Warren Buffett Disowns Granddaughter

30 Mar

The Billionaire’s Black Sheep posted on Marie Claire

Photo Credit: Brigitte Sire

What’s it like when your grandpa is the richest man in the world? For Nicole Buffett, it means forgoing cable TV and health insurance and making do on $40,000 a year. Here, she dishes on her upbringing and why her grandfather Warren Buffett disowned her.

Nicole Buffett is at home among the neo-hippies who shuffle along the laid-back, tree-lined streets of Berkeley, CA. At an elfin 5 feet tall, clad in a flowing peasant dress and sandals adorned with peace signs, her long hair cascading in ropy dreadlocks to her waist, the 32-year-old abstract painter is just another of the city’s free-thinking, granola-crunching denizens. And yet, she’s a walking oddity. “The first thing most people think of when they hear my last name is money,” she laughs.

Not just money — gobs of it. Nicole Buffett’s grandfather is the legendary investor Warren Buffett, whose $58 billion fortune made him the richest man on the planet, a mantle he seized from Bill Gates last fall. So deep are Buffett’s pockets that when the financial markets cratered in September, the so-called Oracle of Omaha single-handedly buoyed Wall Street (at least for a day) by plunking down $5 billion on troubled investment bank Goldman Sachs. (“Canonize Warren Buffett,” cried one headline on CNBC’s Website.) But there’s a bitter irony to Buffett’s beneficence. Wall Street’s white knight is also an unforgiving hardhead when it comes to his own granddaughter, whom he cut off two years ago after a falling-out. “For him to discard me like that was devastating,” Nicole says matter-of-factly. “It permanently divided our family.”

When Nicole was 4, her singer-songwriter mother married Warren Buffett’s youngest child, Peter, a composer for commercials and films. He later adopted Nicole and her identical twin sister, who were embraced as kin by the larger Buffett family — especially Susan, Warren’s first wife, an avid music lover and cabaret performer. “A lot of people don’t realize that my family is full of artists,” says Nicole. (Susan Buffett, who died in 2004, was an early buyer of Nicole’s art and named Nicole one of “my adored grandchildren” in her will.)

As a child, Nicole made regular visits to “Grandpa’s” modest home in Omaha, where he still lives, purchased in 1958 for $31,500. Despite the humble digs, Nicole remembers the occasional spoils of Buffett’s wealth. At Christmas, when she was 5, he gave her a crisp $100 bill from his wallet. Once, she was invited on a private tour of the See’s Candies factory he owned. And twice yearly, Peter Buffett packed up his brood for a vacation at his father’s compound in Laguna Beach. Nicole also remembers once tiptoeing into her grandfather’s study to fetch something, careful not to disturb him while he read the Wall Street Journal. Just as she turned to slip out, Buffett cleared his throat and said, “Nicole, I just want you to know that your grandmother and I are very proud of all that you’ve accomplished as an artist.” “It’s a really big deal for him to communicate on such an emotional level,” says Nicole, her eyes welling. “So it was a big deal for me.”

Nicole was clueless about the scope of the Buffett fortune until she was 17, when her grandfather appeared on the cover of Forbes for having topped the magazine’s annual list of the richest Americans. Her classmates nearly stampeded her at school with the news. “I called my dad, and he said, ‘Yeah, Grandpa is going to be getting a lot more press, and we’re going to have to get used to that. But we’ll be living our lives the same way and doing what we always do,'” Nicole says.

In fact, the national media debut only intensified Buffett’s efforts to preserve his unaffected lifestyle. Aware of the unfairness of what he calls “the ovarian lottery,” Buffett made clear to the family that there’d be no handouts. “For most people, your life is largely determined by the wealth you were — or weren’t — born into,” Nicole explains. “But our family was supposed to be a meritocracy.” That philosophy translated into a near-fanatical devotion to living like regular Joes. Buffett’s kids went to public schools and, when they were old enough to drive, shared the family car. “You wouldn’t guess it, but I grew up in a household with my parents saying, ‘If you’re fortunate enough to find something you love, then do it,'” says Peter Buffett.

Committed to instilling those homespun values in his grandkids, Buffett agreed to pay for their college educations — and nothing more. He picked up the six-figure tab for Nicole’s art school tuition. Once, Nicole called her grandfather’s office to ask if he’d help her buy a futon when she moved to an off-campus apartment. “You know what the rules are: school expenses only,” his secretary told her.

Four years ago, following Susan’s death, Buffett showed up for his family’s annual Christmas gathering clad in a garishly over-the-top red tracksuit and Santa hat, a gift from “Arnie” (California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger). Everyone laughed at the absurdity of it all. When the holiday ended, Nicole raced into Buffett’s arms. “We’re not a touchy-feely family, so when I did it, the rest of the family seemed a little surprised,” Nicole says, beaming. “But he gave me this great big hug back.”

It was the last time the pair would share an embrace. Two years later, Nicole agreed to appear in The One Percent, a documentary by Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson about the gap between rich and poor in America. “I’ve been very blessed to have my education taken care of, and I have had my living expenses taken care of while I’m in school,” she states on camera. None of the Buffetts, a famously press-averse bunch, had ever before appeared in so public a forum to dish about their upbringing. Though Nicole informed her father of her role in the film and he had no objections, she failed to give her grandfather a heads-up. Asked in the film how he’d react to her interview, Nicole responds, “I definitely fear judgment. Money is the spoke in my grandfather’s wheel of life.”

Nicole concedes that the remarks may have sounded brusque. “I meant that my grandfather is like a Formula One driver who only wants to race — he just loves the game and wants to be the best,” she says. But Buffett was galled. He had for some time felt ambivalent about Nicole and her sister’s claim to his fortune — though Peter had legally adopted them, he divorced their mother in 1993 and remarried three years later. To make matters worse, while plugging the film on Oprah, Nicole confessed, “It would be nice to be involved with creating things for others with that money and to be involved in it. I feel completely excluded from it.”

The perceived sense of entitlement and Nicole’s self-appointed role as family spokesperson prompted Buffett to tell Peter that he’d renounce her. A month later, the mega-billionaire mailed Nicole a letter in which he cautioned her about the pitfalls of the Buffett name: “People will react to you based on that ‘fact’ rather than who you are or what you have accomplished.” He punctuated the letter by declaring, “I have not emotionally or legally adopted you as a grandchild, nor have the rest of my family adopted you as a niece or a cousin.” Nicole was devastated. “He signed the letter ‘Warren,'” she says. “I have a card from him just a year earlier that’s signed ‘Grandpa.'”

But Buffett’s decision was irrevocable. “I don’t have an easy answer for where my father is coming from,” says Peter Buffett, who speaks to Nicole regularly. “But I know I can’t change the spots on a leopard.” Jamie Johnson convinced Nicole to tape a follow-up interview, which he added as an emotional postscript to his film. “To pretend like we don’t have a familial relationship is not based in reality. I’ve spent years of my life at his home in Omaha. I’m shocked and hurt,” Nicole says.

Now, despite her sterling surname, Buffett is getting by on $40,000 or so a year, largely on the sale of her paintings (collectors include Shirley Temple’s daughter Lori Black and Hollywood special-effects guru Scott Ross). There’s no denying that the Buffett name piques interest in the art world, where Nicole’s pieces have fetched as much as $8000. One of her techniques is to leave unfinished works outside, exposed to the elements. “I like to see what happens,” she says, hovering over canvases mottled with sunbursts of color.

Nicole supplements her income by working at a San Francisco boutique, but still can’t afford cable or health insurance. Since their falling-out, Buffett has begun mailing sizable Christmas checks to his grandchildren, despite his no-freebies rule. Even so, Nicole vigorously insists that she has no regrets. “I think it shows he’s trying to reach out to his grandkids in a more personal way,” she says, before pausing. “And probably he’s rewarding them for behaving.”

In the two years since they last spoke, Nicole has been besieged by her grandfather’s image. “I can’t turn on the TV or read the paper without seeing him,” she says, referring to his role in the Wall Street bailout and as Barack Obama’s adviser during his presidential bid. She dreams about a reconciliation, however unlikely. Still, she says she’ll never stop being a Buffett. “I will always be self-reliant,” she says, curled up on her couch, her dreadlocks draping her body like a quilt. “Grandpa taught me that, and it has set the tone for my life.”

Leah McGrath Goodman is editor-at-large for Trader Monthly and is working on a book about the traders who built the global oil market, due out in 2010.


Posted by on March 30, 2011 in Art, Current Events, History, News, People


Tags: , , ,

42 responses to “Warren Buffett Disowns Granddaughter

  1. levidavis

    April 12, 2011 at 10:16 am

    Wary of her claim to his fortune? He gave it all to charity.

  2. SoCaAdoptee

    April 12, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Adoptees being disinherited by adoptive relatives happens all the time. I feel really bad for her. It happens to so many of us. She should come hang at, be with her own people who understand.

  3. Spoiled

    April 12, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Getting by on only $40,000 a year? Oh you poor baby!

  4. Dan Brown

    April 12, 2011 at 11:04 am

    40k a year? Can’t afford cable? What savage conditions! She gets free college tuition while I busted my ass in between classes. This girl does not deserve another dime. Buffet has already said that he was going to donate all his money to charity after he dies.

  5. jon

    April 12, 2011 at 11:13 am

    “At an elfin 5 feet tall”

    Elves are not short, they are tall. Get it right.

  6. Steve

    April 12, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Buffet is kind of out there. I respect a lot of what he does, but if you guys pay attention to finance, one of his possible successors, Sokol, clearly participated in insider trading, by buying shares of a company he then recommended to be acquired by Berkshire. Buffett endorsed the man and acted like he did nothing wrong. That’s okay but his granddaughter appearing in a video was bad?

  7. Joe

    April 12, 2011 at 11:46 am

    The elves in Elfquest are short. Also, Santa’s elves.

  8. greg

    April 12, 2011 at 11:51 am

    People click the title of the article and it takes you to the website, unfortunately that is all that is required.

  9. DNA

    April 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    “I have not emotionally or legally adopted you as a grandchild, nor have the rest of my family adopted you as a niece or a cousin.” … that’s f*cking cold.

  10. Jsmith

    April 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    One thing, Warren Buffet did not seize anything from Gates. Gates donated most of his fortune to charity.

  11. panda

    April 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    aw shit only 40 k a year, that poor kid.
    how will she ever get by.

  12. Marvin

    April 12, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    I feel kind of bad for her – but I also feel like we’re only getting a small portion of the story. Warren Buffet seems like a really great person and I can see where he’s coming from even from this perspective.

  13. Erik

    April 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Sounds like a lot of that 40K is going to chron.

  14. Ginger

    April 15, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Compelling… but like Marvin said, we’re only getting one half of the story.

    I’d be interested in seeing if they reunite.

  15. Brian

    April 16, 2011 at 9:39 am

    Sounds like she is more upset about being turned out emotionally than money wise. That part of it is really just sad. She does seem to be making the most of her education by working with her art. Like others said, she’s better off than a lot of us due to the free education.

  16. Cricket

    April 17, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    It doesn’t seem like she’s upset about not receiving financial benefits from Buffet, its that he doesn’t want to accept her anymore as his grandchild. And after all those years, that is sad. That he could just end their relationship like that. I wonder if this would have happened if his wife were still alive

  17. Lizzy

    April 17, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    I don’t feel bad for her, she CHOOSE to get on camera and talk about her families business. She and her father knew that would upset their grandfather. Being successful in business doesn’t mean you want your families laundry aired to the world, Warren Buffet has always made that clear, and she slapped him in the face, after he gave her an education so she could take care of herself. She’s a sell-out, and I can’t blame him for disowning her.

  18. Nycole

    May 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    I agree that the other side of the story should be heard, but I do have one thing to say to a few commenters:

    When you say something to the likes of, “$40,000/year, oh you poor baby.” I’m really curious to find out where all of you live. If you notice it says she lives in Berkeley California and also commutes to work in San Fransisco California. Hmm, $40,000/year isn’t all that much for those areas of California & if I remember correctly the costs of living in California are padded quite a bit. California and New York are notorious for a high COL.

    For where I live, in the Midwest, $40,000 would be around average & I’m even making far less than that. So before you start judging someone else & their living situation…perhaps you should look at yourselves. Maybe someone is judging you right now for how you handle your finances.

  19. Gracie

    May 21, 2011 at 12:19 am

    Beautifully stated, Nycole. I’m shocked at the comments posted.

  20. Shannon Doherty

    June 10, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Agree with Nycole, it totally depends on where you live on how far that 40k/year gets you.

  21. David Lawson

    August 8, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Wait till judgment day!Warren.Your GOD is cant spend it in HELL.I have seen the documentary the One percent .Great doc. Jamie Johnson is a person that cares and see the gap between Rich & poor.I would never want a G/father like that.I bet if he had to trade is money to save his family.His Family is DOOM!!!

  22. dfafdasfdsafdasfdasfa

    August 15, 2011 at 8:21 am

    40000 a year wow that makes my roughly 33k look impossible doesnt it……………………

  23. wurdnurd

    August 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    I moved from the East Bay (just south of Berkeley) in 2008, just before the economy tanked. I was working two jobs at the time: one was 32 hrs/week at $15/hr (no benefits), the other was a city job for 20 hrs/week at $24/hr (partial paid benefits, plus a bunch taken out for things like union dues, mandatory retirement fund, etc). Even with paying for my full-time grad studies and books, I was able to afford my one bedroom apartment and cable, without much strain.She’s commuting to SF (probably on BART, which is reasonably priced) but living in the East Bay, which is WAAAAAY cheaper than the City or the Peninsula. $40,000 a year, living on artwork alone, is still doing very well, and saying that she can’t afford things like health insurance or cable is a lot of hooey. Sounds like she CAN afford it, she chooses NOT to.

  24. Gracie

    August 15, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Hmmm …. I find that hard to believe, wurdnurd.

  25. Matt Z

    October 14, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    After reading this article and the comments associated with it, I felt I needed to add my “2cents”. Yes, $40k/yr does sound like, and is, a pretty decent yearly wage. It’s very close to what I’ve been earning the past few years. Like Nicole, I’m an artist as well. I’m a professional musician, and I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living via my passion. I can totally relate to not being able to afford health insurance, etc. on my income. In a nutshell, it comes down to prioritizing between wants and needs. Have I sold enough/played enough this month to keep the lights on? Do I have enough to buy more supplies to create more things to sell? (Paint, guitar strings, drum heads, canvas, etc, aren’t cheap!) Do I have enough saved to pay my taxes this quarter/year AND still be able to eat, keep the roof over my head, etc? (“Artists” generally don’t get tax refunds if they pay yearly.) Self-sustaining, full-time artists do not have the “luxury” of a regular paycheck. Knowing that you will earn “x” amount of dollars every two weeks, or every week, or every month, just does not happen. It makes budgeting for life in the “real world” tough, but not impossible. Financially speaking, we live a “feast or famine” existence. Personally speaking, I make sure my rent, food, debt, and supplies are taken care of first, each month, in that order. Whatever’s left (if there’s something left) over goes in the bank to provide a cushion for the next month. Hopefully, I’m able to build on that cushion each week to the point where I can afford to keep paying for my necessities when I hit a “slow” period and not increase my debt. I can only reasonably predict when those periods will arrive based on past experience, and hope nothing major pops up unexpectedly in between. If I’ve planned and saved responsibly, I can start treating myself to things I want. It just takes us longer (more $/year) than everybody else to get to that point…just like my entire comment.

  26. DB

    October 22, 2011 at 2:01 am

    I didn’t connect the dots between the 40K and Buffet dishing it out..You cry “poor baby ” , considering Buffets “moral value ” doubt he is giving a dime to anyone but “special lobbyist” charitable causes…I wouldn’t want a dime of that guys money EVER!!!! What a psudeo philanthropist!!! If you can’t make good with people who love you then what good are you to the world ??? , Making 40K a year is working class money , If big WB didn’t pay for a futon , then doubt he’s paying for 40K , allowance !!!! Do you all need glasses?? But the moral of the story is that she is happy , WB suffers ailments of fortune!! Thank god I don’t have to wield power , cuz if I did I end up selfish and egocentric like WB!!!!

  27. Cary Hartline (@caryhartline)

    October 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    You people on the comments section must know that she grew up with one of the wealthiest families on the planet so $40,000/year is very little to her. Don’t you think that the poverty line of $13,500 would make us all sound like whiny rich people to those poor families in Africa? It’s all about your perception of money.

  28. Melynda

    November 16, 2011 at 12:44 am

    Seems to me that “Warren” committed the same sin he accused her of! He claimed she was acting as a spokesman for the family, but wasn’t he doing the same when he told her the rest of the family hadn’t accepted her?

  29. Lifestar

    February 19, 2012 at 6:50 am

    I have to agree with some of commenters on this post that $40,000 on yearly salary for an artist is indeed not “a bad or poor living standard” compared to actual poverty standards such as less than $15,000 or $8,000 a year!

    I am sure Warren Buffet’s “non-blood related granddaughter, Nichole” did feel sad, bad, and in distress when acknowledging that her “so called grandfather” and the third-richest man in the country decided to disown her for good! However, Warren Buffet despised her was because the fact that she agreed to do the interview without giving him advance notice for respecting him and respecting his name as billionaire in the country!

    The fact that Nichole’s stepfather, Peter Buffet divorced Nichole’s biological mother since 1993 “added more twists and disruptions to the relational bond between Nichole’s relationship and her step-step grandfather—Warren Buffet,” so, there was no conventional, true, and formal bonding of a grandfather and a granddaughter to begin with although Nichole was a kid her mother married Peter Buffet! So, “we as outsiders and observers cannot and should not pretend that Nicole Buffet and Warren Buffet’s relationship as a true and blood related grandfather and granddaughter relationship” because there was none to begin with nor Nichole Buffet was Peter Buffet’s biological daughter let alone that he divorced Nichole’s mother since 1993!

    The truth is if Nichole are upset or unhappy with the fact that she barely earns $40,000 a year as an artist—her dreamed career and the fact that her so called, non-blood related Warrant Buffet did not want to help her out with her living expenses, then, there has to be some ways for Nichole to help herself to manage her money differently, wisely, and effectively as a mature adult!

    On a final note, just because a person has healthcare insurance, it “does not mean” that this person is going to “get quality and adequate care given by qualified physicians and healthcare providers!” Not having healthcare insurance is not the root cause of the critical problems in America today; it is in fact that America does “not have enough qualified and diligent physicians and healthcare providers” that evidently compromised people’s health, well-being, and freedom as a whole!



  30. rob

    June 23, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    Warren Buffett is always saying how he doesnt pay enough and his secretary pays to much but yet he was averse to the documentary ,it seems ,like some posted, that there is another side of the story. In the documentary when mother Johson was talking to junior they where in a very emotional moment one in which i and my mother would have been in tears ,and Im 100% irish. Nicole also said that thier family was NEVER emotional could that be because people of unfathonable wealth have to give up that aspect of empathy. All billionaires interviewed acccept one liar said that they seperate themselves from the reality of the desparity .So it seems to me that they know the the treachery of it but as a group they collude to ignore it and in the process damage there psyche

  31. Real Nicole

    August 5, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    Nicole Buffet is not a blood relative of Warren Buffet. Nicole Buffets mother married and divorced Peter Buffet shortly after. Nicole Buffet is money hungry and clings onto the Buffet name and wishes she could inherit money from Warren. Nicole should have to work like everyone else. Please do not be conned by Nicole Buffet.

  32. Gracie

    September 2, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Real Nicole,

    I post all comments even if I disagree. The article clearly states Nicole is working in case you missed that info in the piece.

  33. Eagle

    October 17, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    Mr. Buffet’s anger seems justified and matches his character and what he teaches. If the granddaughter was not a Buffet, would anyone have interest in her or for that matter interview her? He wants his kin to stand on their own. In this case she wasn’t interviewed for her art, but for her name. If she wants to make it up to her grandfather, she should change her last name, live her life, and don’t look back.

  34. Krista

    November 22, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Looks like Buffet missed lifes meaning, something you just can not buy or obtain with out clarity.

  35. Mikey III

    December 1, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    This is her side of it. I’m sure that there is more to the story than is in this article. I also feel that when you have that sort of money…why not set your family up. Let them have a great life and teach them responsibility. Joe Kennedy did that and gave Jack and Bobby money, but also pushed them to use that money for public service…which they both did. I have to say that she must be stupid to say things like that about WB…but she’ll be perfectly fine. Her father is his oldest son. He will inherit from WB and when he goes she, as his adopted daughter will do just fine.

  36. Guitar Man Rob

    October 7, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    He’s a freaking dick. Why do people keep bringing up money in the comments? The articles not even about that.

  37. Kate S

    February 10, 2014 at 8:22 am

    Old Warren Buffett has got to be a sad, lonely person. Look at all the divorce and dysfunction that flows from him. He should really try harder to find God and to love people more instead of trying to be the savior of the world. Its just a load of arrogant non-sense. The amount of money is irrelevant. You give good “gifts” with no strings attached to people you love.

  38. anna

    February 9, 2015 at 5:18 am

    Wow! That is all I can say. Money talks and bullshit walks.

    For real.

  39. Tom

    May 15, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    Lotta judges here. Lotta BIG opinions. Now why dont y’all go take the planks outta yer eyes and wait eternally for the ensuing infection to heal.

  40. Martha Washington

    May 17, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    A lot of people are scoffing at her $40k a year. She lives in Berkeley, CA so it might as well be $20k. I applaud her for living where she wants and making a go of it, you judgemental bastards.


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