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The Triumph of the American Imagination

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The definitive portrait of one of the most important cultural figures in American history.

Walt Disney was a true visionary whose desire for escape, iron determination and obsessive perfectionism transformed animation from a novelty to an art form, first with Mickey Mouse and then with his feature films–most notably Snow White, Fantasia, and Bambi. In his superb biography, Neal Gabler shows us how, over the course of two decades, Disney revolutionized the entertainment industry. In a way that was unprecedented and later widely imitated, he built a synergistic empire that combined film, television, theme parks, music, book publishing, and merchandise. Walt Disney is a revelation of both the work and the man–of both the remarkable accomplishment and the hidden life.


Chapter One


Elias Disney was a hard man. He worked hard, lived modestly, and worshiped devoutly. His son would say that he believed in “walking a straight and narrow path,” and he did, neither smoking nor drinking nor cursing nor carousing. The only diversion he allowed himself as a young man was playing the fiddle, and even then his upbringing was so strict that as a boy he would have to sneak off into the woods to practice. He spoke deliberately, rationing his words, and generally kept his emotions in check, save for his anger, which could erupt violently. He looked hard too, his body thin and taut, his arms ropy, his blue eyes and copper-colored hair offset by his stern visage—long and gaunt, sunken-cheeked and grim-mouthed. It was a pioneer’s weathered face—a no-nonsense face, the face of American Gothic.

But it was also a face etched with years of disappointment—disappointment that would shade and shape the life of his famous son, just as the Disney tenacity, drive, and pride would. The Disneys claimed to trace their lineage to the d’Isignys of Normandy, who had arrived in England with William the Conqueror and fought at the Battle of Hastings. During the English Restoration in the late seventeenth century, a branch of the family, Protestants, moved to Ireland, settling in County Kilkenny, where, Elias Disney would later boast, a Disney was “classed among the intellectual and well-to-do of his time and age.” But the Disneys were also ambitious and opportunistic, always searching for a better life. In July 1834, a full decade before the potato famine that would trigger mass migrations, Arundel Elias Disney, Elias Disney’s grandfather, sold his holdings, took his wife and two young children to Liverpool, and set out for America aboard the New Jersey with his older brother Robert and Robert’s wife and their two children.

They had intended to settle in America, but Arundel Elias did not stay there long. The next year he moved to the township of Goderich in the wilderness of southwestern Ontario, Canada, just off Lake Huron, and bought 149 acres along the Maitland River. In time Arundel Elias built the area’s first grist mill and a sawmill, farmed his land, and fathered sixteen children—eight boys and eight girls. In 1858 the eldest of them, twenty-five-year-old Kepple, who had come on the boat with his parents, married another Irish immigrant named Mary Richardson and moved just north of Goderich to Bluevale in Morris Township, where he bought 100 acres of land and built a small pine cabin. There his first son, Elias, was born on February 6, 1859.

Though he cleared the stony land and planted orchards, Kepple Disney was a Disney, with airs and dreams, and not the kind of man inclined to stay on a farm forever. He was tall, nearly six feet, and in his nephew’s words “as handsome a man as you would ever meet.” For a religious man he was also vain, sporting long black whiskers, the ends of which he liked to twirl, and jet-black oiled hair, always well coifed. And he was restless—a trait he would bequeath to his most famous descendant as he bequeathed his sense of self-importance. When oil was struck nearby in what came to be known as Oil Springs, Kepple rented out his farm, deposited his family with his wife’s sister, and joined a drilling crew. He was gone for two years, during which time the company struck no oil. He returned to Bluevale and his farm, only to be off again, this time to drill salt wells. He returned a year later, again without his fortune, built himself a new frame house on his land, and reluctantly resumed farming.

But that did not last either. Hearing of a gold strike in California, he set out in 1877 with eighteen-year-old Elias and his second-eldest son, Robert. They got only as far as Kansas when Kepple changed plans and purchased just over three hundred acres from the Union Pacific Railroad, which was trying to entice people to settle at division points along the train route it was laying through the state. (Since the Disneys were not American citizens, they could not acquire land under the Homestead Act.) The area in which the family settled, Ellis County in the northwestern quadrant of Kansas about halfway across the state, was frontier and rough. Indian massacres were fresh in memory, and the Disneys themselves waited out one Indian scare by stationing themselves all night at their windows with guns. Crime was rampant too. One visitor called the county seat, Hays, the “Sodom of the Plains.”

The climate turned out to be as inhospitable as the inhabitants—dry and bitter cold. At times it was so difficult to farm that the men would join the railroad crews while their wives scavenged for buffalo bones to sell to fertilizer manufacturers. Most of those who stayed on the land turned to livestock since the fields rippled with yellow buffalo grass on which sheep and cows could graze. Farming there either broke men or hardened them, as Elias would be hardened, but being as opportunistic as his Disney forebears, he had no more interest in farming than his father had. He wanted escape.

Father and son now set their sights on Florida. The winter of 1885–86 had been especially brutal in Ellis. Will Disney, Kepple’s youngest son, remembered the snow drifting into ten-to-twelve-foot banks, forcing the settlers from the wagon trains heading west to camp in the schoolhouse for six weeks until the weather broke. The snow was so deep that the train tracks were cleared only when six engines were hitched to a dead locomotive with a snowplow and made run after run at the drifts, inching forward and backing up, gradually nudging through. Kepple, tired of the cruel Kansas weather, decided to join a neighbor family on a reconnaissance trip to Lake County, in the middle of Florida, where the neighbors had relatives. Elias went with him.

For Elias, Florida held another inducement besides the promise of warm weather and new opportunities. The neighbor family they had accompanied, the Calls, had a sixteen-year-old daughter named Flora. The Calls, like the Disneys, were pioneers who nevertheless disdained the hardscrabble life. Their ancestors had arrived in America from England in 1636, settling first outside Boston and then moving to upstate New York. In 1825 Flora’s grandfather, Eber Call, reportedly to escape hostile Indians and bone-chilling cold, left with his wife and three children for Huron County in Ohio, where he cleared several acres and farmed. But Eber Call, like Kepple Disney, had higher aspirations. Two of his daughters became teachers, and his son, Charles, was graduated from Oberlin College in 1847 with high honors. After heading to California to find gold and then drifting through the West for several years, Charles wound up outside Des Moines, Iowa, where he met Henrietta Gross, a German immigrant. They married on September 9, 1855, and returned to his father’s house in Ohio. Charles became a teacher.

Exactly why at the age of fifty-six he decided to leave Ohio in January 1879, after roughly twenty years there and ten children, is a mystery, though a daughter later claimed it was because he was fearful that one of his eight girls might marry into a neighbor family with eight sons, none of whom were sober enough for the devout teacher. Why he chose to become a farmer is equally mysterious, and why he chose Ellis, Kansas, is more mysterious still. The rough-hewn frontier town was nothing like the tranquil Ohio village he had left, and it had little to offer save for cheap land. But Ellis proved no more hospitable to the Calls than it had to the Disneys. Within a year the family had begun to scatter. Flora, scarcely in her teens, was sent to normal school in Ellsworth to be trained as a teacher, and apparently roomed with Albertha Disney, Elias’s sister, though it is likely he had already taken notice of her since the families’ farms were only two miles from each other.

Within a few years the weather caught up to the Calls—probably the legendary storm of January 1886. In all likelihood it was the following autumn that they left for Florida by train with Elias and Kepple Disney as company. Kepple returned to Ellis shortly thereafter. Elias stayed on with the Calls. The area where they settled, in the middle of the state, was by one account “howling wilderness” at the time. Even so, after their Kansas experience the Calls found it “beautiful” and thought their new life there would be “promising.” It was known generally as Pine Island for its piney woods on the wet, high rolling land and for the rivers that isolated it, but it was dotted with new outposts. Elias settled in Acron, where there were only seven families; the Calls settled in adjoining Kismet. Charles cleared some acreage to raise oranges and took up teaching again in neighboring Norristown, while Flora became the teacher in Acron her first year and Paisley her second. Meanwhile Elias delivered mail from a horse-drawn buckboard and courted Flora.

Their marriage, at the Calls’ home in Kismet on New Year’s Day 1888, wedded the intrepid determination of the Disneys with the softer, more intellectual temper of the Calls—two strains of earthbound romanticism that would merge in their youngest son. The couple even looked the part, Elias’s flinty gauntness contrasting with Flora’s amiable roundness, as his age—he was nearly thirty at the time of the wedding—contrasted with the nineteen-year-old bride’s youth. Marriage, however, didn’t change his fortunes. He had bought an orange grove, but a freeze destroyed most of his crop, forcing him back into delivering the mail. In the meantime Charles Call had an accident while clearing some land of pines, never fully recovered, and died early in 1890. His death loosened the couple’s bond to Florida. “Elias was very much like his father; he couldn’t be contented very long in any one place,” Elias’s cousin, Peter Cantelon, observed. The Disney wanderlust and the need to escape would send Elias back north—this time to a nine-room house in Chicago.

He had been preceded to Chicago by someone who seemed just as blessed as Elias was cursed. Robert Disney, Elias’s younger brother by two-and-a-half years, was viewed by the family as the successful one. He was big and handsome—tall, broad, and fleshy where Elias was short, slim, and wiry, and he had an expansive, voluble, glad-handing manner to match his appearance. The “real dandy of the family,” his nephew would say. But if Robert Disney looked the very picture of a man of means, the image obscured the fact that he was actually a schemer with talents for convincing and cajoling that Elias could never hope to match. Six months after Elias married Flora, Robert had married a wealthy Boston girl named Margaret Rogers and embarked on his career of speculation in real estate, oil, and even gold mines—anything he could squeeze for a profit. He had come to Chicago in 1889 in anticipation of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which would celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, and had built a hotel there. Elias had also come for the promise of employment from the fair, but his dreams were humbler. Living in his brother’s shadow, he was hoping for work not as a magnate but as a carpenter, a skill he had apparently acquired while laboring on the railroad in his knockabout days.

The Disneys arrived in Chicago late in the spring of 1890, a few months after Charles Call’s death, with their infant son, Herbert, and with Flora pregnant again. Elias rented a one-story frame cottage at 3515 South Vernon on the city’s south side, an old mid-nineteenth-century farmhouse now isolated amid much more expensive residences; its chief recommendation was that it was only twenty blocks from the site of the exposition. Construction on the fair began early the next year, after Flora had given birth that December to a second son, Ray. The family enjoyed few extravagances. Elias earned only a dollar a day as a carpenter. But he was industrious and frugal, and by the fall he had saved enough to purchase a plot of land for $700 through his brother’s real estate connections. By the next year he had applied for a building permit at 1249 Tripp Avenue* to construct a two-story wooden cottage for his family, which the following June would add another son, Roy O. Disney.

Though it was set within the city, the area to which they moved the spring of 1893, in the northwestern section, was primitive. It had only two paved roads and had just begun to be platted for construction, which made it a propitious place for a carpenter. Elias contracted to help build homes, and one of his sons recalled that Flora too would go out to the sites and “hammer and saw planks with the men.” Still, by his wife’s estimate Elias averaged only seven dollars a week. But he was a Disney, and he had not surrendered his dreams. Using Robert’s contacts and leveraging his own house through mortgages, he began buying plots in the subdivision, designing residences with Flora’s help and then building them—small cottages for workingmen like himself. By the end of the decade he and a contracting associate had built at least two additional homes on the same street on which he lived—one of which he sold for $2,500 and the other of which he and his partner rented out for income. In effect, under Robert’s tutelage, Elias had become a real estate maven, albeit an extremely modest one.

But by this time, already in his forties, he had begun to place his hope less in success, which seemed hard-won and capricious, than in faith. Both the Disneys and the Calls had been deeply religious, and Elias and Flora’s social life in Chicago now orbited the nearby Congregational church, of which they were among the most devoted members. When the congregation decided to reorganize and then voted to erect a new building just two blocks from the Disneys’ home, Elias was named a trustee as well as a member of the building committee. By the time the new church, St. Paul’s, was dedicated in October 1900, the family was attending services not only on Sundays but during the week. Occasionally, when the minister was absent, Elias would even take the pulpit. “[H]e was a pretty good preacher,” Flora would remember. “[H]e did a lot of that at home, you know.”

From the Hardcover edition.
Neal Gabler|Author Q&A

About Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler - Walt Disney

Photo © Laurel Gabler

Neal Gabler is the author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history. His biography Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity was named best nonfiction book of the year by Time. He appears regularly on the media review program Fox News Watch, and writes often for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He is currently a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society in the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California. He lives with his wife in Amagansett, New York.


Neal Gabler is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).

Author Q&A

Q: Why Walt Disney?
A: When you write about someone as grandiose as Walt Disney, you may tend to get a little grandiose yourself, so forgive me. But I had always set the task for myself to examine the forces that helped define American culture in the twentieth century and those individuals who might be regarded as the architects of the American consciousness. Walt Disney was certainly one of those forces and one of those architects. His visual sensibility is arguably one of the two most important in the last century, along with Picasso's, yet Picasso has received dozens of biographies and Walt Disney had, when I began, not received a single full-scale, fully-annotated biography. I wanted to fill that gap in our cultural studies. I thought that if one could understand Walt Disney, one could go a long way to understanding American popular culture.

Q: How were you able to secure full access to the Disney Archives?
A: I knew what I was getting myself into. As I say in my book, the Disney Company is regarded by many scholars as as impregnable as the old Soviet Kremlin. The company also has a deep, vested interest in preserving and protecting the image of Walt Disney. At the same time, I have described myself as the Robert De Niro of biographers: I wasn't going to let anything deter me and there wasn't anything I wasn't willing to do for my book. I applied for access to the Archives. It took months for me to hear back, only to learn that I had written to the wrong branch of the company. I resubmitted and waited another eternity—well over a year—before I heard that I was going to be granted access. I don't know exactly why except that I was told the company felt sufficient time had passed since Walt's death and that there was a need for a serious biography, possibly because the breach had been and would continue to be filled by non-serious ones. I also learned indirectly that Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew, had facilitated the project. And nothing would have advanced without the intercession of Howard Green, the senior vice president for publicity at Disney, and a Disney scholar in his own right. Howard opened the Archives to me and introduced me to Disney colleagues and friends. His only request was that I write a “serious” book. I have certainly tried to do so. I should also add that the Disney Company made no demand to approve the manuscript, and they did not. All the conclusions and interpretations are my own—uncensored.

Q: How did you even begin to tackle the research involved in this project and how long did it take you?
A: Only a fellow biographer can appreciate the perseverance it takes to write a book of this scale. I always advise putative biographers that writing something like is is akin to emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. If you look at the ocean, you'll be too daunted to continue. So you have to stare at the spoon. Years pass—in this case seven years—and you look up to find the ocean is now behind you. Disney, both fortunately and unfortunately, was something of a pack rat. He left hundreds of thousands of pieces of detritus, and I determined to read all of them, which is why it took so long. I also read everything extant on Disney, conducted interviews, and pored through documents from other sources—everything from his grandfather's last will and testament to his baptism certificate to his FBI records. This is, needless to say, not work for the fainthearted. I spent thousands of hours at the Disney Archives in Burbank—from 8:00 AM to 5:30 PM, usually without a lunch break—and I do everything myself, without researchers. I even transcribe the interviews myself. So you could say that the book is handcrafted.

Q: What did you discover that most surprised you about Walt Disney?
A: There is not a single revelation here as there was in my biography of Walter Winchell, where I discovered that Winchell had never married his second “wife.” What I did discover about Walt Disney personally was that he was fanatical—far more obsessive than I could have possibly imagined. Everything flowed from Walt. He was not one to delegate. He even counted the light bulbs at the studio. He was so absorbed by the studio that he had very little social life or even personal life. As one of his animators put it, Walt's “orgasms” were all at the studio. I was also surprised by how much Walt struggled financially. Until Cinderella, the animations, with the exceptions of Snow White and Dumbo, were financial disasters. He lost millions. It wasn't until Disneyland that the studio finally pulled itself out of the economic slough. That is certainly not how most of us perceive Walt Disney. In fact, he was a terrible businessman, and he had no regard for money.

Q: You talk a lot about escape as a guiding force in Walt Disney's life and art. What did Walt feel he was escaping from?
A: Whether it was true or not, Walt Disney always felt that he had lived a childhood of great deprivation, both financially and emotionally. His father, Elias Disney, was a hard man—almost anhedonic in his approach to life. Eventually he managed to chase off all his sons, including Walt. Elias forced young Walt to deliver newspapers—Elias owned the route—and Walt would suffer nightmares forty years later over wading into snowdrifts as tall as he or falling asleep in the foyer of an apartment building or losing subscription money. As he told it, the route didn't even leave time for play—though it did leave time for drawing, which is how Walt sought his release. One might make the claim that Walt spent his entire life compensating for his lost childhood by creating a perfect world.

Q: Walt's early years on the family farm in Marceline, Missouri had a huge influence not only on the animals that would come to populate his films but on his eventual vision for Disneyland. What were the biggest influences in his early life that were/are reflected in his vision for the parks?
A: When I talk about Walt compensating for his childhood, he did have a model: the Marceline farm where he spent his years from 1906 through 1911. Marceline was a small, rural community that its own townspeople idealized, though Walt seemed to take the idealization even further. He loved the bucolic environment there, the lazy days fishing, the sense of community and neighborliness, the tolerance, the excitement (Walt saw his first film there and rode in a wagon with Buffalo Bill Cody). These left a lasting impression, and if one would say, as I did, that Walt spent his life compensating for his childhood, one might also say that he spent it trying to recover the security and serenity he had known in Marceline. Main Street, U.S.A, in Disneyland owes a debt to Marceline's Main Street. Its Tom Sawyer Island owes a debt to Walt's childhood adventures in Marceline. His fascination with trains owes a debt to the trains that ran near the family farm there. The sense of camaraderie at the studio is certainly a product of the camaraderie Walt felt in Marceline. And of course the emphasis on animals was something Walt himself attributed to Marceline.

Q: The relationship between Walt and his brother Roy is fascinating. Do you think Roy Disney gets enough credit for his role in keeping the studio going?
A: Motion picture studios are inherently divided between the creative side,usually located in Hollywood, and the financial side, usually located in New York. At Disney things were a bit different. Walt was the absolute authority on the creative side; for a long time he did not brook any aesthetic compromises. But he could only do so because his older brother Roy was in charge of the financial arm, not in New York, but in a wing of the studio directly across from Walt's own office. Roy tried manfully to rein his brother in ad convince him that there were financial limits. Walt refused to acknowledge them. At any other studio he would have been toppled for his extravagance. Of course he owned the studio—at least until he was forced to take it public in 1940—so he couldn't be fired, but he also had the advantage of having Roy guarding the treasury. As much as Roy hectored Walt, he couldn't bring himself to trim Walt's sails. If Walt wanted to do something—convert cartoons to color, make a feature animation, build a new studio, build a theme park—Roy saw his job as getting Walt the resources. I seriously doubt that any other studio—any other business—could have been run this way. Roy was an enormous adjunct to Walt. It is difficult to determine why. I could only conclude that Walt provided a certain excitement, a thrill that Roy could experience vicariously. Walt had that effect on a lot of people.

Q: Can you clear up Walt's involvement with Red-baiting an the anti-communist fervor that swept the country?
A: You might also want to add the accusations that Walt was anti-Semitic. Walt was largely apolitical. He voted for FDR in 1936 then for Willkie in 1940. But in 1941, he suffered one of the great traumas of his life, which I discuss in some detail in the book: his employees struck the studio as a way of getting Walt to accept their unionization. Walt had always perceived of the studio as a workers' paradise and himself as a benevolent leader. The strike shattered all that. Walt was determined not to let his employees have their union, and the strike dragged on for months, until the studio was finally pressured by its main lender, the Bank of America, to reach a settlement. Walt stewed throughout and afterward, and he could only conclude that the strike had been initiated by communists. In this, as I say in the book based on documents I found, he may not have been entirely wrong. From that time forth, Walt was a dyed-in-the-wool anti-communist. He joined the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an adamantly anti-communist group, and he testified as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. (During his testimony he carelessly labeled the League of Women Voters as a communist organization—a charge he was later forced to recant.) As for the anti-Semitism, Walt was certainly no overt anti-Semite. There were Jews at the studio in prominent positions, and there is little credible evidence that Walt harbored anti-Semitic sentiments. But the Motion Picture Alliance was widely regarded as anti-Semitic, and in joining forces with them and allowing himself to be named a vice president of the organization, Walt knowingly put himself in league with anti-Semites, even if he wasn't one himself.

Q: When did Walt first conceive of the idea for Disneyland and what were the initial reactions to the idea?
A: It is very difficult to determine exactly when Walt hatched the idea for Disneyland, though he seems to have been thinking about it for a long time, at least since the early 1930s. Certainly by the time he was taking his daughters, Diane and Sharon, to amusement parks on Sunday afternoons in the late 1940s, he had formulated the idea to establish a park that was clean and wholesome and where parents wouldn't be afraid to take their children. The original plan was to build the park on a plot adjacent to the studio in Burbank, where there would be a train, a town square, an Indian village and kiddieland rides, but as Walt's ideas expanded, so did the need for a bigger plot. As for the reactions to his idea, Roy was initially reluctant, as usual, and Walt's wife, Lillian, was firmly opposed, though she had also been opposed to his making Snow White. Still, Walt exaggerated the opposition as a way, I think of elevating his own foresight and determination. In fact, as the plan grew closer to realization, corporations sought to be included as lessees, and even banks, that had been skeptical, became more receptive. When the park opened, it was an instant success.

Q: Is there anyone today who reminds you of Walt?
A: Walt Disney was such a protean figure that he is a very difficult man to match. He not only reinvented animation, he reinvented the amusement park, pioneered color and sound in film, created the nature documentary, shaped attitudes toward American history, built constituencies for conservation, space exploration and nuclear energy, and finally became one of the chief advocates for city planning. People like Apple's Steve Jobs may have the vision, but no one has a similar portfolio to Walt Disney's. We are very unlikely to see anyone of his ilk since, as I said earlier, no business today would support the vision of a Walt Disney.

Q: If Walt Disney visited Disney World this weekend what do you think he would say?
A: Well, the first thing he would probably do is nitpick. Walt was a perfectionist who was NEVER satisfied. So he would point out all the imperfections. But I think Walt would have been impressed by the scale of the park and by some of its new attractions. Walt was always pushing the envelope. The one thing in which he would have been deeply, deeply disappointed would be EPCOT. Walt had conceived of EPCOT as a fully-functional city with as many as 100,000 inhabitants—a place where he could test the latest concepts in city planning and in technology. In fact, by the end of his life this had become his new obsession. He would have been shocked to see EPCOT as a kind of glorified world's fair, which is what it is now, rather than a city of the future.

Q: What do you think has been Walt's most lasting impact/legacy on American culture?
A: One could answer this question in a dozen different ways depending on one's priorities, but I think his largest bequest is a matter of the American mind. Walt Disney helped change the national consciousness. He got people to believe in the power of wish fulfillment—in their own ability to impose their wills on a recalcitrant reality. That's what Walt Disney did all his life. He managed to replace reality with his illusions—what some people now refer to disparagingly as Disneyfication. He sold us on the idea of control because Walt Disney was himself a master of control. We see the results everywhere—from film to theme parks to virtual reality to virtual politics.

Walt as Businessman

Q: Walt seems to have a love/hate relationship with his employees. One day they worshiped him and the next day they were plotting against him. What was it like to work for Walt Disney?
A: There was always a kind of yin and yang to working for Walt Disney. On the one hand, Walt had the ability to infuse his employees with passion, to make them believe that they were facilitators of a sacred mission, that they were pursuing excellence, even perfection. In the book I describe the Disney studio as a cult because for a very long time the employees not only admired Walt; they revered him as a kind of God. Making Walt happy was the object of everyone who worked for him. But on the other hand, the constant demand for perfection, the realization that one was serving Walt and subjugating oneself to his vision, Walt's moodiness, his lack of appreciation or recognition, and his monopoly on credit wore on his employees and ultimately turned many of them—which was one of the sources for the strike in 1941. It was a trial to work for Walt Disney, and you are correct when you say that employees often plotted against him as a form of revenge. He lost virtually all his animators in a mutiny in the late 1920s; his longest associate, an animator named Ub Iwerks who was the co-creator of Mickey Mouse, left him in anger; and then there was the strike that was largely the product of Walt's paternalism and myopia.

Q: One thing that strikes you when reading the book is that Walt Disney never had any money. With all his success how is that possible?
A: It is astonishing that Walt Disney was always—and I do mean always—in dire financial straits until the opening of Disneyland. The primary reason wasn't that his cartoons weren't making money because they were—at least until the war in Europe when the loss of that market meant disaster for the features. But even as they were making money, the studio was losing money because Walt was constitutionally incapable of cutting corners, enforcing economies, laying off staff. The only thing about which Walt Disney cared was quality. He thought that quality was the way to maintain his preeminence, though quality also had the psychological advantage of letting him perfect his world. The problem was that quality was expensive. To cite just one example, Walt spent more than a hundred thousand dollars setting up a training program for would-be animators, though even then the return was small because Walt was so picky that very few of the candidates actually qualified to work at the studio. Money meant very little to Walt Disney. It was only a means to an end, never an end in itself.

Q: How involved was Walt in shaping the merchandising arm of Disney that remains so unbelievably profitable today?
A: Walt was the one who initiated the merchandising of Mickey Mouse, not just as an additional source of revenue but as a way of promoting Mickey so that he could overtake his chief rival, Felix the Cat, who had an extensive line of merchandise. It was Walt as well who contacted a Kansas City-based promoter by the name of Kay Kamen in the early 1930s to sound out Kamen about running the studio's merchandising arm, and Kamen, using Walt's own philosophy that quality counts, wound up grossing $100 million a year for the Disneys by the time of his tragic death in 1949 in an airplane accident.

Q: What would Walt Disney think of the Disney company today?
A: I don't think that Walt would necessarily be surprised by the size of the company or its synergy. Walt was always thinking of ways of expanding his franchise. He might be a bit miffed by the lack in quality of some of the products—he would certainly be disappointed by the direct-to-video animations since he was insistent that the feature animations had a value that shouldn't be compromised—but Walt also had a way of detaching himself from the things the studio did of which he didn't approve—as if that was the studio's problem, not his. As for the computer generated animations that have replaced the old hand-drawn animations, I don't think Walt would have been averse—he was always searching for the next new thing—but I do think he would have recognized that CGI animations are much colder than hand-drawn animations and that they lack a certain animus that the old animations had.

Q: How was Walt able to surround himself with the best animators in the business? In other words, how did he retain talent?
A: He retained talent in part by paying well but mostly by playing on the animators' own desire to do great work. Walt had a way of motivating his animators by infusing them with a sense of mission. It wasn't cartoons they were making, he said; they were making art. Animators at other studios began decamping for Disney because they were tired of and frustrated by drawing cartoons that had no ambition. Say what you will about the Disney studio, it had great ambition. On the other hand, when Walt began making live-action films, he made a point of hiring directors who were not particularly tough-minded or ambitious. You weren't going to find John Ford working at Disney. I think this was a way for Walt to exert his own control without having to battle another artistic temperament.

Q: What can today's CEO's and aspiring small business entrepreneurs learn from Walt Disney?
A: If you used Walt Disney as a case study in a business course, he would probably be a prime example of all the things a CEO should not do. Walt had no patience for organization charts or economies or efficiencies or the delegation of authority. He was always in financial hot water. But he did have one overriding characteristic that ultimately resulted in tremendous success and rapid growth for his company: Walt never lost sight of his vision. Walt Disney trusted himself. He reinvested the company's revenue and his own in the studio. He didn't listen to naysayers, including his own wife, who told him that his plans wouldn't work because Walt's idea was that the studio wasn't worth running if he couldn't realize his plans. In short, Walt Disney made an awful lot of money in the final analysis by never prioritizing the making of money and by insisting on his own vision.

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards


“Mesmerizing. . . . There’s nothing Mickey Mouse about this terrific biography. . . . The definitive portrait of Walt Disney, the Dream-King.” —Washington Post Book World“Gabler’s restless eye invigorates each page. . . . Part of the author’s formidable achievement is to take the intricacies of Disney’s devoted artistry and intertwine them with [his] life.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review “Far outshines any previous Disney bio, both in scope and in specificity. The domestic details are revelatory. . . . Walt Disney is looking at us–seemingly for the first time.” —Entertainment Weekly “Illuminating. . . . Engrossing. . . . Gabler paints a vivid portrait.”—The New York Times Book Review


WINNER 2006 L.A. Times book Prize (Biography)

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