Bill Clinton’s father passed away before he was born. Barack Obama saw his father only rarely and for the last time when he was 10. Steve Jobs never knew his biological father and late in his life said he didn’t care to meet him. John Lennon’s father was fighting World War 2 during the singer’s childhood and resurfaced only during the height of the Beatles’ fame.
It’s either a quirk of history or a counterintuitive phenomenon that sociologists don’t quite understand. Children with fractured or nonexistent relationships with one or both of their birth parents are more likely to end up with psychological or behavioral problems—not leading powerful nations, companies, or cultural movements. But in these few, high-profile examples, for whatever reason, the unusual circumstances of their birth seemingly helped to create in each individual an overpowering drive to succeed and to challenge the status quo.
Amazon’s chief executive, the legendary entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, fits this mold. His mother, Jacklyn Gise, gave birth to him when she was 17 years old, and he never really knew his biological father, Ted Jorgensen, who was 19 at the time and who disappeared from his son’s life when Jeff was three. Bezos had a wonderful adoptive father, Miguel, a Cuban immigrant who married his mother when Jeff was four. Miguel, or Mike, had a successful career as a petroleum engineer at Exxon (XOM) and presciently invested in his son’s online bookselling startup in 1994.
Bezos has never tried to hide the story of his early childhood. He told Wired magazine in 1999 that the only time he thinks about Ted Jorgensen is when he’s filling out a form that requires his medical history. Journalists have occasionally wondered over the years about this mysterious figure in Bezos’s past. “Somewhere, there is a man named Ted Jorgensen, someone who may or may not know that the former Jeffrey Jorgensen grew up to make history in the corporate world and amass billions,” wrote Mark Leibovich in his 2002 book, The New Imperialists.
Two years ago, as I set out to write my own book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, I decided to try to find Jorgensen and fill in the missing piece of Bezos’s life story.
Locating Jorgensen wasn’t easy. With assistance from Michael Novatkoski in the Bloomberg research department, we compiled a list of around 80 “Ted Jorgensens” in the U.S. Jorgensen was 19 when Bezos was born, so he would be in his late 60s today. Narrowing the list down by age produced around 40 candidates. Bezos was born in Albuquerque, so making the assumption that Jorgensen might be somewhere in the southwest, we cut the list further to a handful of names.
On a whim, I used a site called NewspaperArchive.com to search the records of Albuquerque newspapers for any clue about the Jorgensen family in the 1960s. And then I made a startling discovery: Publications from that time were full of the exploits of a young man named Ted Jorgensen. He was a standout member of a troupe of unicyclists that appeared in circuses and other events under such names as the Albuquerque Unicycle Club and the Unicycle Wranglers. One article even mentioned that Jorgensen was married with a child.
As anyone who has followed the career of Bezos might recall, Amazon’s CEO spent much of the early 2000s perched atop a Segway—the self-balancing two-wheeled transporter. Bezos was an investor in the ill-fated company that made the device. Was there a genetic predisposition to roam the world atop wheeled vehicles? OK, probably not, but still, the connection seemed to have literary potential.
The unicycle revelation gave us another lead to pursue. Among the list of Ted Jorgensens was one who owned a bike shop north of Phoenix, in Glendale. Here I got a little lucky. The store is among 100,000 businesses around the world whose interiors are viewable using Street View on Google (GOOG) Maps. With a few clicks I was navigating around the bike shop on my desktop PC. I could see a man with white hair and a blue shirt sitting at the counter, deep in concentration. On the northeast wall of the store were two framed black-and-white photographs of people posing atop what looked like unicycles, though it was difficult to say for sure. I quickly convinced myself that these must be pictures of the legendary Unicycle Wranglers.
I flew to Phoenix late last year, rented a car, and drove 45 minutes to check out the Roadrunner Bike Center for myself. When I walked into the small, otherwise unremarkable store, I glanced at those framed photos. My blood froze when I saw that they weren’t pictures of unicyclists after all, but of people perched next to their old-fashioned bikes.
Then I saw, on the opposite wall above the cash register, a lone, framed photograph that hadn’t shown up in Google Street View. This one showed a newspaper clipping of a young teenager with a flat-top haircut, balancing on the pedals of his unicycle. It was a photo I had seen in the newspaper archives. And I knew I had found him.