By Michael Barrier
The year 1938 was like none other for Walt Disney. His first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, opened in New York on January 13, 1938, and in cities across the country a few weeks later. Everywhere, it was acclaimed as a marvelous work of art and one of the great films. Millions of people turned out to see it, and it was quickly on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie ever—a record all the more remarkable because so many members of its rapt audiences were children who paid reduced admissions.
In June 1938, as if to certify Walt's exalted standing, three major universities gave him honorary degrees. (All were master's degrees, rather than doctorates; America's cultural arbiters were willing to go only so far.) The first degree, a master of science, was from the University of Southern California, on June 4 at Los Angeles. USC President Rufus B. von KleinSmid, in bestowing the degree, praised Walt for "bringing to youngsters the spirit of innocent childhood, and bringing to oldsters a bit of their second childhood."
News that Walt would accept an honorary degree from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, broke four days later, in a front-page story under a two-deck banner headline in the Boston Traveler. It would be the first time anyone from the movie industry had been so honored.
Harvard's president, James Bryant Conant, had written to Walt on March 5, 1938, inviting him to receive "the honorary degree of Master of Arts on Commencement Day, June 23, if you can be present at that time to receive it. Since no announcement of the award of honorary degrees is made before Commencement Day, may I ask you to consider letter a confidential one."
Walt replied enthusiastically on March 14, 1938, in a letter preserved in Harvard's archives:
Just eight days later, though, Walt wrote to Conant again, explaining what had become, in his eyes, a rather awkward situation. He was clearly concerned that he might accidentally cross ethical boundaries:
Conant replied on March 26:
It was very gracious of you to write me about the matter of your receiving an honorary degree of Master of Arts from another university on June 22. I assure you that your action in accepting this degree is quite in accord with the usual academic practice. ... I only hope that you will not be worn out by a succession of academic ceremonies.
The university in question was Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Boston University had offered Walt an honorary degree, too, but, he told the Boston Traveler in June, he had declined because he had already accepted Harvard's invitation. The schedule was undoubtedly the problem in that case, since Boston U. held its commencement ceremony on June 13. No such obstacle existed with Yale, since its commencement was separated from Harvard's by only a day. There was, besides, a Disney-Yale connection at the upper reaches of the Disney studio, since Gunther R. Lessing, Disney's general counsel, was a 1908 graduate of Yale Law School.
There had actually been considerable interest at Yale in giving Walt an honorary degree since 1935, as evidenced by this note in Yale's archives from Carl A. Lohmann (Yale '10), the university's secretary—an important administrative position—between 1927 and 1953, to his friend "Billy," William Lyon Phelps (Yale '87), an eminent professor of English still active then at Yale even though officially retired since 1933:
As the university's secretary, Lohmann oversaw the commencement ceremonies and the citations for the recipients of honorary degrees. A letter of invitation to Walt, over Lohmann's signature, was actually dated February 15, 1938—that is, several weeks before Conant's first letter—but it was not delivered to Walt, by a representative of Yale, until March 22. Walt wrote to Lohmann that day, again making sure to mention that he had already accepted an offer of a degree from "another college":
Thomas W. Farnam was, like Lohmann, a high-ranking Yale official; he was in the 1930s the university's associate treasurer and controller, and he had even served as secretary for two years in the 1920s.
Lohmann wrote to Walt again on April 27, 1938, laying out the plans for the commencement. Walt and his wife, Lillian, were to arrive at New Haven on Tuesday, June 21, for dinner at the Lohmanns' home at 176 Saint Ronan Street; they would also spend the night there. The next morning, Lohmann wrote, Walt was to come with him, in "academic costume without hood," to Woodbridge Hall, the building that houses the offices of the university's president and the Yale Corporation, the university's governing body. (If Walt was lacking a cap and gown, Lohmann wrote, he could provide them.) From Woodbridge Hall, Walt was to walk in the academic procession with the university's president and its fellows, or trustees, to Woolsey Hall. Lohmann assured Walt that he would not need a ticket to enter the hall, but told him that any of his guests would.
Your part in the Commencement exercises consists in rising when your name is spoken by the Public Orator, stepping forward and facing the Orator until he has finished his introduction; you then walk to the center of the platform, face the President and receive from him the diploma, while at the same time the hood (presented to you by the University) is placed over your shoulders. You then return to your seat.
Walt replied on May 17:
As planned, Walt and Lillian Disney left Los Angeles on June 17, by train, and arrived in New York on the morning of June 20. (To read about Walt's arrival and his accidental encounter with the actor Robert Taylor, go to this link.) Not until the day Walt arrived in New York did it become public knowledge that he would receive an honorary degree from Yale as well as Harvard. Interviewed that Monday by the Boston Evening American in his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, Walt said:
I'm sort of making one-night stands on the college circuit. I'm gonna get them [the honorary degrees] and then run like the dickens before they can take them away. After all, in reality, I'm just a very uneducated so-and-so from the school of hard knocks.
(The New York Post interviewed Walt the same day, and its story includes a similar but not identical quotation, at this link. There is probably no way to know if two reporters, in those days before tape recorders, came up with different versions of what they both heard Walt say, or if he said almost the same thing in two different interviews.)
On Wednesday, June 22, in the ceremony at Woolsey Hall, Yale awarded more than a thousand graduate degrees and then conferred honorary degrees. Walt was in distinguished company: among his fellow honorees were Lord Tweedsmuir, the governor general of Canada—better known as the novelist and biographer John Buchan—and Justice Stanley Reed of the U.S. Supreme Court, who both received honorary doctor of laws degrees, and the great German novelist Thomas Mann, who received a doctor of letters degree.
Before the ceremony, Yale's officers and the honorees, accompanied by alumni and candidates for graduate degrees, passed through the campus in a long procession. The New Haven Evening Register reported:
One of the youngest and apparently most nonchalant of the long line of participants in the parade was Walt Disney, famed creator of Mickey Mouse.
Asked by newsmen if Mickey Mouse had any political significance, Disney said that Mickey must be free from any and all political alliances. Dr. Fred Murphy of Detroit, Disney's marching companion, vigorously objected to the questioning of the famous cartoonist.
Inside Woolsey Hall, the Register reported, Walt
was the first of the 11 distinguished men on the platform to be awarded his degree and the ovation that greeted him as he advanced with measured steps to the dais ... was equalled only by the spontaneous concussion of applause reserved for Lord Tweedsmuir.
For nearly two minutes, the applause crashed to the high ceiling while Disney, smiling, waited with bowed head
as William Lyon Phelps, who as "Public Orator" wrote and read aloud all the day's citations, presented Walt as a candidate for his degree by saying:
In every way an American of the twentieth century. Born in 1901 in Chicago, educated in the high schools of Kansas City and Chicago, he became a commercial artist at the age of seventeen, and at eighteen began his career in animated cartoons. He has the originality characteristic of genius, creating the demand as well as the supply. He has achieved the impossible. He has proved that popular proverbs can be paradoxes—for he labored like a mountain and brought forth a mouse! With this mouse he conquered the whole world. One touch of nature makes the whole world kin; and Walter Disney has charmed millions of people in every part of the earth. No toher artist in history has ever drawn so many spectators at any one time. He has accomplished something that defied all the efforts and experiments of the laboratories in zoology and biology; he has given impressive significance to the word anima in animated; he has given animals souls. His work has the elements of great romantic art; the beautiful, the fantastic, the grotesque all combining in irresistible and ineffable charm. The creatures of his fancy have definite personalities. The characters in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are unforgettable.
Mr. Disney is modest in describing his aims. "We have but one thought and that is for good entertainment." But he also given the reason for his universal appeal. "We try to appeal to children at the age when they want to think that they are grown up and to grownups who want to feel that they are children again."
Yale's then-new president, Charles Seymour, responded by saying as he bestowed Walt's degree:
Creator of a new language of art, who has brought the joy of deep laughter to millions and, by touching the heart of humanity without distinction of race, has served as ambassador of international good-will, Yale confers upon you the degree of master of arts, admitting you to all its rights and privileges.
The Register reported that during the ceremony, Walt, who was sitting beside Eugene Landis, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, "at times waved his hands expressively in animated conversation while at the same time displaying a lively interest in the French Renaissance beauty of the hall's interior."
An alumni luncheon at which Lord Tweedsmuir spoke followed the Yale ceremony, then it was on to Boston, by train.
Walt and Lillian spent the night of June 22 in suburban Brookline, at the home of Dr. Roger I. Lee, an eminent Boston physician and a member of the Harvard Corporation, the university's governing body. Walt and Lee had already met a few weeks earlier, when, as Lee wrote in his autobiography, The Happy Life of a Doctor (Little, Brown, 1956), he was in southern California to visit family. Lee and his wife went to Burbank to see Walt, who had by that time agreed to accept the honorary degree. "We found Disney's studio fascinating and Disney himself delightful," Lee wrote. He continued:
Mr. and Mrs. Disney were most agreeable guests over commencement. The class celebrating their tenth reunion elected Disney an honorary member of their class. One evening after dinner we sat on our terrace with the Disneys and other guests. Walt was very quiet. Suddenly he exclaimed, "I have never seen a firefly before, but I have painted a lot of them. I have painted them all wrong." He then explained to the fascinated group how he had painted fireflies wrong.
An odd anecdote, to be sure; it's hard to believe Walt never saw fireflies when he was growing up in Missouri.
On the morning of June 23, Walt talked with reporters at Lee's home before leaving for the ceremony at Cambridge. As he spoke, Walt made a drawing of Mickey Mouse for Arthur Lee, the 16-year-old son of his host, and, as the Evening American said, "inspected cartoons in the Harvard Lampoon, drawn by Vincent Palmer, a Harvard graduate of this year who seeks a job." The Boston Traveler, a rival afternoon paper, ran a photo of Walt holding some of Palmer's Lampoon drawings. (Did Palmer get a job? Not as far as I know.)
The Traveler said of Walt that he was "soft-spoken, enthusiastic, nervously alert, moves and talks rapidly, and is as easy to talk with as your best friend. He chatted with complete casualness about his work. His face lights up and his eyes sparkle when he is talking." The Traveler reported at length some of Walt's comments, like these about the animation in Snow White:
We are working out a process to prevent the wavering of our characters. That is difficult. The artists had to make such tiny drawings to get in all the characters that they had to use a jewelers' eye-piece. In some scenes the artists spent half their time sharpening their pencils. You know how they rub their pencils on sandpaper! The spacing between the movements is only 1-32d of an inch, and there was some overlapping.
That wavering was particularly true of the drawings of the Prince and Snow White. It was hard to get much romance into a drawing. The dwarfs were easier because they were caricatures and caricaturing is our forte. But putting romance into drawings is a tough assignment.
The American (a Hearst paper) said in its shorter and breezier account that Walt spoke of putting Irish folklore into cartoon form:
Some of the Irish members of the Abbey Players' repertory company got me interested in Ireland's "Little People." I hope to make an animated cartoon series with leprechauns, merrows, banshees and other Irish folk lore creatures as characters. What are merrows? Why they're Irish mermaids. You people here in Irish Boston ought to know about them.
The American also quoted him as saying, in a break with his usual dismissal of the importance of formal education:
Get me right, boys. I'm grateful for these honorary degrees and the distinction they confer. But I'll always wish I'd had the chance to go through college in the regular way and earn a plain bachelor of arts like the the thousands of kids nobody ever heard of, who are being graduated today.
Then it was time to head for Cambridge. "Disney arrived at Harvard with Dr. Lee," the Traveler reported, "and immediately joined the commencement procession, wearing the black cap and gown, and a red sash. Prof. [of fine arts] Arthur Pope accompanied him in the procession." Unlike Yale, Harvard held its ceremony out of doors, "amid the ivy-hung walls and tree shaded lawns of Seaver Quadrangle," as the New Haven Evening Register put it. Harvard's president, James Bryant Conant, bestowed an honorary master of arts on Walt with these words: "A magician who has created a modern dwelling for the Muses; his hand controls a multitude of elfish animals who charm all humans by their mirth."
The photos on this page were taken the day of the Harvard commencement (except for the group photo taken the day before at Yale). In two photos Walt holds dolls of his cartoon characters, in the others he sits with his fellow recipients of honorary degrees. Lord Tweedsmuir was on hand again, as was President Seymour, both receiving doctorates from Yale's great Ivy League rival.
On June 24, the day after Walt received his degree, Roger Lee wrote in his autobiography, "we took the Disneys to the Harvard-Yale boat races at New London. Our eldest son was manager of the Harvard freshman crew and guided us through the mazes of New London on the day of the boat race. Every time since then when we go to southern California, we look up Walt Disney, as charming and delightful as ever, and he always shows us 'bits of a new production."
In the races, Harvard made what the New Haven Evening Register called "a clean sweep of the river," shutting out Yale for the first time since 1916.
By Tuesday, June 28, Walt was back in New York, as the guest of honor at a cocktail reception in what the New York Times described as Radio City Music Hall's "de luxe upstairs studio." B. R. Crisler of the Times reported: "One must have had previous experience of movie cocktail parties in order to appreciate this brilliant assemblage, to which W. G. Van Schmus, managing director, was host, at which the kind of personalities usually just advertised on a guest list not only showed up but actually remained to shake hands with the guest of honor."
The guest list was heavy with famous journalists—Herbert Bayard Swope, Ogden Reid, Roy Howard—and broadcasters—M. H. Aylesworth, David Sarnoff—as well as Robert Moses, then New York City's commissioner of licenses, who would cross paths with Walt a quarter century later in planning for the 1964 New World's Fair. Walt, whom the Times's Crisler saw as "amiable" and "slightly bewildered," "kept his head admirably, in the circumstances. For instance, we saw Herbert Bayard Swope [the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the New York World in the 1920s] enthusiastically shaking his hand on two separate occasions ... but when the fact was mentioned to Walt later on, he merely looked blank. 'Herbert Bayard Who?' he inquired."
Walt was present on film as well as in person at the Music Hall reception, since "an all-Disney program ... was being run off continuously ... in the private projection room as a kind of side attraction to the bar and buffet." The Harvard commencement was part of the show. In "a brief newsreel shot," "when Walt had trouble with the black tassel dangling in front of his eyes while lined up with the other honorary doctors and masters at Cambridge for a picture, he simply took a deep breath and blew it back out of the way. The gesture was inspired; a few more popular touches of this nature and Walt may stand a good chance for the Democratic presidential nomination."
Walt's eventual involvement in politics was much less substantial, of course (and it took the form of support for Republican candidates). He did finally make a movie based on Irish folklore, however, as Darby O'Gill and the Little People, in 1959. He piled up many more honors along the way, too, but there was something unique about those 1938 honors. Walt Disney was at his peak then as a creative artist, and—as is almost never the case—his artistic integrity had won him both enormous popular success and the acclaim of highly skeptical critics. His stars would never be aligned so perfectly again.
And in years to come...
Walt visited Harvard again almost five years later, after his studio had passed through tumult—a financial crisis, a traumatic strike—that he could hardly have envisioned in 1938. He arrived in New York on February 1, 1943, a Monday, and was planning to be in the East long enough to attend the Broadway premiere of Saludos Amigos on February 12. In between, he visited Cambridge for a couple of days. As the Harvard Alumni Bulletin reported in its issue of February 13, 1943:
Walter Elias Disney, A.M. Hon. '38, revisited Harvard last week to consult with Dr. Earnest A. Hooton, Professor of Anthropology and Chairman of the Department of Anthropology, on a forthcoming technicolor [sic] film ridiculing Der Führer's ideas of Aryan racial supremacy. Mr. Disney, accompanied by two of his studio script writers [Joe Grant and Dick Huemer], told the Boston press in an on-the-steps interview at the Faculty Club that he plans to leave Hitler "out of the picture," because he thinks that "too much attention has already been given to that guy."
While at Harvard Mr. Disney inspected the Harvard Film Service, saw the Harvard reading films, and admired as an artist-craftsman the wonder of the glass flowers at the University Museum. He was greeted by professors and deans, and even by a small boy movie fan, whom he patted on the head.
Those quotes from Walt were from the Boston Daily Globe for Saturday, February 6, which also quoted him as saying, "We prefer another approach to the anti-Aryan theory." Although Walt devoted two days to what the Globe called his "interview" with Dr. Hooton, no film of the sort they discussed ever got made.
Walt also told the Globe why Donald Duck had displaced Mickey Mouse as the star of the Disney shorts: "We needed someone tougher. A guy who wasn't a gentleman. ... The old timer stars now appear in only one or two films a year. So that is what Mickey is doing. Giving way to new faces, so to speak."
Walt had a reason for visiting Boston besides his meetings with Hooton: Saludos Amigos was opening there on February 6 in its first North American engagement, six days ahead of the New York opening.
There was another and odder Disney connection with Harvard that made headlines in February 1939, barely more than six months after the university honored Walt with his honorary degree. Robert Durant Feild, whom the New York Times called "a popular professor in the Harvard Fine Arts Department," was getting the boot, and students and other faculty members were irate. A committee made up of high-ranking professors in the Fine Arts Department had recommended against Feild's reappointment to the faculty—and the likely cause, the Harvard Crimson was reporting, was his enthusiasm for the Disney cartoons.
On May 17, 1939, Walt wrote to Feild, whom he had met when Feild spent six weeks in Hollywood in 1938 (and delivered a lecture at the Disney studio on August 9). Walt said in his letter, which is now part of the Feild papers at the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art:
Naturally I was very sorry to hear what happened at Harvard, but after all, who knows, it may be for the best.
I have given a lot of thought to your suggestion that you write a book on the animation of cartoons. I want to be frank and say that I think anything of this nature, which has our approval, should be done in close cooperation wtih the studio, because there are many angles we have learned from the practical side that should be incroporated into a book of this sort if it is going to serve its purpose of stimulating interest in the art student and also be a contribution to the cartoon industry.
We definitely feel that you are qualified to write this book and we want you to know that you have our complete confidence and cooperation, not only in the writing of this material but also in the marketing of it.
That book materialized in October 1941 as the landmark volume called The Art of Walt Disney, the product of a year that Feild spent roaming the Disney studio. Feild had in the meantime become director of the School of Art at Newcomb College, the women's college at Tulane University in New Orleans.
In this photo and the next one above, Walt sits with two of his fellow Harvard honorees, from left, Lord Tweedsmuir (better known as the novelist John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps), who was the governor general of Canada, and Irving Langmuir, the General Electric chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1932.
In this group photo of the recipients of Harvard's honorary degrees, Walt is smoking a cigarette (it's just visible in his right hand in the closer shots above, where he appears about ready to light it). His lifelong habit was not in abeyance even on so grand an occasion.
James Bryant Conant, Harvard's longtime president, is seated in the middle, next to Lord Tweedsmuir.To Conant's right is Charles Seymour, president of Yale University; Eugene Landis is seated between Walt and Lord Tweedsmuir. The remaining identifications are all somewhat tentative: The man seated at the far left is probably James Phinney Baxter III, president of Williams College, and the elderly man next to him, at his left, is probably George Russell Agassiz, president of the Harvard Alumni Association. Standing, from left: Charles H. McIlwaine, professor of history and government at Harvard; Frank Rattray Lillie, marine biologist at the University of Chicago; Wendell Meredith Stanley, biochemist with the Rockefeller Institute (who was to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1946); Herbert E. Winlock, Egyptologist and director of Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and Gunnar Myrdal, Swedish economist. Missing from this group photo (unless I've misidentified one or both of them) are John Whorf, a Boston watercolorist, and Edward Bruce, a New York artist and New Deal lawyer. All the honorees received doctorates except Disney and Whorf, the two youngest honorees, both still in their thirties (Whorf, born in 1903, was two years younger than Walt). They both received honorary master of arts degrees.
And a Day Earlier at Yale...
When I first posted this page, and then when I posted a revised version, I had no photos from June 22, 1938, when Walt received his honorary degree from Yale. Mark Sonntag remedied that lack with the photo above, a group photo of the recipients of Yale's honorary degrees with the university's president.
Walt is third from the left in the second row; he appears to be standing on one step lower than the other men in his row, thus leaving the impression that he was shorter than he actually was. Possibly the photographer positioned him, and Serge Koussevitzky to his left, on that step deliberately, so that their heads would not obscure the heads of the men behind them. (The Reverend Morgan Phelps Noyes, to Koussevitzky's left, may have failed to follow the photographer's instructions.)
These are the identifications from the New Haven Evening Register and, secondarily (because of obvious errors), Corbis: Front row, from left, Maitland F. Griggs, an attorney; the German novelist Thomas Mann; Governor Wilbur L. Cross of Connecticut; Yale's president, Charles Seymour; Lord Tweedsmuir (John Buchan); and the Reverend Endicott Peabody, headmaster of Groton School. Second row, from left: Professor William Lyon Phelps; Wendell M. Stanley of the Rockefeller Institute (who, like Walt, Seymour, and Tweedsmuir, received an honorary degree from Harvard the next day); Walt Disney; Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and, barely visible behind Peabody, the Reverend Morgan Phelps Noyes (a Presbyterian minister and a Yale trustee). Third row, from left: Justice Stanley Reed of the U.S. Supreme Court (a Yale alumnus who had been appointed to the court five months earlier); Eugene M. Landis, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania; and James L. McConaughy, president of Wesleyan University.
According to the Register (and my friend Professor Roger Webb of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a Yale alumnus), the photo was taken on the steps of Woodbridge Hall; Corbis identifies the site as Woolsey Hall, where the commencement exercises took place, but that is incorrect.
[Posted May 22, 2009; revised, expanded, and corrected, October 12, 14, and 15, 2009; March 18, 19, 23, and 29 and May 1, 2010; and March 2, 2015.]