With its allegations that Walt Disney was an informant for the FBI, Mark Eliot’s new biography, “Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince,” has provoked unprecedented controversy.
This week, Walt’s widow, Lillian Disney, and his surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller, broke the family’s long-standing policy of responding to unfavorable publicity with silence and issued a lengthy statement disputing many of the book’s contentions.
Their response was accompanied by supplementary documents, including affidavits from former studio employees, FBI agents and former-FBI chief William Webster.
The book was published earlier this month, but many of its sensational claims have appeared in excerpts or stories about the book in the New York Times, Los Angeles magazine and supermarket tabloids.
In a rare interview in Los Angeles earlier this week, Miller explained that she became aware of the book when her daughter-in-law called her attention to an excerpt that appeared in Los Angeles magazine:
“I got very angry. The article went beyond the ordinary stuff: It attacked my mother and father as people, it attacked their marriage. It was just something we couldn’t let stand. When the media took this FBI link and ran with it and gave it credibility without questioning it, it became just too much. He was too good a man. When something’s good, why do you want to tear it down? You should cherish it.
“I would never attempt to deify him, and when people say that the family has tried to present a false picture of the man, it simply isn’t true,” she continues.
Much of the material in “Dark Prince” concerning Disney’s political conservatism and his handling of the animators’ strike at his studio in 1941 has appeared before in other books, notably Richard Schickel’s “The Disney Version” and Leonard Mosley’s “Disney’s World.”
However, the sections of “Dark Prince” that have generated the most controversy assert that Disney served as an informant for the FBI. “Among his many less-celebrated accomplishments, in 1940, at the age of 39, Walt Disney became a domestic spy for the United States government,” Eliot’s book states.
To support his contentions, Eliot cites documents obtained from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), including part of a letter J. Edgar Hoover sent to Disney in July, 1936, as “one of many attempts the Bureau had made as part of an ongoing campaign to recruit him.”
The last paragraph of the letter (the rest remains classified by the FBI) reads as follows: " . . . I am indeed pleased that we can be of service to you in affording you a means of absolute identity throughout your lifetime. " (Italics added.)
To counter Eliot’s interpretation, the Disney family released the entire letter, in which Hoover notes that Disney had his fingerprints taken at a Masonic youth conference in Kansas City and that the prints “are now on file in the Civil Identification Unit of this Bureau.” (Although he states he did not have access to an uncensored version of the letter while working on the book, Eliot describes the two-paragraph document as “open to interpretation.”)
The key document in Eliot’s case is an FBI inter-office memo from Dec. 16, 1954, that states, “Because of Mr. Disney’s position as the foremost producer of cartoon films in the motion picture industry and his prominence and wide acquaintanceship in film production matters, it is believed that he can be of valuable assistance to this office and therefore it is my recommendation that he be approved as a Special Agent in Charge (SAC) contact.”
Considerable debate has focused on the significance of the “SAC contact” designation, a term the FBI no longer employs. A memo from Hoover dated Oct. 7, 1954, about SAC contacts defines the title as “persons who, because of their positions, can and do render extraordinary service, or provide unusual and highly valuable assistance to the FBI upon request of the SAC.”
In the book, Eliot asserts, " . . . it meant that in addition to continuing to supply his data to the Bureau, other informants could now supply reports to him. It was Hoover’s Christmas present to Walt . . . “
Eliot said in a telephone interview from his home in Upstate New York that when he first got the file “I called the FBI. It was finally told to me by the assistant to the head of the FOIA division, that basically a SAC was a paid informant or a domestic spy; and a SAC contact did essentially the same type of work, reporting to the SAC without pay. In those documents, there is enough for me to come to the conclusion that Walt Disney was a SAC contact who did informing from 1940 on and had contact personally with J. Edgar Hoover from 1936 on, possibly earlier.”
Webster countered in a phone interview that “back in the ‘50s, there was a general policy that every Special Agent in a town should know the key people who might be helpful to the Bureau--not as informants or snitches, but as leaders in the community.
“There was an interest developing such a relationship with Mr. Disney, who stood for many of the things the Bureau stood for and was very highly respected,” Webster said. “The local SAC did write in and request to designate him as a contact--which is nothing more than what I’ve just described.
“We have nothing in the files that indicate that Mr. Disney was ever told of that designation--it’s just an in-house way of making sure SAC establishes himself in the community. It is certainly not the kind of informant relationship where the Bureau manages a person and directs him to collect information or pays for doing so; he’s under no Bureau control.”
Emmett McGaughey, who served as a special agent from 1942 to 1949, has submitted an affidavit in the Disney response stating, “During the period of time I served as Special Agent in the Los Angeles office, Walt Disney was not an informant for the FBI. To the best of my knowledge, he was never an informant.”
William G. Simon, who served as Special Agent in Charge of the Los Angeles Field Division of the FBI from 1960 until his retirement in 1964, has sworn a similar declaration.
Curiously, these discussions of Disney’s relationship with the FBI omit the Bureau’s investigations of him and his employees at the outbreak of World War II, when the U.S. Army commandeered a large part of the studio facilities to billet soldiers and store ammunition. Thousands of military training films were produced there during the war, some of them involving such top-secret devices as the Norden bombsight. Everyone was subjected to background checks and required to wear an identification badge.
Eliot argues that Disney’s uncertainty about his parentage lead him to agree to trade information about people in Hollywood for an FBI investigation into his ancestry, claiming that Walt Disney was actually the illegitimate son of his father, Elias Disney, and Isabelle Zamora, a woman from Mojacar, Spain. The pair supposedly met when Zamora and Elias were both visiting California in 1890. He also asserts that FBI agents and studio representatives visited Mojacar looking for evidence of Walt’s birth there.
The Disney family denies that Elias Disney went to California in 1890 and that Walt ever questioned his legitimacy. Former Walt Disney Productions chief counsel Richard T. Morrow has submitted a deposition that “no representative of Walt Disney Productions made such a trip to Mojacar.”
“If FBI agents had gone, there would be records of such a trip,” says Webster. “The documents Eliot had contains nothing, not a scintilla of evidence, that any trip took place.”
“He bases everything (his theory about an FBI connection) on the illegitimate Spanish birth theory, that’s why it’s all so crazy,” says Miller, in defense of her father. “That’s why I can’t understand why it got such wide acceptance--in the New York Times. Evidently there’s a little town in Spain that’s supposed to be very pretty; a friend of ours showed us a brochure from there that says ‘and among other things, we are also the birthplace of Walt Disney, although he does not choose to acknowledge it.’ Apparently the story’s been out there for a long time . . . “
To bolster his claim, Eliot states that Elias Disney “hired a housekeeper who remained in the family employ for 35 years. It is believed that this was the same woman Walt Disney hired as his housekeeper, after Elias’ death. She was said to be of Spanish descent, from a remote village called Mojacar . . .”
Miller denies that her parents ever had a Spanish housekeeper: “To begin with, my grandparents didn’t have a housekeeper when they lived in Portland, and I can tell you who the housekeepers were in our home, and none of them were Spanish,” she says as she ticks off a list of servants on her fingers. “This story is absolutely pure invention.”
“Diane can say that, they can say anything that they want,” responds Eliot. “I’m only going on what I found and I found more than one person who told me that they did. I didn’t say to these people was there a person who Walt Disney thought was his mother, I asked if there was any domestic help and more than one person told me yes, there was a Spanish woman who worked in the house. One person even mentioned Mojacar independently.”
In addition to these controversies, the documents released by the Disney family cite dozens of errors in a pre-publication manuscript, some of which have been corrected in the final book. While conceding some of the errors as “minor and regrettable,” Eliot said. “They’ve had a copy of the book at every stage, from the original proposal to the end, and never once did they come forth and say, ‘This is wrong and that’s wrong’: They waited until the book was out to spring the public relations document.”
Miller, however, states that repeated requests by the family to read the manuscript before publication were denied.
With Eliot appearing on the talk show circuit, the controversy seems unlikely to abate. Eliot says that 60% of the documents he examined are censored, and of that 60%, 90% for reasons of national security. He dismisses the idea that the file contains any information that is still sensitive and has called for the release of all the documents.
In addition to circulating their evidence to the press, Webster says that the Disney family has also requested further documentation under the FOIA “just to nail it down and have them tell us there are no records of agents visiting Spain, but we haven’t heard back from the Bureau.”