As a child actor, Liesel Matthews wowed other children and adults alike with her performance in A Little Princess. Yes, no matter what life threw at her character, Sara, nothing ever destroyed her kindness. But off-screen Matthews was fighting a battle of her own, and it’s one of the reasons she cut her Hollywood career short.
Now, Matthews became a child star early in life – in fact, she appeared in A Little Princess aged 11. However, she put in such a performance that Hollywood nominated her for a Young Artist Award. But after her initial fame, the actress only appeared in two other films, one significantly more successful than the other.
Indeed, two years later Matthews starred in the 1997 film Airforce One as Alice Marshall. Alice was the daughter of main character President James Marshall, portrayed by Hollywood legend Harrison Ford. And many people probably think this was her last role. However, the actress had another, albeit less high profile one.
That’s right, Matthews starred as a character called Ears in the film Blast in 2000. Unlike the feel-good film that made her famous, however, this one was a little darker. She portrayed a member of a group of youths who kill a man they think is responsible for the death of their friend. And as it turns out, they’re wrong.
Mysteriously, though, the young actress disappeared from our screens after Blast. Of course, she’s not the first person to discover that a life in front of the cameras isn’t for them. For example, take Jeff Cohen who played Chunk in 1985’s The Goonies. His career split from acting to becoming a lawyer and author.
Therefore, what could make the award-nominated Matthews change lifestyles, and what has she been up to since? Well, the road she’s travelled has been just as eventful as her character’s in A Little Princess. And she lives a very different life now. But there are some parallels between Sara’s on-screen life and the off-screen one of the actress portraying her.
So who is Sara in A little Princess and exactly how did events in her life reflect Matthews’ own? Well, to begin with the film is actually based on a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1963. You may recall that the same author was famous for the novel The Secret Garden.
Both the original A little Princess book and its big screen adaption are set in 1914, shortly before World War I begins. Sara Crewe lives a privileged life in India as the daughter of Liam Cunningham’s character Ralph Crewe, a British army captain. Following the death of Sara’s mother, an Indian storyteller called Maya (played by Pushpa Rawal) acts as her maternal influence.
And Maya entrances Sara with stories from Indian folklore and instills a sense of magic in the captivated girl. In addition, Maya teaches Sara an important and recurring lesson – “all women are princesses.” However, the outbreak of WWI and Captain Crewe’s summons back to duty throw the family’s lifestyle into chaos.
As a result, the captain enrols his daughter in New York City’s Miss Minchin’s School for Girls. You see, its tutors educated Sara’s late mother and the initial reception from the school hints at a comfortable lifestyle. Nevertheless, Ralph’s wealth helps secure extra comforts for Sara’s stay. Not only does he import Sara’s toys and clothes from India, he also pays for the school’s largest bedroom.
Before his departure, Captain Crewe bequeaths Sara with a doll which he claims can magically communicate with him. And he insists that magic exists if she believes in it, before leaving Sara in what he assumes to be good hands. But as soon as he departs, it’s clear the school’s headmistress, Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron) doesn’t like Sara.
For you see, Minchin sees Sara as a spoilt child and resents how the little girl’s education in French overshadows her own. Combined with the initial trouble Sara has adjusting to boarding school routine, it makes their relationship turbulent. Likewise, Minchin dislikes Sara speaking at the dinner table, which she only does to thank the school’s black servant girl, Becky.
But Sara’s kind and empathic nature soon ingratiates her with most of the school’s students, who love the stories she tells them. Yet the girl’s sense of magic and wonder only serves to further infuriate Minchin. This comes to a head when the headmistress hears word that Captain Crewe is missing in action and likely dead.
As a consequence, the British government claims the Crewe family’s assets – including their fortune – leaving Sara high and dry. Furthermore, without financial support, she’s at the mercy of Minchin, who could throw her out on the street. Instead the headmistress holds this threat over Sara to keep the little girl on as a servant.
So Sara begins living alongside Becky in the school’s attic but refuses to discard her kindness or sense of wonder. Indeed, on one occasion the indomitable girl gives what little food she has to a starving family. Her sweet nature even draws the generosity of the wealthy school’s neighbors, Mr. Randolph and his Indian manservant, Ram Dass.
The wheelchair-bound Randolph is apparently looking after his military-serving son who suffered eye wounds in combat. And Sara leaves the family a rose when she hears of their position. Ram Dass subsequently returns the favor in Sara’s hour of need when Minchin denies both her and Becky food. Yes, Dass decorates their attic and leaves them a banquet in what appears to be an act of magic.
Even then, tensions escalate when Minchin finds Ram Dass’ attic gifts and accuses the girls of theft. Thus, she calls the police to take them both away. But as she awaits their arrival, Becky and Sara escape into Randolph’s house where the police find them. The girls are apprehended in the presence of Ram Dass, Randolph and his wounded son until something magical happens.
Indeed, Sara recognises Randolph’s “son,” who is none other than her own father. Injured in battle and taken in as a case of mistaken identity, Captain Crewe apparently suffers from amnesia. But just before the police take the girls into custody, his memories reawaken and he rescues his daughter. The discovery of Ralph alive and well means his wealth and position are restored, and Sara saved.
So Sara’s story ends with her family reunited and even strengthened by the new inclusion of Becky into the household. Meanwhile, Minchin is removed from her position and given a new one as the school chimney sweep. Yet through all her trials and tribulations Sara remained a kind “princess” who believed in magic.
It’s easy to see why the story became such a feel-good family favourite and Sara a hero to viewers. It’s also obvious why Matthews gained such accolades for her stellar performance as the unbreakable Sara. In fact, as previously mentioned, the actress was nominated for Best Young Leading Actress in a feature film.
Not only that, but A Little Princess was the movie that put Matthews on her Hollywood trajectory. Yes, it led to her next films – the aforementioned Air Force One and Blast – which looked set to further Matthews’ career. But just as suddenly as it started, the actress’ rise came to an abrupt halt.
According to a People interview in 1995, director Alfonso Cuarón cast Matthews because she didn’t seek fame. “I wanted someone who wasn’t worried about technique,” he said. “Liesel was more interested in having fun than establishing a career. That’s rare.”
Although Matthews wasn’t literal royalty, she comes from a family of incredible wealth and influence. Indeed, her bloodline dates back to Abraham Nicholas Pritzker, a businessman and philanthropist born in the late 1800s. He made his name in law before becoming a property and business owner, cannily using trusts to manage taxation.
But Pritzker wasn’t greedy with his wealth and became a renowned philanthropist, as the University of Chicago proves. He helped found and fund the faculty’s Pritzker School of Medicine, a trait the businessman passed down to his children. They continued the family’s generosity and established the $100,000 Pritzker Architecture Prize.
The Pritzker family’s wealth has only grown over time, and they most famously established the Hyatt Hotel company. Indeed, in 2015 Forbes ranked them as the eighth richest family in America with a $29 billion net worth. So just like Sara, Matthews came from affluence. Of course, the actress’ life differed from that of her character’s in some key ways.
For starters, their father-daughter relationships couldn’t be more different. Matthews’ mother, Irene Dryburgh, revealed as much during her divorce proceedings from the actress’ father, Robert Pritzker. She stated that Matthews “has no relationship with Robert, nor does she desire one.” In fact, Robert only heard about his daughter’s breakthrough role from gossip columns.
Furthermore, Irene painted a picture of a man who wanted to buy his daughter’s love with gifts and control her career. She even reported how Robert demanded a say in whether Matthews took the part in A Little Princess. There were also arguments over who’s surname she should use (they finally decided on Matthews in homage to her brother Matthew).
During her college years, though, Matthews came to the realization that she and her brother had been denied their inheritance. And she laid the blame on her father and eleven senior cousins for taking their personal funds. Allegedly, the act was “so heinous, obnoxious, and offensive as to constitute a fraud” that Matthews took them to court.
In a statement released around the time of proceedings, Matthews’ father claimed innocence. Robert said, “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.” But investigations into the family found the truth was quite the contrary.
Following the death of his brother, Robert came up with an idea. And Vanity Fair shared the details 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 ten-year plan to break up the family’s business empire and split the assets among themselves,” it wrote.
Vanity Fair continued, “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.” But the money was irrelevant to Matthews, as she told Forbes during proceedings. She just sought the truth.
Yes, Matthews said, “This is not about cash. 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.”
Eventually the family came to an out-of-court arrangement, and Matthews and her brother each got a $500 million settlement. But after the chaos that surrounded her court case, the actress just wanted some time away from the limelight. With that in mind, she took inspiration from Sara and headed to India.
Matthews – now known as Liesel Pritzker Simmons – found freedom in anonymity. She told Forbes, “When you go some place where you’re completely foreign to anybody, you’re just there. You’re seen for who you are and not for all of the Googling behind you, so to speak.” Simmons, in turn, was touched by the poverty in India and wanted to help.
Initially, Simmons volunteered at a nursery school to help the children. Furthermore, she tried her hand as a yoga instructor for recovering drug addicts. And she’s since followed the family tradition of wide-scale philanthropy, dedicating $100 million for charitable causes. She feels it’s her responsibility to see her money goes where it can do the most good.
In a 2012 interview with Yale University, Simmons referred to her segue into philanthropy as “a moral imperative.” She continued, “I feel that I was so lucky to be born in this position where I have food to eat, I have clean water to drink, I have a community of people that support me. Why not use that amazing base to make more people in that position?”
As a result, Simmons is now the backer of several different charities, and the founder of more. For example, in 2008 she co-founded the IDP Foundation Inc. with her mother, who lent her initials to the nonprofit charity. It’s dedicated to providing education and has a Rising Schools Program to improve teaching in Ghana.
Additionally, Simmons found a like-minded husband who shares her charitable dreams. They’ve settled down with kids and even have a business together called Blue Haven Initiative (BHI). And it’s made working with other wealthy people its focus. It directs them into supporting environmental and social changes worth investing in, as Simmons explained to Forbes.
“One investment we made last year that I love,” Simmons said, “is a company in Ghana called Waste Enterprisers. What they do is they take fecal sludge… and they dry it very very quickly in a way that it retains as much caloric value as coal. So you can burn this fuel exactly as you would coal.”
And Simmons is adamant that she’s going to make the most of her fortune to make the world a better place. “I didn’t earn this money,” she informed Forbes, “and I’ll be damned if I’m going to screw it up.” So you see, the little princess has grown to be a queen, and she never forgot how to be kind.