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. [Continue reading…]