The Triumph of the
By Neal Gabler
Knopf -- 851pp -- $35
The Good A well-researched portrait of the real Walt Disney.
The Bad At times plodding and overwhelmingly detailed.
The Bottom Line A rich narrative of a sometimes-troubled genius.
To generations of Americans, he was the kindly Uncle Walt who visited each Sunday night via the television with tales of Davy Crockett or Donald Duck. But in 1941, Walt Disney was a hated figure at his own Burbank studio. When the Screen Cartoonists Guild gathered petitions to organize a union, the man who gave America Mickey Mouse and Snow White brought in armed guards to intimidate employees. He fired organizers, slashed pay, and even instituted austerity measures that included cutting hours at the coffee shop. On one occasion, when pickets gathered outside the studio gates, every parent's best friend charged from his Packard and had to be restrained from attacking the ringleader.
It is hard not to lionize Walt Disney. Perhaps no man has so changed popular culture or more embodied the American dream. He revolutionized the entertainment industry, both in creating the first cartoon that combined sound and picture and by using TV to promote a theme park that would become a national obsession. But in biographer Neal Gabler's impeccably researched if somewhat plodding Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, a different picture of Disney also emerges--a distant and often despotic leader who became something of a figurehead, often dependent on others to turn out the later animated films that bore his name.
As described in 633 detail-crammed pages (supported by a stupefying 166 pages of footnotes), Gabler's Disney, the son of an emotionally distant father, tries desperately to create a fantasy version of his boyhood in the small town of Marceline, Mo. Yet he has difficulty connecting with his true-life family, even his brother Roy's newborn son. When Walt's father dies, he decides not to cut short a business trip to attend the funeral.
Gabler, whose résumé includes such brilliant Hollywood histories as An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, was given unusual access to Walt Disney Co.'s voluminous archive of Disney memos. From that he creates a rich narrative of Walt's world. It is a universe marked by profligate gambles and by the brilliant management of Walt's older brother Roy, who worked in the shadows to build and maintain a company that often operated on the edges of bankruptcy. When Walt went over-budget making Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Roy prevented Bank of America from shutting things down by shipping them a copy of what would soon win accolades as the first full-length animated film in color. But even Roy wasn't spared the wrath of Walt, as the two brothers frequently warred.
Gabler offers a workmanlike version of oft-told stories, such as how Disney conceived of Mickey Mouse while on a train ride back to California after a failed New York business trip--and how Walt's wife, Lillian, made him ditch the rodent's initial name of Mortimer. We read how, with Roy's help, Walt funded Disneyland by swapping ABC an equity stake in the $17 million park in exchange for promised TV shows. The arrangement also had the happily synergistic consequence of promoting the amusement park to millions of television viewers.
But Gabler's best work is in bringing to life the real Walt, who was never the same after a 1931 breakdown at age 29 that left him emotionally fragile. Often despondent, he would retreat to his home to play with toy trains. At the office, he terrorized workers with harsh criticisms as he impatiently drummed his fingers. Gabler doesn't dwell on well-known allegations, such as the idea that Disney was a racist (he thought hiring African Americans would "have spoiled the illusion at Disneyland") and anti-Semitic (a reputation due largely to his membership in an executive organization that was famously hostile to Jews). More attention is paid to his anger toward union activists, including an account of how he contacted the FBI and the red-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities to finger several as Communists.
The author's account of how Disney's films were made is mind-numbing in its detail. Better is a description of how Walt, who last drew a cartoon in 1929, basked in the myth of his own creativity while becoming dependent upon an empire of smart artists and functionaries. When the producer of The Mickey Mouse Club picked boyish, sandy-haired Jimmie Dodd as a host for the show, he invited the young singer to a meeting he knew Walt was attending. "We've got to let Walt discover you," the producer said.
Still, "arguably no single figure so bestrode American culture as Walt Disney," writes Gabler. The man from Marceline enchanted millions of children throughout the world. But as Neal Gabler makes painfully clear, Walt Disney's own adulthood was far from magical.
By Ronald Grover