Evelyn Davis, a long-running fixture of annual shareholder meetings who can perhaps best be described as “larger than life,” has died at 89. A Holocaust survivor, she went on to spend several decades molding herself into the worst nightmare of CEOs across America. She was loud, and she was not shy about being a total pain in the ass.
As her Washington Post obituary recounted, Davis would turn up at these annual meetings for shareholders of large companies—blue chip corporations like Chrysler and Bank of America—and do whatever it took to raise a ruckus on behalf of her most dearly-held issues, which included transparency, lower CEO salaries, term limits for directors, and also, it must be admitted, publicity for herself. From the Washington Post:
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.
She wasn’t shy about employing invective or being downright mean, and she was known for commenting on the attractiveness of CEOs—or their lack thereof. She expected answers to any and all of her questions, and she’d bring any meeting to a halt until they were provided to her satisfaction. Multiple times, she wore hot pants; in 1971, she appeared at a 20th Century-Fox Film meeting wearing a bandolier full of bullets, which seems genuinely unthinkable today.
Davis was born in Amsterdam, in 1929, to a prosperous family, but when she was a child they were arrested by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps; after the war, she joined her father in America. Her four marriages ended in divorce. It doesn’t sound like she particularly went in for sisterhood; a 1996 People profile noted that “One of her most persistent rants, though, onstage and off, is about the virulent influence of women in corporations,” and a 2002 Vanity Fair profile includes this excerpt from one of her newsletters:
In the past I NEVER had any problems with Verizon’s predecessor, Bell Atlantic, with any of MY resolutions. We used to have men as corporate secretaries. This FEMALE who came from the GTE side of the company is apparently JEALOUS of a woman who is FAMOUS and GLAMOROUS, unlike herself. She is trying to come between me and the CEO, Ivan Seidenberg, who always has been a good friend. She is trying to use undue influence on him just like my stepmother tried to turn my father against ME!!!!!!!!!!!! You give a woman ONE ounce of power an [sic] she thinks it weighs 1000 pounds.
“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,” Stephen Norman, American Express corporate secretary, told Vanity Fair. “She can be cruel, vulgar, hurtful and self-aggrandizing, but she is unbowed, and I respect her for that.” One “prominent industry analyst” told the magazine: “I’ve seen her come into a meeting and say, ‘You have to move the microphone,’ and the C.E.O. got down on his hands and knees and unplugged the microphone and moved it over to where she wanted it. She’s like the shareholder dominatrix.”
Long before she died, she went ahead and erected her own, massive tombstone, with the inscription: “Power is greater than love, and I did not get where I am by standing in line, nor by being shy.”