A dear journalist friend of mine once admonished me never to let the reading public see any of my journalistic tricks. Keep the mystery shrouded, he counseled.
There are times to set aside good advice, and now is one of them.
In my feature story about Jeff Bezos in the April edition of Fortune, I quote the Amazon founder saying he never would have funded spaceship company Blue Origin for 16 years if making money were his objective. “Nobody gets into the space business because they’ve done an exhaustive analysis of all the industries they might invest in and they find that the one with the least risk and the highest returns on capital is the space business,” he told me. I note in the article that Blue Origin once was said to have consumed $500 million of Bezos’s cash already and that no one knows how much he has invested by now. It’s a moot point, however, due to the man’s vast wealth. “Indeed, were Bezos to keep blowing through $500 million a year on Blue Origin, he would have to close the place … in 90 years,” I wrote.
I’m responsible for writing the overwhelming majority of the words in this article, but I didn’t write that last line. My outstanding editor, the undercelebrated and highly talented Nicholas Varchaver, a young man (he and I are contemporaries) who has been at Fortune longer than I have, wrote it. It wasn’t until after the article was published that Nick shared with me the sly film reference he was making, which had far more to do with Jeff Bezos owning the Washington Post than Blue Origin.
To be let in on this joke, watch this clip from Citizen Kane, the brilliant movie by Orson Welles that was a thinly disguised portrait of another very rich man who owned a newspaper. The relevant bit begins at about 1:45. Imagine Jeff Bezos uttering the lines of Charles Foster Kane and you might burst into laughter—the way Bezos would.