Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, a brand-marketing pioneer whose battle with Walt Disney Co. over royalties generated by Winnie the Pooh merchandise was one of the longest-running court sagas in Los Angeles County history, has died. Her family said she was 84.
Lasswell, a former showgirl who marketed often high-end Pooh products nationally in the 1950s, died Thursday of respiratory failure at her daughter’s home in Beverly Hills, according to her daughter, Pati Slesinger.
She spent much of her adult life in Tampa, Fla., but had lived in Beverly Hills for the last several years.
Her first husband, Stephen Slesinger, was among the first to see Pooh’s financial potential. A literary agent, Slesinger in 1930 secured the rights to sell Pooh merchandise in the United States and Canada from A.A. Milne, author of the Pooh books.
When Slesinger died in 1953, Lasswell was left with the rights and a 1-year-old daughter to support.
“I thought, ‘Now what do I do?’ But it was right there for me,” Lasswell told The Times in 2002. “I decided to promote Pooh.”
Lasswell made her living designing Pooh products for upscale department stores and developing a nationwide licensing program. But when Walt Disney himself came calling in 1961, she signed over the rights in exchange for ongoing royalty payments.
“It was just me, not some huge company,” Lasswell said in The Times article. “I really went as far as I could go” with Pooh.
She recalled that Disney told her, “Shirley, you won’t be sorry.” But eventually she was.
The battle over Pooh’s money pot had its genesis in a 1981 trip to Disney World in Florida, Lasswell told The Times. Lasswell, a self-described “Pooh shopaholic,” noticed that she wasn’t receiving royalties for much of the merchandise she bought -- and hired a lawyer.
In 1991, Lasswell and her daughter filed suit against Walt Disney Co., alleging breach of contract and fraud. They claimed they were being cheated out of hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties for videos, computer software and other merchandise.
“I just want what we are owed,” Lasswell said this month in the American Reporter, an online newspaper.
With Disney’s marketing muscle, Pooh became more profitable during the 1990s than the Burbank-based entertainment empire’s trademark mouse, raking in more than $1 billion a year.
Since the early 1980s, Disney has paid Lasswell and Pati Slesinger an estimated $100 million. In recent years, royalties had averaged about $11 million a year, The Times reported in 2004.
Over the last 16 years, the complicated legal actions involving the silly bear took more turns than there are paths in the Hundred Acre Wood.
More than three judges and a dozen law firms were involved in the breach-of-contract suit. Disney was chastised for destroying more than 40 boxes that contained Pooh papers, including one marked “Winnie the Pooh, Legal Problems.”
A California state court judge threw out the lawsuit in 2004 after finding misconduct on the part of Lasswell and Slesinger.
The judge accused them of hiring a private investigator to steal confidential Disney documents from the company trash, then lying and altering court papers to cover it up. The decision is being appealed.
In yet another legal action, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed a copyright lawsuit earlier this year that sought to end Disney’s obligation to pay Lasswell and her daughter Pooh merchandise royalties. The decision ensured that the pair would continue to share in Pooh’s riches.
The copyright suit dated to 2002, when the granddaughters of author Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard filed a complex lawsuit that invoked U.S. copyright law to assert rights to Pooh.
Had they prevailed, Lasswell and Slesinger’s rights to the bear would have been erased.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the copyright case.
Through the years, Lasswell often could be seen sharing the backseat of a chauffeured luxury car with a 3-foot Pooh doll buckled in beside her.
She was born Shirley Ann Basso in Detroit, the eldest daughter of a jeweler and his wife. When she was 5, her father died and her mother, Clara, went to work at a post office.
At 16, Lasswell left high school to help support the family. She sold Venetian blinds and did clerical work for the Packard Motor Car Co.
Her mother passed along dreams of Broadway stardom to her daughters and paid for years of singing and dancing lessons.
When the Olsen and Johnson vaudeville comedy troupe stopped in Detroit, Clara pleaded for a backstage introduction, and the sisters were hired on the spot, according to the American Reporter article.
Within hours, they were learning dance routines on a midnight train to Chicago. They toured for a decade with the troupe and appeared in the zany revue “Hellzapoppin” on Broadway.
During World War II, Lasswell spent two years with the USO, often performing overseas.
She met Stephen Slesinger backstage at a New York show in 1947, and they married a year later. Silent-screen star Clara Bow was her maid of honor.
The couple lived in a New York penthouse and a bungalow at the Hotel Bel-Air.
Slesinger, who was 20 years older than his wife, established one of the first successful character-licensing firms, acquiring the rights to Tarzan and Charlie Chan.
He helped create the Red Ryder comics and films and served as an agent for writer Zane Grey.
“Shirley was a down-to-earth person who had extraordinary taste in fashion,” said Joe Shea, a family friend who interviewed her for the American Reporter. “She also had a lot of energy and a fast mind.”
At a cartoonists ball in Tampa, she met her second husband, Fred Lasswell, who drew the “Snuffy Smith” comic strip for nearly 60 years.
They were married from 1964 until his death at 84 in 2001.
She moved to Tampa and paid homage to the character that’s “really been my whole life,” Lasswell told Fortune magazine in 2003, by driving a Cadillac with a license plate that said “POOH 1.”
In addition to her daughter, Lasswell is survived by a granddaughter.