Thelma Pearl Howard’s name may not immediately ring a bell – even with those who possess in-depth knowledge of Walt Disney. But the housekeeper was actually a key figure in the great animator’s life. And although Howard had originally come from poverty and misfortune, she ended up dying as a secret multi-millionaire.
More specifically, Howard had accrued a whopping $9 million fortune during her lifetime. The maid never flaunted her wealth, though. In fact, she continued to live such a modest life that many of her nearest and dearest had no idea that she was rich until after she had passed away.
So, how did Howard – an ordinary woman from a poor farming family – acquire such a hefty sum of money? And why did she keep her seven-figure fortune a secret for so long? Here’s a look at the remarkable story of a humble housekeeper and the giant bank balance that left her surviving friends and relatives in a state of shock.
Having entered the world in 1915 in the Idaho community of Southwick, Howard grew up on a farm in abject poverty along with her four brothers and sisters. And, sadly, she experienced a major tragedy early on in life; Howard’s mother passed away while giving birth when her daughter was just six. By Howard’s late teens, moreover, she’d also lost two of her siblings.
And while Howard tried to make a better life for herself by attending college in Washington state, she was left unable to afford the fees and had no option but to leave after less than a year of study. So, she subsequently relocated to Los Angeles, where she took on various odd jobs – including work as a secretary, a drinks server and a cleaner.
However, it was through this type of menial work that Howard would eventually end up striking it rich. Yes, in 1951 she bagged a housekeeping position at a Holmby Hills, California, estate that happened to belong to none other than Walt Disney. And Howard was also required to live at the enormous property – an abode that would likely have been beyond the Idaho native’s wildest dreams.
After all, the 3.6-acre Disney estate contains eight bedrooms and no fewer than 17 bathrooms along with its own tennis court, library, swimming pool, putting green and gym. What’s more, the pool house alone is reportedly larger than the building in which Howard grew up back in Idaho. But despite any culture shock that may have arisen as a result of her new surroundings, the maid soon proved that she was the right woman for the job.
You see, before Howard came along, Disney had struggled to find the perfect housekeeper. For instance, although Howard’s predecessor was a culinary maestro, she had apparently failed to connect with the entrepreneur’s two children, Sharon and Diane. In fact, according to Diane, the employee in question would forbid the kids from entering the kitchen; she reportedly restricted them to their rooms as she cleaned, too.
Yet Howard seemingly couldn’t have been more different. The housekeeper doted on Disney’s two girls, for one. And she would often encourage the children to keep her company in the kitchen while she prepared the kind of three-course meals that were fit for a man of Disney’s stature.
In fact, Diane would later share her fond memories of Howard during a 1994 chat with People. Disney’s daughter said to the magazine, “When Thelma came, we spent all our time [in the kitchen]. She could put on a full dinner with a roast and fresh pie and have kids drawing pictures at the kitchen table. She made the place warm, and she made it work.”
Meanwhile, Howard kept her boss happy by ensuring that his favorite snacks were always stocked in the house. These apparently included hot dogs, which Disney is said to have enjoyed whenever he arrived home from work. On each occasion, he would reportedly give a wiener to his beloved French poodle, Lady, too.
And during Howard’s lengthy stint living with Disney, his wife, Lillian, and their two daughters, she was apparently beloved enough to earn the affectionate moniker “Fou-Fou.” At the very least, the entrepreneur saw fit to mention Howard in the same breath as one of his studio’s most beloved creations; in his eyes, the housekeeper was “the real-life Mary Poppins.”
However, it’s fair to say that Howard wasn’t exactly as prim and proper as the famous character brought to life by Julie Andrews. For one thing, the housekeeper is said to have smoked like a chimney – much like her boss. She also reportedly possessed a gruff-sounding voice and liked nothing more than sitting down to a game of cards.
Regardless of Howard’s many foibles, though, she certainly seemed to get along well with Disney. And, reportedly, the mogul’s grandson Chris Miller suggested as much by saying, “My grandfather had an incredible rapport with [Howard]. They seemed to share everything – from a sense of humor to their notions about what was happening with the kids and what was best for them.”
Meanwhile, at around the time that Howard came into Disney’s life, the movie producer’s studio was enjoying the beginning of a golden period. In 1950 Cinderella – the company’s first animated feature film since 1942 – had both been a massive success with critics and had performed well at box offices across the world. Disney’s first full-length live action picture, Treasure Island, had also received rave reviews.
What’s more, Disney’s winning streak continued with 1951’s Alice in Wonderland and 1953’s Peter Pan. It was during this period, however, that the entrepreneur began to hand over more control to the studio’s main animators. Instead, Disney wanted to focus his energy on his next major business idea: the development of his very own theme park.
But even though Disney possessed a mammoth fortune back then, he didn’t offer Howard a particularly impressive housekeeping wage. In fact, her earnings were similar to those of most other maids. Nevertheless, she did benefit financially by getting to live with the famous family at their sprawling California estate. And that was by no means the only perk Howard enjoyed, either.
Perhaps Howard’s biggest reward of all came at Christmastime, when every year Disney would gift his housekeeper shares in the movie company. And this stock continued to grow, of course, as the empire became larger and larger. Yet, incredibly, Howard never chose to cash in – apparently as a sign of respect for her boss.
Howard reportedly delved into her own savings to acquire even more shares in Disney’s firm, too. But it should be noted that when the employee had started receiving her own stock, the movie studio wasn’t the big deal it would eventually become. Yes, between 1951 – when Howard became Disney’s housekeeper – and 1965, the company gradually transformed into an entertainment powerhouse.
Naturally, the opening of Disneyland in 1955 was partly responsible for the empire’s phenomenal success. And classic films such as 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty and Mary Poppins boosted The Walt Disney Company’s reputation, too; the box-office success of the latter movie in particular helped to significantly increase the firm’s share prices.
But Disney’s reputation for generous gifts didn’t stop at the ones that he gave to Howard. In fact, the movie mogul was renowned for rewarding his most cherished staff members by splashing his cash. Employees that were lucky enough to get into his good books would often receive major financial bonuses, for instance – perhaps as a way of compensating for the fact that he didn’t often voice his approval.
Yes, it’s been said that Disney wasn’t exactly one to offer many motivational words to those under his charge. Indeed, he was reportedly a notoriously difficult man to please – and one who expected his army of animators to constantly adhere to his high standards, too. According to one employee, “That’ll work,” was about the closest that his boss ever got to offering any praise.
But those who worked on Disney’s first animated feature presumably weren’t complaining that their boss preferred to reward his staff financially. After all, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs raked in a record-breaking amount of money, the studio boss showed his gratitude the only way that he knew how: a whopping $750,000 in bonuses for his team.
Perhaps inevitably, though, Disney garnered mixed reviews from those who worked with him. Just a few years after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for instance, the entrepreneur found himself under fire from some of his employees. Apparently, the drama had begun when he decided to cut staff wages after making the company’s shares public.
Not only was Disney rumored to be rather brusque with his workers, then, but he was also now slashing their salaries. And as a result, his animators began to strike in 1941. Lasting for just over a month, the movement led to a number of key artists leaving their positions. The furor also left Disney’s reputation as a boss tarnished – perhaps irreversibly.
In fact, Neal Gabler, the author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, has claimed that studio staff were “terrified” of the company’s founder. Speaking at a panel to promote a four-hour PBS documentary about the corporation, the historian said, “The Walt Disney studio operated like a cult, and Walt was the head of the cult. He was worshipped at the studio for a certain period of time.”
However, Richard Sherman, who first started writing songs with his brother for the studio at the start of the 1960s, painted an entirely different picture of the entrepreneur. The composer told the same panel’s audience, “[Disney] was wonderful to us. He was a giving person. He didn’t [work] to make money or to aggrandize himself.”
Sherman, who penned classic tunes such as “It’s a Small World” and “A Spoonful of Sugar,” added, “[Disney] got great joy out of making people happy with his movies.” Even so, the songwriter did admit that many of the studio’s employees would begin to tremble when the boss walked by. The workers would apparently also borrow a line from Disney favorite Bambi: “Man is in the forest.”
But Disney was seemingly held in higher regard by his family. The man doted on his grandchildren, in particular, making sure that they wanted for nothing at Christmastime. Disney’s daughter Diane and her husband, Ron, would often travel to her parents’ home for the holiday, where their kids would apparently be showered with gifts.
Indeed, Diane once said, “[My father] liked playing Santa. This was the mid-’50s when there was a lot of Disney merchandise, and there would be a big box. We learned later that Dad sent boxes like this to a lot of people. It was just something he did – something he loved to do.”
Sadly, Disney, who was a heavy smoker, passed away at the end of 1966 from lung cancer. Howard, on the other hand, continued to work as a maid until her retirement in 1981. Yet the former housekeeper still never showed any signs that she was sitting on an enormous fortune. In fact, the woman spent the following ten years living in a modest bungalow with two bedrooms.
After that, Howard spent most of her final years in a humble nursing home that reportedly failed to give her the care that she needed. Thankfully, though, the former housekeeper was moved to a much better facility where she had her own room. And, touchingly, Disney’s daughter Diane would regularly visit her as well as sending her flowers once a week.
Then Howard passed away in 1994 – just a few days shy of turning 80. But even though the housekeeper is no longer with us, you could say that her connection to her former boss lives on. After all, her pink-colored coffin is buried at Forest Lawn cemetery in California – a location that has a view of the famous Disney Studios.
And following Howard’s death, her nearest and dearest attended a will hearing – perhaps expecting to hear about only a little more than small change. Yet this was far from the case. In reality, their frugal relative had – unbeknown to almost anyone – found herself with millions of dollars in the bank.
Yes, those present at the meeting may have been left dumbfounded when they discovered that Howard had in fact died a multi-millionaire. She’d apparently shown no sign of any considerable wealth, after all – despite the fact that her stock portfolio had netted her a cool $9 million or so over the years. What’s more, the humble housekeeper had made some generous plans for her hefty sum of money.
In particular, Howard had decided that part of her fortune should be used to establish a charitable trust. The Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation was subsequently set up, with the fund since donating millions of dollars to various causes. In particular, organizations dealing with arts education and helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds have benefited from Howard’s kindness. The former housekeeper had been inspired, it seems, by her own poverty-stricken upbringing in Idaho.
And in 1994 Howard’s niece Cheryl Wallace – who also hails from Idaho – told People how proud she was of her aunt’s generosity. She said, “There had been so much pain and tragedy in my aunt’s life. I think she felt she missed being young. She wanted to give something back to children.”
In addition, in 2005 Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation CEO Antonia Hernandez told Philanthropy News Digest how the founder’s memory had lived on. She said, “Mrs. Howard was a caring person who touched many people’s lives. And today, years after her estate established a fund at the foundation, we remain committed to supporting her dream of helping disadvantaged and homeless children.”
You may be wondering, then, what happened to the rest of Howard’s surprising fortune. Well, she decided to leave it to her only child, who has a developmental disability and currently resides in a full-time California-based care home. But there’s yet more to Howard’s remarkable story.
You see, it’s been rumored that if Howard’s original shares hadn’t been sold after her death, they may have tripled – owing to a three-to-one stock split in the summer of 1998. This would mean that the housekeeper’s 193,000 shares may have grown to a whopping 579,000. And in today’s money, these assets would apparently be valued at around $37 million.