Newly uncovered divorce filings reveal allegations of a “secret life” and help explain why the presidential candidate, who has earned millions of dollars over the years, has hardly anything left.
By Jemima Denham, Contributor, and Zach Everson, Forbes Staff
Cornel West has been a fixture of American society for more than three decades, publishing books, teaching at Ivy League institutions, commenting on cable news, collaborating on music with Prince—even popping up in sequels to the Matrix. Ubiquity provided liquidity, with West earning an estimated $15 million or so over the last 30 years. But oddly, as he mounts an independent run for president, his net worth resembles that of a first-year adjunct professor. “I live paycheck to paycheck,” says West.
A review of federal filings and property records confirms that West’s net worth is near zero. Other outlets have previously reported on his troubles paying taxes over the years. But no one so far has explained how someone so successful became so broke. With West in position to affect who becomes America’s next president, Forbes set out to answer that question, digging into heaps of legal and tax documents filed in various jurisdictions over six decades. Turns out much of the damage was self-inflicted.
West burst onto the national scene in the 1990s with Race Matters, a compilation of essays that sold more than 500,000 copies. He traveled the country to deliver speeches, hauling in more than $500,000 a year. Much of the money flowed to him with no taxes deducted. West blew it—on many things, especially women—leaving little left for Uncle Sam by the time tax season arrived. The liens piled up: $144,000 in 1998, $105,000 in 2000, $205,000 in 2001 and so on. “Almost like a reptile biting its tail,” he says now.
West lived in a Four Seasons condo in Boston, which he later admitted he could not afford, and rode around in a Mercedes or Cadillac. One of his four ex-wives accused West of maintaining a covert apartment in Boston for $5,000 a month to use as a love den. She also alleged that, despite not having any health conditions, he later took a medical leave from his job at Harvard to live a “secret life” with another woman in New Mexico.
In court documents filed in 2002 and 2003, West did not deny burning money on affairs, at least one of which produced a child. (He acknowledged he had an 18-month-old daughter at the time.) And in his 2009 memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, West confirms some of the less-salacious details. But when asked in November to respond to claims he’d “hid or wasted” close to a million dollars, at least some of which went to support extramarital affairs, West offered via email that “The allegations were too ridiculous to attend to–then and now, my brother!” He did not respond to a follow-up inquiry that detailed his ex-wife’s specific allegations.
In 2002, he blamed his financial troubles on other factors, such as his soon-to-be ex-wife’s propensity to spend money on Chanel clothing, upscale dining and antique furniture. More recently, after news about his tax liens surfaced, West elaborated on the genesis of his debt problems, suggesting the student loans he incurred as an undergraduate put him in a “black hole” that he could never escape.
That’s nonsense. After three decades in the public eye, West has earned more than enough money to pay back his student loans. Without enormous earnings, West would not owe the federal government so much in unpaid taxes (he still has about $483,000 in outstanding tax liens today). The real explanation for West’s financial problems: recklessness. Despite his professorial appearance—West is famous for his toothy smile and W. E. B. Du Bois-inspired, three-piece suits—he has spent and lived wildly, impregnating and abandoning multiple women, leaving him with significant divorce and child-support payments, some of which he failed to pay. If government leadership is largely about managing money and maintaining relationships, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the field who is less prepared for the job than Cornel West.
West was born in Tulsa and raised in Sacramento, by parents who had middle-class jobs, his mom as an elementary school teacher and his dad as a civilian Air Force contractor. At 17, West got a partial scholarship to Harvard. To cover the rest of his tuition, he got assistance from his parents, worked by cleaning toilets and delivering mail and took out loans, he wrote in his memoir. Wary of accumulating more debt, he raced through Harvard in three years. Then in 1973 at age 20, he headed down the East Coast to Princeton, on a full scholarship, to work on his doctorate in philosophy.
At first, everything seemed to be going smoothly. In 1977, when he was just 23, West got married for the first time, became a father and started teaching at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, an affiliate of Columbia University. Then life took a turn. In 1979, West published one of his first works, an essay on embedding Marxist ideology into Black theology, and filed for divorce from his wife in Reno, Nevada, writing years later in his memoir that she needed more stability than his “intellectual wanderings” could offer. The divorce decree stipulated that West had to pay child support of $320 a month and 15% of his income in excess of $15,000 until his son became an adult. West’s share of the settlement: A stereo, albums and a couple of studio chairs. “In my head, I kept hearing Johnnie Taylor singin’ ‘bout ‘It’d be cheaper to keep her,” West wrote in his memoir. He claimed that the settlement and his poor financial-planning abilities left him sleeping in Central Park for a couple of nights.
He was in love again soon, marrying for a second time in 1981. Five years into that union, he met the woman who would become his third wife in New Haven, Connecticut when she served him a hamburger as he read Hegel in the restaurant of a Holiday Inn. According to his memoir, West proposed to the 27-year-old Elleni Gebre Amlak on their first date: “Elleni, marry me and become the First Lady of Black America.” That line didn’t work, at first. By the time they actually did wed five years later, in 1991, Elleni had changed jobs and was working for the state of Maryland as a counselor for autistic adults. West convinced her to quit her job and delay plans to attend graduate school so that she could travel with him, she later claimed.
What’s Left For West
The famed professor has generated significant earnings over the years. But lavish spending has wiped almost all of it away, leaving Cornel West with only two assets: a retirement account with about $280,000 in it and a partial share of a Princeton home. Combined, they appear to be worth little more than the debts he owes.
Soon he had many places to be. Los Angeles police officers beat Rodney King in the streets in 1991, sparking riots and a national conversation about race. The year after the riots, West released his most-celebrated book, Race Matters, cementing his reputation as a preeminent Black intellectual. Over the ensuing years, West bounced between elite universities—going from Princeton to Harvard to Princeton to Union Theological Seminary—while delivering talks nationwide.
The speeches were lucrative. West’s annual salary at Harvard was around $220,000, but he was able to at least double that amount on the lecture circuit. Over an 18-day stretch in January 1998, for example, West delivered 11 paid speeches, traveling between Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, Illinois, Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Oregon, making between $8,000 and $12,000 at each stop. West described such barnstorming humbly, calling himself a “bluesman singing for his supper.”
But it also led to trouble. In 1998, while on a speaking trip to Ohio, West met a student who was a married mother of two. According to court records, he convinced her to leave her husband and move to Boston, where West was working at Harvard. He put her up in an apartment, separate from the Four Seasons condo he owned with his wife, Elleni. A star on the road, West became a deadbeat at home. The City of Boston filed a property tax lien against West’s Four Seasons condo for not paying taxes in 1998. As an independent businessman who delivered lucrative speeches, West was responsible for setting aside enough money to pay his tax bills each year. He did not. The IRS said he failed to pay $144,000 of taxes that year.
Things soon spiraled out of control. In 1999, West separated from Elleni and rented an apartment for $5,000 a month from another professor at Harvard. He eventually reconciled with his spouse and moved back into his condo at the Four Seasons—but secretly maintained the apartment for future affairs, his wife alleged.
He struck up another romance with a woman he met in Harvard’s Cambridge neighborhood in 1999, then provided financial support to her and took her to Turkey on a two-week vacation, according to papers his wife later filed in court. Before long, his mistress was pregnant with West’s second child. He took a medical leave from Harvard to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico. West phoned his wife regularly to give her the impression he was cleaning up his life while secretly living with his mistress and new child, Elleni later alleged in court filings. She declined to speak with Forbes for this article. In his memoir, West acknowledged having a “love relationship” with a Harvard Nieman Fellow he met in 1999 that led to the birth of a child.
As these shenanigans were going on, West’s reputation continued to grow. In 1999, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honorary society John Adams and John Hancock cofounded in 1780. His bio on its website exalts his passion for “telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice.” And, in 2000, West co-authored a book on Black people’s significance in shaping America with esteemed scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
West continued to rake in money on the lecture circuit, too. In 1999 and 2000, West earned more than $550,000 from speeches, according to records from his agent. Elleni estimated his gross income at about $1 million over those two years, a figure that he largely confirmed.
All the money still wasn’t enough to quell his debt problems. By 2002, West owed $817,000 on two mortgages on the Four Seasons condo, $271,000 in delinquent taxes to the IRS, another $38,000 to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue and $26,000 to the City of Boston, according to paperwork he filed in court. West also had taken an advance of $160,000 on his speaking gigs from his agent in 2000. Credit card debts, condo fees, personal loans, student debt and loans from both Harvard and Princeton added up to another $652,000. Things got so bad that when his wife returned from an extended visit to Ethiopia to visit family, she said she found he had failed to pay their bills, causing her phone and cable to get disconnected, her car insurance to be canceled and much of her debt to be sent to collection.
Child support for his two kids also was eating into some of West’s income. In a 2002 affidavit, West acknowledged paying for college tuition, an apartment rental, a car and attorneys fees for his adult son from his first marriage. A court order also required West to pay $750 a week to support the 18-month-old daughter he fathered out of wedlock.
After sticking with him through years of infidelity, Elleni finally filed for divorce in 2001. Two years later, everything was final, with West required to pay his ex-wife $150,000, transfer $275,000 of retirement money to her and provide alimony of $12,500 a month for 12 years.
“The mental strain broke down our bond, and the result, in spite of deep love, was a divorce that left me with a busted bank account,” West wrote in his memoir. He went on, “When it comes to money, by now you know that this particular bluesman has always been funny.”
After his third divorce, the funny business continued. In 2003, around the time that West appeared in the Matrix movies, a woman who had earlier filed a complaint to establish paternity against West took him to court for $49,500 in unpaid child support. (The debt, which was first reported by the Daily Beast, still appears open in court documents, although West recently told New York Magazine that he’d settled the matter privately decades ago.)
Elleni also came back seeking unpaid sums. In 2004, the year West published the bestseller Democracy Matters, she filed a complaint in Massachusetts, alleging he had failed to pay her $50,000 that she was due from their divorce settlement. In 2011, she took him to court again, this time claiming he owed her $486,000 and had failed to pay for her health insurance. He quickly agreed to sign over all of a $13,000 book advance he was expecting (apparently for The Rich And The Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto) to her with another $22,000 to follow over the next month. He ended up agreeing to transfer $575,000 to Elleni within 60 days and another $165,000 over 35 months.
West kept accruing tax debts too, with the IRS filing liens totaling $298,000 for 2003, 2004 and 2005. Even when he managed to make some progress, paying off at least $508,000 between 2007 and 2012, more kept accumulating. Records from New Jersey from around that period show him racking up $85,800 of additional tax debt to the state. He added another $466,000 of IRS liens from 2013 through 2017.
West, now on his fifth wife, says he’s earning about $115,000 a year today at Union Theological Seminary, which also provides him with free housing. Delivering speeches and teaching on Masterclass helped boost his income to about $500,000 in 2022, he thinks. Still, he says paying off old debt eats up most of his income: “Things are always so tight for me.”
His latest act of financial recklessness: Running for president. West is on sabbatical from Union Theological Seminary now, which allows him to continue collecting a paycheck. But the sabbatical will end next year, likely before his campaign does, so West expects to have to transition to an unpaid leave of absence. Maybe a presidential run will help him sell more books, but West seems skeptical: “It’s not as if reading is an integral habit of our precious fellow citizens these days,” he says.
His campaign has been sloppy too. The Federal Election Commission kicked back his initial registration as a candidate because he neglected to sign it. West’s financial disclosure, a standard form that all presidential candidates are required to submit, was remarkably barren, with no mention of his tax debts and no details about who has been paying him to give speeches. It’s hard to imagine federal ethics officials certifying the document without significant edits (which might explain why, almost four months after he first filed the document, the government still hasn’t released a certified version).
All told, West’s current net worth appears to be close to zero. He has about $225,000 of equity in his home in Princeton, New Jersey, which he co-owns with the university. And his retirement savings fund is worth $280,000. That equity outweighs his $465,000 in outstanding tax liens, but only by $40,000, leaving West little breathing room if other debts pop up.
He certainly doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to invest much into his campaign, unlike former billionaire Ross Perot, who mounted an independent bid for the White House in 1992. West’s campaign raised just $250,000 in the third quarter, compared with the $25 million Joe Biden and Donald Trump each pulled in. At this point, though, West doesn’t seem too stressed about his finances. “It’s just—it’s me and Jesus,” he said recently, laughing, “and my momma’s prayers. But it has been like that for decades.”
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