Memories of a Corporate Gadfly-Evelyn Y. Davis

davisI woke up to the news that notorious, self-style “corporate gadfly” Evelyn Y. Davis had died. The last time I saw her was when I covered the General Motors shareholders meeting in 2004. I saw her, and heard her, and avoided her, but alas, stuck in the pressroom at Wilmington, Delaware’s Hotel DuPont I was a sitting duck and she had her verbal shotgun locked at loaded.  Screaming in her Dutch-German accent she took me to task with, “Ed Gaaaahhhsten! Why aren’t you talking to me. I am a verrrrryy, verryyyy important person. More important than (then GM CEO) Rick Wagoner!” The other reporters found excuses to visit other parts of the building knowing they could be next.

You see, we had a history. It got off to a decent start, when, having just been transferred to Detroit by CNN as its new bureau chief and correspondent, I would cover my first GM shareholders meeting, then held a block from our bureau in Detroit’s Fischer Building, near GM’s original headquarters. Our assignment manager knew of Ms. Davis and her antics at various shareholders meetings and booked time with her for us to do an interview for an eventual profile. The morning of the GM meeting we met her in her suite at the what was then the Westin hotel in the Renaissance Center. She had a spread of danish, bagels, juice and coffee ready for us. We enjoyed a bit of that and conducted the interview which was, in itself, a meal of outrageous and self-aggrandizing statements, but television gold.

We later caught up with her as she arrived at the GM meeting where she sought CEO Roger Smith like a heat seeking missile. His already red face was now more crimson than the University of Alabama tide. So I ask Mr. Smith, “is Ms. Davis a pain in the neck to you?” He looked at her, obviously had one honest answer in mind, then looked at me and said, “of course not. She’s an important shareholder.” We held in a laugh, so as not to ruin the obviously less than candid soundbite.

Our intention was to actually turn the piece around that day, but real life events took over, namely the horror of Tienanmen Square in China and just about every other story was killed, including the very trivial profile of one Evelyn Y. Davis.

When she didn’t see the story on the air, Ms. Davis first screeched at me on the phone that we wasted her very “valuable” time and besides “I bought you danish and coffee!” She demanded I send my footage to NBC because she “worked a deal” where they would run the story. Of course, that wasn’t gonna happen, so she took it out of us in her annual publication called “Highlights and Lowlights,” recapping her year’s activities and giving her own analysis of what corporate leaders did right and wrong. I was granted the status of a “Lowlight” for again, wasting her time. It did not hurt my career.

I had several more encounters with Ms. Davis over the years as I moved from CNN to covering autos for the Associated Press and The Detroit News. She gave me crap every time but I would sometimes humor her with a short interview or use one of her outrageous quotes in a story. By the last time we spoke all seemed to be healed.

Evelyn Y. Davis was one of life’s great characters who could be infuriating but at the same time colorful and welcome because no one could shake an arrogant executive from his or her pedestal like her..or even make them actually smile, as in the case of Ford executive chairman Bill Ford Jr.

After saying her piece, several times at the Blue Oval’s meeting in Detroit, she said she had to leave to catch a plane. The crowd applauded..and cheered. But a few moments after walking out the door she returned, interrupting the proceedings hollering, “I can’t get a cab to the airport!” At which Mr. Ford grinned as he told her, “oh, don’t worry, we’ll get you to the airport.”

RIP Evelyn Y. Davis.

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