Saturday, July 21, 2007

Shirley Slesinger Lasswell R.I.P.

Most of you are probably not familiar with the name of Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, but if you are under forty you have been exposed to her work. Shirley Slesinger Lasswell was the woman for turning A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh into a merchandising empire. She passed from respiratory failure at the age of 84.

Shirley Slesinger Lasswell was born Shirley Ann Basso in Detroit, Michigan on May 27, 1923. In 1947 she was a dancer on Broadway when she met literary agent Stephen
Slesinger backstage on the show Hellzapoppin'. Stephen Slesinger was responsible for the merchandising of such characters as Tarzan, King of the Royal Mounted, Tom Mix, Charlie Chan, and a number of other characters. He was also a creator of various characters, whom he hired others to write and illustrate (in the case of comic strips), among them Red Ryder. He also entered the field of film and television production, producing adaptations of Red Ryder, King of the Royal Mounted, and so on. In the Thirties he acquired the rights to Winnie the Pooh.

Stephen Slesinger died in 1954, whereupon Shirley Slesinger took over his business. She concentrated on Winnie the Pooh, seeing a good deal of potential in Milne's creation. Not only did she design much of the merchandise, everything from toys to clothing, she actually went door to door to the top department stores selling Winnie the Pooh merchandise. It was in 1961 that Slesinger and Daphne Milne, the widow of A. A. Milne, entered into an agreement with Disney that gave them the television, trademark, and other commercial rights to Winnie the Pooh. In return Disney would pay the Slesinger and Milne families royalties from all Winnie the Pooh products the company produced. Eventually, in 1991, Slesinger Lasswell would be forced to sue Disney for underpaying royalties and mixing the money made from Winnie the Pooh with such Disney characters as Mickey Mouse.

After Stephen Slesinger's death, Shirley Slesinger married Fred Lasswell, Jr., longtime cartoonist on Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. They were married for 37 years.

In merchandising Winnie the Pooh, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell introduced many people to A. A. Milne's characters. While I have little doubt that A. A. Milne's books would still be published today, they probably would not have readership that Slesinger Lasswell's exposure created. She then has had part in the continued popularity of the one of the best loved literary creations in the Twentieth Century.

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