WALT DISNEY’S ashes are buried in a Forest Lawn mausoleum, in a private garden. Standing nearby, in a patch of flowers, is a small white statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. The setting might strike some as a coincidence, since Disney’s studio turned Andersen’s tale into a box office hit. Others might find it incongruous, noting that the original story was dark and troubling, while the Disney remake was upbeat and lighthearted.
But for biographer Neal Gabler, who wrote the just-published “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” (Alfred A. Knopf), the setting was a symbolic echo of his book’s central theme: For much of his life, Disney sought to escape the dull, suffocating limits of daily routine, trying to replace them with a more entertaining creative reality that he alone could control. Just like Ariel, the Little Mermaid who rose happily ever after from the murky sea into a brighter realm, Disney built an elaborate fantasy world that transformed the face of American pop culture.
“The ultimate message of Walt’s life is that he believed he could reinvent everything, on the screen, in amusement parks, in all aspects of his creative life,” Gabler said during a recent interview at his publisher’s office. “Everything he did was designed to perfect this new world. And the secret of his success is that his visions coincided with America’s yearning for the same kind of escape and wish fulfillment.”
Gabler offers fascinating insights in his 858-page book: Until he completed Disneyland in 1955, the mogul spent much of his career fighting off creditors and bankers. They told him that animated films were unprofitable. Later in his life, blessed with one triumph after another, Disney failed in his ultimate quest: He dreamed of building an idyllic, problem-free city, modeled after his films, to be filled with real people. Although Disney has some obvious heirs, such as Steven Spielberg, it is “highly unlikely” that another free-spending chief like him could come along today, Gabler said.
“Can you imagine a modern corporation allowing an individual to make ‘Pinocchio,’ which bombed, ‘Fantasia,’ which bombed bigger, and ‘Bambi,’ which also bombed? And then giving that person the OK to build an amusement park?”
While some believe Disney’s obsession with small-town America was phony and calculated, few dispute his continuing influence. But his inner nature and the forces driving him remain elusive, if not mysterious. Was he a smiling, genial man, the reassuring “Uncle Walt” made famous by television appearances to millions of viewers? Or was he a closet anti-Semite and redbaiter? Did Disney’s films convey an innocent, gee-whiz view of American life, or were they part of a calculated plan to spread a political doctrine of patriotism and obedience? Outwardly polite and gracious, Disney suffered a mental breakdown in 1931 and was a reclusive, remote figure for much of his life. Even his death in 1966 was controversial; for years it was rumored his body had been frozen.
Enter Gabler. A historian who previously wrote about Jewish filmmakers in Hollywood, the life of Walter Winchell and the collision between entertainment and reality, he wanted to write a definitive biography of Disney. When his campaign to gain full, unprecedented access to Disney’s records succeeded, Gabler said family members’ sole condition was that he write a “serious” book. But that only underscored the dilemma that he and other biographers confront.
The author, a trim, gray-haired man who lives in Amagansett, N.Y., and teaches at USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center, said: “I tell students there are six words that summarize what you need to do in writing a biography: ‘What’s the story?’ and ‘What’s the point?’ ” A biographer, he said, must find a narrative arc within the massive details of one person’s life. “When you have this narrative, you’ve created a fiction,” he noted. “Because no one’s life resolves into neat, narrative episodes. A good biographer fictionalizes a life, but not the facts.”
As he saw it, the theme of Disney’s life was a perpetual quest to escape and to control. Gabler spent two years sifting through thousands of documents in the Disney studio archives before he began writing. From there, his ideas took shape.
A bittersweet childhood
A bright, puckish boy, Walt was stifled by his father, Elias, a dour, penny-pinching man who took much of the joy out of his son’s childhood. The family was forever battling money woes, and Disney spent hours as a kid delivering newspapers in the Kansas and Missouri towns where they lived. His unhappiness grew, Gabler said, because the little money he earned was taken to pay bills. There was also an idyllic side to Walt’s childhood: He treasured the years spent in Marceline, Mo., a quiet community where life mirrored a Norman Rockwell painting.
“If there are Rosebud moments,” Gabler said, referring to the self-discovery in the life of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” “it’s those grim days Walt spent lugging a sled with newspapers in the snow. It’s also the time he spent in Marceline, which became something of a lost paradise for him as he grew up.”
The author said he read everything in the Disney archives, including postcards that Walt wrote as a child, obscure deeds to family properties, letters from friends and the voluminous records of the company that he founded. For a man who would eventually make millions off a mouse, he said, Disney was a lifelong packrat. Gabler used a chronological approach in his research, hoping to write a “method biography” that would allow him to experience Disney’s life minute by minute. The world knows that Disney hit on the idea for Mickey Mouse as he rode a train home from New York in 1928, after a crushing business failure. But Disney had no way of knowing where that would lead at the time. As he tracked these pivotal events, Gabler said, “my palms were sweating along with him on that long train ride home. I was right there with him.”
Much has been written about the “Davy Crockett” television shows, which kicked off a national craze in 1954 and ultimately sold more than $300 million in merchandise. But Disney had little to do with this phenomenon, Gabler found. He was a “serial obsessive” and at the time was focused almost entirely on raising funds to open the first Disneyland. Although the ABC show created a cultural sensation, Disney mainly viewed it as a way to finance his theme park, in which the network had been a huge investor. Most of the work on “Davy Crockett” was done by others, who shrewdly channeled the owner’s vision and followed a policy of “What Would Walt Do?” when making creative decisions on their own, Gabler said.
Indeed, Disney’s employees showed a legendary loyalty to their boss. But records suggest the studio was more like a cult than a corporation. “There was an obsessiveness in how Walt dealt with everything, a cruelty in how he dealt with people who did not serve his ends,” Gabler said. “Walt wanted only to perfect the world he was building. If you didn’t serve that end, he had no interest in you. If you served it at one time and no longer served it, he had no interest in you.”
Disney was not anti-Semitic, the author concluded, even though he associated with members of the Motion Picture Alliance, a group whose leaders were known anti-Semites. “Had he so chosen, he could have distanced himself from them. He did not do so until the 1950s. It took him an awfully long time to see the light.” But Disney was guilty of redbaiting during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1940s and 1950s. The roots were understandable, because Disney had good reason to believe that communists, among others, were behind a crippling 1941 strike that shut down his studio. “I think he was right ... it was communist-inspired,” Gabler said.
Toward the end of Disney’s life, when America was wracked with tensions over the Vietnam War and civil rights, some critics attacked him for being out of touch. His feel-good movies, his homespun parks filled with yearnings for simpler times seemed jarringly inappropriate.
“All of this offended Walt,” Gabler said. “He went to his grave thinking: ‘I have done everything I could to build my own world, and I don’t see why I must conform to your idea of what art should be.’ ” As for the attacks on Disneyland, “Walt thought they were absurd. Was he supposed to build parks where real people shoot each other in the streets? ‘A theme park is not a real-life experience,’ he’d say. ‘It’s supposed to be a fabulous experience.’ ”