“You’re afraid that he outshines you because he does.” It’s a brutal assessment delivered to Rebekah Neumann, the wife of Adam, co-founder of WeWork in WeCrashed, the TV drama. Billed as a love story, starring Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway as the couple, it is utterly unromantic.
Instead the Apple TV series tells the story of their marriage alongside the growth of the co-working company, pumped by hubris to become a bloated unicorn taken to the brink of popping.
As Adam’s business empire and fame swells, he becomes stoned on his own success, eclipsing his wife. Hathaway’s character quivers with pride, envy and insecurity. Through marriage she finds a professional identity of sorts. As her husband’s “strategic thought partner”, she tried to make its mission “to elevate the world’s consciousness”, becoming chief brand officer and impact officer, later starting WeGrow, more Marie Antoinette’s folly than a kindergarten.
Films and books are often devoted to telling the stories of the rich and powerful. But their spouses can be equally fascinating. How else to explain newspapers’ soap opera recounting of gossip about Meghan Markle and Carrie Johnson? In the US, the drama series The First Lady is currently examining the lives of Betty Ford, Michelle Obama and Eleanor Roosevelt while Gaslit has Julia Roberts playing Martha Mitchell, the wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general at the heart of the Watergate scandal. (On Sunday, the current US first lady, Jill Biden, made an eye-catching unannounced trip to Ukraine to meet her counterpart, Olena Zelenska.)
If WeCrashed had been braver it would have centred the story on Rebekah. Historically, it is women who have given up their jobs or stepped back from their careers. Research in the US found that “marrying a man with good income prospects is a woman’s main route to the one per cent”. In a working world where dual incomes are the norm, such spouses spark curiosity, inviting us to ask questions of our own ambition. Could you devote yourself to your partner in the hope that they will get the big prize? Or would you seethe with resentment?
Speculation about power spouses can be breathlessly sexist. Although some newspaper reports suggest that Johnson’s husband is unable to say no to her demands, they rarely draw the conclusion that a man incapable of delivering on his convictions should probably not be governing the country.
There are justified worries about spouses using public or corporate funds for private ends, or influencing appointments and strategy. In WeWork’s case, the Neumanns tried to change the governance to allow his wife to choose Adam’s successor upon his death. This is cronyism, but it also highlights the peculiar support role Rebekah occupied.
This is a complicated issue. Partners can shape their spouse’s working life. Who doesn’t vent about their daily frustrations, or sound out a work idea at home? Big jobs demand big egos and big support.
Such spouses can crave affirmation. I once spoke to a former wife of an entrepreneur trying to carve out a post-divorce role. Marriage to a CEO, she insisted, was a full-time job. She craved appreciation that her role was important to the business, arguing she had enhanced his performance. This view was backed by research published last year that found that companies managed by married business leaders were likely to have lower risk of a “stock price crash risk”. But there were limits to my sympathy as with all those in a gilded cage. Because I knew it was just as likely she pitied me. To her, my annual salary was chump change.