Fighting The Fat Cats For Decades, Evelyn Davis Has Grilled Biz Bigwigs In Outrageous Fashion


Sunday, May 24, 1998

Evelyn Davis may be the busiest, loudest shareholder in America. Evelyn Y. Davis as the 68-year-old refers to herself is one of the country's most outspoken gadfly shareholders, known for her heavily accented harangues of corporate chieftains and voluminous history of submitting shareholder resolutions.

A thrice-divorced Holocaust survivor who was once arrested on charges of solicitation and now makes her living peddling an eccentric, Xeroxed newsletter, Davis is a character.
"She's one of a kind," said Ray Smith, chief executive of Bell Atlantic. "She's not a gadfly or a gad-plane she's a gad-eagle."

The fact that Smith talked at all about Davis is unusual. Anger at her tactics runs so deep that about a half-dozen top-shelf corporate chiefs wouldn't come to the phone with their comments.

Over the past four decades of taking choice seats at corporate powwows, the bottle blond has shown remarkable chutzpah.
She once stripped down to a bathing suit to get attention at a General Motors meeting.

More recently, she almost got herself personally booted from a gathering by media mogul Ted Turner.

Then, just last week, at Chrysler's annual meeting, she chided the American automaker's CEO Robert Eaton for selling out to German car manufacturer Daimler-Benz with a plaintive, "How could you do this to me, Bob?"

The day that big auto deal had shocked America, Davis was at the annual meeting of CBS and she was in rare form.
She chatted up CBS chiefs Michael Jordan and Mel Karmazin, hogged the microphone over audience catcalls and called for the broadcaster to add a financial show preferably starring herself.

"Some people may not like me," she chortled. "But no one knows corporate America better than Evelyn Y. Davis."

As a girl in Amsterdam, Davis was Evelyn Yvonne DeJong. Her father, Herman, was a wealthy neurologist; her mother, Marianna, a psychologist. She and her brother Rudy had a pampered childhood complete with a French governess.

But at age 13, that world was shattered by the war. Evelyn and her family were rounded up by the Nazis.

Her father, who was traveling abroad, escaped the roundup.

Along with some 650 other wealthy Dutch Jews, they were sent to an old castle in the Amsterdam suburbs called Barneveld.

In 1943, they were shipped to a small concentration camp in the Netherlands called Westerbork where she picked potatoes and was hit in the leg by a piece of shrapnel during a mortar attack. The next year, the family was sent to the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia.

Evelyn was lucky. The Barneveld Jews were housed in separate barracks, she recalled, and Russian troops liberated the camp in May 1945, less than a year after she was sent there.
"My mother told me that if the war went on another week, we all would have perished," recalled Davis, who now is an Episcopalian.

After the war, Davis' parents divorced, and she moved to Baltimore, where her father had gotten a job teaching at Johns Hopkins University. And there, Evelyn Davis set about reinventing herself.

It was in 1956, after her father died and left her some securities that ultimately would balloon into a million-dollar fortune, that Evelyn Davis embarked on her investing career.

At her first board meeting three years later, Davis recalled, she was so scared she was "shaking like a leaf."

But after taking a public speaking class at the local YMCA to quell her nerves, she said, "I fell into it like a fish in the water."

Soon, Davis was traveling around the country to attend shareholder shindigs and garnering the publicity she craved for doing so.

Then, in 1963, Davis got caught up in her own scandal.

Her eccentric firm was then known as Shareholders Research Inc. and operated out of a hotel room at Lexington Ave. and 49th St. With a temporary United Nations press pass, she also was a regular at the nearby UN delegates lounge.

She was nabbed at her hotel office, charged and later convicted of offering to commit lewd and indecent acts and prostitution.
As the Daily News reported at the time, the case exploded into a full-fledged mess for the UN. Even then-Secretary General U Thant had to field press questions on whether a call-girl ring had been operating there.

Asked now about the incident, the normally gregarious Davis clammed up. "I don't comment," she harrumphed. "It's all garbage."

Relocated to Washington where she now lives and works out of the Watergate Davis founded Highlights and Lowlights, the stream-of-consciousness newsletter that she still runs.
A sample of her analysis reads: "With Vietnam opening up, one must forget about the past and go on with BUSINESS AS USUAL!!!!! What a market!!!!!"

Davis cajoles the nation's business titans into subscribing to that annual 20-page newsletter for $495 a pop with a minimum order of two copies. By her estimation, her little publication rakes in $600,000 a year.

Some Evelyn-watchers call this business little more than a racket that supports her lifestyle and underwrites her shareholder activities.

"She blackmails people to buy her newsletter," said one executive at a big corporation who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Anybody who crosses her has to pay."

Still, the newsletter has gotten Davis a press pass and entre to White House news conferences and her persistence has made her a pest to many a chief executive.

And those who follow the shareholder-rights movement even contend that Davis' loudmouthed kvetches are an important part of shareholder democracy.

"To the extent that Evelyn Davis behaves in meetings as if she's more interested in attracting attention than making companies change, that makes it harder for the rest of us," said Nell Minow, principal of activist money-manager Lens Inc. and author of three books on the shareholder movement. "[But] she has raised some good issues about CEO pay and boards ... ."
Shareholder resolutions and easy-to-obtain proxy statements may seem commonplace today, but it was only half a century ago that brothers John and Lewis Gilbert went to court to get such rights.

"Believe me, some of these companies deserve it," said John Gilbert, now 84, who continues to agitate at shareholder meetings and whose own attention-getting shtick involves wearing a red clown nose.

For her part, Davis does have to work tirelessly at the unusual life she's carved out in the business world.

With more than $1 million invested in 110 blue-chip companies, Davis travels to at least 40 meetings a year.

And with three marriages ending in divorce one after only two months and no children, Davis often refers to her stocks as her children.

Her work has given her the attention she craves and the money to set up her own foundation.

She's given hundreds of thousands to Carnegie Hall, the Central Park Conser-vancy and other arts and educational institutions. And with each donation, she sets up a commemorative plaque and even instructs her estate's executors to polish it after her death.

For that eventuality, Davis is already prepared.

Not only does she have a plot set aside in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery, but more than a decade ago she had her massive headstone carved with her curriculum vitae and epitaph "Power is greater than love, and I didn't get where I am by standing in line or being shy."

"People thought it was so strange," said Davis. "But this way it gets done exactly like I want it."