Melinda French Gates: A Microsoft Mystery -- She Married High- Profile Bill Gates, But Wants Her Life Kept Private
She grew up on a street called Princess and married the king of software.
But Melinda French never wanted to live in a fairy tale.
This is the '90s and she married Microsoft's Bill Gates, the richest man in America. As a 29-year-old bride, she already had a career, a house, an independent life and stock options probably worth millions. She was nobody's other half.
French burst onto the public scene in 1993 with the announcement that the Microsoft manager would marry the boss of her bosses. Overnight, she became one of the most talked-about people in Seattle society. People magazine ran a photo of the 1994 Gates-French wedding on the 17th hole of a Hawaiian golf course in its "Brides of the Year" edition.
Inside Microsoft, she is well-regarded, an energetic MBA who's handled several of the company's products, including its newest software release, Microsoft Bob. She was a standout student in high school and at Duke University. For fun, she runs, hikes Mount Rainier, plays golf with her husband and supports local theater. She's passionate about expanding educational opportunities for girls.
She also is passionate about her privacy - asking people she's met, and some she's never met, not to discuss her life with the press.
Susan Boeschen, a former Microsoft vice president, is one of many friends who declined to discuss French's private life but ended a brief interview with a revealing comment: "That was part of her
agreement with Bill. That she stays private."
French wrote to residents of her former neighborhood in Seattle, asking them not to talk about her. She asked her high school in Dallas to keep quiet. People hired to work on her wedding had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. She's turned down interview requests from People magazine, NBC's Tom Brokaw and countless others. A reporter was booted from her advertised appearance at a Forest Ridge School seminar on girls in education.
As a recent NBC news special and a Time magazine cover showed, the Microsoft PR machine works hard to keep Bill Gates in the public eye. But the machine slams shut when her name comes up.
"We're not at liberty to help out with that," says a company spokeswoman. Ditto with company insiders when asked about personal details. One friend there even refused to confirm that she jogs with French.
"So you want to write about the mystery woman?" jokes lawyer William Gates, her father-in-law. "It's a legitimate story but I'm not going to comment."
Neither will her mother. "I was told that if you need any information, you should call Microsoft," says Elaine French. Nor Seattle University president, the Rev. William Sullivan, who married the couple. "His relationship with the Gateses is very private," says Sullivan's assistant.
French's friends see her in a difficult but admirable struggle. Not just to keep away those who make it their business to chronicle celebrities. But to keep her identity from being washed over by a tsunami called Gates, who dominates not just Microsoft but the entire software industry.
At Microsoft, employees pore over every utterance by Gates and often agonize over scheduled meetings with him. But as a midlevel manager in her husband's company, Melinda French Gates has told people, even her bosses, she wants no special treatment. At the Microsoft cafeteria, she stands in line like everyone else. At work and at home, she wants a normal life.
"While I understand that your readers may find my story interesting because of the man I married, it is a personal decision for me not to share information about our relationship or my personal life with the world at large," she wrote to a reporter who wanted an interview.
Nonetheless, certain details of her life can be pieced together from various sources, including fragments French has given in rare interviews.
The portrait that emerges is a woman who works hard and made parents and teachers proud. Fun-loving with friends, but somewhat reserved with others. A task-oriented goal-setter with "zero time," as one friend put it.
Gates once said he had "an infinite amount of money," but she's no spendthrift. She paid less than $20,000 for her wedding dress and reception ensemble, far less than many society brides.
Smart and self-aware, she has long been sensitive to the potential downside of being the Mrs. to a billionaire, yet is poised and gracious at parties when playing the role of hostess and social first stringer. In other situations, however, some detect a flicker of nervousness and swear that French hides her large diamond ring, as if to remove a distraction to normal conversations. She calls herself Melinda French in business situations and Melinda Gates in social situations.
Unlike her flamboyant and at times abrasive husband, her life has been decidedly free of controversy or unconventional behavior. "She's nice and normal," says Marilyn Burkhardsmeir, a Dallas resident whose son is married to French's elder sister. Deeming French too colorless, one national publication dropped the idea of profiling her.
Absent from Bob hoopla
Microsoft managers typically give interviews to the media, but, with few exceptions, French has been absent from the hoopla over Bob, a program that uses cartoon characters to help novice computer users.
She did appear earlier this year at a small gathering in Palm Springs of software reviewers. As a gag, she gave a demonstration of the product while wearing a T-shirt with the Bob logo on the front and a bull's eye on the back. The bull's eye was an attempt to make fun of the negative early reviews of the product, but some thought the target was an unconscious reference to the interest in Mrs. Gates. Many of the writers came away impressed with her, though not with Bob, which has been a slow seller.
"She seems like a real ordinary person," says Karen Rodriguez, a senior writer for InfoWorld. "When you're brought to that level of celebrity, you don't know how to handle it. When you see her, she looks like the girl next door. She came across as being very approachable, very easygoing, very confident of herself."
When The Wall Street Journal did a story on the development of Bob, it gave plenty of attention to Karen Fries, the Bob program manager, and almost zero attention to French, her superior. In Bob's early days, Fries obtained an "extraordinary 20 minutes" with Gates to lobby for the product and won permission for various personnel to be assigned to the project, including French as head of the team. Everyone involved insisted the project received no favoritism, the Journal reported, quoting French as saying, "They were breaking the rules of things we've done in software before. I wanted to be a part of it."
Nothing was said about French's role, if any, in deciding the product's huge promotional budget, which included hired actors on TV talk shows, or choosing the product's quirky name, which required the personal approval of Gates.
"I gotta believe that Melinda's involvement helped get the project to where it did," says Steve Hazlerig, a retired Microsoft software engineer who knows French on a social basis. But he stressed he had no first-hand knowledge of how Bob was handled.
Fries, who agreed to a limited interview for this article, insisted there was nothing unusual about French's role. The decision to go forward with the product was made before French got involved, says Fries.
"She's a great manager and helps with our marketing," says Fries. "If there was any working style that was affected by being married to Bill, that would be a problem. . . . It's really surprising how little that is an issue."
Fries says she has sat in on meetings with Gates and French to discuss Bob. Those discussions stay focused on the product, says Fries, adding, "It's no different than any other meeting that I've had with him (Gates) and another manager."
A Roman Catholic, French was born in 1964 to Elaine and Raymond French, active members of St. Monica's parish in Dallas. She has two brothers and one sister.
Raymond French is an engineer in the aerospace industry who has kept a low profile in Dallas. Before his daughter's engagement, he never appeared in the Dallas Morning News. By Melinda's account, her parents were loving and supportive, and believed that no door was closed to a girl. "I had parents who told me every step of the way, `You can get what you want,' " French said, according to the Catholic Northwest Progress, the Diocese of Western Washington newspaper.
She grew up on Princess Circle in a middle-class North Dallas neighborhood where neighbors hold the family in high regard and refuse to discuss French's childhood. French attended St. Monica school, where math was her favorite subject. She then attended the all-girls Ursuline Academy, where she discovered computers, specifically an Apple II, made by a Microsoft rival. Her father later bought her an Apple III computer and the French home became a gathering place for neighbor children to study and work with the computer.
Her Ursuline computer teacher, Susan Bauer, once described her as a well-rounded student who joined the drill team and helped other students learn programming.
"She was hard-working and personable," Bauer said. "She was one of the best students I ever had."
But after that comment for the Dallas Morning News, the French family asked Ursuline to say nothing about Melinda's past. Bauer did not return calls.
Ursuline's valedictorian for the class of 1982, French went on to Duke University, where a strong computer-science department appealed to her. She burned through her course work - in five years earning double bachelor's degrees in computer science and engineering and an MBA at the business school.
At Duke, she served as a member of the freshmen advisory council, gave campus tours to prospective students and joined the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, which had about 80 members. She apparently did not leave many people at Duke with strong memories of her.
"She lived in my dorm, she was in my sorority and I didn't know her very well," says Susan Lee Greenfield, a Duke graduate who works for the school's medical center.
Another sorority sister, Columbus, Ohio, lawyer Rebecca Chaffin, remembers French as a hard-working student who nonetheless socialized at the frequent beer parties. Unlike most Duke women who typically played the field, French dated a few men for a longer time, says Chaffin, including chewing-gum heir William Wrigley Jr. French was a somewhat reserved dresser, usually wearing her hair pulled back with barrettes.
Microsoft recruited her right out of Duke. She joined one year after the company had gone public and its stock had begun its phenomenal climb in value.
Private before Gates
Before marrying Gates, French lived in a home in Leschi. Like the owner, the house was private, reached by a long flight of steps through a wooded lot, with a view of Lake Washington. Neighbors said she was rarely home and kept to herself, though she was always pleasant and said hello as she got in and out of her car. After she and Gates began dating, the home security system was beefed up and a Microsoft security officer would occasionally show up, park on the street and watch the house.
"Outside of (a visit by) her mother, I don't think she had much company," says neighbor Russell Lanning.
The home is listed on the tax rolls in her name, assessed at $339,500.
Microsoft has long been a company dominated by young single people who spent little time away from the office. Company romances are common, and Chairman Gates dated a number of employees. Some women there wore "Marry Me, Bill" T-shirts.
Gates met French at a company picnic and the two started dating occasionally in 1988, roughly a year after she had joined Microsoft. At the outset, French was openly affectionate toward Gates at company gatherings, according to Paul Andrews and Stephen Manes in their biography, "Gates."
Gates preferred to play the field, but the relationship turned serious by mid-1992, long after his late mother, Mary Gates, had complained that he was taking too long to settle down. At parties, Mary would introduce French as "Bill's friend from Microsoft," according to Tomima Edmark, a Seattle native now living in Dallas.
Even though the relationship was an open secret at Microsoft and elsewhere in the software industry, Gates asked writers and the news media not to disclose French's name. And no one did, not even gossip writers for industry publications. Gates said French would have to quit Microsoft if it came out they were dating. French said disclosure would "make it impossible for me" within the industry. Marriage apparently doesn't pose the same workplace difficulties for the couple.
Friends say that French brings important qualities to her relationship with Gates. She's smart and well-read, so she can keep up with Gates' wide-ranging interests. She's willing to stand up to Gates, an often intimidating presence.
"She's very much rooted in who she is," says William Ballantine, an arts patron and a friend of the couple. "She's not afraid of correcting Bill or saying here's another way to think of things. She's tactful. Even if you're one of the richest or smartest men in the country, you still have needs - being loved, I think. Melinda recognizes his human qualities."
Ruth Warren, a former Microsoft manager and a friend, says French brings out the fun side of Gates' personality. One time at a company party, Gates was challenged to jump over a table - not easy considering Gates was wearing a tuxedo and slippery, patent-leather shoes. Gates hopped over the table, so French placed a lighted candle on the table and challenged him to try again. French kept adding more and more candles, as Gates took longer running starts, which left everyone laughing, Gates included.
Asked by Playboy magazine to describe the quality in French that led him to marriage, Gates said: "There's some magic there that's hard to describe, and I'm pursuing that."
Early in her career at Microsoft she told Warren that she had two goals: to run a marathon and be assigned responsibility for Microsoft Word for MS-DOS, a sizable source of revenue for the company. She got both, says Warren.
She's also worked on Microsoft Word for Windows, Microsoft Works, Microsoft Publisher and Microsoft Money, a product whose poor market performance so frustrated Gates that he tried to buy the competitor, Intuit, maker of the Quicken personal-finance program.
French today carries the title of general manager of personal productivity products and has said she manages about 100 people involved with Bob and another project that is still secret.
People familiar with her career say her relationship with Gates has played no role in her promotions. In fact, the relationship may have hurt her because people feared a back channel to Gates, says Warren.
Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist and expert on relationships, says there's no way French can avoid being treated differently by people, unless those people are extraordinary. Every meeting with French is colored by their knowledge of who she's married to, says Schwartz.
"In the back of their minds they're thinking, `Is this person going to help me or hurt me - big time,' " says Schwartz, who has never met French.
Dan Schley, former president of Meca Software, met with French more than a year ago for a discussion about Microsoft Bob. Schley remembers being astounded when he spotted her engagement ring, which seemed to go from one knuckle to another. He could only guess at the number of carats.
"Bugs Bunny would have been very happy in that patch," Schley said later.
Halfway through the meeting, French rolled the diamond out of view, so "it wouldn't glare at us," says Schley. A former Journal-American reporter said French tried to hide her ring by placing a coffee cup over it.
French has been present at Microsoft staff meetings where talk turns to the boss. Warren admires French for the way she handles those situations.
"People would tell a joke about Bill being a nerd, or some mean story, and she'd just hold her peace and get the meeting back on track," says Warren. "This was the man she was dating. I would have gone crazy, but she was professional, and I really respect her for that."
What will future bring?
As the spouse of a billionaire who says he someday will give away 95 percent of his money, French has the capacity to become one of Seattle's great benefactors. Some predict that she will someday head up a Gates foundation.
Since marrying Gates, however, she has cut back on her known outside activities. She quit the boards of the Village Theater in Issaquah and the Mount Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic Fund, a young organization that raises money for those national parks. For the Village Theater, she was a particularly active board member, helping conduct an employee survey, form a marketing plan and establish a mission statement for the Kidstage. She and Gates donated $100,000 toward the theater's capital campaign.
Since the wedding, French has made two public speeches, each about education. In January, she spoke to grade schoolers at Seattle Center; in April, she spoke at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls school in Bellevue.
Constance Rice, vice chancellor of the Seattle Community College District and an acquaintance, predicts that over the next several years French will be "a highly significant" presence in Seattle and a national figure supporting the arts and education. For now, though, Microsoft, family and outside activities are her order of priorities, says Rice.
French has not said publicly if she ever plans to leave Microsoft or what mark she wants to make on the community. If she follows the path of the late Mary Gates, former University of Washington regent, she will become a busy civic volunteer. In her letter declining an interview, she gave a partial opening into one aspect of her personality:
"I continue to be very devoted and very passionate about computing," she wrote. "I have seen and understand the power computers and great software can bring to young people and believe very strongly that this is a tool that the young can use to expand their world."
Equipped with youth, brains and wealth, her power to do good seems vast, but she has yet to make a significant move. What will she do with the tools in her hands? French seems to embody that new Microsoft slogan, "Where Do You Want To Go Today?"
"Long term, we're going to have to wait and see," says Bill Pope, a friend and former Microsoft assistant corporate secretary.
Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.