At Marvel in New York in the '60s, he created the comic book characters that dominate the box office today. But at 95 and reeling from his wife's death and a fight with his daughter, Lee stands at the center of a nasty battle for his care (and estate) as one friend pleads for help: "He's in need of a superhero himself."
Back in early February, fighting what he later called "a little bout of pneumonia," 95-year-old Stan Lee had an argument with his 67-year-old daughter, J.C. This was hardly unusual, but it seems to have been a breaking point.
The comic book legend — whose creative tenure at the helm of Marvel Comics beginning in New York in the early 1960s spawned Spider-Man, Black Panther and the X-Men and laid the foundation for superhero dominance in Hollywood that continues with the April 27 release of Avengers: Infinity War — sat in the office of his attorney Tom Lallas and signed a blistering declaration.
The Feb. 13 document, obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, begins with some background, explaining that Lee and his late wife had arranged a trust for their daughter because she had trouble supporting herself and often overspent. "It is not uncommon for J.C. to charge, in any given month, $20,000 to $40,000 on credit cards, sometimes more," the document states. It goes on to describe how, when he and his daughter disagree — "which is often" — she "typically yells and screams at me and cries hysterically if I do not capitulate."
Lee explains that J.C. will, "from time to time," demand changes to her trust, including the transfer of properties into her name. He has resisted such changes, he states, because they "would greatly increase the likelihood of her greatest fear: that after my death, she will become homeless and destitute."
The declaration then explicates how three men with "bad intentions" — Jerardo "Jerry" Olivarez, Keya Morgan and J.C.'s attorney, Kirk Schenck — had improperly influenced his daughter, a woman with "very few adult friends." The document claims the trio has "insinuated themselves into relationships with J.C. for an ulterior motive and purpose": to take advantage of Lee and "gain control over my assets, property and money."
Lee's estate is estimated to be worth between $50 million and $70 million (it's been reported he receives $1 million a year for his Marvel ties). And while his primary role with the company is now mostly ceremonial — including a cameo in nearly every film — he remains a deity in fanboy culture. Despite the fact that his health requires nursing care at home and on the road, up until his most recent illness, Lee was a jovial regular at international comic conventions, where he can draw thousands of paying autograph seekers.
A few days after the declaration was notarized, however, Lee changed his mind — or someone did. Whatever happened, Lallas was soon out as Lee's attorney in a confrontation that grew tense enough that the LAPD was called to the legend's Hollywood Hills home.
Morgan and J.C. began consolidating their power over Lee. Mike Kelly, Lee's assistant for nearly a quarter-century who used to come by the house most days for one-on-one meetings, was limited to weekly pre-approved and supervised visits. A new accountant (Vince Maguire, Tobey's brother and Morgan's friend) was hired. The housekeeper and gardener, who had been with Lee for decades, were sent packing. And a revolving door of lawyers were retained over six weeks until the pair introduced Lee to his current counsel, Jonathan Freund.
Lee's phone number has been changed, and his emails are being monitored and composed by Morgan. ("Stan Lee has macular degeneration and his eyes cannot see small letters," Morgan explains. "I have been taking him to the eye doctor and reading his e-mails for him for many years. This is his request, and he thanks me for helping him.")
When Morgan learned that THR had obtained a copy of the seemingly damning declaration, he filmed a video of Lee distancing himself from the document. In the clip, while Lee doesn't deny signing the declaration, he calls its contents "totally incorrect, inaccurate, misleading and insulting." (Lallas says he went through the contents with Lee "word by word, line by line.")
In the video, an animated and robust Lee goes on to state that "my relationship with my daughter has never been better, and my friend Keya Morgan and I also have a great relationship. … Anybody who is saying anything [else] … is just spreading lies."
J.C. declined to speak with THR. Instead, Schenck, her lawyer, says "the story isn't that J.C. is taking advantage of her father, but that she's potentially being taken advantage of by multiple men." Lee himself remains mostly silent, except for the brief recorded statements coordinated and released by Morgan.
However, nearly all of the other players in the messy drama over Lee's estate and well-being are speaking out. Their often conflicting stories reveal an increasingly toxic and combative situation involving broken alliances, abrupt expulsions and allegations of elder abuse against one of America's most influential and beloved cultural icons. On several occasions, the turmoil drew the attention of law enforcement.
Says one longtime insider: It's "an utter shit show."
As much as Stan Lee's public life was defined by his fame and achievements, his family was shaped by the forceful personalities of his strong-willed, England-born, former-model wife, Joan, and their long-troubled dilettante daughter. In their charmed seven-decade marriage, Joanie (as everyone called her) had urged Lee to take key professional risks, most notably to create the Fantastic Four — revolutionary at the time for being superheroes with real flaws — while she maintained the resolute last word on the couple's household affairs.
Until recently, Lee and Joanie had been blessed with the good fortune of surviving into their 90s with mental acuity and physical agility that wowed those around them. But Joanie's death from a stroke on July 6 at age 95 marked the end of their evening martini ritual at home in the exclusive Bird Streets of the Hollywood Hills (Leonardo DiCaprio is a neighbor) — and the beginning of pandemonium.
Signs abounded that chaos would reign if Joanie were the first to die. There was Lee's people-pleasing habit of telling whoever was in front of him whatever they wanted to hear, his history of bad financial decisions (like never properly cashing in on Marvel) and his susceptibility to bad actors (including a doomed partnership called Stan Lee Media with Peter F. Paul, a convicted drug dealer). Add to this Lee's Depression-bred distrust of banks, leading to rumors he'd hid millions in cash all over his property.
Joanie was always more successful at handling their unruly only daughter, with whom Stan has a powder-keg relationship. Though some with an intimate knowledge of the household speak of her vivacious spirit and kindness, the never-married J.C. also has a reputation as a prodigious shopper with an ill-tempered personality who has been kicked out of multiple businesses around Los Angeles, including, according to a dining companion at the time, the Chateau Marmont. She's chafed at what she sees as unjust restrictions on her trust and has taken that out on her father. According to medical personnel who have cared for Lee, J.C.'s badgering, often insulting phone calls to her father (which can number in the dozens a day and which, out of a mix of guilt and love, he nearly always answers) frequently leave him hoarse from fighting. "For any little thing, she'll argue," says a former caregiver. "She's very inconsiderate."
According to household staff and business associates, there have been times when J.C.'s verbal outbursts have turned physical. One incident took place in winter 2014, explains Lee's former business and asset manager Bradley J. Herman, after J.C. discovered that the new Jaguar convertible parked outside, which she thought had been purchased for her, was in fact only leased — and in her father's name. Herman, in Stan's office to handle some paperwork, recalls that the argument spiraled out of control after J.C. called her parents "fucking stupid" and Joanie told her the car was "now [Joanie's.]"
According to Herman — whose active Hollywood client list he keeps private but who previously worked for Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra — J.C. then roughly grabbed her mother by one arm, shoving her against a window. Joanie fell to the carpeted floor. Lee, seated in a nearby chair and looking stunned, told J.C. he was cutting her off: "I'm going to stick you in a little apartment and take away all your credit cards!" Herman recalls Lee shouting. "I've had it, you ungrateful bitch!" In "a rage," J.C. took hold of Lee's neck, slamming his head against the chair's wooden backing. Joanie suffered a large bruise on her arm and burst blood vessels on her legs; Lee had a contusion on the rear of his skull. (J.C. has previously denied the incident.)
Shortly afterward, allegedly at Joanie's behest, Herman took photos that purport to show her injuries, which he shared with THR (another visitor to the house shortly thereafter confirms the wounds). Herman contends the parents asked him not to pursue the matter with police, wary of publicity and law enforcement for their daughter, whom they viewed as emotionally fragile and who they told intimates was still haunted — even as a senior citizen herself — by the bullying of her childhood.
Olivarez, one of the "three men" named with "bad intentions" in Lee's Feb. 13 declaration, has known him since 2010. A florist-turned-publicist, Olivarez initially entered the fold as a consultant to J.C. and Joanie's various go-nowhere creative endeavors (including a Swarovski crystal-studded tie line) before ending up with power of attorney over Lee after Joanie's death and the title of "senior advisor" that sounds more glamorous than the reality: the grind of caretaking. Olivarez handled doctors' appointments and found new nurses for Lee. "He said, 'I rely on Jerry,'" Olivarez recalls Lee telling him.
Still, Olivarez's newfound prominence put him on a collision course with two men who had their own long-standing surrogate-son relationships with Lee. The first was Max (nee Mac) Anderson, a burly and brusque figure with a criminal record who had worked for more than a decade as Lee's road manager, handling appearances and running a pop-up memorabilia exhibition on the Comic-Con circuit called the Stan Lee Museum. And then there was the bowler-hatted Keya Morgan, a noted dealer in rare memorabilia and artifacts pertaining to American cultural figures (particularly Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson) who has turned his attention to producing, including an attempt to jump-start a Lee biopic.
By December, Olivarez, who has a decades-long history of financial liens, had been iced out of Lee's life. Morgan and Anderson accused him of writing himself a $300,000 check and buying an $850,000 condo with misappropriated Lee funds.
"Mr. Lee told me I had given him a new lease on life after Mrs. Lee's passing," Olivarez says. "I had looked out for him during recent contract negotiations with Pow! [Entertainment, the production company Lee co-founded in 2001.] He gave me a check as a thank-you." As for the condo, Olivarez claims Lee is on the title and that, because of unspecified death threats Olivarez had received, Lee had wanted him to live close in "a secure building where he thought I'd be safe."
According to Olivarez, Morgan and Anderson felt threatened by his clout with Lee and fabricated these charges to drive a wedge between them. He says Morgan wanted Lee to quit Pow! and enter into an arrangement with a business contact of Morgan's, and he became upset when Olivarez thwarted that plan. Meanwhile, Olivarez says Anderson grew hostile when he scrutinized Anderson's claim that he owned the artifacts in the Stan Lee Museum outright, rather than possessing them on loan. (Olivarez provided an Aug. 7, 2017, declaration in which Lee asserts he and Anderson split the proceeds of the museum 50-50, that all memorabilia he provided to Anderson for display was "only on loan" and that Lee "could revoke the loan at any time." For his part, Anderson shared an undated document signed by Lee asserting the materials were given to the museum "as personal gifts.")
Olivarez believes Morgan led a "smear campaign" against him that continues to this day. He cites a recent attempt to taint an idea he calls a "cool" merchandising effort — blending Lee's blood into special "DNA" ink used in pens and stamps — into something sinister. He says that while J.C. helped originate the idea and Lee was on board, in an effort to discredit Olivarez, Morgan has been spreading lies that he stole the blood (including speaking with TMZ, which trumpeted that Lee's "Business Associate Is a Bloodsucker!!!" on April 2). Olivarez notes that Lee's physician not only approved of the endeavor but also is a signatory on each item's certificate of authenticity. (While Morgan does not deny speaking with the media when called, he denies being the source of leaks.)
"There's a reason [Morgan and Anderson] wanted me out of there," says Olivarez. "If I'm there, there are no shenanigans."
Not long after Olivarez was ousted, Morgan turned on Anderson, setting up a combustible battle of personalities: Morgan is a gossipy, fast-talking name-dropper in designer suits who frequently threatens to litigate to intimidate; Anderson's blunt and growly demeanor is intimidating on its own. Now each is attempting to position himself as the hero of Lee's story, the other as its villain.
Morgan, who attended Peter Parker's alma mater, Forest Hills High School in Queens, keeps a sculpture of Spider-Man in his bedroom. ("I think it's a character greater than Mickey Mouse, greater than Zeus.") Anderson, meanwhile, commissioned a life-sized fiberglass statue of Lee, bedecked with a pair of Lee's Ray-Ban glasses ("Joanie put them there herself") that resides in his living room. Anderson believes Morgan systematically moved to eliminate him from the fold beginning in January by leaking his criminal record (Anderson had been convicted in Riverside, California, of domestic violence against his wife in 2002, serving a year in prison plus 36 months' probation, then was given another 36 months' probation and anger management for a second domestic incident in 2010). Anderson says Morgan also planted a series of damaging news stories about his alleged failings as Lee's tour manager, including one involving his alleged culpability for an incident during which a masseuse accused Lee of sexual improprieties in his hotel suite during a Chicago convention. (Morgan denied leaking the story.)
What is certain is that Anderson was excommunicated from the inner circle on Feb. 16, ostensibly for his alleged theft of items for the museum, for allegedly skimming money from Lee's appearance fees, and for his lax management on tour — all of which he vehemently denies. Now Morgan and Anderson are engaged in an ongoing war that has engulfed Lee's staff.
For example, in a video shared with THR, one of Lee's nurses tearfully informs J.C. and Morgan that Anderson flagged her down on the street and offered her $50,000 to sign a declaration saying that Lee was being held against his will. Anderson acknowledges that he asked her to make such a statement, believing it to represent the truth, but maintains, "I did not bribe her. I only promised her one simple thing — to protect her. I said the police will protect her. I said, 'You are mandated to report if you see something wrong.' She said, 'I am an immigrant, and I can't get involved in anything.'"
Anderson points out that he already "did my time" for his convictions and "we do things in life that we regret." He says it's ironic that Morgan might be leaking his prison records, since Morgan himself is on 24 months' probation and required to complete a 12-session anger management program for a criminal threat conviction. "He's making an issue of something about me, which happened way before [his association with] Stan, while he has something that happened during his time with Stan. Who's calling the kettle black?"
Morgan, whose case is on appeal, decries a false equivalence, contending he was defending his mother against an intruder while "Max is an evil, vicious and violent person … and went to jail for it."
Morgan says that before Anderson's removal from Lee's circle, his rival had "told me that he is not afraid to go back to jail and would not think twice about taking me out." He says he's concerned about Anderson's threats and hired a security guard. "I honestly believe that Max is very dangerous and has the ability and rage to actually kill one of us."
As for his threats against Morgan, Anderson clarifies, "I said to him, 'I'm not afraid to go back to jail if it means kicking your ass.'" And as far as Morgan's professed need for hired muscle: "He has the guard for his own insecurities. He's a little bitch."
When she came on board as one of Lee's nurses shortly after Joanie's passing, Linda Sanchez found a bereaved man with anxiety who had difficulty sleeping. She encouraged Lee to return to his routine — his morning granola, coffee out of his familiar mug — and they would read together from his favorite book. "We would recite The Rubaiyat," she said of the epic poem translated by Edward FitzGerald. "When he passes, he said he wants that recited."
Sanchez, accustomed to working with high-profile clientele, came to understand the intricate dynamics of Lee's entourage — and how she believed it affected his well-being. On Feb. 20, she completed a non-notarized declaration at Lee's then-attorney Lallas' office in which she describes J.C.'s verbal and physical altercations with her father. In the declaration, Sanchez also describes efforts by some in Lee's inner circle to discuss his financial matters with him without having his own attorney present. To prevent her from discussing any of this, Sanchez says that Schenck attempted to "bully" her as to whether she signed a non-disclosure agreement (she explained she had not). "It was just really bad," she says.
The declaration, which she says she later gave to the police, also describes how Morgan had previously made it clear that he would go to the media with information about a past DUI and misdemeanor hit-and-run incident Sanchez had if she were to report the acts of elder abuse she claims she witnessed. A Daily Mail article in late February that broke news of her departure from the Lee household detailed Sanchez's record and asserted what she describes as a fabricated physical relationship between her and Lee. (Video shared with THR depicts Lee at home angrily denying any inappropriate relationship with Sanchez to others, including her nursing agency boss.) Morgan claims he leaked nothing and bears no ill will toward the nurse.
In January, Sanchez, who is married, became pregnant, and she thinks that's when J.C. also turned on her, believing the nonagenarian Lee had perhaps sired another heir. "She starts going off," Sanchez remembers, "saying, 'When the baby's born, I'm going to get it.' Just going crazy." The nurse told only one other individual — a discreet caregiving colleague with whom she was especially close — in the house about the pregnancy, yet J.C. somehow learned of the news. Sanchez notes that she once discovered a surreptitious camera in the house, and nearly every person interviewed for this story who spent time in the household says they suspect the presence of listening devices — though all deny planting them. "The phones would always click," says Olivarez.
Sanchez was admitted to an emergency room for stress after the Daily Mail covered what it framed as a salacious saga. Afterward, she says she was astonished by Morgan's apparent audacity, reaching out to ask how she was doing. "He knows [the purportedly inappropriate relationship] is not true," she says. "He's playing all the angles so he can end up on top."
Between the departures of Olivarez and Anderson, Lee's then-attorney Lallas was in charge. Stan may have been his client, but J.C. had a hand in choosing him, as she made clear in nearly 60 voicemails she left him around the clock from mid-January through mid-February.
The voicemails, whose transcriptions were reviewed by THR, portray J.C.'s souring on her relationship with the lawyer as she comes to the conclusion that he can't be trusted to advance her interests. They also give an unvarnished view of the battle unfolding over her father. Her anxious, suspicious, overwhelmed thoughts range from the megalomaniacal ("I wish that one day Marvel would be mine") to the potential upside of Lee fathering Sanchez's child. "The thing I want more than anything is a baby," she confesses. "It would be a great end to the story. And, you know, she doesn't get the baby, she doesn't get anything, but her bills paid."
J.C. repeatedly expresses concern for "Daddy," albeit often within financial terms ("I don't want to be in a trailer park, and I don't want my father in a trailer park"). She is hyper alert to the prospect of elder abuse taking place against Lee and is apparently aware that word had spread of the 2014 physical assault allegation against her. "This really did never, ever happen," she says. "Total lie." She reminds Lallas again and again that she's "not crazy — it's a crazy situation," adding that she wishes she had some "backup: a brother, a nephew, anyone" to navigate the complex dynamics at hand.
At the time, J.C. defends Olivarez — "You're going to see that Jerry is going to be cleaner than most" — while indicating wariness about Morgan. She even claims Schenck, her attorney, had considered taking out a restraining order against Morgan on behalf of Lee. (Olivarez claims Lee and Joanie found Morgan's presence at their home exasperating, often asking him for help in shooing him away: "He'd be talking about Marilyn Monroe and [name-dropping] people he knows who have billions. He just doesn't shut the eff up."
Throughout the voicemails, J.C. is most concerned, however, about Anderson, who she had come to believe is a manipulative crook (the disputed museum was the "pink elephant in the room"), power-hungry and unprofessional. "He shouldn't be around anymore," she concludes. When Lallas doesn't move quickly enough against Anderson, she surmises the attorney and the road manager must be in cahoots. "You and Max have taken over too much control," she says, a week before Lallas prepared the declaration for Lee to sign. (Notably, the document doesn't name Anderson, who was present at its Feb. 13 signing, as one of the individuals with "bad intentions.")
On the night of March 15, Morgan and J.C. entered Lee's Beverly Hills office at Pow!, from which they took unknown materials. (Lee is a salaried executive there said to earn $250,000 a year.) The company subsequently contacted the LAPD about the incident. Asked about the visit, Morgan asserts the pair were welcomed by security and shares a minute-long video taken of Lee discussing the episode.
Apparently shot at home, Lee explains to the camera that he asked his daughter and associate to "bring me back some personal artifacts that I had there that I felt should be at my house and not in a foreign office." He added, "Right now the people at Pow! are making an issue of it. I don't understand. But there's a lot at Pow! I don't understand."
In a statement, Pow! notes that Lee "has and continues to have full access to any of his personal items at the Pow! offices. So it was highly unusual and unexpected when someone else came into our offices in the middle of the night and removed several items without notice or any permission from us. We were, and still are, unaware of what was taken. Like any reasonable business owner, we took the appropriate steps to report it. But, for now, we plan to handle this matter internally."
Anderson and Olivarez contend that now that J.C. and Morgan have established influence over Lee, they will pursue their respective goals: she, unfettered access to her inheritance; he, control over Lee's intellectual property. (Sources say discussions about changing Lee's trust are ongoing.)
They also assert that, once the trust is revised, J.C. will sideline Morgan. Morgan denies this, proclaims Lee "my dear friend and like a father to me" and observes, "There are some morons out there who get very jealous that Stan Lee likes me so much."
On the weekend of April 7, Morgan and J.C. accompanied Lee to Silicon Valley Comic Con, where he spent long days signing merch and taking photos with fans, many of whom posted on social media how tired Lee looked, upset that he was being "shuffled around" like "a commodity."
Bleeding Cool, a comics news site, said those on the floor had been calling it "Weekend at Stan Lee's," a reference to the corpse comedy Weekend at Bernie's. Asked about the event, Morgan emailed, "Stan Lee repeated countless times how much he enjoyed his trip."
While J.C. isn't talking now, she self-published a picture-book memoir in 2015 that provides a window into her me-against-the-world thinking. She describes how on Long Island her parents spoiled her with a playhouse replete with bunk beds, toys and a working fireplace. One day, she recalls, the neighbor's children and their friends destroyed it, leaving her crying. "It was a good lesson about people," she writes. "They didn't want me to have something they didn't have, and they still don't. It's still quite a battle. And I have the same opponents, they're just older."
Some believe it's time for Lee to have independent oversight. "The best thing that happened to Mickey Rooney was a conservatorship, and that's what Stan needs," says Crime Stories With Nancy Grace podcast co-host Alan Duke, a Lee friend of many years who was cold-shouldered by him after voicing concern for his well-being last year. And even though Lee's Feb. 13 declaration specifically excluded J.C., Olivarez, Morgan or Schenck from being designated his executor, guardian or conservator, Olivarez remains in favor of such an arrangement. "It's the best thing to do," he says. "I think somebody should step in [to look after] J.C. as well because she's too vulnerable to these parasites."
Herman, the former business manager, offers a grim analysis: "I'm on the verge of tears," he says, "because it breaks my heart to see somebody that I love being effectively held prisoner. He finds himself in need of a superhero himself."
THR obtained this Feb. 13, 2017, notarized declaration that's signed by Stan Lee. His then-attorney, who drafted it, authenticated the document.
Upon learning about the Feb. 13 notarized Stan Lee declaration, Keya Morgan, a friend of Lee's who has taken on an increasingly influential role in his life, sent THR these two videos on April 7, in which the icon distances himself from the document and its assertions.
This story also appears in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.