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COMMENTARY

Walter, Walter Everywhere

[Click here to go a list of the errors and ambiguities in this book, and here to go to a Feedback page devoted this book and my own The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney.]

It feels odd to correct the page proofs of a biography you've just written while you're also reading someone else's new book about the same person. That was my situation in November, when I corrected the page proofs for The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney as I read Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

Walt Disney book jacketMy dominant emotion in those circumstances was, of course, dread. As Gabler's publisher, Knopf, unfailingly reminded reviewers and potential readers, he had "complete access" to the Walt Disney Archives in Burbank, by far the richest trove of Disney-related documents. I spent at least four or five months in those archives, in total, doing research for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, but I wasn't allowed to look at everything I wanted to see. I was completely excluded from the archives when I was writing The Animated Man (although the archivists answered my many email queries). My fear thus was that in matching Gabler's book against my own, I would learn that his greater access to the archives meant that I had made crucial mistakes that I would be unable to correct.

I needn't have worried. Reading Gabler's book made me aware that I had misplaced an event by one year, and his book provided the full name of a person who had been known to me only by her first name; I then confirmed her full name through my own sources. But that was it. I was able to make both changes in the proofs.

The two books are very different, in sources as in length (Gabler's is twice as long as mine) and in almost every other way. As Gabler's notes show, he relied on Disney Archives files that I wasn't allowed to see, including documents related to the family's history and Roy O. Disney's personal correspondence. (He also examined Walt Disney's correspondence more thoroughly than I did.) For my part, I made extensive use of the interviews with more than 150 of Walt's former employees and associates that Milt Gray and I recorded starting in 1969, two and a half years after Walt died. This was a larger collection of such interviews than Gabler had at his disposal—the Disney Archives holds transcripts by earlier writers of Disney books, including Christopher Finch and Bob Thomas—and many more than he conducted himself. I also drew upon material from a variety of archives that Gabler either did not consult or did not explore as thoroughly as I did. He seems to have made little or no use of a number of valuable published sources, including Walt Disney Productions' annual reports to stockholders and The "E" Ticket, a magazine devoted to Disneyland's history that has published unique interviews with some of Walt's "Imagineers." And I saw a lot of Disney Archives documents that Gabler either didn't think were as important as I did or didn't see at all.

What matters most is not the quantity of sources but how a writer uses them, and here again Gabler has benefited from his publisher's astute marketing. It is a rare review that doesn't include the phrase "meticulously researched." Walt Disney is a book with hundreds of pages of endnotes; but in roaming through those endnotes, I found references that gave me pause. On page 279, Gabler writes of Walt and his wife, Lillian: "By one account, around the time of Snow White the couple had even discussed divorce." The endnotes show his source for that statement: Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, the 1993 biography by Marc Eliot. In his note, Gabler says: "Though Eliot did not provide an annotation, he did conduct an interview with William Cottrell, Walt's longtime employee and by 1938 the husband of Lillian's sister, Hazel; in a note to the author, Eliot confirmed that Cottrell was the source."

I've read Eliot's book. Let me be as temperate as possible. It is easily the worst Disney biography I've ever read. It is packed with errors and distortions. To rely upon Hollywood's Dark Prince in any way is exactly the opposite of meticulous. But Gabler does it more than once. On page 363, he describes Art Babbitt as "a notorious womanizer"—fair enough, I suppose, on Babbitt's own description of his behavior—but he adds: "Walt was especially irritated when Babbitt began an affair with young Marjorie Belcher, the model for Snow White [italics sic], and Walt was about to fire him when Babbitt decided to marry her."

Babbitt married Marjorie Celeste Belcher, the later Marge Champion, on August 8, 1937; she was just under 18, and he was 29. They divorced a year or two later. At the time of his marriage, Babbitt was in the midst of animating the Queen 's early scenes in Snow White. The sweatbox notes suggest that his work on those scenes began in early July 1937 and ended in late October; so if Walt Disney was about to fire Babbitt, he would have done so at the cost of disrupting production of his feature. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that Babbitt and Marjorie Belcher married not because they were having an affair, but because they were not having one. This is what Marge Champion told me when I interviewed her in 1993:

Champion: I loved Art very much; he was a terrific guy. We were just totally unsuited to each other.

Barrier: Everybody who has mentioned your marriage has said this, and I've never understood quite what happened between you.

Champion: I never have either, except that for a very brief period, he just swept me off my feet. You know, in those days, nice girls didn't, so that was one way of getting into life.

Gabler also cites many highly reliable sources, of course, such as documents from the Disney Archives, and like anyone writing a Disney biography, he can't avoid citing Bob Thomas's authorized biographies of Walt and Roy. Although Thomas is by no means infallible, he knew both Disneys and had their confidence, and he is simply the best available source in some instances. But Gabler's unimpeachable citations occur alongside citations not just from Marc Eliot but also from Leonard Mosley's Disney's World, Diane Disney Miller's Story of Walt Disney, Leslie Iwerks's The Hand Behind the Mouse, and other sources whose accuracy is open to serious doubt.

Knopf's publicity speaks of the seven years Gabler spent writing his book, but he got a Guggenheim fellowship to write it eleven years ago, in 1995, and what he said around that time led me to believe that he planned to write a very different book from the one he eventually produced. A Richard Schickel-style critical biography, probably, which would have been based almost entirely on secondary sources (Walt Disney quotes Schickel more often than any other critic). Then Gabler gained access to the Disney Archives, unexpectedly I'd guess, and found himself in the awkward position of writing a full-scale biography of someone whose best work he didn't care for—in 1995, he referred to Snow White and Dumbo as "treacle cartoons." Disney clearly interested him less as a person than as a cultural influence. "I'm not interested in what the reader is gonna know about Walt Disney," he said. "I'm interested in what Walt Disney knew about us."

Gabler's citations of Eliot, Mosley, et al., thus may be vestiges of a never-written book. (The subtitle of Gabler's book—The Triumph of the American Imagination—could fit such a book, since it invites an ironic interpretation.) I detect real enthusiasm and interest only occasionally in Walt Disney, usually in passages that could have fit into that unwritten book, like the one (on pages 614-15) summarizing another author's argument that "Disney's [live-action] films actually often squarely contradicted the conservative values of the 1950s and 1960s. ... In short, though Walt Disney was made to seem conservative—and made himself seem conservative because it fit the cultural ethos of the time—in his films, at least, he may have not been so very conservative after all, not the barrier against the new America that he was often purported to be." I think that's a questionable argument—many of the Disney live-action films are too weak to support a thesis of any kind—but Gabler's summary arouses my curiosity about the book that makes it.

Dubious sources aside, Walt Disney contains a large number of errors for a book that is supposedly "definitive"—another word invoked repeatedly by the publisher, and as a result a word that has turned up frequently in reviews. (Most reviews of Gabler's book, like almost all reviews of books dealing with animated films, have been written by people who know little or nothing about the subject.) Since Walt Disney will inevitably become a standard reference, I've listed some of his errors at this link, so that a reader who wishes to do so can print that page and add it to his or her copy of the book.

Mistakes are unavoidable in any serious nonfiction book. Writing such a book requires manipulating thousands of facts, and even the most conscientious juggler is going to drop a few. (I've posted a list of my own errors in Hollywood Cartoons here, and I'll post a similar list for The Animated Man as errors come to light.) But some of Gabler's errors are surprisingly obvious, or surprisingly strange. Overall, his errors may be evidence not so much of carelessness as of a lack of imaginative sympathy with his subject.

That lack shows itself in large and small ways—for example, in how Gabler handles the quotations in his book. Perhaps because I've spent so much time with some of the same interview transcripts he used, I was constantly aware of how truncated his quotations often are; I kept wanting to hear Walt and Roy speak, and Gabler shuts them up much too quickly. Walt Disney is a book in which the author too often seems to be at our elbow, telling us what to think. (It's also one of those annoying books in which the author repeatedly quotes other authors but usually identifies them only as "Disney scholars" or something of the sort, forcing you to go to the endnotes to find out that it was, say, Steven Watts who made some interesting comment.)

Gabler always calls Walt Disney "Walt"—I chose the more formal "Disney," despite the complications that arose in writing about brother Roy and the Disney studio—but he never seems to warm to the man, and he shows little understanding of some of his subject's fundamental characteristics. (He is admirably deft, however, in dismantling the loaded question of Walt's supposed anti-Semitism, a charge that Gabler himself casually endorsed in an earlier book. Thanks to his good work, we may not need to visit that charge again, although that may be hoping for too much.) Gabler's tortuous explications of Disney's need for control and "community," especially, cry out for Ockham's razor—that is, when you're trying to understand something, start with the simplest explanation first, and see if it works, before moving on to something more complicated.

Animated Man book jacketDisney insisted on control, and wanted a docile and harmonious work force, for one simple reason: he was a classic entrepreneur. Not just a plain-vanilla small-business owner, like today's franchisees, but someone burning with his own ideas, eager to put them into practice, and impatient with limitations of any kind (financial, governmental, familial). In my days as a business writer I interviewed hundreds of such people, famous ones like Sam Walton and Dick Clark and lots of smaller fry, usually at their workplaces; I observed some of them over a span of several days. I said at that time that if I walked into an interview wearing a grass skirt and a ring in my nose, the entrepreneur's first words would still be, "Let me tell you about my business." Like the people I interviewed, Disney was immersed in his own dreams; what made him different, and so much more exciting and interesting than most entrepreneurs, was that he emerged as an artist through realizing his ambitions for his business.

That Walt Disney, very different from the haunted figure Gabler depicts, is the one I write about in The Animated Man. My book differs from Gabler's not just in the way we see Walt, but also in the way we write about him. I've tried to keep my focus always on Walt himself, and on what he most cared about at the time (I say very little about the licensing of Disney merchandise, for example, because he devoted almost no attention to it), and I've tried to tell his story with the energy and economy of his best films—thus my book's shorter length. One of my editors described the book as "compulsively readable"; when my wife was reading the manuscript, she gasped and laughed at one point, astonished by the way that Walt plunged into one new project after another in the 1950s. I hope that other readers will have similar responses.

Because Gabler doesn't recognize the entrepreneur in Walt Disney, he doesn't recognize the entreprenurial side of Walt's father, Elias, either—he dismisses him as a "hard man" in his first mention of him, and hews to that description thereafter—and he doesn't grasp the vital similarity between the two men. As a result he paints Walt Disney's childhood in colors that are too dark. Gabler even seems baffled by Walt's latterday enthusiasm for model trains, whereas such an enthusiasm seems to me perfectly normal in someone of Walt's generation and background. (If you want to witness the spell that model trains cast even today, just visit the huge layout at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and listen to the parents and children talk about what they're seeing.) Walt Disney was a man who always wanted to be enthusiastic about something, to have a project that consumed his interest. His fantastic backyard railroad was not a symptom of distress; it was of a piece with his entrepreneur's congenital optimism.

Gabler's difficulties with his subject meant that his "complete access" to the Disney Archives could not yield the results that might have been expected. Take the documents about the family's history that he was uniquely privileged to read. It's common for doorstop biographies of the Walt Disney kind to devote hundreds of pages to the subject's ancestry, going back centuries, and it's to Gabler's credit that his book isn't as heavily weighted with such stuff as are many others. But the crucial question is what the family history, however much there is of it, tells us about the subject of the biography. Sometimes a family history's importance is beyond question, as when the subject of a biography—Winston Churchill comes to mind—has been surrounded since birth not only by living relatives but also by reminders of his family's illustrious dead. The Disney family was different. They were Irish immigrants who shuttled around Canada and the United States, often separated from one another by thousands of miles. Walt's grandfather, Kepple Disney, died ten years before he was born. Other relatives played bit parts in Walt's life, but it was only his immediate family, and really only his parents and Roy, whose roles were unquestionably important.

Gabler's pages on the family's history are richly detailed and clearly written, mostly free of the signs of haste and confusion that mar other parts of the book, and he makes good use of the Disney archivist Dave Smith's invaluable research in the 1970s, when many people with very early Disney connections were still alive. But as fine as those pages are, I don't think Gabler succeeds in his essential task, which was to find some way to make the lives of the Irish Disneys and their immediate descendants echo in Walt Disney's life. When he writes that the marriage of Elias Disney and Flora Call "wedded the intrepid determination of the Disneys with the softer, more intellectual temper of the Calls," I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was reading about some bizarre kind of scientific breeding—breeding that didn't work very well, considering that four of the five children of that marriage were decidedly ordinary people (although in Roy Disney's case the ordinariness was of a very high quality).

Walt Disney was the anomaly, but, as I've already suggested, he was also Elias's son, and it's tempting to believe that there must be biographical threads that lead from Walt back through Elias to earlier Disneys with a similar temperament. But the evidence necessary to make such connections seems to be lacking. The same is true of Robert Disney, Elias's younger brother, an enterprising figure (he frequently identified his occupation as "capitalist" in city directory listings) who clearly intrigues Gabler but whom he is unable to do anything very interesting with.

Roy Disney's correspondence too turns out to have been a limited resource, even though it is sometimes enlightening (as in what it suggests about the Bank of America's role in ending the 1941 strike). For small businesses like the early Disney studio, the critical words have always been "cash flow." Cash was often a problem for the Disneys in the 1920s, and it was still a problem in the 1930s—how could it not have been, during the Depression?—but I think Gabler takes a little too seriously the idea that the studio was often on the brink of ruin. The Disneys' problem, once their cartoons were successful, was not money as such, but liquidity. It was in later years, when the studio was a public company meeting its cash needs through a line of credit from the Bank of America and whose features were tanking at the box office, that Walt and Roy faced potentially fatal financial difficulties.

In addition to his archival access, Gabler enjoyed cooperation from Diane Disney Miller, Walt's surviving daughter, and Roy Edward Disney, Walt's nephew, the two remaining blood relatives who can plausibly claim to have known Walt Disney well as adults. I approached Diane Miller several years ago but was rebuffed because she believed my book would "perpetuate the distortions that I have been laboring to correct." As for Roy E. Disney, at the time I was conducting interviews for The Animated Man he was engrossed in the "Save Disney" campaign, and he was using his Uncle Walt's memory as a weapon against the Walt Disney Company's CEO, Michael Eisner. Trying to collect illuminating anecdotes under those circumstances seemed like a fool's errand, and I never wrote to him.

I found nothing in Gabler's book to inspire regret that I did not talk to either Disney. Neither, as I've already indicated, is there special cause for regret that I was barred from the Disney Archives when I was writing The Animated Man. As I've said, I'd done a lot of work in the archives before I ever started work on my biography. Would I like to have done more? Of course; but it was thanks mainly to being excluded that I located a great many other valuable resources.

What's sad in this situation is not what happened to me and my book, but that so many other authors, also excluded from the Disney Archives by the company's lawyers in recent years, have so little hope of doing significant Disney-related work. If you believe, as I do, that Walt Disney was a protean figure, a fascinating artist and businessman whose life and work demand constant examination and re-examination, what you want is not a "definitive" biography, by me or Neal Gabler or anyone else, but a steady outpouring of good books that let us see this fabulous character from many different angles. Gabler himself is not to blame, but because Disney executives and family members have invested their prestige in his seriously flawed book, such a flow of well-informed commentary has become more difficult to imagine. A diminishing awareness of the real Walt Disney—the man, not the brand name—is thus all the more likely.

[Posted December 19, 2006]

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