Gunther Lessing is often mentioned as a key player in the Disney strike. As Walt Disney’s Vice President and Chief Legal Counsel, he certainly held influence.
In the mid-1930s, Lessing had an affable relationship with Art Babbitt. In December 1937 and January 1938, they collaborated to create Disney’s bogus company union, the Federation of Screen Cartoonists. But by 1941, Lessing was blamed by both strikers and non-strikers for the prolongation of the labor dispute, and as the only thing that stood between Walt and a union compromise.
The most circulated factoid of Lessing’s past was the story that he worked alongside Pancho Villa. But there’s much more:
Born in 1886 from a German-Jewish father in Waco, Texas, Gunther Lessing graduated from Yale law school in 1908 at the top of his class. He left to work in El Paso (near the Texas-Mexico border), and established himself as a “high-priced lawyer.” In January 1914, Lessing began working with two powerful entities: the Mutual Film Corporation (which had just signed D. W. Griffith to produce Birth of a Nation) and the leader of the Mexican revolution, General Pancho Villa. Lessing brokered an exclusive $25,000 film contract between the movie studio and the outlaw. His footnote in the Mexican revolution was a source of pride that Lessing later shared with his Disney colleagues.
However, Lessing had his secrets. In 1917, after he opened a law firm with two partners in El Paso, he was sued by his own employee, an attorney named Eugene S. Ives. Lessing had contracted Ives to handle a case in Arizona for $350. Ives had worked to successfully reduce their clients’ bail by $1,000. After the case was complete, Ives demanded a higher fee from Lessing, and brought him to court. His grounds were what is known as “quantum meruit” – a deserved compensation that goes beyond a legal agreement. Ives could only offer self-serving declarations as evidence, and he lost the case, even under appeal.
(The Ives v Lessing case set the stage for Babbitt’s 1941 civil suit against Disney. After the strike, Babbitt sued the company for unpaid bonuses. He lost the case under the same clause – that any excess amount to his salary was not stipulated in his contract.)
Although Pancho Villa was assassinated in 1923, Lessing stayed close with the Mexican revolutionaries. He witnessed actress Dolores del Rio participate in the rebellion of late 1924/early1925. Del Rio was a Mexican silent film diva, and one of the first great foreign-born stars of Hollywood.
Mexico’s government was overthrown in 1926, and in July 1927, Lessing signed a four-year contract as del Rio’s personal attorney. Working in Hollywood with Mexican citizenship, she would need a lawyer to sort through any visa complications, should they arise.
For a time, Lessing and del Rio had a good working relationship. She, Lessing, and their mutual spouses – Jaime and Loula – attended Hollywood parties. Around this time, Lessing first met with Walt Disney, a young cartoon producer who just lost the rights of his previous creations to Pat Powers. In approximately 1928, Lessing began working for Walt as a part-time legal consultant. It was Lessing who helped Walt protect the copyright of Mickey Mouse from predators similar to Powers.
Lessing continued to work for del Rio in various capacities, including handling her and Jaime’s divorce in 1928. However, immediately after the stock market crash of October 1929, del Rio’s life took a turn. In early December, del Rio was shocked by her ex-husband’s premature death from surgery complications. Later that month, in an emotional and financial haze, del Rio cut short Lessing’s contract. She paid him $4000 for his services rendered. But Lessing sued her anyway, for “lack of gratitude and appreciation,” and the $31,000 balance of their contract.
Lessing’s financial straits were a little more secure than most. On January 1st 1930, Walt Disney hired him full-time as the company’s chief legal counsel.
As bad blood turned rancid, del Rio reached out to help Lessing’s young wife, Loula. Loula accused her husband of turning her 10-year-old son against her. She also accused Lessing of abusive behavior – when losing bridge games at parties, he would throw water in her face or drag her around by her ear. In July 1930, Lessing sued del Rio for encouraging Loula to divorce him. During the separation, as Lessing sent Loula and his stepson a paltry $40 a month, del Rio helped support them.
In court, Lessing testified to having protected del Rio against theoretical bits of bad publicity. He went on to openly discuss those very bits, rattling off example after example of her overt sexuality and sexual proclivity. This public lawsuit vilified del Rio as a “home wrecker” in the press. According to del Rio’s biographer, “Lessing’s legal action seemed designed to destroy her.”
Lessing won a $16,000 settlement against del Rio in December 1931. Loula was granted her divorce from him in April 1932.
In all the press about the del Rio case, the name “Gunther Lessing” was never linked to the Disney Company. The Disney artists remained oblivious to Lessing’s sordid connection with this empowered movie starlet. And that’s just how Lessing wanted it.
- MichaelBarrier.com/Home Page/WhatsNewArchivesMarch15.html (Lessing’s Jewish background)
- The Yale Law Journal Volume 18, p442 (top of his class)
- Sizer, Mona D. Texas Bandits: Real to Reel, p5
- Brégen-Heald, Dominique. Borderland Films: American Cinema, Mexico, and Canada During the Progressive Era, p242 (footnote #72 to pp242-246), citing NY Daily Mirror 1/14/14, p58, and other sources. The president of the Mutual Film Company, Harry Aiken, hired Frank N. Thayer to represent the company; Thayer was a “Wall Street banker.” (Sizer, Texas Bandits: Real to Reel, p5)
- The Yale Alumni Weekly, XXVI No1, 1917. The firm “Jackson Isaacks, & Lessing” was located in suite 605 of the newly-constructed Martin Building at 217 N Stanton St.
- Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of the Territory of Arizona, Volume 19, 1/1/19. pp209-210; The pacific Reporter: Vol 168, p506, “Civil No. 1558 filed 11/8/17, “Ives v. Lessing”
- Lessing v. Gibbons, Civ. No 9320, First Appellate District, Division Two. 5/6/35, p1 (“Gibbons” was del Rio’s re-married name)
- NLRB case 10603, Lessing’s testimony p857
- The official fan club for the Walt Disney Company: https://d23.com/a-to-z/lessing-gunther/
- Hall, Linda. Dolores del Rio: Beauty in Light and Shade, pp 130-143
- Lessing’s start date c/o Walt Disney Archives.
- “Dolores Del Rio Denies Wrecking Lawyer’s Home,” Chicago Daily tribune, 7/21/30
- “Wife Wins Divorce from Poor Loser,” Oakland Tribune, 4/19/32, p15. (Here her name is “Lolla.”)
- “Calls Actress Home Wrecker,” San Bernadino Sun, 7/24/30, p1
- “Hollywood Lawyer is Awarded $16000 in Judgment Against Dolores Del Rio For Services.” San Bernadino Sun, 12/16/31, p3