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Tony Hsieh remembered as introvert, ‘really complex guy’

Those who knew Tony Hsieh say he was a man of contradictions.

Introverted and soft-spoken, but always surrounded by an entourage. A millionaire, but one who opted for jeans and an Airstream trailer over suits and mansions.

The former chief executive of online shoe seller Zappos, Hsieh died Friday at age 46 from injuries suffered in a New London, Connecticut, house fire.

“He was a complex person,” said Sarah Lacy, founder and CEO of Chairman Mom, a subscription-based company for working mothers. “Anyone who was close with him had a complex relationship with him because he was just a really complex guy.”

Connecticut fire

Hsieh had been in Connecticut with his brother and died more than a week after he was taken to a hospital in New London in the early hours of Nov. 18, according to Megan Fazio, spokeswoman for Hsieh’s side venture DTP Companies.

First responders rushed to a burning three-story home in New London around 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 18, according to recordings archived by Broadcastify and reported by The Wall Street Journal.

In the recordings, some firefighters and dispatchers referred to the victim as “trapped,” while another said a man was “barricaded inside” and “not answering the door,” despite others outside the house trying to get him to “open up.”

Firefighters found an unresponsive man at the back of the house, according to The Wall Street Journal. First responders performed CPR on the victim and took him to the hospital, and another unidentified person suffered a hand injury in the fire, the paper reported.

The Review-Journal was unable to reach New London Fire Chief Thomas Curcio on Sunday, but Curcio told the Hartford Courant that there was only one fire with injuries on Nov. 18, at a home at 500 Pequot Ave. Curcio declined to release the identity of the person injured in that blaze, according to the paper.

New London Mayor Michael Passero told the Review-Journal in an email Saturday that an investigation of the fire is “still ongoing, and the city does not comment on matters under investigation.”

The house where Hsieh suffered his fatal injuries was owned by Rachael Brown, a longtime Zappos employee with ties to the Las Vegas arts community. Brown is a cellist with Nina DiGregorio’s Bella Electric Strings ensemble and David Perrico’s Pop Strings orchestra.

‘Delivering Happiness’

Lacy had known Hsieh roughly 15 years, first as a journalist, then as an entrepreneur after Hsieh invested in her journalism startup, Pando.

Hsieh was “obsessed with happiness,” Lacy said, going so far as to title his 2013 book “Delivering Happiness.”

“He loved making other people happy, but I think he was also always trying to solve that puzzle for himself,” Lacy said. “I’m not sure how successful he was at it, to be honest.”

Hsieh’s position as head of Zappos pushed him in the limelight, but Lacy described him as soft-spoken and introverted.

“I don’t think he liked being a public person,” she said, adding that she believes Hsieh had a difficult time with criticism.

While many have praised his work to revitalize downtown Las Vegas, some thought he had too much say in its development.

“You’re not going to please everyone,” Lacy said. “I think he handled those (confrontational conversations) very well. He never rebuffed anyone. … I think he was just genuinely trying to take a place that he loved and make it as magical as possible and leave it better than he found it.”

Those familiar with Hsieh have described him as “eccentric,” with quirks like his sky-high mohawk and pet alpaca, Marley, who lived with Hsieh at a communal Airstream park in downtown Las Vegas. The park ended up becoming home for a host of other unconventional pets, including chickens and a sloth, according to Zappos’ website.

Stacey Dougan, the chef behind Container Park vegan restaurant Simply Pure, said Hsieh used to throw weekly Sunday brunches at his trailer for people involved in the downtown community. She said the events were “a very cool environment,” with entertainment, free food and a roaming alpaca.

There, Dougan said Hsieh would mingle with guests with fernet — his drink of choice — in hand.

“He was kind of quiet,” Dougan said, “But it was very, very sincere when he did speak.”

In 2012, Hsieh invested $350 million into revitalizing downtown Las Vegas, developing the popular Container Park with its fire-breathing praying mantis art sculpture at the entrance. About 60 percent of the $350 million Downtown Project budget focused on real estate, while $50 million each was meant for small businesses, tech startups and education, arts and culture.

Dougan wasn’t close to Hsieh, but her restaurant had received funding from the Downtown Project. While she heard some chatter from people who thought Hsieh had overstepped his bounds, she credits him for changing her life.

“I could tell that he really wanted people to win,” she said. “He set all the small-business owners up. … I have so much respect for him.”

Downtown Grand Chairman Seth Schorr said he would roll his eyes when he heard people criticizing Hsieh’s work downtown.

“People expected him to single-handedly evolve our city,” Schorr said. “Some of the businesses he invested in may not have worked out. Life is Beautiful took a couple years to find its footing. But he wasn’t looking for immediate economic returns; he was truly investing in the community. A lot of people can say that, but few put their money and support where their mouth is.”

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter. Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes contributed to this report.

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