It's a storyline Succession writers would drool over: The ostracized daughter of the seventh wealthiest family in America lands the lead role in a movie about a wealthy girl who loses everything—then her real-life family tries to scam her out of her fortune and she sues them for billions.
Liesel Pritzker Simmons, or “Liesel Matthews” as she was briefly known in Hollywood, was born into the Pritzker dynasty famed for founding Hyatt hotels (estimated family wealth: $29 billion). To non-Town and Country-reading children of the 90s, however, she's most recognizable as the star of the 1995 family tearjerker A Little Princess.
And then she sued her family for $6 billion.
"All girls are princesses"
Little Liesel Pritzker (so named for the Sound of Music character) got her start in a local Chicago theater production of To Kill a Mockingbird, and in 1994, she reportedly beat out 10,000 girls for the starring role in Alfonso Cuarón's directorial debut, a remake of A Little Princess.
The 1995 film, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, tells the story of an 11-year-old, non-royal but very rich girl named Sara Crewe who was raised in India by her British father (Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham) but has to go to live in a New York boarding school while he goes off to fight in World War I. When he's presumed dead in battle, Sara is left penniless and relegated to servanthood alongside Jurassic Park: The Lost World's Vanessa Lee Chester. With and without her fortune, Sara is kind, brave, and generous. A model "princess" for millennial children to emulate. The film, which is currently on Netflix and celebrates its 25th anniversary in May, hinges almost entirely on Liesel's wide-eyed, distraught performance.
"I realized she had a strange and wonderful energy I could rely on," Cuarón told the Toronto Star in 1995. "I sensed in her a kind of serenity, security, and confidence."
Liesel mainly remembers putting "pink sponge curlers" in Cuarón's hair on set, and as Chester told Refinery29 in 2015, "Liesel and I went through a stage where we became poker experts. We would bet sticks of gum from craft service in between takes. I became unnaturally skilled at poker for a nine-year-old."
Coverage of the Oscar-nominated film, whose highly gendered yet egalitarian catchphrase was "all girls are princesses," largely avoided any mention that its cherubic lead actress was part of a billionaire dynasty off-screen, instead focusing on how she was a regular kid who loved ballet and basketball, and how for her 11th birthday she got "shirts" and "a lot of Daffy Duck stuff."
"I don't think I want to become a huge actress or anything," she told Entertainment Tonight in 1995. "And I wouldn't make it a career. It would still be a hobby."
Parents at war
But as the Chicago Tribune later pointed out, while Liesel was filming a heartwarming movie about the close bond between a rich single dad and his daughter, her own aristocratic family was in tatters.
Liesel's parents, Irene Dryburgh and Robert Pritzker, had divorced in 1991 and their animosity for one another viciously tore through Liesel's childhood. In 1994, while Liesel was filming A Little Princess, her mother (who is Australian and first met Robert while working in a Hyatt in Australia) claimed in post-divorce court filings that Liesel "has no relationship with Robert, nor does she desire one," that he attempted to buy her love with gifts like a pet ferret, and that she and her older brother Matthew much preferred their new stepfather, James Bagley, and had begun using his last name instead. Robert, meanwhile, accused Irene of purposefully turning Liesel and Matthew against him.
When Robert learned that Liesel had gotten the part in A Little Princess via a Chicago gossip column, he was furious. He demanded a say in if she did the film, didn't want her using her stepfather's last name professionally, and requested she start visiting him again. Those issues were resolved via court order ahead of production and the short-lived stage name "Liesel Matthews" (partially an ode to her brother) was born.
A "heinous, obnoxious, and offensive" act
Apart from her only other major acting credit, playing Harrison Ford's daughter in 1997's Air Force One, Liesel kept a low profile for a blue-blooded-heiress-cum-child-star. Largely separated from the Pritzker clan, she went to high school in Chicago, drove a Volkswagen Golf, and worked in a local deli.
But just before Thanksgiving break during her freshman year studying African History at Columbia University, Liesel suddenly filed a $6 billion lawsuit against her father and all of the Pritzker cousins alleging they had looted her and her brother's trust funds in a way that was "so heinous, obnoxious, and offensive as to constitute a fraud." She claimed $1 billion had been taken from their funds and asked for another $5 billion in punitive damages.
"It is sad when a daughter, who is a beneficiary of great family wealth and tremendous advantage, sues her father and other members of her family," Robert said in a statement at the time.
As the case advanced, however, the truth about the Pritzker family's shady dealings after the 1999 death of patriarch Jay Pritzker (Liesel's uncle and Robert's brother) came to light. As Vanity Fair reported in 2003, "In a confidential agreement made in 2001, Jay Pritzker's children, his nieces and nephews, and his cousin Nicholas had decided on a 10-year plan to break up the family's business empire and split the assets among themselves. Each of those who participated in the agreement would reportedly get an equal share—estimated at $1.4 billion. Liesel and her brother were the only cousins not included in the secret pact."
"This is not about cash," Liesel told Forbes during the lawsuit. "It's not like I think if we win, it'll be: 'Buy the Bentley! Bling bling!' … I filed because I wanted to know what happened [to my money]. It's going to be tricky, and it will take a long time. But I just need to know what happened."
The case was ultimately settled out of court, and Liesel and Matthew received payouts of $500 million each, including $280 million in cash. But being at the center of highly publicized, highly privileged drama isn't great when you're attempting to be a normal college student.
Liesel sought refuge from the spotlight, took a leave from Columbia, and moved to India where she volunteered with kids and taught yoga to recovering heroin addicts. Yes, she told Forbes in 2013, she is aware that she was a "little white girl going over and teaching yoga in India" cliché. But, she said, she realized there that "maybe I had something to offer—besides just my money."
"When you go someplace where you're completely foreign to anybody, you're just there," she said. "You're seen for who you are and not for all of the Googling behind you, so to speak."
After India came Tanzania, where she worked doing data entry in a poorly funded micro-finance office. And after three and half months abroad, she returned to America on a new mission, using $50 million of her lawsuit payout to start a nonprofit foundation, hiring her mom Irene as her boss, and launching initiatives like a project to promote financial literacy and micro-loans at schools in Ghana.
All girls are philanthropists
Now 35, Liesel's story, like that of A Little Princess, has a mostly happy ending. She found a like-minded philanthropic heir named Ian Simmons—born of the family who built locks on the Erie Canal and co-founded Montgomery Ward department stores. They got married, had two daughters, and now live in Cambridge, MA, where they devote their lives to the impact investment companies they co-founded, including Blue Haven Initiative, which encourages wealthy people to invest their money in ways that create positive social and environmental change.
"I didn't earn this money," Liesel told Forbes, who estimated her individual fortune at $600 million in 2013. "And I'll be damned if I'm going to screw it up."
Her altruism isn't entirely out of character for a Pritzker. As one family friend told Vanity Fair in a profile about Liesel's decades older half-sister Jennifer, the world's only known transgender billionaire and a reformed Republican: “Jay used to say, ‘We’re rich socialists.’ They don’t run around in jewels and sables. They hate being on the Forbes list.”
For Liesel, not screwing things up also means speaking out about the 2020 election. She doesn’t publicly talk about her acting past or family strife, but she's used her Twitter to show support for Elizabeth Warren and retweet critiques of Trump, Bloomberg, and Buttigieg. Last year, she and 17 other incredibly rich people, including Abigail Disney and George Soros, published an open letter to the 2020 presidential candidates imploring them to support "a moderate wealth tax on the fortunes of the richest 1/10 of the richest 1 percent of Americans—on us."
"We just wanted to go on the record and say: Please don't be timid about tax reform because you're afraid that this class of people is going to get upset. There's a healthy group of us who absolutely are in favour of [a wealth tax]," Liesel told the BBC.
"It's time for us who are blessed with unusual financial success or luck to contribute more to our common good and common future. The best way that we in this fortunate bubble can contribute is that we want to be taxed more."
Sara Crewe would be proud.