When he died in 1966 at the age of 65, Walt Disney — animation pioneer, theme-park trailblazer, and ubiquitous, avuncular TV host — left a deep abscess in a lot of lives. Rumors popped up that he’d been cryogenically frozen, awaiting some future doctor’s cure to the lung cancer that killed him. Of course, that turned out to be wishing on a star. Disney was, in fact, cremated. But Jiminy Cricket — 40 years on, the fantasy has come true, in a way. Walt Disney has been resurrected, not by medics, but by an extremely intrepid author.
That would be Neal Gabler, a keen pop culture historian who previously deconstructed the career of gossip columnist Walter Winchell and the lives of Hollywood’s Jewish moguls. Back in the late 1990s, Gabler wrangled an unprecedented depth of access to a Holy Grail trove of source material: the Walt Disney Archives in Burbank. He spent seven years trawling that ocean of information, buttressing it with as many primary interviews and as much additional research as he could manage.
Walt Disney, the resulting 851-page opus far outshines any previous Disney bio, both in scope and in specificity. The domestic details are revelatory, as when Walt’s wife, Lillian, bluntly confirms to her younger daughter, Sharon, that they adopted her, or complains that Walt burned holes in all the beautiful furniture of their meticulous home because he was such a careless chain-smoker. The business-side details are comparably intimate. Case in point: Walt’s eagerness not to put popular character Donald Duck in too many cartoons until voice artist Clarence Nash signed a restrictive contract. Otherwise, Walt writes to his money-manager brother, Roy, Nash might get ”inflated ideas of his importance around here.”
At the studio or in the theme parks, Gabler demonstrates, you competed with Walt for attention at your peril. The surest way for a Disney staffer to zap a fellow employee was to praise the person to the boss. Disney was controlling, impatient, and, when on the ropes financially — as he often was, since he chronically overspent in a maniacal drive for quality — he was prone to vindictive bouts of criticism aimed at his best artists.
Gabler matter-of-factly blows a lot of cobwebs off Walt’s habitual mythmaking, including the stories that Walt kept pet mice before inventing the character of Mickey Mouse. (Patently untrue.) He falters a bit when he strains to place Disney in a larger sociological context, theorizing about abstractions in stilted, repetitive ways, like a professor who’s spent too much time poring over reams of research. But that’s a quibble. By and large, Gabler has boiled down his years of study brilliantly. The ice is melted, and Walt Disney is looking at us — seemingly for the first time.