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Shirley Slesinger Lasswell; fought over Pooh royalties

LOS ANGELES -- Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, a brand-marketing pioneer whose battle with Walt Disney Co. over royalties generated by Winnie the Pooh merchandise became a long-running court saga, has died at the age of 84.

Ms. Lasswell, a former showgirl who marketed 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.

Ms. Lasswell's 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 children's books.

When Slesinger died in 1953, Ms. 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," Ms. Lasswell told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. "I decided to promote Pooh."

Ms. 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," Ms. Lasswell said in the 2002 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, Ms. Lasswell said. A self- described "Pooh shopaholic," she noticed that she wasn't receiving royalties for much of the merchandise she bought, and hired a lawyer.

In 1991, Ms. Lasswell and her daughter filed suit against Walt Disney Co., alleging breach of contract and fraud.

"I just want what we are owed," Ms. 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 entertainment empire's trademark mouse, raking in more than $1 billion a year. Since the early 1980s, Disney has paid the family an estimated $100 million.

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.

A California state court judge threw out the lawsuit in 2004 after finding misconduct on the part of the family. 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 addition to her daughter, Ms. Lasswell leaves a granddaughter.