When Walt Disney died in 1966, the joke going around the studio was that his plan to have his corpse cryogenically frozen was ”Walt’s attempt to make himself a warmer human being.” You have never met a colder man than the protagonist of Marc Eliot’s Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince(Birch Lane Press, $21.95).
In fact, the Disney on parade here is so mean-spirited and downright bizarre that even if the guy hadn’t created such a cuddly empire of cartoons and theme parks, you’d have a hard time believing it all. Eliot, it seems, puts a lot of stock in hostile witnesses. Why is he so sure that Disney posed before his mother’s mirror in her clothes as a kid, for instance, and was impotent on his wedding night, and was forced by his wife to ice his testicles for hours to up his sperm count, and may actually have been the guilt-crazed illegitimate child of a Spanish washerwoman known in her village as ”La Bitcha”? Eliot gives some sources, but never gives Disney the benefit of the doubt.
Eliot’s big scoop — he credits it to his researcher, Karen Douglass — is that in 1940, Disney became an undercover spy for the FBI. The New York Times recently reported that Disney’s FBI file confirms Eliot’s charge. The celebrated names Disney threw to the anti-Communist wolves have been blacked out, but Eliot notes that Disney helped get the Council for Pan-American Democracy declared seditious after he attended one of its dinners with Xavier Cugat, Paul Robeson, Carmen Miranda, and Orson Welles. Ironically, Disney was smeared in FBI files as a sponsor of the event, evidently by an agent ignorant of Walt’s spook status.
Eliot could use some advice on the art of prose composition. His bio is a gripping tale garrulously told, the rant of a rambling prosecutor. He says Disney attended Nazi rallies, schmoozed Mussolini, and even fired a Jew for having a big nose. Though a sip of hooch could get a Disney employee fired, Eliot claims Walt downed downers with booze and during one drugged and drunken spree got the little train he rode around his estate to jump the tracks in a tunnel and crash through his living-room wall. Eliot even finds in Disney a ”dark aspect to his relationship with Mickey…a narcissistic jealousy between Walt and his vastly more popular animated reflection.” When it comes to depth psychology, Eliot is a student of the Dark Side.
But maybe there was another side to Walt, other reasons for his alleged wickedness. Fear for his company’s survival, among them. The visits to Nazis and Fascists were part of his effort to save the crucial European market being ruined by World War II. His cruelty to some workers sprang largely from the Disney strike of 1941, which certainly could have sunk the perpetually teetering studio. Today it seems rotten to toss strikers to the Commie- hunters, but at the time it seemed like patriotism to many more Americans than just Walt Disney.
It’s a pity that the Disney archives have so rigidly restricted information about the studio’s founder, but Eliot’s version of Disney is as monochromatic as the company’s. Charles Solomon’s respected 1989 reference work, The History of Animation, notes that Disney was ”a human Rorschach test: everyone…saw something different in him.” All Eliot can see is the face of Cruella De Vil. B-