It has taken me nearly a year, on and off, to finish Neal Gabler’s meticulously researched Walt Disney biography. Though I don’t typically read biographies, certain people fascinate me: Natalie Wood, David Bowie, and Walt Disney. Depending on the style of each biographer, the reading experience is surprisingly different. I can’t imagine recording my own life, let alone following the paper trails of someone else’s in order to piece a coherent story together. There are an obscene amount of balls to keep in the air, and one needs a talent for knowing when to use or discard details. Ultimately, deciding what is indeed relevant is a monumental task. Gabler’s text, which is over 600 pages, not including the bibliography and index, is a perfect example of achieving this balance. Most importantly, though, it’s one of the most well organized biographies I’ve read in many years. Not only is Gabler’s writing style easy to follow, he makes complicated relationships and people simple to understand within the greater context of Walt Disney’s life.

The astronomical size of Walt Disney, The Triumph of the American Imagination cannot be summarized or adequately reviewed in one little blog post. So, I’ve divided my thoughts into three separate posts, categorized as follows:

The Man

• The early years

• Impressions of Walt Disney as husband and father

• Allegations of racism and antisemitism

The Studio

• The history of Mickey Mouse

• The creation of Snow White

• Reaction to the animator strike and union

The Park

• The building of Disneyland

• The opening of Disneyland

• Disney World comes to Florida

There is plenty more to consider than these three, but I’ve chosen topics that I found especially interesting and revealing. It’s quite impossible to tackle or critique every facet of this book, its size and immense scope being so overwhelming, but this is my humble attempt.

The early years

Much has been written about Walt’s fascination with his one-time hometown Marceline, Missouri, and Gabler is no different. He calls it “Walt Disney’s Eden and his archetype for small-town America. He spent a lifetime trying to recover its sense of comfort and security” (139). However, what fascinated me most about Disney’s upbringing, was his complete disregard for the word no. When told that he was too young for the army, he found another way in; after altering the birth year on his forms, he managed to get into the Red Cross Ambulance Corps.

[Disney’s mother] was no more eager to send her youngest son to war than was her husband, but Walt begged her and she finally relented, signing for both herself and Elias and saying that if she did not, Walt would probably run off anyway. Flora evidently did not know that Walt, at sixteen, was still too young for the Ambulance Corps, so after his mother had the certificate notarized, he converted the last digit in 1901, his birth year, to a zero, and on September 16 he enlisted. (36-7)

And that blunt, ambitious determination translated into his career goals as well: he was dead set on being an actor or an artist. The latter, he decided, would be the easiest route to Hollywood, so that’s the path he eventually took. His confidence, I was shocked to learn, was unshakable. Everyone encounters moments of uncertainty, but not Walt. He was indestructible. Nothing could break him, not even starvation, poverty, or intense, hard work. He was a hustler, and he wasn’t afraid to go after what he wanted, even if he didn’t quite know what to do.

“Guts and goodness” also described the intrepid, innocent young Walt Disney who landed in Kansas City during the fall of 1919 determined to be successful. Almost all of his acquaintances then remarked on his resolve and absolute faith in himself, manifested not so much in brow-furrowed grit as in a sunny ebullience. From the attention he received at Benton and at McKinley High School and in France, he brimmed with a self-confidence that was neither entirely justified nor particularly well directed, since he had arrived without a plan. He was a go-getter who did not know where he was getting to, only that he would get somewhere. (44)

He quickly made business cards to attract potential clients.

Walt Disney business cardWalt Disney may not have been an exceptionally talented animator, but he was relentless. Early footage of his work shows progress, effort, and imagination. He banded together with other young artists on the scene, established Laugh-o-grams, and slowly made a name for himself, became part of (and driver of) a new artistic movement. It took years, several failures and incarnations, to create the Walt Disney Studio we know today.

Impressions of Walt Disney as husband and father

I should probably mention that Neal Gabler had full access to the Disney archives; the project had been officially blessed by the Disney family. This does not mean that Gabler hesitated to paint Walt with any unflattering colours. Actually, there are several moments when the iconic man seems more imposing and totalitarian than imaginative, but the flaws, as depicted by Gabler, are human and real. They are a reflection of the generation, the culture, and the social nearsightedness in which Walt grew up.

Walt and Lillian Disney

With this consideration in mind, by today’s standards, Walt would be categorized as an absentee father and husband. But, remember, being a wife in 1930-1960 meant something entirely different than it does now. Or, at least, the female dialogue has changed drastically, and so has our interpretation of traditional roles. More importantly, his children, despite his absence, adored him. I was quite charmed by a cute little factoid: Walt drove his two daughters (one biological, one adopted) to school every day, without fail, until they were old enough to so themselves. He read to them all the time, and famously redecorated the family house before their high school graduation in hopes of enticing them to stay at (or close to) home. Gabler is quick to note that his daughters don’t necessarily agree with his interpretation of some events and relationships, but he argues his points graciously and intelligently. Disney’s wife, Lillian, on the other hand, is a very curious woman, and in an interview about the book Gabler calls her “prickly.” She’s very difficult to read.

Impressions of racism and antisemitism

Before I dig into this topic, let’s take a look at this excerpt:

Another question – one that would haunt [Walt] for the rest of his life and even haunt his reputation decades after he died – was whether he was also an anti-Semite. As with race, one could certainly point to some casual insensitivity…. Another factor that may have contributed to the idea that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic was that he lived in a nimbus of rich, white, conservative Protestantism that had tinges of anti-Semitism… The most plausible explanation, however, is another case of guilt by association, only a much more serious one: Walt, in joining forces with the MPA and its band of professional reactionaries and red-baiters, also got tarred with their anti-Semitism… The price he paid was that he would always be lumped not only with anti-Communists but also with anti-Semites. Regardless of whether he himself was one or not, he had willingly, even enthusiastically, embraced them [the MPA] and cast his fate with them. And having done so, regardless of the awards and charitable contributions, he would never be able to cleanse himself of the taint. (454-8)

As you can see, Gabler makes a very well-organized, sensitive analysis of Walt’s reputation. After reading Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt last week, and its uncomfortable treatment of ethnicity, I can certainly understand the generational and cultural argument.

I agree that Gabler’s logic makes sense, but please share your thoughts. I’m curious to hear other opinions. I believe and hope that he’s accurate, but I understand that I may be romanticizing the truth.

Stay tuned for part two, a closer look at the studio that Walt Disney built from scratch.