As I was watching a recent documentary on the life and career of Walt Disney I was amazed at how many times the documentary only told part of the story. More than once I found myself leaning forward thinking that there was more to follow… only to find the special had moved on to another topic. By the end of the special, you had a partial story about Walt that seemed to be more interested in telling the story the film-makers wanted you to hear instead of the total story so you could draw your own conclusions. It happens all the time.
If you are a Disney fan, you inevitably will bump into someone who will learn you are fan and make some kind of derogatory comment about Walt Disney. It makes you wince just a little and you want to have a quick witty comeback… but you don’t. The reason is that you can’t imagine why someone would not like, be fascinated, or at least respect the life and work of Walt Disney. Sure, they don’t have to be a fan as much as you are… but still… we are talking about Walt Disney after all. Why would anyone attack him or say things so nasty about him?
In many ways it seems that for those that don’t like Walt Disney they have put him on trial. Not in a courtroom, but instead he has been placed on trial in the court of public opinion. This courtroom always seems to be open, usually the verdict is incorrect, and anyone and everyone seems willing to participate.
Walt Disney once said, “Being a celebrity doesn’t even seem to keep the fleas off our dogs — and if being a celebrity won’t give me an advantage over a couple of fleas, then I guess there can’t be much in being a celebrity after all.” Perhaps Walt had the right attitude about being a celebrity. However, in January of 2014, actress Meryl Streep decided to use her celebrity status to personally attack the legendary icon. This is one of the most recent and blatant attacks on the character and memory of Walt Disney and once again reignited the stories that have been repeated through the years. Against that backdrop we can begin an investigation into the often repeated criticisms of Walt Disney.
Here is how this attack happened. At an appearance to present an award at the National Board of Review awards ceremony Ms. Streep went after Walt Disney and said he was a man who “had some racist proclivities” and “supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group and [was] a gender bigot.”
Ms. Streep quoted Disney animator Ward Kimball, who said, “He didn’t trust women or cats,” and she read from a 1938 letter from Disney informing a female job applicant, “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school. The only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink, and then, filling in the tracing on the reverse side with paint according to directions.”
Now as you might imagine, the remarks created quite a stir and drew a lot of reaction. As you read them, depending on who you are, your life experience, and your opinion of Meryl Streep or Walt Disney you might have reacted as well. As I watched a recent Hollywood awards show I was struck by the number of times celebrity award winners or presenters used the moment to share their personal beliefs about an issue, a cause, or something that was happening in the world. Celebrity commentators certainly have a large audience, but when it comes to being factual and accurate they are often misguided and misinformed.
Since the death of Walt Disney he has been called racist, sexist, and an anti-Semite. These accusations have been repeated from a variety of sources. What Meryl said during her rant was not new, not creative, but most importantly begs the question… is it true?
Many of the anti Semitic allegations were raised in Marc Eliot’s now largely discredited biography. – Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince . The book presents a darker picture of Walt Disney than his popular image. Eliot presents ‘evidence’ of life-long anti-Semitism and covert employment by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a spy against Communists in Hollywood, and intense right-wing politics. The book also claims that when Disney received the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson just before the 1964 election he wore a badge supporting Johnsons rival Barry Goldwater, and the book also repeats urban legends such as Disney’s alleged refusal to lower the American flag at Disneyland after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (Real Disney fans know that Walt Disney was in Florida on the day of the assassination, looking for land for the WDW project). The book is “an effective hatchet job” and over the years, the book’s claims are disputed by other authors, including ones who have reviewed and published information from the same files as Eliot. But once something has been said or written, there is always someone willing and wanting to believe it.
Disney cartoonist, Floyd Gottfredson shared in an interview with Arn Saba that he believed that many of the negative claims against Walt came from a 1968 book by Richard Schickel entitled, The Disney Version. Floyd said, “Most of the derogatory stories you heard were sour grape stories, people who didn’t make it, and Walt gave them every chance in the world. He tried them over and over and shifted them around and so on.” (As a matter of record, Walt Disney rarely fired anyone. He just didn’t like that kind of confrontation. He would move them into some dead-end area of the company to work in, with the hopes they would eventually quit. Many did.) Floyd went on to say, “When they finally couldn’t make it and he had to let them go, that’s when these stories came from on the outside.”
In a recent book, Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, author and film-maker Christian Moran has written an enlightening work about Walt and the ways he embraced technology and the future. Along the way in the book he has interviewed and quoted Disney Legends – Rolly Crump and Bob Gurr, Disney historians – Sam Gennawey and Jim Korkis, animation historian – Dr. Maureen Furniss, along with others to paint a vivid picture of Walt. As we explore and look at the life of Walt Disney in regard to the often repeated negative commentary about him, we will draw heavily on this research.
When Meryl Streep made her comments, many were quick to agree and felt like the actress had just confirmed what they already knew or believed. Interestingly enough, the culture of the day that has bought into these beliefs about Walt haven’t read any of the books written about him to make the determination about whether or not the stories are true or not. Pop culture references have helped to perpetuate the information. Animated shows like Family Guy and Robot Chicken have recycled a playbook of unoriginal thought and continued to spread the stories that Walt hated Jews and that he’s frozen. Family Guy writers are so enamored of the anti-Semitic charges, that they’ve made the accusation multiple times. When an audience who would rather someone tell them what to think don’t want to take the time to ask whether or not what they are hearing is true and it is easy to see why the stories continue to get traction.
So the question remains… are the allegations true?
The answer is they are false. They are untrue. They are lies that have been repeated often enough that people have believed them and have no idea what evidence is available to prove or disprove them. They have simply believed them and that belief is made easier in an age where we have plenty of information. Whether or not the information is true doesn’t seem to matter to many – and they are always able to find something that will confirm what they desire to believe.
That being said – since I have made the statement that the stories are not true… then there has to be some evidence to show the allegations are false. There is… and in this series, “Walt Disney on Trial” we will explore and expose the myths that are often repeated about Walt.
Be sure to read the next installment – Walt Disney on Trial (Part Two) – Was Walt Disney Sexist?
Walt Disney on Trial is a series that is being compiled by author Jeff Dixon. Jeff has written a series of novels set in and around Walt Disney World entitled, The Key to the Kingdom, Unlocking the Kingdom, and Storming the Kingdom. The latest installment in that series is called, Terror in the Kingdom and will be released soon. He is also the author of the new book, The Disney Driven Life. This is a book that draws life lessons and leadership principles from the history and life of Walt Disney. Some know Jeff as Dixon On Disney – and he resources and comments on Disney history, attractions, and news. He is a researcher that draws heavily on the incredible works of Disney historians and biographers with an attempt to understand and apply the life lessons that are uncovered.
Some of the research for this series comes from
It’s Kind of a Funny Story – by Rolly Crump (Bamboo Forest Publishing. 2012)
Walt Disney-The Triumph of the American Imagination – by Neal Gabler (Vintage 2006)
Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City – by Sam Gennaway (Theme Park Press 2014)
Walt’s People – 15 Volumes – by Didier Ghez (Theme Park Press 2005-2015)
The Vault of Walt, Vol. 1-3 – by Jim Korkis (Theme Park Press 2012-2014)
Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow – by Christian Moran (Theme Park Press 2015)
Walt Disney An American Original – by Bob Thomas (Disney Editions 1976)