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Diane Disney Miller dies at 79; philanthropist championed Disney Hall

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Walt Disney's name is on Los Angeles' world-famous concert hall, but it was a far less-known Disney who came from behind the scenes to ensure that architect Frank Gehry's vision for the building stayed intact.

Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney's eldest daughter, had previously shunned the limelight along with other women in the family. "We were just three women, my mother, my sister and me," she said in a 2003 Los Angeles Times interview. "Housewives, if you will."

That's pretty much how the public knew her until 1997, when some of the city's most powerful figures came close to forcing out Gehry during a crucial planning phase of the hall. Miller used two powerful weapons — her name and her money — to keep Gehry on the job, and she didn't let up until she knew his position was safe.

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Her husband, former studio President Ron Miller, could have told the dignitaries not to mess with her. Apprised of the "housewives" description, he countered, with a laugh: "If you like your housewives tougher than hell."

Diane Disney Miller, the only surviving child of Walt and Lillian Disney, died Tuesday at her home in the Napa Valley from complications of a fall there in September, according to family friend Richard Greene, who was the coauthor of a biography of her father. She was 79.

Miller grew up in Los Angeles, but in the mid-1980s, she and her husband moved north, living on the Napa estate where they operated Silverado Vineyards and in an apartment in San Francisco. She was involved in Bay Area arts organizations and was on the board of the San Francisco Symphony.

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But it's likely she will be most remembered in the arts world for her role in building the Walt Disney Concert Hall in her native city. In September, not long before her fall, she chaired a gala commemorating the building's 10th anniversary.

Like many achievements in her life, she tied her work on the hall to her feelings for her father.

"I wanted something that would bear my father's name, that would come from his wealth but not be commercial," she said. "That would be just a wonderful thing for the city, for the spirit, for the soul.

"I think we achieved that."

Diane Marie Disney was born Dec. 18, 1933, in Los Angeles. The next day, The Times declared: "Mickey Mouse has a daughter."

It was at a time when the animated mouse was by far Walt Disney's most famous creation and the Disney studio was in Silver Lake. She grew up in the Los Feliz area and later, as her family's fortunes grew, in Holmby Hills.

Miller described her father, who died in 1966, as a workaholic, but on Sundays he would take her and her younger sister, Sharon, with him to the studio, where they would play. "We learned to ride bikes on that lot, learned to drive our cars in the parking lot," she said in a first-person account on a Disney company website.

He also took his daughters to Griffith Park, where they would ride the merry-go-round while he sat on a bench and watched. Walt Disney later said the experience gave him the idea of creating a park where families could enjoy attractions together.

Miller went to USC, where she planned to major in English. "I thought I might have liked to be a foreign correspondent," she said. But she met Ron Miller, a USC football star, and left school. They married in 1954 and eventually had seven children. In 1955, Disneyland opened, making her family name even more famous as the years went by.

"My dad loved his celebrity — well, he'd earned it," Miller said in 1997. "I don't like living in the wake of his celebrity. It's hard on my children, people are always calling them up for Disneyland tickets."

Ron Miller had various jobs at the Disney company and Diane worked to support several institutions, such as the Music Center. By 1980, Ron Miller had risen to president of Walt Disney Productions, and in 1983, he became chief executive. A year later, however, he was forced out in a bitter corporate coup. When Miller suggested that they get out of Los Angeles, they moved to the vineyard property they already owned and acquired the San Francisco apartment.

Lillian Disney gave $50 million in 1987 to build a new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But delays set in and costs soared. Philanthropist Eli Broad and then-Mayor Richard Riordan helped lead a drive to raise the funding. However, they wanted to pull the critical task of producing working drawings for the building from Gehry, saying that the architect's firm was too inexperienced.

In 1997, Miller came into the picture, backing the architect. Gehry said she talked about her father's early career, when his pictures were not always in his control. "When she was a kid, she remembers her father coming home," he told an interviewer, "and hearing stories about how they compromised his work."

"She's 'St. Diane,' I think," Gehry told The Times in 2003. "She's the cornerstone in seeing this project happen."

Miller decreed that a portion of her mother's gift not yet spent be used to hire Gehry's firm for the drawings. She also co-chaired, with Broad, a project oversight board. "I just felt it was important to hang in there for my mother's interest. That's the only time we asserted any ownership rights, with that last bit of the gift."

Broad later conceded that it was right to keep Gehry on the job. "Whatever doubts I had at the time," Broad said in 2003, "I shouldn't have had."

Lillian Disney died in December 1997. Two years later, construction of the hall finally began. In all, Disney family members provided about $115 million in funding.

Miller attended opening festivities in 2003. At the 10th anniversary gala she chaired in September, the orchestra ended the concert with "When You Wish Upon a Star" as a tribute to her family.

In between the two events, a decade apart, she became more public, sometimes expressing strong opinions about the Disney company. And she roundly denounced accounts of her father's life that she felt were inaccurate and unfair, including the recent opera "The Perfect American" staged in London and Madrid with a fictionalized Walt Disney as the central character.

In 2009, she co-founded the nonprofit Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco that is primarily devoted to telling her father's story, and earlier this year she drew a direct line between her work on the concert hall and the more recent project.

"It turned out so well," she said of Disney Hall. "And it gave me the courage to do the museum."

In addition to her husband, Miller is survived by sons Christopher, Walter, Ronald and Patrick; daughters Joanna and Tamara Miller and Jennifer Miller-Goff; 13 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. Her sister, Sharon Disney Lund, died in 1993.

david.colker@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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