In Conversation

Walter Isaacson, Elon Musk’蝉 Boswell, Tells the “Tale of an Impulsive, Dark, but Also Risk-Taking Dude”

In a wide-ranging interview with Vanity Fair, the storied biographer unpacks the varied “personalities and demons dancing around” in Musk’蝉 head. Plus: Isaacson’蝉 thoughts on the new CNN boss, Twitter’蝉 turbulence, and the resilience of democracy heading into 2024.
Walter Isaacson Elon Musks Boswell Tells the “Tale of an Impulsive Dark but Also RiskTaking Dude”
From Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair.

There are biographies that are biographies and there are biographies that are major news events in and of themselves. Walter Isaacson’蝉 new book, Elon Musk, falls into the latter category. That’蝉 not just because Isaacson, who formerly edited Time, ran CNN, and served as president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, is famous for tomes on titans like Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs. It also has a lot to do with the fact that Elon Musk, the Tesla/SpaceX CEO and Twitter—sorry, X—owner, is presently one of the world’蝉 most polarizing and controversial figures, as well as the richest.

Accordingly, Isaacson has already made plenty of news with a steady cadence of excerpts that have trickled out over the past week. The most incendiary of these gained traction from a CNN story that reported, based on a passage from the book, that Musk “secretly ordered his engineers to turn off his company’蝉 Starlink satellite communications network near the Crimean coast last year to disrupt a Ukrainian sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet.”

The revelation set off a whole series of fireworks and alarm bells. By Sunday, Jake Tapper was grilling Secretary of State Antony Blinken about whether he’蝉 “concerned that Musk is apparently conducting his own diplomatic outreach to the Russian government.” Granted, the full section in the book about the Starlink episode (chapter 70, page 428, if you want to jump right there once it hits shelves Tuesday) is a bit more complex than what was in the initial CNN piece, which Musk pushed back on. “CNN missed the nuances, and Musk understands the story the way I have it in the book,” Isaacson told me when we spoke over Zoom this past Friday. The author further clarified the matter to New Yorks Shawn McCreesh, whose great Isaacson profile is hot off the presses: “I realized that I misinterpreted him…when he told me he was not allowing Starlink to be used during the attack. I thought he had just made that decision. In fact, he was simply adhering to a policy he had previously implemented. So I posted a correction” on X.?

In any case, Isaacson and I had lots more to talk about than Elon and Ukraine. (Of course I wanted Isaacson’蝉 thoughts about the future of CNN.) Read it all in the condensed and edited transcript below.

Vanity Fair: Let’蝉 start with Elon going to war with the Anti-Defamation League. A lot of people think it’蝉 over the top, dangerous, and of course hypocritical in terms of his free speech crusade. Why does he do things like this?

Walter Isaacson: Let me just agree with what you said: it’蝉 over the top, it’蝉 dangerous, and it’蝉 hypocritical. In the book, you see an addiction to late-night tweets when his mind is in a very dark place. Whether it’蝉 calling some cave explorer in Thailand a pedophile or retweeting something about Paul Pelosi, he does reckless and dangerous tweets. When one of his friends said, alright, you’re in a dark space, I’m going to take your phone and put it into a hotel-room safe, Musk, at three in the morning, calls security at the hotel and makes him open the safe. So there’蝉 an addiction to tweeting, which is one reason he’蝉 always been fascinated with the company.

He just can’t help himself is the short answer.

This past New Year’蝉 Eve, he and his family are sitting around and saying, what do you regret most for the year? He says, I keep shooting myself in the foot, I need Kevlar boots. He’蝉 somewhat self-aware, but the problem is, there’蝉 not one Elon Musk. There are multiple Elon Musk personalities and demons dancing around in his head. There’ll be times when he’蝉 very self-aware and has good intentions, and there’ll be times he gets in demon mode and he is very dark, and you get some of these tweets coming out. As Claire Boucher, the artist known as Grimes, who’蝉 one of his girlfriends, says, demon mode’蝉 very dangerous to be around. It’蝉 really awful. But sometimes, it’蝉 demon mode that gets shit done. So the book tries to take you on this tale of an impulsive, dark, but also risk-taking dude.

How did the book come about?

We had crossed paths many times, including at a Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit, and at one point, a mutual acquaintance, Antonio Gracias said, you really should do Musk. At the time, he had just become the richest person on the planet. He was “Person of the Year” of Time magazine. He had taken Tesla from the brink of bankruptcy to being more valuable than all other car companies combined. And he had gotten Americans into orbit. So I said, great idea. We had had a long talk where I said two things: I need to do this book not based on a bunch of interviews, but based on two full years of being by your side whenever I want to be, in every meeting and every meal and every walk in the factory, and just watching you so I can get stories and not just interview answers. And number two is, you have to agree that you have absolutely no control over the book. He agreed to both. And then he said, could I tell people? I said, well, I guess so. I hadn’t told my editor or my agent, and I was a guest at somebody’蝉 house, where I was having the conversation [with him] upstairs. I went downstairs and after a few minutes everybody’蝉 going, Hey, what, you’re doing Elon Musk? I said, what do you mean? They said, well, he just tweeted out, Walter Isaacson’蝉 writing my biography.

Give me a couple examples of some of the most intimate fly-on-the-wall reporting you were able to do.

The night he closed the Twitter deal, which was supposed to close on a Friday, but on a Thursday night, he decides he’蝉 going to do an unexpected flash close—force a close late at night when the markets aren’t open, so that he can then fire the top executives at Twitter [for cause] without them getting severance. And then I watched him for the next few days go into a manic mode of firing 85% of the people there, which I think is going to destroy the company. Another amazing thing was, by the time we get to Christmas Eve a couple months later, him deciding to rip out the Sacramento servers. The executives in charge of his infrastructure was saying, oh, that’蝉 going to take six months. And he wanted to show it could be done in six hours. So watching him do these manic impulsive things showed how reckless he can be, but also how he can get rockets into orbit and run Twitter with 15% of the staff and drive us into the era of electric vehicles.

Do you have any sense of how many hours you spent with him total?

I can’t really calculate it, but for two years, at least a week a month, I’d be by his side for 14 hours a day. So it was hundreds of hours.

Your source list is a who’蝉 who of A-listers in media and tech and business. Who were some of the best interviews?

The best interviews were his former wives, Talulah Riley and Justine Musk, who both get him and have felt his demon mode, and the channeling of his father’蝉 manic moods. And likewise, with Grimes, his brother Kimbal, and his mother, Maye. I mean, these are the people who truly get him. And of course they’re not looking at him through rose colored glasses. His mother said something interesting, which is, the danger for Elon is that he becomes his father. And so the book starts with this troubled violent childhood in South Africa, where he is bullied and beaten up, and his father is taking the side of the bullies and berating him. I watched in this book how Musk both harnesses those demons and turns them into amazing drives, but also is bedeviled by those demons.

This is a guy who, to a lot of people, really came to be seen as a villain over the course of your reporting. At the same time, he’蝉 a charismatic person who you spent a lot of time with for two years. As his biographer, it must be impossible not to have some degree of fondness or sympathy.

My mission was to serve the reader, not to serve Musk, not to serve the enemies, not to serve the fans, but to try to be as honest as I could. The way I did it is, the book is driven by stories. I describe a scene and exactly who said what. The reader might make his or her own judgment and say, well, he was really an asshole to that person. Or they might say, wow, he drove that group to get the rocket stacked within a week. I hope people have complex reactions.

You’re a longtime journalist, and at times, during the journalism you were doing for the book, he was out there attacking journalists and the press in different ways. How did you process that dissonance?

That never occurred to me that much. It didn’t affect me. And he knew I was about as mainstream of a journalist as you can get, having come from the Times-Picayune, Time magazine, CNN. He was very open with me.

Well you also probably had a certain degree of leverage because you’re this eminent biographer, and for Elon there’蝉 perhaps a sense of vanity in having you write a book about him.

I don’t think he thought of me as some eminent biographer. I mean, he certainly didn’t seem to. I think he thought of himself as an epic figure, but he didn’t treat me with any deference, that’蝉 for sure.

How did this experience compare with other biography subjects of yours—granted, some of whom were already long dead?

He’蝉 about the most intense person I’ve ever met. His moods are intense. His silly, giddy, sophomore humor is intense. So is his focus on engineering and assembly lines and the future of colonizing Mars. They’re all intense, and nobody else was that way.

Were there parts of the reporting that veered into unpleasant territory?

I was usually just in the corner taking notes, but it got unpleasant when he would ream out people in meetings in front of me, or walking the factory line.

I guess what I’m asking is, for the parts where you were actually interviewing him, not just being a fly on the wall, did he ever get defensive or angry over certain lines of inquiry?

It got very dark when talking about his father, and sometimes very dark talking about his childhood. He was also astonishingly open and transparent and never tried to block any line of inquiry.

Are there things in the book you suspect he won’t like, or that he’ll be angry about when he reads it?

Maybe. I think he’ll find the demons instilled in him by his father to be a very uncomfortable topic. I think the way those demons are harnessed into drives for epic causes, he’ll be quite happy about. But when those demons cause him to make really bad tweets or impulsive decisions or be tough on people, I don’t sugarcoat that.

As a biographer, it's not your job to render a judgment on how he runs his companies, but what do you think of what’蝉 happened to Twitter? Sorry, I can’t bring myself to call it X. Do you think it’蝉 worse than it was before?

I mean, I don’t like Twitter as much. It was a place for people like you and me who got blue check marks because we were anointed. He’蝉 made it, for better and for worse, much more of a hardcore place, with a whole lot more voices, some of them extreme, and that’蝉 not my favorite playground. I do think more people are now using it. It’蝉 not been an objective failure from a metrics standpoint, but advertisers are generally pulling away from it because they don’t like to be in a hardcore controversial place.

Do you think he himself is creating some of Twitter’蝉 problems?

Yeah. I think that he’蝉 opened up the aperture to a broader array of speech. The Twitter that we knew a year ago maybe even went too far in the other direction, where we weren’t allowed to question mask mandates or whether or not COVID was a lab leak. Maybe we should have been able to have more discussion. But in doing so, he has opened the way to a lot of extremists and vitriolic people and sometimes amplified that, which I find is hurtful, especially for advertisers who want a comfortable platform for their brands.

Before we go, I’ve got to ask for your thoughts on CNN as the guy who used to run the place, albeit in a much different era. What did you think of this kind of endless rollercoaster they’ve been on with their leadership, and how do you feel about Mark Thompson as the guy who’蝉 now supposed to turn things around?

I saw Mark Thompson last night.

Where did you see him?

Here in Manhattan.

But like, did you bump into him at an event or did you see him on purpose?

It was a private event. I’ll leave it at that. I think he’蝉 the exact right choice for the moment, both a calming person, but also somebody who’蝉 run the BBC and The New York Times and helped bring it into a digital age. There’蝉 going to have to be a post-Trump vision, whether that’蝉 six months from now or, heaven forbid, longer than that, and I think Mark Thompson will be able to do that. As you know, Joe, I’m one of the people who’蝉 proven on the national stage that I don’t know exactly how to run CNN.

When you say a post-Trump vision six months from now, should I take that to mean you’re not expecting that he’蝉 going to be the Republican nominee or our next president?

Sorry, I just pulled that out of my head. It wasn’t a comment on whether he is the Republican nominee or not. I haven’t calculated the odds of that yet.

Well on that note, how do you feel about the state of our democracy heading into 2024?

American democracy is pretty resilient. Einstein thought it was going off the cliff in the 1950s during the McCarthy era, and then he said, well, somehow there’蝉 a gyroscope that makes it right itself. This politics of resentment and polarization, people are sick of it. I’m pretty optimistic that the fever breaks. But the question is, does that happen in months, or a few years?