeling bloated in the summer heat from the heavy food. 

Do innovators have to be a psychological mess to have the drive to succeed? Isaacson pulls a face. “I was born in a magical place with truly wonderful parents,” he says, gesturing around him. “And I am never going to send a rocket to Mars.” He pauses.

“Musk goes through manic mood swings and deep depressions and risk-seeking highs, and if he didn’t have that risk-seeking maniacal personality he would not be the person who launched EVs and got rockets into orbit.

“So my key point and conclusion is that all people have light and dark strands, whether that is Da Vinci or anyone else. We celebrate the light ones while decrying the dark ones. But those strands are entwined and you can’t disentangle them.”

To put it bluntly: Isaacson thinks that Elon’s demons are also his inspirational angels.

Of course, Isaacson adds, this is not the only key to genius: the other trait that many of the people he has studied also share is a passion for interdisciplinary study. Leonardo, say, explored the arts, humanities and science in combination, while Jobs used the principles of calligraphy to design computers. Isaacson argues that building interdisciplinary curriculums is one secret of unleashing more innovation. 

“At Tulane we try to make sure that everyone has a double major in science and humanities — we need kids who are creative, not just those who can code.” Indeed, he believes that the crazy, artistic whirl of New Orleans, where boundaries are made to be broken, is the perfect cauldron for these collisions.

But could Musk’s “demons” overwhelm him? Isaacson hedges his bets. “I always think he is going to go off the edge with that maniacal intensity — he is spread far too thin,” he admits, noting that Musk is now in charge of six companies: the social media platform X, Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, the Boring Company — and his secretive AI group, xAI. “I thought he would blow Twitter up. But every morning I wake up and see it’s turning into X.com, which is what he always wanted,” Isaacson adds.

So, too, in Musk’s private life; he has had 11 children by three mothers. “He has this maniacal belief in having lots of children.” But some of his children are by IVF. “It’s not like he is having all these romantic affairs.” Many, like him, are based in Austin, since “he likes having his children around. But it’s not a Norman Rockwell painting.” Do the mothers get on? “Not with each other,” Isaacson jokes. And sometimes not with Musk: Grimes recently revealed tensions over their kids in a subsequently deleted message on social media, and it emerged that she has more children by him than previously realised. Cue (yet) more drama for Musk — and Isaacson.

The decibels around us keep rising as more drinks are consumed. My redfish is half untouched. Isaacson takes a mouthful. “It’s good — more crab!” A waiter notices that our wine glasses are empty and offers more. We demur — and I explain that I will need to leave soon for the airport, because I am grappling with the summer travel hell of cancelled flights. 

Did you end up liking Elon, I ask. Isaacson pauses for a long time; the writer is not someone who sees life in black and white, but — like his hometown — he admires complex shades. “‘Like’ is such an anodyne word — it doesn’t describe the intensity of reactions that Elon can provoke in a person,” Isaacson replies. “There are times he is fun to be around and times he is an asshole. I try to show all of these Elons in the book and then let people judge.”

So did he surprise you? “Yes.” He ticks off the shocks: the intensity of his moods; his obsessive addiction to, and focus on, engineering; the fact that “he became more intensely political, [since] he had not been when I started writing about him”.

Contrary to popular perception, Isaacson insists that Musk “doesn’t like [Donald] Trump — he thinks he is a conman”. However, Isaacson concedes that Musk has now developed “an anti-establishment populism that you can see in Robert F Kennedy Jr and Vivek Ramaswamy — a conspiratorial mindset about the establishment”. That seems alarming to me with the 2024 election looming and Musk running X.

The bill arrives, and as we walk out into the scorching heat, I ask Isaacson who he could possibly write about next that would be as interesting. Over lunch, the names Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos were tossed out. “But I haven’t decided,” he quickly retorts. “All my headspace is Elon right now.” The same could be said of much of corporate America today; maybe we are all addicted to drama.

Gillian Tett is chair of the editorial board and editor-at-large, US of the Financial Times

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