Stan Lee's Final Year Marked by Chaos and Betrayal

After the death of his wife, Joanie, in 2017, the Marvel Comics icon's inner circle imploded in a sordid power struggle from which he never fully recovered.
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Stan Lee attends the premiere of Disney and Marvel's 'Avengers: Infinity War' on April 23, 2018.

The final panels of 95-year-old Stan Lee’s comic-book-worthy life were lurid, grim and disheartening. The problems began shortly after the passing of his wife of seven decades, Joanie, whom Stan often credited with giving him the confidence to upend the staid comic world of the 1960s and conjure the modern superhero. After she died of a stroke in July 2017 at the age of 95, the Marvel creator found himself at the center of a tabloid frenzy, with members of his rivalrous inner circle accusing each other of theft, fraud and assault.

Shortly after Joan’s death, a power struggle erupted over who would care for the bereft, increasingly frail Lee, who due to his advanced age required full-time nursing care. The first to briefly assume control was Jerry Olivarez, a florist turned publicist who’d worked for Lee’s only daughter, J.C., and assumed the role of “senior adviser” after Joan’s death.

The new role, which handed him influence over Lee’s medical and legal affairs, soon drew suspicion among two other key challengers for the icon’s affections, longtime road manager Max Anderson and memorabilia dealer Keya Morgan, who like Olivarez styled themselves as Lee’s surrogate sons. By the end of the year, Olivarez would find himself on the outs, first accused by the others of self-dealing and misappropriating Lee’s funds — then, more disturbingly, of purloining the nonagenarian’s blood for an exotic “DNA” ink to be used in pens and stamps. (TMZ trumpeted the claim with the headline “Business Associate Is a Bloodsucker!!!”) Olivarez denied it all to The Hollywood Reporter in an April 2018 investigation of Lee’s personal turmoil: “There’s a reason [Morgan and Anderson] wanted me out of there,” he said. “If I’m there, there are no shenanigans.”

With Olivarez gone, Anderson — who’d developed Lee’s lucrative presence on the international comic convention circuit — momentarily took command. But it wasn’t long before he, too, was felled by media reports about both his criminal record (for domestic violence) as well as his alleged presence at an incident during which a masseuse said that Lee made inappropriate advances toward her during a Chicago appearance.

Anderson told THR that Morgan, who has his own record for a criminal threat conviction, was behind the press leaks; Morgan rejected any knowledge of them.

By March, Morgan, a J.C. acquaintance who’d steadily risen to a decisive consigliere role in Lee’s life, began to consolidate his grip on power. Anderson was forbidden from entering Lee’s Hollywood Hills property and J.C. was making noise about the legality of Anderson’s personal collection of Lee memorabilia. Morgan’s activities included the changing of Lee’s phone number; the monitoring of his e-mail; the replacement of household staff; the reduction of near-daily visits from Lee’s executive assistant to supervised sessions once a week; the hiring of a new accountant previously known to Morgan; and the retaining of a revolving door of attorneys, until Morgan found amenable counsel.

Morgan also took Lee, who had been fighting pneumonia earlier in the year, to Silicon Valley Comic Con in early April. Lee’s enfeebled condition drew a concerned response from fans in attendance: 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. Morgan defended the outing to THR: “Stan Lee repeated countless times how much he enjoyed his trip.”

It’s unclear how Lee felt about these proceedings at any given moment. Yet the tense, argumentative relationship he maintained with his 67-year-old daughter appears to have been at the center of many of his troubles. J.C., who has been accused of physically assaulting both of her parents, was described by Lee in a Feb. 13 legal declaration (later retracted) as a spendthrift who “typically yells and screams at me and cries hysterically if I do not capitulate” in their dealings. That document also described how three men with “bad intentions” — Olivarez, Morgan and J.C.’s attorney Kirk Schenck — had befriended J.C. in order to get to her father and his assets. (His estate’s worth has been estimated at $50 million to $70 million; he reportedly received $1 million a year for his Marvel ties.)

Morgan’s boldest gambit was the orchestration of a headline-grabbing lawsuit filed by Lee in mid-May against the comic legend’s longtime business partners at POW!, alleging a conspiracy to pilfer Lee’s identity. It demanded $1 billion in damages. Morgan wasn’t able to see it through. In June, he was arrested after he allegedly made multiple false calls to 911, including one in which he stated burglars had entered Lee’s house. (In reality, police were on site performing a welfare check.) By July, the POW! suit was dropped; a month later, Lee’s latest attorney secured a three-year restraining order against Morgan.

J.C. was left in charge. She brokered a rambling sit-down interview between Lee and The Daily Beast on Oct. 8, in which the daughter and her attorney hovered as the icon discussed his messy late-life affairs, including an allegation that Morgan had Lee’s house under total audio and video surveillance. “There really isn’t that much drama,” Lee said, underplaying the chaos. “As far as I’m concerned, we have a wonderful life. I’m pretty damn lucky. I love my daughter, I’m hoping that she loves me.” Asked about allegations of elder abuse, Lee joked: “I wish that everyone would be as abusive to me as J.C.”

After Joanie passed, Lee would often sit with his favorite nurse, reciting The Rubaiyat, an epic Persian poem that concerns the rewards and sorrows of a life lived in full. She told THR in April that Lee wanted it to be read at his funeral.