The Marriott Family’s Civil War – Washingtonian
John Willard Marriott III looks nervous. We are sitting in the living room of his rented Georgetown townhouse on a cool, sunny morning. Nearly ten of these could fit inside the Potomac mansion he used to share with his wife, Angela, and their three daughters, before their marriage fell apart, unleashing, Marriott says, a cascade of events that alienated him from his parents and his brothers. . That’s why he’s invited me here: to detail a life of hidden pain and regret, and to explain why he’s going to court against his own family, who happens to control the world’s largest hotel empire. p>
This is not easy for him, he says. he stutters and laughs at awkward moments. he fiddles with a pen, opening and closing it, as we speak. He has spent his entire life trying to please his billionaire father, John Willard Marriott Jr., known as Bill, and living up to the impossible expectations attached to his famous name. As a child, John says, he attended high-pressure private schools, followed a religion he didn’t believe in and smiled through severe depression, all to appease his father. even as an adult, he says, he could be reprimanded for the smallest transgressions, like growing a beard when he was in his 50s: “My dad was so mad at me. he was supposed to give a speech to give him an award that night. he said, ‘you can’t make that speech unless you shave your beard.'”
Now, as punishment for leaving his wife, John alleges that his father is trying to drive him into financial ruin, cutting him off from the Marriott fortune and forcing him to step down as CEO of a private, independent hotel company called the JWM Family companies as a result, John says, he was left with no choice but to sue both his father and uncle, Richard Marriott, who share control of the trust established by his parents, alleging breach of fiduciary duty. john wants them both removed as trustees and compensated for the millions of dollars he claims he is losing annually now that he no longer earns a salary from jwm or has access to his trust. “I have to get up,” he says. “otherwise they will destroy me.”
By going public with his claims of mistreatment and betrayal, the 56-year-old Marriott threatens to destroy the carefully cultivated image of one of Washington’s most powerful families. In John’s narration, the Marriotts are unruly and ruthless, controlled by a domineering patriarch willing to kick his people out if he doesn’t like them. His family and representatives reject John Marriott’s claims and say they have worked hard over the years to help him address his addiction to drugs and alcohol. Whatever truth is revealed in the course of litigation is sure to complicate the image of healthy tranquility conveyed by the oil-painted family portraits that hang in the lobbies of many of your hotels.
bill and donna marriott raised john, his sister, debbie, and brothers stephen and david in a brick farmhouse near river road in bethesda’s kenwood. religion was the center of their lives. During a period in the 1970s, Bill put in 25 hours a week as a Mormon bishop, in addition to the 70 hours he spent as CEO of Marriott, according to a 2007 Washington profile of the family.
In the eyes of friends and neighbors, they seemed happy and, considering their great wealth, surprisingly normal. john enjoyed throwing a soccer ball and seemed to get along well with his parents. “He was a good son, I think, in every way,” says Paul Thaler, who grew up with him.
it is not disputed that bill marriott held his children to high standards. It was, after all, family style: Bill’s father, the J.W. original. marriott, “was never happy,” bill told the wall street journal in 2005. “i got bs and he wanted like. he challenged everything I did.”
Bill expected his own children to work hard, adhere to the Mormon faith, do well in school, and never take advantage of his last name. “My dad knew that everyone would see us as Marriotts and expect the worst: lazy, spoiled, all of that, and none of us are,” John says.
But in her lawsuit, she alleges that obeying her father also meant covering up a dark reality. john says that as a sixth grader at st. albans, the prestigious boys’ school where a 2009 addition was called marriott hall, he contemplated suicide. He says the rigorous coursework was too much for a child with anxiety and summation, and he begged his mom and dad to let him transfer to public school. He says that one night, while he was lying in bed thinking, “I can’t deal with this,” he decided to walk to his parents’ room to ask for help.
“I didn’t understand depression or anything like that at the time, I just knew I was really sad,” recalls John. “My dad just said, ‘You have everything you need. he goes back to bed.’” Within a year, John says, his anxiety worsened to the point that he couldn’t sleep. according to his lawsuit, his father’s solution “more than once” was to give him “a strong adult prescription drug (valium).”
despite their alleged difficulties at home, their classmates at st. Albans remembers John as a nice, athletic guy with a cool car. (He was a ’73 Firebird. John still has it, along with a collection of vintage Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Corvettes, and Jaguars.)
Everyone knew John was a Mormon, of course, but he wasn’t rigid about it. he went to parties. His friends remember that he may have enjoyed a beer once in a while, but nothing more.
“I was certainly more restrained than a lot of my classmates in the late 70s,” says Tom Chalinor, who met John in first grade at Beauvoir. “There were kids running wild and doing a lot of drugs and conquering women, you know, loud, long hair, and I wouldn’t call John any of those things. he was reserved but always very friendly, moving very easily between the different groups.”
Whether his friends realized it or not, John says that at 17, he was into it more than the occasional beer.
John says he is disclosing his drug and alcohol problem because he has “nothing to hide” and his family has used it as a “weapon” against him in the past.
“It’s something I’ve struggled with all my life and continue to struggle with,” he says. “I have sought help and I continue to seek help. but I think it’s important to be honest about it. even though I was really struggling, I still performed above and beyond even my own expectations.”
john says he did well both academically and socially at the university of utah, where he met his future wife, angela cooper. They made a striking couple: John, with sandy hair and blue eyes, and Angela, a beautiful blonde. John says that, like him, Angela had doubts about the Mormon faith.
nevertheless, they were married in the lds temple in salt lake city shortly before graduation in 1986. john, who had taken nearly two years off from school to complete a mormon mission in japan, was 24 years old. angela was 23. (in his lawsuit, john says his father told him he “had to get married by the time he finished college” and that he’d rather his son “come home in a pine box than… have sex premarital.” p>
The couple settled in Washington, and John joined the family business, beginning his ascent to the job that seemed to be his destiny: CEO of Marriott International.
John’s older brother, Stephen, was born with a muscle disorder called mitochondrial disease, which eventually left him blind and deaf. Stephen died in 2013, when he was 54 years old. Debbie, the older sister, spent most of her adult life raising her five children, only joining the executive ranks of Marriott in 2006. David, the 12-year-old, simply wouldn’t have enough experience to take the rudder, though his colleagues say his personality is the closest to his father and grandfather.
that left john, who started as a dishwasher at crystal city marriott at age 15. By the time he reached adulthood, it was clear that Bill Marriott was grooming him as a possible successor. “With his gold-plated name, his American good looks and a quarter century in the family business, Mr. Marriott, 41, would seem to fit right into his father’s shoes,” said a 2003 New York Times profile.
Although John held various positions (hotel general manager, director of food and beverage, director of finance, executive vice president of sales, and ultimately president of North American lodging), some colleagues doubted he had the talent to lead the entire company.
“Juan certainly did everything he needed to do while getting up, but whether he was speaking at a grand opening or interacting in a media room or interacting in a social setting like a cocktail party, he never seemed so comfortable,” says Roger conner, who spent nearly 30 years at marriott before retiring as vice president of communications in 2009.
others are tougher. “Senior and Junior were very level-headed, logical, calm, collected, and collected decision-makers,” says a former senior vice president, referring to the two older John Willards. “John was none of those things. he might have a temper. he could be a rational decision maker, and at the next meeting or next decision, it would just be a different process. it was erratic.”
in 1997, john had been in rehab for abusing prescription drugs and alcohol, checking into a facility in loma linda, california. however, his colleagues did not suspect that he was struggling with addiction, the former executive says. “He was where he needed to be, when he needed to be there.”
John claims his father knew about his substance abuse but didn’t care as long as he kept it a secret. he insists that he never let it get in the way of the job. Whether true or not, one thing John couldn’t control was the arrival of Arne Sorenson.
marriott hired sorenson out of the partnership at latham & Watkins in 1996 to help with legal and financial strategy. The newcomer quickly impressed shareholders and co-workers alike, and within two years he was named chief financial officer. “He’s an extremely bright guy, extremely intelligent and charismatic,” says a former Marriott vice president. “arne has it all.”
In 2005, John recalls, his cell phone rang while he was sitting in the parking lot of the Rockville Department of Motor Vehicles. He says it was one of his father’s lawyers who called him to inform him that he was probably out of the running to become CEO.
“I was devastated,” John says. “I sat in my car and cried for half an hour. So in my license photo, my eyes are all red.” The divorce records for him indicate that the time around the parking call was a difficult period for him. That same year, he received outpatient treatment for alcohol and prescription pill addiction at the Kolmac Recovery Center in Silver Spring.
At the time, both John and Angela were fixtures in Washington society. angela served on the boards of the make-a-wish foundation, the washington society for the performing arts, and the american heart association. As members of the National Zoo’s board of directors, the couple helped spearhead a fundraising campaign, including a $1.6 million donation from the Marriott family, to bring back the giant pandas.
whatever their reservations about the mormon church, they raised their three daughters in the faith, attending the lds temple in potomac. John taught Sunday school for a while.
Knowing he would not become CEO, he left Marriott in the fall of 2005, although he remained on the board of directors as vice president. in the press, the move was framed as entirely his decision. “John has been thinking about this for a long time,” a Marriott spokeswoman told Bloomberg News. he “is very entrepreneurial and has a knack for investing in real estate.”
Bill Marriott stepped down in 2011. Unsurprisingly, Sorenson replaced him, becoming the first non-family member to head Marriott. In most cases, Sorenson has enjoyed extraordinary success. In 2016, he led Marriott International’s acquisition of Starwood Hotels & resorts, catapulting the company’s total number of hotel rooms to more than 1.2 million. According to fortune, that makes Marriott 50 percent larger than Hilton, the world’s next largest hospitality player.
Marriott’s most recent quarterly profit was $392 million, an increase of 460% over the prior year. In 2018, the company will break ground on its new $600 million Bethesda headquarters.
While the company flourished without him, John Marriott went on to lead the Marriotts’ private hotel business, the JWM Family Companies. he had started the business in 1993 as part of creating a more tax-efficient estate plan. In part by contributing some of his family assets to JWM, John claims he helped save all of Marriotts “billions of dollars” in estate taxes. By 2014, he says, he had grown JWM into a 16-property operation with more than $30 million in profit.
Her home life, however, was falling apart. In 2010, the family moved from their 12,000-square-foot Potomac mansion to a 20,000-square-foot mansion they built two doors down from uncle richard, yes, the same uncle john is now suing.
neighbors grew fond of john and “angie” who they say were always friendly and warm. Angie could be seen riding her bike—“she would look so cute,” says Donna Ward, who lived a few houses away—and the entire Marriott clan would be attending the annual Christmas party thrown by Richard and his wife. , nancy. For as long as anyone ever gossiped about the pair, the talk turned to John’s cars: was it true that one was used in the 2013 film version of the Great Gatsby? how many did he really have in that big garage on his property anyway? “They were a happy family,” Ward says. “it seemed picture perfect.”
It wasn’t. Angie “was openly disappointed when she couldn’t succeed her father,” John alleges in his lawsuit. Sandy Ain, Angie’s lawyer, says that’s a mischaracterization: “Angie was worried about John and her well-being is a better and more accurate way of putting it, and her problems with drugs and alcohol. From her point of view, she impacted every aspect of her life.”
In court documents, Angela says her husband “created an environment within the home that was not consistent with a healthy, stable, and respectful marriage.” Between 1997 and 2014, court documents show, John enrolled in four different rehab programs for prescription drug and alcohol addiction. Angela also alleges that her ex-husband cheated on her “numerous times”, which John disputes. She does admit that in 2014 she started an affair with a French woman, with whom she is still going. In the lawsuit against her family, she blames Angela for the separation from her.
“Angela had accepted her public role as Marriott’s wife. she enjoyed that role and all that came with it,” her complaint reads. “But at home, the marriage had been devoid of affection or compassion for a long time. after years of estrangement and loneliness, john met another woman and fell in love.”
Through her attorney, Angela declined to comment for this story. Despite the problems in her marriage, Ain says that Angela remained committed to John until he left: “She was devoted to him, I can tell you that, without qualification or equivocation. she cared for him. she was worried about him.”
John says he traveled to the family vacation resort on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire to break the news to his parents that he was leaving Angie: “I explained why and what was going on. my dad kept saying, ‘you’re leaving the family.’ I was like, ‘I don’t want to leave the family.’ . . I didn’t understand at the time that he meant that he was kicking me out.”
From then on, Bill Marriott unleashed “relentless flaying,” according to John’s lawsuit, denying him access to his trust, threatening to expose John’s history of substance abuse if he didn’t resign from the board of directors of John. Marriott International, cutting its equity in JWM Hotels and diverting a “substantial portion” of John’s trust to “a non-beneficiary.” John declined to say if the non-beneficiary is his ex-wife because the terms of their divorce settlement are sealed, though she remains close to his family.
He says his father also forced him to resign as CEO of the jwm family companies and that the combined loss of that salary and his trust amounts to millions of dollars a year. That being said, he is far from destitute. A second filing shows that he has about $49 million in Marriott International stock. He also owns the Potomac mansion he shared with Angie, valued at over $8 million (although he says he’s in trust for his daughters).
Through a family spokesperson, Bill and Richard Marriott deny John’s claims. “Bill and Dick Marriott are saddened by John’s filing of a lawsuit,” read a written statement. “Bill has worked very hard over the years with great understanding to help John address his own issues that, in the lawsuit, John himself acknowledges exist. That being said, Bill has reviewed the complaint and the allegations of misconduct are simply untrue and unsubstantiated. Bill continues to hope for the best for his son John, but now he must defend John’s lawsuit to ensure the best possible long-term outcome for the entire family, including John’s daughters.”
for a man in his fifties, john marriott seems not to have lost a certain streak of adolescent rebellion. In his Georgetown rental, he set up a ping-pong net on the fancy dining room table and hung Ferrari posters on the dining room wall. As we sink into the overstuffed armchairs that come with the place, John says he’s deeply saddened by the breakup: “Sueing my dad and uncle is the last thing I want to do and the last thing I expect to do. I have always admired them and I have always trusted them.” But for the first time in his life, he adds, he too feels free.
The rest of the family has a different opinion. In emails to me, John’s siblings, Debbie Marriott Harrison and David Marriott, both senior executives at Marriott International, say they are concerned about their brother’s health and well-being. They describe their accusations as “false” and “unfounded”. David writes, “My father and uncle have always had the best interests of their children in mind, and I believe my father has done everything in his power over the years to help John solve his problems.”
Virtually cut off from his family, John spends weeks with his girlfriend in the resort town of Chamonix, in the French Alps. he stopped going to church. “I got tired of trying to live up to an image, or whatever, that someone else was putting on me,” he says. “I thought I would follow my own beliefs and try to be a little more open than what I’ve heard every Sunday for years and years.”
A court date is scheduled for the end of January, and John says he’s ready to fight: “This won’t end unless I stand up.”
This article appears in the January 2018 issue of the Washingtonian.