In the introduction to his magnificent biography of Walt Disney, author Neal Gabler writes, “More than any other American artist (Walt Disney) defined the terms of wish fulfillment and demonstrated on a grand scale to his fellow Americans, and ultimately to the entire world, how one could be empowered by fantasy — how one could learn, in effect, to live within one’s own illusions and even to transform the world into those illusions.”
There has been much written about Disney, but Gabler’s “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” (Knopf) is the first to have the full cooperation of the Disney organization and family members. It shows.
Gabler told me that one of Disney’s daughters, Diane, did not want the book to ignore or paper over her father’s faults. Though Diane loved her father, Gabler says she asked him to present the authentic Walt Disney. That he has done in an exhaustively researched and beautifully written work that is among the finest biographies I have ever read.
Disney’s many disappointments, failures and betrayals did not derail him from pursuing his dreams. In fact, he created an alternative universe to which he not only invited the world, but into which he placed himself for protection. He controlled this fantasy world, and it was the only place in which he felt secure from people and ideas hostile to himself and his beliefs. “For all his outward sociability,” writes Gabler, “associates found him deeply private, complex, often moody and finally opaque. No one seemed to know him.”
Probably no American has escaped, indeed could escape, the Disney influence. For my generation, Disney’s presence and Disney’s influence were everywhere. From Mickey Mouse watches, to cartoons at the movie theater, to feature films such as “Snow White,” “Bambi,” “Pinocchio” and the futuristic “Fantasia,” Walt Disney has defined family entertainment for decades. Forty years after his death in December 1966, the name Disney exemplifies safety and security for children and parents looking for wholesome entertainment. He may not have invented the term “family values,” but he perfected an art form through which he was able to transmit stories that American hearts enthusiastically received.
Like so many people with great creative gifts, Walt Disney had a dark side. Rarely having enough money to live on and constantly scrounging for funds in the 1920s and during the Depression to underwrite his animated imagination, Disney became used to giving orders and not taking them. He even came to regard the most innocent suggestions from his employees about how to improve something as insubordination. Not a few of them were demoted or fired outright for having the temerity to challenge the vision of the real “king of all media.”
And yet he was a doting father and grandfather. His children loved him. Though he spent most of his time at the studio — and the little time at home thinking about the studio — Disney’s quality time with his two daughters was sincere, and his love for them was reciprocated. His wife, Lillian, put up with his “studio-as-mistress,” as many women with inattentive husbands did in that era.
Gabler’s book tells a classic American story. Walt Disney grew up on a farm in Missouri, traveled West to pursue a dream and succeeded against all odds. He perfected a new medium — animation — that changed the world of entertainment. Gabler captures his influence: “He had created a new art form and then produced several indisputable classics within it — films that, even when they had not found an audience or been profitable on first release, had, as Walt predicted, become profitable upon reissue. He had provided escape from the Depression, strength during the war, and reassurance afterward, and he had shown generations of children how to accept responsibility while at the same time allowing them to vent vicariously their antagonisms toward the adult world they would soon enter.”
Speaking of classics, this book is one. It should capture every award worth giving. Meticulously researched over seven years and with material never before published, “Walt Disney” is the story of a man who overcame many obstacles, including those of his own making. It is the quintessential Horatio Alger myth writ large.
Walt Disney wished upon a star and his dream came true.