Joan Lee, the wife of Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, died Thursday in Los Angeles. She was 95.
“I can confirm the sad news that Joan Lee passed away this morning quietly and surrounded by her family,” a spokesperson for Stan Lee and his family said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “The family ask that you please give them time to grieve and respect their privacy during this difficult time.”
Joan Lee suffered a stroke earlier in the week and was hospitalized, according to sources.
The former British hat model and Lee were married on Dec. 5, 1947, and were by all accounts hopelessly devoted to each other. They had two children: J.C. (Joan Celia), who was born in 1950, and Jan, who died three days after her birth in 1953.
Marvel paid tribute to her in a statement on Thursday: “We are so saddened to hear about the loss of Joan Lee. We lost a member of the Marvel family today and our thoughts and prayers go out to Stan and his daughter Joan in this difficult time.”
Last year, Lee recounted how he met his wife in a story for THR that celebrated his 75th anniversary in comics. After a childhood sweetheart wed another woman, Joan Clayton impulsively married an American soldier during World War II and moved to New York, where she was extremely unhappy. Meanwhile, a cousin of Lee’s wanted to set up the struggling writer with a hat model. Lee tells what happened next:
“When I was young, there was one girl I drew; one body and face and hair. It was my idea of what a girl should be. The perfect woman. And when I got out of the Army, somebody, a cousin of mine, knew a model, a hat model at a place called Laden Hats. He said, ‘Stan, there’s this really pretty girl named Betty. I think you’d like her. She might like you. Why don’t you go over and ask her to lunch.’ Blah, blah, blah.
“So I went up to this place. Betty didn’t answer the door. But Joan answered, and she was the head model. I took one look at her — and she was the girl I had been drawing all my life. And then I heard the English accent. And I’m a nut for English accents! She said, ‘May I help you?’ And I took a look at her, and I think I said something crazy like, ‘I love you.’ I don’t remember exactly. But anyway, I took her to lunch. I never met Betty, the other girl. I think I proposed to [Joan] at lunch.”
In those days, the quickest way to get divorced was to move to Nevada and stay for six weeks to establish residency. Soon after Joan arrived in Reno, Stan received a letter from her addressed to “Jack,” and that worried him.
“Now I’m not the smartest guy in world,” recalled Lee. “I know my name isn’t ‘Jack.’ And so why did she write ‘Dear Jack?’ Maybe I better go to Reno and see what’s going on. I got there and she was waiting for me. And there’s three guys with her. They all look like John Wayne. Big Western guys! Rugged! And I get off the plane fresh from New York with my little pork pie hat and a little scarf and my gloves. And she’s with me. I thought, ‘I don’t have a chance.’ Luckily, I had a chance.”
A judge granted Joan her divorce and about an hour later, he married her and Lee in a room next door.
The couple returned to New York, where Lee worked at Marvel Comics forerunner Timely/Atlas Comics, a job he initially landed because his cousin Martin Goodman owned the company. Comics were a middling enterprise until Lee and Jack Kirby co-created The Fantastic Four in 1961 (followed by the Hulk, Avengers, Iron Man, X-Men and other characters) and turned the company, renamed Marvel Comics, into a pop culture powerhouse.
In some versions of the origin of the Fantastic Four, Lee credits Joan with inspiring him. He was depressed about his career (Lee had dreams of becoming a serious novelist) and the state of comics (the industry in the 1950s was dominated by stories of war, science fiction and romance, genres he didn’t like) and contemplated leaving the business.
“Before you quit,” Joan told him, “why don’t you write one comic you are proud of?” And thus was born the Fantastic Four.
In 1981, the Lees moved from New York City to California so Stan could work on developing Marvel TV and film projects. Joan did voice work on two 1990s animated Marvel shows, Fantastic Four (as Miss Forbes) and Spider-Man (as Madame Web). She also made a cameo in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse.
Joan Lee also wrote a 1987 novel, The Pleasure Palace, about a man striving to build the most luxurious ocean liner ever while romancing several women at once. According to her daughter, she had three more unpublished but finished novels at home.
Borys Kit contributed to this report.
July 7, 4:40 a.m. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Joan Lee was 93. She was 95. THR regrets the error.