‘Picked Apart by Vultures’: The Last Days of Stan Lee
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast
You might expect Stan Lee, at age 95, to be enjoying the fruits of his many labors: Marvel Comics, the company he served as the former president and chairman of, dominates popular culture. Characters he co-created — among them Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men, and the Avengers — are household names. He’s a comics legend, with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. When Marvel sold to Disney in 2010 for $4 billion, he personally pocketed a cool $10 million, and tours the world as its ambassador emeritus. And midway through his tenth decade, Black Panther, based on a character he and Jack Kirby first envisioned in 1966, currently sits atop the global box office charts, and carries a Rotten Tomatoes score of 97%.
Instead, seven months after the death of Joan, his wife of almost 70 years, beset with pneumonia, the apparent victim of gross financial malfeasance and surrounded by a panoply of Hollywood charlatans and mountebanks, he may be facing his greatest challenge, every bit the equal of any of the psychologically flawed superheroes he helped shepherd into being. According to one insider with working knowledge of Lee’s current situation, “It’s a real fucking mess over there. I think his money will be gone in a few weeks… Stan and [his daughter] JC are literally being picked apart by vultures.”
In just over two months, there have been published reports of an unauthorized check for $300,000 written from Lee’s business account without his knowledge to Hands of Respect, a “merchandising company” and ersatz charity formed by Lee and Jerry Olivarez, a former business associate of his daughter’s. The word “loan” is inscribed on the face of the check.
Other red flags included the purchase in the fall of 2017 of an $850,000 condo in West Hollywood a short distance from Lee’s home in the Hollywood Hills; and $1.4 million that mysteriously disappeared in a complicated wire-transfer transaction. Most dramatically—and according to published reports— police on February 16th were called to Lee’s home to remove long-time bodyguard Mac “Max” Anderson, often seen accompanying Lee at his lucrative live appearances, after he allegedly threatened Lee and his daughter. Anderson’s attorney declined to comment for this story.
Lee did not return a request for comment. But incredibly, according to multiple sources, even this may be the tip of the iceberg. A half dozen anonymous former nurses have accused Lee of sexual impropriety; Lee denies the allegations. One or more five-figure checks have been made out to Olivarez, money leaking out of larger financial transactions, mysterious bank transfers, and questionable real estate purchases. Under particular scrutiny is the period when Olivarez was briefly able to gain power of attorney over Lee’s affairs in the chaos surrounding the death of Lee’s wife. Forensic accountants (among them Tobey Maguire’s brother Vince) are currently ferreting through over a thousand pages of financial records from the eight individual estates, corporate entities and trusts comprising Lee’s holdings. And that’s not even including the private collector of Marilyn Monroe and Abraham Lincoln memorabilia who has materialized to lead the resistance against the forces of darkness.
JC (Joan Celia) Lee, 67, Stan’s daughter and sole heir, was born in 1950. (A second daughter, Jan Lee, was born three years later, but died several days after birth.) “She was totally enamored with her parents,” says the Lee family insider, “totally in love with them. It’s a very close and fraught relationship. When I was with her, she would call her mother and father every few hours throughout the day—sometimes talking to them almost like a baby, and other times screaming at them like a teenager. And she’s never met a con man she doesn’t like, you know?”
The insider continues, “Stan is not a whole lot better. Maybe their contemporaries and friends are all dead, and now they just have a bunch of hangers-on and sketchy-ass people hanging around. I have the feeling that he has been taken by everyone in the world. I was talking to this guy at a party with them, and he walks away, and somebody says, ‘That’s the motherfucker who took pictures of Whitney Houston when she was dead in her bathtub.’ That’s the kind of people that hang around them.”
Behavior like this might be the norm in such rarefied zip codes, and little cause for concern with such a pedigree, were it not for JC’s alleged spending habits. Says the insider: “When I’m with her, the stores on Rodeo are calling: ‘Why didn’t you come in today? We have something for you.’ And she feels guilty if she doesn’t spend thousands of dollars a week in Barney’s. She walks in and they all know her; I don’t know how much of Beverly Hills is living off her. My concern is that when he goes, the way she spends money, it’s all gonna go away, and then she’s gonna be out on the street.”
But a person close to JC—and authorized to speak on her behalf—said that she’s in perfect command of her faculties. “JC is 67 and looks 40. Statuesque and beautiful. Not a wrinkle on her face. No plastic surgery. She’s been an artist, actress, dancer and entrepreneur most of her life. While eccentric, she is the most lucid person I’ve ever met,” the source added. Like any artist, she has some paranoia that people steal her ideas. But she loves and idolizes her father. She would give her whole inheritance away to get these people out of his life.”
Case in point is Jerry Olivarez, the diminutive, middle-aged peripatetic hustler and design maven for JC’s website. Olivarez is the author of an aspirational memoir entitled My Life on the Red Carpet: He Grew Into the Suit that recounts his journey from small-town florist in Concord, California to a celebrity wrangler of the likes of Kid Rock, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Oprah. (His website, http://www.jerryolivarez.com/, features videos of Stan Lee promoting his tell-all.) According to public records, Olivarez as of this January had also amassed 45 liens (mostly federal, state, city and county tax liens) filed against him, totaling in the low six figures, as well as 15 judgments against him for around $40,000. He is also, according to Olivarez’s attorney, Uri Litvak, the co-owner of an LLC, in partnership with Stan Lee, that controls the Hands of Respect company, recipient of the $300,000 “loan,” and the entity that purchased the $850,000 condo.
“I’ve been watching Jerry for a long time,” observes the insider. “He’s always in tailored suits – everything is monogrammed; everything is gold. He’s a sycophant, but he’s also charming, professional and polite to the point where it would be rude to call him out.”
JC’s spokesperson confirms what two other sources tell The Daily Beast: that Olivarez briefly was able to gain power of attorney over Lee’s financial affairs, a situation “that has subsequently been reversed.” (Litvak referred us to Olivarez, who did not respond to request for comment on these matters.) The insider claims that JC believes this was among papers that Olivarez had Stan sign in the days following his wife’s death. (JC declined to comment on the record for the article, but through her spokesperson, I was allowed to listen in on a phone call as she spoke about her parents, all off the record.)
Keya Morgan sees himself as the cavalry riding into this beleaguered hilltop redoubt. A wealthy memorabilia collector and amateur historian-turned-film producer with a world-class Rolodex, he has been friends with Stan and his wife Joan for a decade. He claims to have been at Joan’s bedside when she died—and promised her he would look out for her husband and daughter. Morgan also boasts of being as a business partner with Stan on the Nitron comic series and its attendant film possibilities. Morgan seems to have Stan’s ear during this time of trial, and (at Stan’s behest) has hired security guards, secured a new lawyer and forensic accountants, and changed the locks on the house to restrict the escalating flow of unwelcome surprises.
Within days of Lee’s wife dying, Morgan says, the family “fired his accountants at Merrill Lynch and his lawyers of 20 or 30 years... And I quickly realized that there was a coup d’etat in his camp.” A representative for JC confirmed this account.
Morgan claims to be the one who first raised flags about the six-figure check and the real estate purchase. “I personally found that $300,000 check, which Stan says is a forgery,” he says. “Two people that know [Stan’s] signature also said it was a forgery. So I took Stan to the police department myself.” Morgan later provided a copy of the questionable check along with a police report number that the Beverly Hills authorities confirmed was valid. (J.C.’s spokesperson believes Lee did sign the check, but that it was done under false pretenses.)
Morgan continued, “I also personally discovered a condo at 999 Doheny [in Beverly Hills], on the 7th floor, that was bought with [Stan’s] money for close to $1 million [$850,000 plus closing costs].” Olivarez’s attorney later confirmed this purchase—but cast it in a much different light.
“My understanding is that Mr. Lee wanted to have Mr. Olivarez around all the time to look after him, take care of him, advise him and so forth. So if I had to surmise, I would have to say that would be the purpose of the transaction,” Litvak told The Daily Beast.
Morgan also produced for The Daily Beast a check dating back to 2012 made out to Olivarez from SL Productions, Stan Lee’s company (signed by Joan), for $35,000, which he claims was for a tie company that never materialized. JC’s representative confirmed this account; Litvak did not return a call to comment on this matter by press time.
Olivarez appeared on the scene with a brainstorm known as Hands of Respect, a novelty company that comes across as a kind of unregistered charity. It was an initiative “to promote a culture of respect among all communities across the nation,” manifested in a lapel pin — clasped black and white hands featuring the word “RESPECT” (two for $10) that was designed by Stan Lee, ostensibly at the suggestion of his daughter. (Olivarez, Stan and JC were listed as the official “Hands of Respect Team,” with Stan featured prominently in the promotional material. Stan and JC have since severed tied with the outfit.)
Jonathan Bourne, a TV writer and producer mostly of game shows (Weakest Link, Win Ben Stein’s Money and, more recently, Iron Chef Gauntlet), came across a feel-good story in the Washington Post on the company and was intrigued. “It’s a pin to end racism, or end a problem in the community between police and African-Americans,” he says. “But how? So I contacted them, saying, ‘Hey, where does the money go?’ and they were really evasive.” (Hands of Respect’s response, memorialized in a December 11, 2016 Twitter post, reads: “Thank you for challenging and important questions. The website anticipates reconstruction which provides full transparency.”) “They wouldn’t give me answers, so I contacted some of the people on their page. One of them said, ‘We don’t have anything to do with this.’ One of them said, ‘They told us they are going to send us money. We haven’t seen it yet.’ Red flags started to go up everywhere. You can’t even name one charity that you’re giving your money to? But at every one of the ComicCons, there they are — Stan Lee, or someone using Stan Lee’s name, to take money, mostly from kids, and then not do anything with it. This seems like [someone] thought, ‘Well, Avengers fans will buy anything.’ I don’t know if it’s a scam or not, but it doesn’t look good.”
“You have to understand,” says attorney Litvak—who insists that he represented Lee in the POW! sale, hough Morgan denies this—“[Hands of Respect] is a for-profit company. It’s like any other company, so there’s nothing special about it… The profits get distributed to the owners.” About the controversial $300,000 check made out to Hands of Respect, Litvak says: “The first thing to understand is that there are no funds missing, because it’s very clear that the funds went from Stan, or one of his companies, to Hands of Respect. It was just Stan taking funds from one of his companies and moving it to one of his other companies.”
JC’s spokesperson says she has seen no money from Hands of Respect. “She is due money, but she never had any control over that company,” he says. “She has no clue how much money it generated. The Lee family will fully audit and scrutinize Hands of Respect going forward.” As for Olivarez, the spokesperson says, “It was a friendship of convenience. Jerry had plans to monetize Stan. After all of this, they have cut off all connection to him.”
In an odd coincidence, during a phone interview with Keya Morgan, JC dialed in on the other line, and according to Morgan, dictated the following message for him to convey to me (edited for brevity): “Jerry and [an associate] promised to make me and my Dad a lot of money, but we got nothing out of it except losses. There was a lot of sexism involved with the way Jerry and [the associate] treated me… These guys separated me from my Dad. They alienated me. They used me. They did very bad paperwork, and they were very sneaky... They ruined my life.” (JC’s spokesperson confirms that these are JC’s words.)
There are other red flags, apart from the allegations against Olivarez. And there’s another point of contention—rather, 1.4 million of them. “There is $1.4 million missing,” said Morgan, referring to vanished cash first reported by TMZ and confirmed by JC’s representative. “What happened was, it was $6 million. By the time it was transferred to Merrill Lynch and back to UBS, it was $4.6 million, so I want to know what happened to that $1.4 million. We have Vince Maguire—Toby Maguire’s brother has an accounting firm, and he handles all of Toby Maguire’s money also, and he’s got several forensic accountants on this to figure out what happened… Morgan scrupulously refrains from naming the parties he believes responsible for the time being. He remains optimistic that the estate can recover everything but the $1.4 million without benefit of a lawsuit.
Morgan also claims to have been the one to summon the police and have ex-bodyguard/road manager Mac Anderson removed from the Stan’s property. As reported previously, Anderson has a prodigious list of priors, including spending a year in jail following a 2002 felony conviction for beating and injuring his wife, and he was found guilty in 2010 of brutalizing his son, for which he received 36 months probation.
As reported by the Daily Mail on February 28, one of Stan Lee’s nurses was approached by Anderson and “offered a $50,000 cash bribe to make false claims against JC and one of her associates.” When I contact JC’s spokesperson for corroboration, I am summoned to a nondescript office somewhere in Los Angeles, where I am shown a brief phone-cam video. Filmed at Stan’s home, with multiple people in and out of frame (of which only JC is identifiable), it depicts a young Muslim woman — short, with brown hair, in a nurse’s smock. This is one of Stan’s nurses, known to them by her nickname, “Sheba,” and she is out of breath and sporadically crying hysterically as she tries to recount what has transpired. Over several minutes of shaky, hand-held video, I witness the woman, through intermittent sobs, and with those present trying to get her to remain calm, tell them that she had recently been contacted by Anderson, who told her he would pay her a substantial amount of money if she would sign a declaration against JC.
Then, she says, walking down the hill after finished her night shift that morning, Anderson had pulled up alongside her in a car different than the one she remembered him driving. He rolled down the window and told her that he had the documents he wanted her to sign. He emphasized that she would be saving his job, and that he would be very grateful. He also said he would pay her $50,000 in cash, which was in a bag on the front seat next to him, and that he “would take care of her for a year.” She told him that she was a Muslim and could not lie, as it was against her religion. As quickly as she could, she extricated herself from the conversation and continued on her way home. Now, later that same day, as her next shift is beginning, and having had time to let it sink in, the incident has clearly rattled her, and she's near panic.
“When [Stan’s] wife passed away,” says Morgan, “within a day, I saw all the vultures, snakes, leeches, jackals and coyotes all circle around Stan to grab a piece of his flesh. When you’re at your weakest, somebody kicks you – especially when you’re a 95-year-old man… I have a clean conscience. I’ve done nothing but help him. Whoever has been scamming him should be held responsible. No one else dares to get close to the police, and the reason is they all have a lot of things to hide.”
However the money shakes out, Stan’s daughter JC seems the party most at risk. “With all these people bleeding Stan dry,” says the insider, “I don’t think there was that much in the till to begin with. I have a feeling that they’re going to find out there’s nothing left. It seems like every time they chase away one guy, JC finds another one. Or Stan finds another one. They are just so easily conned. It’s a real problem.
“If JC were broke, I’d let her live on my couch,” he adds. “But I really don’t want that. I’d like her to be set up. But it would have to be somebody who can have a lot of power to say no to her.”