By Michael Barrier
I've often criticized Neal Gabler's book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, for its many factual inaccuracies and for its misrepresentation of Walt Disney himself. My dislike for Gabler's biography is shared by a very important member of the Disney family. Early this month, Diane Disney Miller, Walt's surviving daughter, sent a fax to a number of executives at the Walt Disney Company, denouncing the book as "a monstrous piece of libelous junk. My parents were not the people he creates in this book, and I cannot understand why all of you who aided and abetted Gabler in writing this book, and who praise it and promote it, can do so without suffering serious qualms."
As Diane writes in her fax, she at first wanted to have nothing to do with Gabler, who in a previous book carelessly repeated a discredited slur of Walt he had picked up from an unreliable source. To her present regret, she relented "at the urging of some [in the Disney Company] who assured me I would like his book," and she and Gabler met for an interview in San Francisco. She recalls being "startled and dismayed" by some of his assumptions about her parents' courtship and marriage.
Diane did not help me in the writing of my own biography, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, and she hasn't read my book yet, but we have been in touch in recent weeks. Thanks to her, I'll soon publish on this site an all-but-definitive answer to the nagging question of whether Walt flaunted a Goldwater campaign button when he got the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon Johnson. I'm waiting only for a couple of photographs of the ceremony, from the National Archives.
Diane and I talked by phone earlier this week about Gabler's biography of her father. What most disturbs her about that book can be suggested by some statistics. The New York Public Library, in all its branches, has 50 circulating copies of Gabler's Walt Disney. It has only three copies of Bob Thomas's Walt Disney: An American Original, the official Disney biography from 1976, and none of my Animated Man. (There's one copy of my book at an NYPL research library, the performing arts library at Lincoln Center, but that's it.) The NYPL also has seven circulating copies of Marc Eliot's infamous Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince.
At other large public libraries, the figures are similar. In Los Angeles, the library has 30 copies of Gabler (plus four audio versions), 17 of Eliot, 9 of Thomas, and 3 of Barrier. In Chicago, the tally is 22 Gabler, 12 Eliot, 5 Thomas, and 0 Barrier. And so on.
What such figures mean, taken with a host of other indicators, is that Gabler's book has in the eyes of a great many people become the "standard" biography of Walt Disney, the one you should read—the only one you need to read—if you're interested in the man. That's understandable: Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination received dozens of adoring reviews, most of them emphasizing Gabler's privileged access to the Walt Disney Archives. The Walt Disney Company has continued to support his book by selling it at the Disney theme parks. Gabler's book enjoys the charmed status of an "authorized" but not "official" book, one that has the blessing of the Disney Company but whose content, he assures us, was not dictated by the corporation.
"Lucky Gabler," one might say, if the book itself were not so problematic and its portrayal of Walt Disney himself so much at odds with any reasonable interpretation of the facts of his life. Gabler's haunted, tormented, traumatized Disney is the invention of a writer with a fatally deficient imagination, one who can conceive of no reason for Walt's interest in model trains other than mental illness, and who can dismiss Walt as a "terrible husband" because he didn't conform to some present-day paradigm. Gabler writes about "animations" without ever showing any grasp of what's involved in making animated cartoons, and his limited understanding of business reveals itself in the exaggerated importance he assigns to Roy O. Disney's role and to some of the "crises" the company passed through.
In short, Gabler has written about Walt Disney with the blinkered vision of a middle-aged journalist from an exceptionally self-contained milieu—the urban, liberal, skeptical, and sophisticated Northeast (I can understand why the evil geniuses at Fox News hired him for on-camera duty as one of their liberal punching bags). Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination has often been reviewed by people of much the same sort. It's no wonder that Gabler's peers have greeted the book so warmly, since its ultimate effect is to validate a picture—Warped Walt—they've always carried around in their heads.
As the library statistics alone testify, the worst damage has already been done. Not just the reviewers but also many Disney fans have embraced Gabler's book, which has, after all, received the imprimatur of the Walt Disney Company. It's hard to resist the urge to snuggle up to power.
However futile it may seem, I'll continue to engage in what might be called "guerrilla criticism." That is, I'll seize any opportunity to point out the shortcomings of Gabler's book. Do I hope my own book will benefit? Certainly; I think it's a far more accurate and sympathetic account of Walt's life. But the ultimate beneficiary, I have to hope, will be Walt Disney's memory, which deserves much better than it's currently receiving from Neal Gabler and from the company that bears Walt's name.
And in case you were wondering: as of Wednesday, Diane Miller had received no reply to her fax from anyone at the Walt Disney Company.
Just to Be Fair...
Here, from YouTube, is video of Neal Gabler's appearance at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books last April, in which he talks about Diane Miller and his interview with her. I was in the audience for Gabler's panel, and I remember my wife's comment after it was over: "Neal Gabler is full of himself." But judge for yourself by clicking this link.
[Posted August 17, 2007]