The phone rings. It's Evelyn Y. Davis. She has a suggestion for a headline for this story, which is about Evelyn Y. Davis.
"A headline which would be very good is: 'I Was Gifted With Both Extraordinary Beauty and Extraordinary Brains and I've Used Them Both to My Utmost Advantage.' "
Evelyn Y. Davis also has a suggestion for the photographs of Evelyn Y. Davis that will illustrate this story on Evelyn Y. Davis: "Hopefully, a male editor will pick out the pictures -- not some jealous female editor who will pick out the worst pictures."
Before she hangs up -- which she frequently does without saying goodbye -- she has a few final words of wisdom.
"You never had a subject like me!" she crows. "You never had an interview like this!"
She's right about that. There is no subject quite like Evelyn Y. Davis. And there's no interview quite like an interview with Evelyn Y. Davis, who tends to revise and extend her remarks in follow-up calls -- many, many follow-up calls.
Evelyn Y. Davis is one of Washington's living legends. Now 73, she's the millionaire queen of stockholder activists and the editor, publisher and entire staff of Highlights and Lowlights, an eccentric annual financial newsletter that she sells to corporate CEOs, who pay $525 a copy (minimum order: two copies) possibly because they are scared to death of Evelyn Y. Davis. They're scared she'll show up at their shareholder meetings to excoriate, eviscerate and generally rip their heads off with the sheer force of her Dutch-accented voice, which could sandblast granite.
Over 40 years, Davis's performances at stockholder meetings have attained the status of myth. She attends about 40 a year, tirelessly crusading for three goals: to democratize corporate governance, to lambaste errant CEOs and, she admits, to attract attention to Evelyn Y. Davis.
To achieve those ends, she'll do almost anything. In the 1970s, she wore hot pants to one meeting and stripped down to a bathing suit at another. At a Chrysler meeting, she informed CEO Lee Iacocca that he needed to lose weight. At a Washington Post Co. meeting, she complained that she wasn't getting enough coverage in The Washington Post. At a Citicorp meeting, she told CEO John Reed: "Let me tell you something, my dear -- I've got you by the [bleep]."
Frequently, stockholders peeved at her over-the-top antics boo or heckle her. Once, at an Eastern Airlines meeting in 1977, an irate stockholder knocked her to the floor, causing an ear injury that required five stitches. An hour later, she was back in action at the annual meeting of the New York Times Co.
"The show must go on!" she explains.
Her shows earn mixed reviews. In 1996, People magazine called Davis "the nation's most obstreperous corporate gadfly." In 2002, Vanity Fair called her "the most famous and least loved shareholder activist in the country." In 1993, Washingtonian magazine named her one of "the 25 most annoying Washingtonians."
Such slurs don't bother her. She loves publicity. In 1991 she issued a press release announcing her third marriage and got coverage in The Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. In 1994 she issued a press release announcing her third divorce and got coverage in USA Today, the Rocky Mountain News and Time magazine. In 2000 she eagerly explained her third facelift to a reporter: "They just snip some tissue and pull it up, like a rabbit by the ears, and you look younger."
Side effects from that facelift caused blood pressure problems that put Davis out of commission for a few months, but as the spring 2003 shareholder meeting season approached, she reported that she was ready and raring for action. Tormenting CEOs at public meetings really perks up Davis's natural joie de vivre.
"I have absolute power at those stockholder meetings," she says, smiling. "And, yes, I enjoy having power over men."
Evelyn's Bank Draft The phone rings. It's Evelyn Y. Davis. She says she has Kenneth Lewis, CEO of the Bank of America, on the other line. She says she has instructed him to call me to talk about her.
A minute later, the phone rings. It's Kenneth Lewis, calling to talk about Evelyn Y. Davis.
"She comes to shareholder meetings," he says. "She's very vocal, but I must say she's usually very well informed. And while we've had our differences, there is a mutual respect."
He's a satisfied subscriber to Highlights and Lowlights. "I certainly enjoy reading it," he says. "In some cases, she tells me things I don't know. In some cases, I already know."
Several profiles of Davis have speculated that CEOs spend $1,050 a year for Davis's newsletter in the hopes that she will go easy on them at shareholder meetings. But Lewis is skeptical.
"If that's why people buy it, I think they should look twice to see if they're getting that result," he says, laughing. "To me, it doesn't work that way. If she has something she wants to say, she speaks out anyway."
Highlights and Lowlights
The phone rings. It's Evelyn Y. Davis. She has more advice for this story on Evelyn Y. Davis.
"Put this in there," she commands. "Evelyn Y. Davis is a brilliant, complex woman who has experienced the full gamut of human emotion."
She's eager to talk about her life and her loves. She makes a reservation for lunch at Jeffrey's, a fancy restaurant at the Watergate complex, where she has lived for 20 years. She shows up fashionably late, wearing black pants, a striped sweater and her short reddish hair styled in a spiky coif. She tells the maitre d' that she wants a table by the window. He offers one. She demands a different one. She sits down, orders angel-hair pasta with shrimp and starts talking.
"I've had it all, dear," she says. "I've had love without sex, I've had sex without love, and a few times I've had both."
Evelyn Yvonne De Jong was born in 1929 in Amsterdam, daughter of a neurologist father and a psychologist mother. She grew up in a 12-room house with two maids and a French governess. But in 1942, while her father was lecturing in the United States, the Nazis arrested the family, which was half-Jewish, and sent Evelyn, her mother, Marianna, and her brother, Rudolph, to a series of concentration camps. At a Dutch camp, she picked potatoes and was hit by shrapnel in a mortar attack that left a deep scar on her right calf. After that, the family was sent by railroad car to a camp in Czechoslovakia, where she worked cutting mica in a factory.
"It was terrible, very cold and dirty," she says. "I was 15 years old and as a sort of mental escape, I started to fantasize about the director of the factory, who was a Czech Nazi. I got a crush on him, like you'd get a crush on a professor at school. And, honest to God, because I had this crush, it got me through the camp. I'd look forward to going to the factory because I'd see this guy. Nothing happened: I was still an innocent girl. But it made the whole thing bearable for me."
She looks down, picks at her food, then looks up.
"Ever since then, I've had infatuations with what you'd call very prominent authority types," she says. "See? That has kept with me the rest of my life."
That wasn't the Holocaust's only impact on her. "It had an effect on my marriages," she says. "You feel enclosed. You feel you don't have freedom. Anyone who has been in those camps -- it's difficult to lead a normal life."
After the war, her parents divorced. Her mother stayed in Holland while Evelyn and Rudolph moved to the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville, with their father, Herman De Jong, who taught at Johns Hopkins. Both Evelyn and Rudolph graduated from Catonsville High in 1947. Rudolph, who declines to discuss his sister, went on to medical school and a career as an anesthesiologist in Columbia, S.C. Evelyn attended Western Maryland College for a semester, then studied business at George Washington University for two years. She dropped out -- she won't say why -- and worked stenography jobs in Washington.
In the early '50s, she began an affair with a married man who was, she says, "a high government official." She won't reveal his name.
"He fell for me and I fell for him," she says. "It was mostly platonic. It would have been difficult to be other than platonic because of the position he had. That was part of the attraction -- that it couldn't be."
It went on for five years, she says. The mystery man allowed her to date but sabotaged any relationship that got serious.
"Finally, to make him jealous, I got married," she says.
To William Henry Davis III, an accountant from a wealthy North Carolina family. "I liked him but I didn't love him," she says. "I told him I didn't love him."
They married in 1957. They divorced in 1958.
"I got a little settlement," she says. "In those days, women got a settlement."
She took the money, "a few hundred thousand dollars," and moved to New York. She invested it -- along with the "several hundred thousand dollars" she inherited when her father died in 1956 -- in the stock market. She did well. She also began attending stockholder meetings, asking tough questions, raising hell, getting her name in the papers. And she set up a business, Shareholder Research Inc., which was headquartered in a hotel room near the United Nations.
In 1963, she was arrested in that hotel room. "Mrs. Davis," the New York World-Telegram reported, "was convicted last week of offering to commit lewd and indecent acts in a room . . . which she had equipped with market charts, financial reference books and a bed."
Davis's fame -- and the fact that she had a U.N. press pass -- inspired reporters to ask U Thant, then the U.N.'s secretary general, if a call girl ring was working on his turf.
At the time, Davis blamed her troubles on maternal neglect. "My mother, the psychologist, didn't care about me," she told the World-Telegram.
Now she refuses to talk about the conviction and her 30-day suspended sentence other than to say it was a "vicious corporate frame-up" designed to keep her from raising tough questions at stockholder meetings. "I don't want to say anything more," she says.
In 1965 she began publishing Highlights and Lowlights, which features her views on business, politics, world travel and anything else that crosses her mind, all written in a Winchellesque staccato: "The corporate secretary at Safeway is no longer there, thank goodness!!!" reads a typical item. "We don't care whether she got fired, quit or retired. She is gone -- hoorah!!!"
In November 1969 she married a stockbroker named Marvin Knudsen. Three months later, they divorced.
"I didn't love him," she says, "but I was lonesome so I got married."
In the early '80s she moved to Washington. She kept investing, building a fortune worth several million dollars. She kept publishing Highlights and Lowlights, which earns about $250,000 a year, she says, although she won't reveal any circulation figures. And she kept raising hell at stockholder meetings.
In 1991 she married economist Walter Froh, whom she met at a Senate Banking Committee hearing. In 1994, they divorced. But they remained friends, even after Froh remarried.
"He became my little woofie, my little puppy," she says. "I had an emotional hold over him."
In 1999 Froh got sick, she says, and after a long illness, he died last year.
"I had guilt feelings that I divorced him," she says. "If I hadn't divorced him, I would have gotten him better. I would have gotten him the best doctors. But I couldn't do anything as an ex-wife. I felt horrible."
Now tears are spilling from her eyes.
"I loved him, first as a husband, then as a woofie," she says, weeping. "People like me are very brilliant and complicated."
A Victory Lap The phone rings. It's Evelyn Y. Davis, calling to say that the Feb. 17 issue of Business Week contains a story about her.
"They have a real cute quote from me in there: 'Whatever Evelyn wants, Evelyn gets.' That's sensational, isn't it? Tell me, Peter, have you ever had anybody give you such sensational quotes as me?"
Business Week's story is called "Let's Hear It for the Gadfly." It reveals that Bristol-Myers Squibb has agreed to end its staggered system of electing its board of directors and instead put all directors up for election every year. A company spokesman says the decision is due to Davis's 18 years of fighting for that reform at shareholder meetings. Her nonbinding referendum won a majority of shareholder votes for the last six years and the company finally decided to implement it.
"Every once in a while," the story notes, "a shareholder -- armed with nothing more than the patience of a saint -- can actually win."
It wasn't Davis's first victory. Her resolutions have led to reforms in corporate governance at several other companies. Her biggest victory came in 1990, when General Motors agreed to adopt the anti-greenmail policy she'd been pushing since 1984, when GM paid Ross Perot $700 million to entice him to leave its board.
Now Davis calls back to tout the Business Week story again. But she doesn't want to talk about her victory. She wants to talk about her quote.
"You can have as your quote: 'Whatever pretty little Evelyn wants, pretty little Evelyn gets,' " she says. "That's better, right?"
Editing Evelyn The phone rings. It's Evelyn Y. Davis. Last night, she says, she ran into Peter Prichard, former editor of USA Today, and he is eager to be quoted about her.
"We were very good friends," she said. "He was sort of in love with me. Everybody was talking about it. He was smitten with me but also, I think, a little bit afraid of me."
Prichard laughs when he hears that quote. "I've been happily married for 35 years," he says. "I was not smitten with Evelyn. I did do her a favor -- I did a speech at a college she was affiliated with. . . . No, I wasn't afraid of Evelyn. But I thought it was reasonably important to keep her reasonably happy."
When he was editor of USA Today, he'd see Davis at the annual meetings of Gannett, the company that owns the newspaper.
"She typically stood up and made a statement about whatever issue she was interested in at the time," he says. "Sometimes, it had to do with the personal coverage she did or did not get in USA Today." He laughs. "For a CEO, she's somebody you sort of have to pay attention to because you know she's going to show up at the meeting and she can make it miserable for you."
The Gadfly in Action The phone rings. It's Evelyn Y. Davis. She leaves a message on the answering machine: "This is Evelyn. I'm doing my best to try to make this meeting Wednesday more interesting . . ."
She's talking about the annual shareholder meeting of WGL Holdings, the company that owns Washington Gas. It's held in a building at George Washington University, and when Davis arrives, she immediately hustles into the auditorium and snags a seat in the middle of the front row.
Smiling broadly, Miguel Gonzalez, a PR man for WGL, walks over and asks Davis to please go out to the lobby to register and get a badge.
"I'm Evelyn Y. Davis," she says. "I don't need a badge. Everybody knows me."
Still smiling, Gonzalez insists that she register. After a bit of grumbling, she goes and signs in.
"Bring me a proxy statement," she tells Gonzalez.
"I'll get you one in a minute," he says.
"Get me one now!" she demands.
He fetches a proxy statement, then Davis heads back into the auditorium. In the doorway, a guard stops her. "You need to put your badge on," she says.
"I don't put on badges," Davis replies. "Everybody knows me."
Davis tries to step past the guard but the guard moves in front of her. Davis moves to the side but the guard moves in front of her again. Finally, Davis puts her badge on and steps inside.
"A male guard would never have done that," she grumbles. "Give a woman one ounce of power and she thinks it weighs 1,000 pounds. Put that in your story."
She plops down in her front-row seat. Immediately, one WGL employee brings her orange juice and rolls, while another gives her a headset to help her hear better. They keep calling her "Ms. Davis" until she gets mad.
"It's Mrs. Davis," she says. "I've had three husbands. 'Ms.' is for a woman who can't even get one husband."
Now James DeGraffenreidt Jr., CEO of WGL, walks over to say hello.
Davis starts complaining about the guard. "I only have problems with the women, never the men," she says.
DeGraffenreidt smiles. "Well," he says, "that's something you're going to have to work out."
"I have two important points I want to make today." Davis tells him.
"If they're from you," DeGraffenreidt says, grinning, "they're important."
He steps to the lectern and calls the meeting to order. The first issue is the election of the board. "We now open the floor," he says.
Davis shoots out of her seat like a missile.
"It seems like Evelyn has won the race," DeGraffenreidt announces, "and she will ask the first question."
"Good morning, Jim," she says, "I'm Evelyn Y. Davis, editor of Highlights and Lowlights . . ."
She asks a question about an obscure provision of the new Sarbanes-Oxley bill. DeGraffenreidt starts to answer but she interrupts him.
"As I said on January 21st on CNBC, there is no such thing as an independent director," she says, her voice rising to a bellow. "They may appear to be independent but, believe you me, as I said on CNBC, there is no such thing as a purely independent director. Now, Jim . . ."
"If you don't mind, I have to correct you," DeGraffenreidt says, interrupting her interruption. "There is such a thing . . ."
"Well, that's a matter of opinion," Davis says, interrupting his interruption of her interruption.
"Mrs. Davis," he says, "you have 90 seconds left."
"Your answer does not count in my time," she says.
Then she raises another issue -- the $70,000 bonus the board awarded DeGraffenreidt on top of his $600,000 salary. "Jim, with all due respect to you," she says, "you should not have received the discretionary award because your performance did not exceed the performance that was expected of you."
On and on she goes. And this is just the first item on the agenda. Before the morning is out, Davis will have her say about all of them.
International Relations The phone rings. It's Evelyn Y. Davis. "Have you called Marlin Fitzwater yet?" she asks. "Why don't you call him now?"
Fitzwater used to be Ronald Reagan's press secretary. Davis -- who used her status as editor of Highlights and Lowlights to get White House press credentials -- attended Fitzwater's White House briefings. He liked to call on her when reporters were bombarding him with questions on the hot topic of the day. He knew she'd change the subject.
"You go around and around with Sam Donaldson for 10 minutes and you're ready for a change," he says, "so I'd call on Evelyn. She asked good business questions."
In 1987, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to Washington, Davis learned that she'd been excluded from a Gorbachev press conference. She protested to Fitzwater but that didn't help, so she took her case to Gorbachev's press secretary for foreign affairs, Gennadi Gerasimov.
"I called Gennadi and chewed him out," she recalls. "I had a tirade that was worse than anything at the stockholders meetings. I think I almost made him cry. And he ended up inviting me to dinner."
After that, they became friends, she says, and she'd fly off to see him whenever Gorbachev traveled to European cities.
"He was a strikingly handsome man," she says, wiggling her eyebrows salaciously. "Put that in the story -- a strikingly handsome man."
They met in various places for several years, she says. But when Gorbachev lost his job, so did Gerasimov. "As his power declined, my interest waned," she says. "Put that in -- as his power declined, my interest waned."
Reached at his home in Moscow, Gerasimov confirms that he met his old friend in various places around the world. He says he admired her energy and tenacity.
"One thing that impressed me was that she was a minority shareholder who traveled to all these shareholder meetings to create publicity for herself and shareholders' rights," he says. "I even wrote an article on her for a Russian newspaper. We have shareholders but they don't know their rights. I thought it was important for Russians to know that even if you're the owner of only two or three shares, you can raise hell. She was raising hell."
The Woman on the Plaque The phone rings. Surprisingly, it's not Evelyn Y. Davis. It's Donna Shalala, calling at the request of Evelyn Y. Davis.
Shalala, who served as President Bill Clinton's secretary of health and human services, is now president of the University of Miami. Davis -- who recently gave $100,000 to create the Evelyn Y. Davis Endowed Scholarship Fund at the university -- asked Shalala to call, and Shalala has called.
"I like her," Shalala says. "She asks questions other people are afraid to ask. Some CEOs don't like her because they'd rather not hear those questions. But she does her homework and she knows a lot about corporations and Wall Street."
Davis and her foundation -- it's called the Evelyn Y. Davis Foundation -- have donated more than $1 million to universities, museums and hospitals since 1989. Davis doesn't usually ask the recipients of her largess to call reporters. Usually she asks -- actually she demands -- that they mount a plaque with her name in a prominent place. She also demands that they agree, in writing, that the plaque will be displayed, and kept polished, forever.
"The Bank of America is the trustee of my estate and after I die they will check up every six months to make sure that the plaques are still there," she says, sitting in her Watergate apartment. "Otherwise, these places figure, when you're gone, they can sell the space to somebody else."
Suddenly, Davis decides she wants to show off her plaques. She puts on her coat, takes the elevator down to the parking garage, climbs into her green 1999 Saab, drives about three blocks to George Washington University Hospital and starts looking for a parking space.
But there are no spaces. The streets are clogged with cars. She pulls into a GWU parking lot where the sign reads "Decal Parking Only" and warns that interlopers will be towed away. She has no decal but she pulls in anyway.
"I like to take chances in life," she says. "You don't get to my position by following the rules."
She parks. Walking across the street to the hospital, she starts singing. "Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day! I've got a beautiful feeling, everything's going my way!"
She enters the hospital, takes the escalator to the emergency room and points proudly to the plaque on the wall: "Supported by Evelyn Y. Davis and the Evelyn Y. Davis Foundation."
She walks over to the nurse on duty. "I'm Evelyn Y. Davis," she says. "The woman on the plaque."
The nurse looks baffled. "Can I help you?" she asks.
Davis doesn't answer. She walks over to the people waiting for emergency care.
"Hello, I'm Evelyn Y. Davis, the woman on the plaque," she tells a man in a wheelchair. "I gave them a lot of money and I'm seeing how you all are doing."
"Oh," he says, looking confused. "Thank you."
She introduces herself to a few more sick people, then gets back on the escalator. "That's just to show you that I have a nice side," she explains.
Outside, she walks back toward her car. Suddenly, she stops, right in the middle of the street.
"Look at me," she says, beaming. "I look radiant, don't I? And no makeup!"
A Farewell to Evelyn
The phone rings. It's Evelyn Y. Davis. She says she has a good quote for the end of this story: "The sun also rises on the snows of Kilimanjaro."
She explains: "See, it's two Hemingway titles -- 'The Sun Also Rises' and 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro.' I put them together -- very clever, right? Hemingway is my favorite writer. It'll show that I'm very literary-minded. Isn't that wonderful?"
Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. contributed to this report.
"You never had a subject like me!" says Davis, at her apartment in the Watergate. "You never had an interview like this!" Below, an issue of Highlights and Lowlights, the eccentric annual newsletter that covergirl Davis writes, edits and publishes. Are CEOs scared not to buy it?Legendary Davis corners Washington Gas CEO James DeGraffenreidt before a March shareholders' meeting.Evelyn Y. Davis, millionaire stockholder activist and thorn in CEOs' sides, at her Watergate apartment building. "I like to take chances in life."