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Who Is Ike Perlmutter the Marvel Billionaire Connected to Donald Trump?
In one of the last days of 2016, a Reuters photographer snapped a shot of Donald Trump and another Mar-a-Lago guest standing behind a window. Trump stares right at the camera, his brow furrowed. He looks stunned, almost as if he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t be doing. Behind him stands a shorter man with taught, bronze skin, hair slicked back. Black, oval-shaped sunglasses guard his eyes, but the man seems to be staring at the lens, as well, but almost defiantly. It’s clear the man knows he’s being photographed, and he holds his chin high, a hint of a smile on his lips.
Of course, the president is photographed with dozens of people a week. Most of them are of little interest to the public. But that shot captured the first image of Marvel chair Ike Perlmutter to appear on the news wires in three decades. Though he’s been one of the most important figures at Marvel, bringing the company out of bankruptcy in the ’90s, billionaire Perlmutter has remained miraculously out of the public eye in spite of his high-profile position in the entertainment industry. He’s never, as far as I have seen, given an interview to the media, and he reportedly wore a fake mustache and wig to attend the 2008 Iron Man premiere to avoid being recognized.
But now, here he was, staring down the lens of a camera. Perlmutter’s relationship with the president has slowly chipped away at Perlmutter’s shield of privacy. ProPublica revealed in 2018 that Perlmutter and two other Trump Mar-a-Lago buddies were secretly shaping veterans policies. And last month, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin released a memoir which gives unprecedented insight into Perlmutter’s relationship to the White House. Shulkin’s book focuses on his frustrations working with the chaotic and amateurish Trump administration, which involved Perlmutter and two other Trump pals acting as unofficial advisors to the VA. And in the telling of it, Shulkin gives a rare peek into the reclusive Perlmutter’s private life.
“Comic books fans like to know their comics. They like to know the people that make the comics, and the people who publish them. It’s part of being a fan,” says Rich Johnston, head writer at comic blog Bleeding Cool who has covered Perlmutter. “And for years, Perlmutter was an absolute blank slate.”
Over the years, reporters have talked to people close to Perlmutter to build some semblance of a biography. The story goes: Perlmutter grew up in Israel and served in the Six-Day War of 1967. When he was 24, he moved to New York with $250 in his pocket, determined to turn it into his fortune. He’d wait outside Jewish cemeteries with a prayer book in his hand, offering grieving families to chant mourning verses over the graves of the dead, according to Dan Raviv’s 2004 Comic Wars: Marvel’s Battle for Survival. From there, he took a bank loan and a loan from his in-laws—he married his wife Laurie just a few months after meeting her in the Catskills—to buy companies.
Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin recently wrote a book about his time in the Trump administration.
Mark WilsonGetty Images
Perlmutter found success in unremarkable companies, the kind that resold surplus bars of soap, for example, and the couple split their time between their Palm Beach apartment and a Manhattan high-rise. When he was 41, Perlmutter took his first step towards the entertainment industry when he bought surplus merchandise from Mattel, the profits of which eventually led to his investment in toy company Coleco, which was bought by Hasbro, according to Raviv’s book. More investments begat more investments and more companies. And in 1993, he made a deal with Ronald Perelman turning his toy company Toy Biz into a subsidiary of Marvel. Though Perlmutter reportedly had no interest in comics, business eventually led him straight to one of the most powerful positions in the industry. After Marvel fell into bankruptcy in 1996, it was Perlmutter and his business partner Avi Arad who won control of the company, and turned it around into the juggernaut we know today.
“He’s not the creative force [behind Marvel] but frankly without money and the strengths and resilience to win that bankruptcy battle, I’m not sure Marvel would exist at all,” Raviv tells me. “So, in a weird way, superhero movie and comic book fans probably should be grateful to him, but he’s not going to show up at Comic-Con to accept their thanks. Not his style, not his style.”
As Marvel reemerged, Perlmutter began drawing the headlines he’s sought to avoid—usually because of controversy, like the Sony email leak in 2014 which revealed Perlmutter was sharply critical of recent women-led superhero movies. WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of searchable emails. According to WikiLeaks, here’s what he wrote:
Michael,As we discussed on the phone, below are just a few examples. There are more…1. Electra (Marvel) – Very bad idea and the end result was very, very bad. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=elektra.htm2. Catwoman (WB/DC) – Catwoman was one of the most important female character within the Batman franchise. This film was a disaster. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=catwoman.htm3. Supergirl – (DC) Supergirl was one of the most important female super hero in Superman franchise. This Movie came out in 1984 and did $14 million total domestic with opening weekend of $5.5 million. Again, another disaster.Best,Ike
In 2015, Perlmutter moved off of Marvel’s movie division in part because of a clash over the budget on Captain America: Civil War, according to The Hollywood Reporter. In 2019, Marvel released the Brie Larson-led Captain Marvel which grossed more than $1 billion at the box office. Now, the studio giant is moving into its next phase, starting with the Scarlett Johansson-led Black Widow in 2020, which Marvel released the first trailer for this week.
Then there was the strange stuff happening outside of the office. In 2017, a Palm Beach neighbor sued Perlmutter for “allegedly orchestrating hate mailings” against him because of a dispute about hiring a tennis pro at their courts. The neighbor claimed DNA implicated Perlmutter’s wife. In return, Perlmutter countersued saying the DNA was “surreptitiously gathered” from water bottles and a bottle cap used by the couple, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The outlet commissioned an illustrator to draw a photo of Perlmutter for their coverage of the lawsuit because, at that point, there hadn’t been a photo of Perlmutter taken in decades. Perlmutter’s lawyer recently sent a letter obtained by Esquire to the Palm Beach Police Department requesting they open a criminal case against another person for the hate mailings because of new evidence. The civil case is ongoing.
Trump and Perlmutter have been friends for more than 25 years. Both men have residences in Palm Beach and Perlmutter is a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago and lives just down the street from the club. In 2016, Perlmutter and his wife Laura donated $5 million to a Super PAC supporting Trump, according to Federal Election Commission filings obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Trump spoke publicly about Perlmutter at a fundraiser for wounded veterans in January 2016. Trump had skipped the GOP primary debate that night, and on-stage he called out Perlmutter specifically, saying the Marvel chair would donate $1 million to the fundraiser. Trump then called Perlmutter, “One of the great, great men of our country in terms of business and talent.” In return, a rep for Perlmutter made a rare statement on his behalf telling The Hollywood Reporter, “The Perlmutters are thrilled to support their friend Donald Trump in his efforts to help veterans.”
Later in 2016, after Trump won the presidency, he hosted his Thanksgiving dinner at Mar-a-Lago, where he talked to his family, Perlmutter, and others like boxing promoter Don King, about whether he should pick Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani for secretary of state, according to Page Six.
Trump shakes Perlmutter’s hand before signing an executive order at the VA.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKIGetty Images
We now know thanks to Shulkin’s book and the reporting from ProPublica that after Trump took office, Perlmutter, along with Moskowitz and Sherman, went to work closely monitoring the goings on at the VA. In fact, it was Perlmutter who recommended Shulkin for the job after they were introduced by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. Perlmutter often called Shulkin several times a day, the former Secretary writes, to the point where Jared Kushner joked Perlmutter “had become [Shulkin’s] adopted father.” While a connection has been made between Perlmutter’s service in the Israeli army and his dedication to the VA, Raviv suspects the businessman was also drawn to the opportunity to cut costs of the massive entity. Perlmutter has been described as obsessive about keeping budgets low at Marvel, to the point where he would retrieve paperclips from trash bins and rip up memos to use as memo pads to save money, according to a Financial Times piece.
The involvement of the so-called “Mar-a-Lago cronies” is now being investigated by the Government Accountability Office. On August 10, 2018, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Brian Schatz sent a letter to the GAO in the wake of a ProPublica investigation, writing, “these accounts … if true, paint a disturbing picture of corruption and cronyism that is not only antithetical to transparent, accountable, and ethical government, but will make it more difficult for the Secretary to lead the VA in a way that allows him to exercise his independent judgment.”
The GAO tells me they expect their inquiry to be complete by late spring. If the office finds evidence of wrongdoing, a hearing could follow. A spokesperson for Perlmutter tells me of the investigation, “Mr. Perlmutter and two colleagues became involved with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at the request of President Trump and senior VA officials. Their primary role was in facilitating introductions to volunteer hospital, healthcare, and technology experts so those experts could offer their insights and best thinking on issues the VA was working to address … To the extent Mr. Perlmutter and his colleagues provided their own insight, it was generally when they were asked for it, and it was provided purely on an advisory basis.”
While Perlmutter’s influence in the entertainment world isn’t what it was a few years ago—Perlmutter no longer deals with Marvel films, he now oversees Marvel’s publishing operations, games, licensing and online presence —his relationship with Trump is getting comics fans to take notice.
“Hey, while everyone seems to be on this Equinox thing, it might be a good time to mention that one of Trump’s largest financial contributors is the chairman of Marvel Entertainment (Isaac Perlmutter). Jussayin,” actor Armie Hammer tweeted earlier this year.
And when Marvel asked famous graphic novelist Art Spiegelman to remove a criticism of Trump from the introduction to a Marvel book because they reportedly wanted to stay “apolitical,” Spiegelman published it as an essay in The Guardian with the following closing paragraph:
A revealing story serendipitously showed up in my news feed this week. I learned that the billionaire chairman and former CEO of Marvel Entertainment, Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, is a longtime friend of Donald Trump’s, an unofficial and influential adviser and a member of the president’s elite Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida. And Perlmutter and his wife have each recently donated $360,000 (the maximum allowed) to the Orange Skull’s “Trump Victory Joint Fundraising Committee” for 2020. I’ve also had to learn, yet again, that everything is political… just like Captain America socking Hitler on the jaw.
While the Government Accountability Office findings loom, Perlmutter has stepped away from the VA.
“Ike expects to support [Trump’s] reelection campaign but his involvement with the VA ended more than a year ago,” says a familiar source. “He has no role in the White House or the administration.”
And Raviv, who has reported on Perlmutter for years, says it’s likely we’ve seen the last of the reclusive businessman.
“He wanted to help Donald and thought helping veterans seemed to be a good thing … But my impression is that he got burned by the fact that you then become public, that some articles will get written and that some, not just paparazzi, right, some legitimate news cameramen who follow the president-elect will get your photo,” Raviv says. “Knowing him, I think he would really try to retreat now. I think that the experience with the VA probably was a close call. I bet he’ll still be a contributor to the campaigns or the PACs that are associated with the campaign. But being more public? No, I don’t see it. Not his style.”
Senior Staff Writer
Kate is a writer for Esquire covering culture, politics, style, and lifestyle.