For more than five decades, America’s most notorious corporate gadfly was Evelyn Y. Davis, a Dutch-born Holocaust survivor who traveled the country to attend dozens of shareholder meetings each year.
Wearing hot pants or stripping down to a swimsuit to attract attention, she berated chief executives such as Lee Iacocca of Chrysler (he needed to lose weight, she said) or Frank Blake of Home Depot (“a phony”). “Institutional investors get treated like royalty,” she proclaimed, “individual investors like peasants.”
Mrs. Davis, who championed transparency in corporate governance, boardroom accountability, reduced compensation for chief executives and, she acknowledged, her own public image as the self-anointed “queen of the corporate jungle,” died Nov. 4 at a hospital in Washington. She was 89.
Her death was confirmed by John DeBord, a consultant representing the trustees for her estate. He said that the cause was not yet known but that Mrs. Davis had recently moved from her longtime home at the Watergate complex into an assisted-living community in Washington.
While annual shareholder meetings are typically staid affairs in which stockholders, executives and board members discuss and vote on company issues, the presence of Mrs. Davis could turn them into something close to a circus act.
At one AT&T meeting in the mid-1970s, she was photographed front and center in the audience, decked out in a construction worker’s hard hat and a pair of riding breeches. At other meetings, she told officials at The Washington Post Co. and Gannett, the publisher of USA Today, that she wasn’t receiving enough coverage in their newspapers.
Chief executives and board members were the target of harangues over company policies, exorbitant spending and allegations of impropriety, which alternately drew cheers and jeers from her fellow shareholders.
“At an Eastern Air Lines meeting in 1977,” according to one account in The Post, “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.”
People magazine dubbed her “the nation’s most obstreperous corporate gadfly,” Vanity Fair called her “arguably the most famous and least loved shareholder activist in the country,” and in 1993 Washingtonian magazine enshrined her name on its list of “25 most annoying Washingtonians.”
Her influence far surpassed her portfolio, which was relatively modest — in 2002, she told Vanity Fair that she owned stock in about 86 corporations, worth an estimated $1.5 million — but sizable enough that she was permitted to submit proposals at shareholder meetings.
Among her causes was an effort to increase board accountability by electing directors annually, rather than in a staggered system that was used to ward off corporate raiders such as Carl Icahn.
A representative of Bristol-Myers Squibb told The Post in 2003 that the company had adopted the annual election policy as a result of Mrs. Davis’s 18 years of lobbying. She was also credited with successfully pushing for an “anti-greenmail” policy in 1990 at General Motors, which had paid Ross Perot $700 million to convince him to leave its board.
“She is full of mischief — infuriating, outrageous, and unstoppable,” Stephen Norman, corporate secretary of American Express, told Vanity Fair. “Without any staff or legal establishment helping her, she has resolutely survived four decades of corporate opposition. You’ve got to be obsessive and single-minded to do that. . . . She can be cruel, vulgar, hurtful and self-aggrandizing, but she is unbowed, and I respect her for that.”
From 1965 to 2011, Mrs. Davis also published an annual newsletter, Highlights and Lowlights, that covered corporate meetings, shareholder proposals and most anything else on Mrs. Davis’s mind. The price varied, but lingered around $600 — and Mrs. Davis required that her customers, mainly CEOs, purchase no fewer than two copies per order.
In one item, she wrote: “The corporate secretary at Safeway is no longer there, thank goodness!!! We don’t care whether she got fired, quit or retired. She is gone — hoorah!!!”
For another: “When in Europe there are many cities with VERY similar names, sometimes in the SAME country. Be sure YOU go to the one you intend to go to.”
Critics, including fellow activist shareholders John J. Gilbert and Nell Minow, called the publication a form of blackmail for CEOs, who subscribed in an effort to silence Mrs. Davis at shareholder meetings. Mrs. Davis denied that it was anything but a serious business newsletter.
Still, she told People in 1996, advancing corporate democracy and educating her readers were not her sole mission, or even her primary objective. “The main thing,” she said, “is to keep my name out in front.”
“I always say about gadflies: A gadfly does get the animal to move,” said Minow, vice chair of ValueEdge Advisors, a shareholder consulting firm. “Do I think she accomplished very much? No. Her flamboyant manner made it too easy for people to dismiss her as a kook. Even when she was right about the issues, she was not willing to go in and talk to management and say, ‘Let’s come up with a compromise,’ the way today’s shareholders do.”
“She could have been more successful than she was,” Minow added, “by caring about the issues more than she cared about the notoriety.”
The younger of two children, Evelyn Yvonne DeJong was born Aug. 16, 1929, in Amsterdam, on what she called “the wrong side of the ocean but the very right side of the tracks.” She grew up in a home outfitted with 12 rooms, two maids and one French governess, with a mother who worked as a psychologist and a father who was a prominent neurologist.
He was lecturing in the United States when the rest of the family, which was part Jewish, was arrested by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. Evelyn was scarred by a piece of shrapnel that struck her right calf during a mortar attack at one camp; at another, she cut mica in a factory.
Her parents divorced after the war, and when her father took a job teaching at Johns Hopkins, she joined him in the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville, Md., where she graduated from high school in 1947.
She studied at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) and George Washington University but did not receive a degree, dropping out to work as a stenographer. After her father died, in 1956, she moved to Manhattan, began to invest her inheritance in corporations and founded Shareholder Research Inc. out of a hotel room near the United Nations.
In 1963, she was arrested in that same room and subsequently convicted “of offering to commit lewd and indecent acts in a room . . . which she had equipped with market charts, financial reference books and a bed,” according to the New York World-Telegram.
Mrs. Davis received a 30-day suspended sentence and later declined to talk about the conviction, telling The Post in 2003 that it was a “vicious corporate frame-up,” an effort to silence her at shareholder meetings.
She moved to Washington in the early 1980s, where she received a White House press pass through her newsletter and became a staple of press briefings during the Reagan administration.
Mrs. Davis also established the Evelyn Y. Davis Foundation, donating to arts museums and journalism schools — with the stipulation, she said, that they mount and polish a plaque bearing her name, so long as the institution continues to exist.
Her four marriages — to William Henry Davis III, whose name she kept after their marriage in 1957 and divorce one year later, and to Marvin Knudsen, Walter Froh Jr. and James Patterson — ended in divorce. Despite being single, she told The Post she preferred the title Mrs. “I’ve had three husbands,” she said in 2003, before marrying her fourth. “ ‘Ms.’ is for a woman who can’t even get one husband.”
She has no immediate survivors, DeBord said, and will be buried at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington. She had secured a cemetery plot three decades before her death and erected an eight-foot granite tombstone and memorial that christened her “Queen of the Corporate Jungle, 1929-Forever.” The grave bears the inscription, “Power is greater than love, and I did not get where I am by standing in line, nor by being shy.”
“Every now and again, I’ll ask the stonecutter to carve in a new detail,” Mrs. Davis told The Post in 1995. “Rather than leave the design to my estate,” she added, “I do it myself. That way I get what I want.”