The Buffett mystery
Are Jimmy and Warren related? And how did Google co-founder Sergey Brin's wife get involved? Fortune's Matthew Boyle reports on the resolution of a mystery.
(Fortune Magazine) -- Did you hear the one about Warren Buffett, Jimmy Buffett, Google billionaire Sergey Brin, and his wife's startup firm? Stay with us, because this story gets complicated.
In a May 22 SEC filing, Google disclosed that it had invested $3.9 million in a heretofore unknown biotech startup that just so happens to be run by the new wife of Google co-founder Brin.
Okay, maybe you knew that.
But did you know that the firm, 23andMe, which decodes DNA to help people understand their ancestry (the name comes from our 23 paired chromosomes), recently submitted a report that definitively answered a question Fortune posed eight years ago this month - to wit, Are Jimmy and Warren Buffett related?
Before we reveal the answer, here's some badly needed background: Fortune's 1999 piece, while noting that both Jimmy and Warren play stringed instruments, stick to their guns, and are filthy rich, could not prove any definitive link, save for some possible common ancestors who lived in a former penal colony in the South Pacific.
But the question continued to linger, especially since the Oracle of Omaha and the Minstrel of Margaritaville have long been fans of each other. Jimmy even made a surprise appearance on stage at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting on May 5, singing "Wasted Away Again in Berkshire Hathaway-ville," to the delight and amazement of those present.
Earlier this year two letters came over Buffett's (the Oracle's) transom asking him to submit to a DNA analysis. One was from Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe's co-founder. She didn't mention that they had previously met at Herb Allen's annual Sun Valley, Idaho, retreat - she was with Brin - and even after Google's (Charts, Fortune 500) recently announced investment in 23andMe, Buffett had no idea it was Brin's intended he had been dealing with. (Wojcicki's romance with Brin, by the way, was reportedly sparked after her sister rented out her garage to him and his partner, Larry Page, as office space for a little search engine company they were hatching.)
About two months ago Warren and Jimmy submitted DNA to 23andMe. (Warren "just kept spitting into a little receptacle, and then we FedExed it. Not very elegant," says his assistant. Jimmy did the same.)
When the results came back a month later, Wojcicki - a 33-year-old Yale grad and former health-care industry analyst - and her associate Joanna Mountain called Warren from 23andMe's offices, just half a mile from Google's Mountain View, Calif., campus, and broke the news that he need not include Jimmy in his will. In fact, "I'm as closely related to you as Jimmy is," said Mountain, the head of 23andMe's ancestry product line and a former professor of anthropological genetics at Stanford. (By the way, if you'd like to join Wojcicki's team, they're hiring like mad.)
As it turns out, Jimmy and Warren do have common ancestors, but you have to go back more than 10,000 years to find them. That's before surnames, folks. "Bottom line: We're not related," Warren wrote to his sister Doris, the family genealogist, who opened this whole can of worms many years ago.
Warren Buffett's ten-page DNA report, which he shared with Fortune, also revealed that his paternal ancestors hail from northern Scandinavia, while his mother's side most likely has roots in Iberia or Estonia.
From the June 11, 2007 issue