In the half century since his death, Walt Disney has picked up a lot of biographical baggage. Fans see him as a saint, critics as a fraud. Was he kindly Uncle Walt, or a racist, rapacious tycoon? Disney historian Jim Korkis puts the rumors to rest.
The story of Walt Disney has been told many times. He's been portrayed as an "American original", an "animated man", and a "dark prince." Walt was all of these things, and others besides. Who you get depends on who's telling the story.
In Call Me Walt, Korkis lets the story tell itself, through interviews, an examination of media reports, Walt Disney's own words, and a comprehensive analysis of the positives and the negatives, the facets and the flaws, that characterize everyone's life, famous or not.
Forget "Uncle Walt." Forget the "Dark Prince of Hollywood." Those are lazy labels for a man who remains fascinating because he can't be relegated to a role.
If you think you know Walt Disney, you probably don't.
Who Was Walt Disney?
Walt on Walt
Disney Coat of Arms
Where Walt Lived
Walt’s Studio Offices
The Infamous Cough
The Famous Mustache
Sense of Humor
Nature & Animals
"National Wildlife Week"
Making Fun of Others
The Wounded Bear
Debunking Disney Myths
Walt Was NOT Frozen
Walt Was NOT Anti-Semitic
Walt Was NOT Dishonorably Discharged
Walt’s Last Words Were NOT "Kurt Russell"
Walt Did NOT Name Mickey Mouse After Mickey Rooney
Walt Was NOT a Racist
Walt Was NOT Born in Spain
Walt Did NOT Hate Women
Walt Was NOT a Freemason
Walt Was NOT an FBI Informant
Walt Did NOT Bequest Money to First Pregnant Man
Walt Was NOT a Nazi Sympathizer
Memories of Walt
I only knew the “Old Maestro” as an older gentleman, stout in stature, with graying hair and wearing a conservative business suit. He was the man that we all saw each week on television.
Each morning, his classy, but modest vehicle (by Hollywood standards, anyway) pulled into the covered parking space on the Burbank studio lot. As you might expect, Walt Disney drove himself to work each day. I was just a kid when I worked for the Old Maestro. Walt Disney was more the age of my grandfather.
What I have to say about this amazing character is purely from my own observation over a ten-year period.
In my third year at Art Center College of Design I received that unexpected but eagerly anticipated telephone call. In 1956, I began work as an in-betweener on Sleeping Beauty (1959) at the Disney studio.
Walt Disney was already a legendary figure. As young, aspiring artists, all we hoped for was a glance of the Old Maestro, but he was nowhere to be seen.
All that changed one morning when Walt Disney himself approached us young animation artists on the third floor of the Animation Building. I’ve described this event many times, and I’ll risk doing it again. We backed against the wall and stared in disbelief as Walt Disney, much like Moses in the scriptures, appeared to descend from the mount with his figure outlined in a halo of light from the window behind him.
He smiled, knowing the effect he had on us, but said nothing.
Before we knew it a decade had passed. I guess time flies when you’re having fun. There were other “Walt sightings,” but now we had grown used to seeing the boss on a regular basis. On occasion, Disney would say, “Hi guys!” as he walked past.
We clearly understood that if Disney called a meeting only studio big shots would be invited. That’s why I consider it remarkable that I began attending meetings with Walt himself. How did this happen, you ask? It all began when Walt and his top storyman Bill Peet clashed over the treatment of the new movie, The Jungle Book (1967).
Subsequently, Peet walked off the film and a new story team took his place. By caprice, I was one of the new storymen selected for the assignment and that meant meeting with the boss himself. It may seem a contradiction, but Walt Disney was the toughest and easiest boss one could work for.
Incredibly focused, Walt knew what each new product should be. Whether it was a new movie, theme park attraction, or magazine ad, Walt always knew how the public would respond. Of course, he did this without any reliance on demographic surveys and focus groups.
He would either love or hate what you presented to him. Some story guys agonized over such pointed criticism while I considered it a blessing. Knowing where you stand is far better than remaining in the dark. Walt Disney was always clear in letting you know whether you had succeeded or failed, but never blamed you for falling short and always encouraged you to do better.
Walt Disney was an American icon. Whether you loved the Disney product or not, there’s no denying the incredible impact he’s had on our culture, and culture worldwide. He was the ultimate conservative yet incredibly progressive. A man of his time, he restricted most (but not all) women to a separate building on his studio lot probably to prevent any distractions from getting the work done.
Yet, the same boss employed minorities without regard to their religion or ethnicity. Since his death in 1966 I’ve tried to learn more about this incredible gentleman in hopes of completing a challenging puzzle.
On a beautiful Saturday morning I sat with Diane Disney Miller at her home in Napa Valley, California, and chatted with her about her dad. She hated the misinformation and distortions from the media and clueless celebrities. For some sad reason, people believed the worst about their heroes.
What makes Walt Disney so remarkable was the fact he was such an ordinary man. Walt was authentic and free of the pretensions that characterize so much of the entertainment business today. He was our boss, visionary, and leader, and I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of him again.
One morning in the 1960s, a little old woman in a horse and wagon showed up at the studio main gate. Believe me, it’s true. Somehow this woman had braved the San Fernando Valley vehicular traffic in a horse and carriage. The woman had traveled miles to personally deliver a manuscript to Walt Disney.
Any other studio boss would have ignored the incident. However, Walt Disney left his third-floor office and walked out to the main gate to meet for quite some time with the strange little woman.
By chance, the two of us took the same path back to the Animation Building. He chuckled, shrugged his shoulders, and remarked, “The world is full of peculiar people.” This simple, kind gesture impressed me. Can you imagine the CEO of any company doing that today?
Since I am one of the last men standing who actually worked with Walt Disney, I am often dragged out for interviews or doing things like the foreword to this book. One such experience was a four-hour documentary on the PBS show American Experience in 2015.
Perhaps the producers should be cut some slack because they were clearly faced with a daunting challenge. In many ways there was almost too much information on the subject.
Just how does one tell the story of a man as fascinating as Walt Disney? How do you capture his amazing life and career in a four-hour time span? But why did they get so many things wrong when information was readily available?
And, who decided that the plain and simple farm boy from Marceline was a dark and tormented individual? What made them think that Midwestern Walt Disney craved adulation from the crowd and acceptance from the intellectuals and critics? They thought these things because they didn’t know Walt Disney, and therein lies the problem.
The producers sought to add credibility to their opus by engaging a number of historians and film critics to provide gravitas to the “low-brow cartoon maker.” It struck me as condescending and failed to reflect the man I observed and worked for over a ten-year period.
These missteps were not due to a lack of information. It was all there, and more. It would appear the producers decided to cherry pick what would perpetuate their own bias. Fearful of creating a Disney-fied Pollyanna narrative, the producers made a film full of cynicism. Something that Walt Disney was definitely not.
Lacking in the film’s four hours was true balance. Such as, if half of Walt’s animation staff walked out back in the 1940s, why did the other half decide to stay? If Uncle Walt was such a ruthless bastard, how did he garner such incredible loyalty? If Disneyland is such a shallow, idealistic sham, why do millions flock to the park each year? Walt had no political or social agenda while building Disneyland. He simply wanted a happy place where families could spend time together.
Finally, the idea that Walt lost interest in animation while making Cinderella (1950) is pure bunk. Walt was totally engaged in every film, including his last, The Jungle Book, even though his health was poor. I worked on that film and saw it.
Walt Disney was a simple farm boy whose scrappy determination helped him realize the American dream. He held no college degrees yet took every opportunity to educate himself. He was an entertainer, visionary, and an idealist. He loved people and was free of pretension. Walt Disney was authentic. He was everything good about the common man.
I first met Jim Korkis when our mutual friend, writer Mark Evanier, brought him over to the Hanna-Barbera Studio where I was working in the 1980s. In those days, Jim was writing about animation history for magazines and books. Jim was pleasant and eager but filled with questions, and he spent quite some time with me summarizing my animation career and sharing stories like some of the ones I have shared here.
Over the years, Jim’s enthusiasm has not dimmed, although his focus has shifted to the worlds of Disney. When I visited the Disney Institute in Florida to work on a “How to Draw Mickey Mouse” instructional video, Jim was in the room as an animation instructor offering his ideas. When Jim needed a foreword to help put the Disney feature film Song of the South in proper perspective for his book Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South?, I was happy and honored to oblige.
Jim has authored nearly twenty books about Disney. The late Diane Disney Miller was a big supporter of his chronicling the truth about her father and was amazed that he uncovered so many things she never knew.
In this book, Jim has taken the unusual angle of not just writing another biography of Walt, but breaking down into specific categories various aspects of Walt as a person in the hopes that it will serve as a valuable reference for those wanting to know or write about the Old Maestro. He even debunks most of the myths that have grown around Walt in the years since his death.
Knowing that this approach was so important to Diane Disney Miller, I simply could not refuse when Jim asked me to write a few words about my memories of Walt. I am sure that, like Diane, I will learn quite a few things as well, and am happy that a more accurate portrait of the man I knew will be available for others as well.
This is not a biography of Walt Disney. Dozens of biographies have been written about Walt Disney with even more to come. Some of them are quite good. Too many of them are pretty bad.
This book is not chronological. It does not begin with Walt’s birth and then proceed with a determined path until his death. It is a compilation of different topics and the chapters are self-contained so they can be read in any order.
This book is not a listing of all of Walt’s accomplishments. Walt was influential in many different areas during his lifetime, from animation to live-action films to outdoor entertainment to television to merchandise.
This book is meant to focus on Walt as a person rather than as an entrepreneur. As a result, there are no chapters on Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disneyland, audio-animatronics, and all the other impressive achievements that have been covered so often and so extensively in so many other books. People often define Walt only by what he did, not by who he was.
This book is not definitive or complete. Walt’s life was so rich and eventful that it is doubtful any one book could fully capture it all. He lived a life filled with enough adventures to encompass several lifetimes. Amazingly, these triumphs were done concurrently with other major projects.
This book may not really be everything you never knew about Walt, but it is filled with many things that are usually not covered elsewhere, and with some items that may still surprise even the most diligent Walt scholar. I have tried my best to share the humanity behind the icon whose importance and influence continues to grow with each passing year.
Walt was a son, a brother, a husband, a father, and a grandfather, as well as a Hollywood movie producer and celebrity. He was passionately interested in a variety of things and his curiosity kept leading him into new areas.
For the generations that grew up not seeing Walt on his weekly television show, he is too often thought of as either like Betty Crocker, a completely fictional icon created to represent the company, or Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, an old man who started the company but had little to no day-to-day influence on it in his later years, and was merely a figurehead who made occasional publicity appearances and was featured on merchandise.
Walt was neither. He was a very real ball of charismatic energy who even on his death bed was developing visionary plans for the future.
Everyone, including those who worked closely with him, seems to have seen different perspectives, just like the classic tale of the blind men and the elephant. One blind man feels the trunk and assumes that the elephant is like a snake. Another feels a leg and immediately insists that the elephant is like a pillar. Yet another feels the ear and decides that the elephant must be like a big leaf. They each make their odd assumptions from experiencing only a small part of the overall whole.
This book is non-judgmental and does not presume to interpret what Walt might have been thinking or why he made certain choices. The facts are presented so that the readers can form their own opinions.
This book does not ignore Walt’s stubbornness, his temper, his eccentricities, or the occasional mis-steps he made, but does not dwell on them either. All these things are part of what made him Walt Disney. In the final accounting, he had significantly more hits than misses.
Not everyone always liked Walt Disney, but just about everyone respected him. He had a good heart and tried to make things better. He was human, so he occasionally stumbled. He doesn’t need to be deified, but does not need to be demonized either, which seems to be the current popular choice.
His daughter, Diane Disney Miller, told me:
Dad was just as simple and as complicated as you might imagine. He lived a very good life and helped others to do the same. He was always straightforward, never devious.
As more and more time passes between Walt’s death over half a century ago, and fewer and fewer people who actually knew and worked with him are left to explain who he really was and to defend him from falsehoods, it becomes increasingly important to have the real facts about him in one location and easily accessible for those who are interested in this unique man.
A gag among the animators at the Disney studio was: “Who’s the boss today? The one with the harp and halo or the one in the wounded bear suit?”
The reference to a wounded bear was that the creature was in pain and might lash out unexpectedly if you poked it.
Walt was a human being who had a special knack of seeing things differently and having the determination to make dreams a reality. Even fifty years after his death, what he did and who he was continue to influence people.
While I never met Walt, I grew up watching him every week on television and assumed that was an accurate reflection of who he really was. Over the last forty years, I have interviewed extensively people who did know him (some of that material is presented in this book) and they confirmed my assumption.
Disney animator Ward Kimball, who knew Walt about as well as anyone, told me:
The bottom line was Walt was a down-to-earth farmer’s son who just happened to be a genius. Walt played the role of the bashful tycoon who was embarrassed in public, but he knew exactly what he was doing at all times.
Some of the material that appears in the following chapters previously appeared in a different form in books and articles I have written over the past decades. I cannot assume that everyone reading this book has a complete collection of my books and articles or is familiar with these facts that to some people are considered common knowledge.
Any of the previously existing material that I have included has been rewritten and updated from its earlier publication so that it can be the most accurate resource.
I have included direct quotes from Walt himself, quotes from those who knew him, and anecdotes that might help reveal who he was.
I freely admit that I have great affection and respect for Walt Disney and that may influence the tone of the material, but never at the expense of telling the truth. With all the questions this book answers, even more questions have arisen. Walt was larger-than-life and cannot be contained within one book.
Hopefully, this book will serve as a quick and accurate reference for those people who want to know about Walt Disney as a person. However, new discoveries about Walt and his life are being made every day, so even decades after his death, his full story has yet to be told.
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney historian who has written twenty books and hundreds of articles about all things Disney for the past thirty-five years. He has been able to meet and interview many of Walt’s original animators and Imagineers and used that material in this book.
Jim’s first-grade teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Glendale, California, was Mrs. Margaret Disney, Herbert Disney’s second wife. Decades later, Jim met and communicated with Diane Disney Miller, Walt’s oldest daughter, and has also used that material in this book. She wrote the foreword for Jim’s first book, The Vault of Walt.
In 1995, Jim relocated to Orlando, Florida, where he worked for Walt Disney World in a variety of capacities including Entertainment, Animation, Disney Institute, Disney University, College and International Programs, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Design Group, and Marketing.
His original research on Disney history has been used often by the Disney company as well as other organizations including the Disney Family Museum.
Jim is not currently an employee of the Disney company.
Several websites feature Jim’s articles about Disney history:
Jim appears frequently on podcasts and at special events, and has been a speaker at the Walt Disney Family Museum.
To read more stories by Jim Korkis about Disney history, please check out his other books, all available from Theme Park Press.
Walt's taste in clothing ran from the rumpled to the refined. In his earlier years he went for a rakish look, and of course this meant fedoras. He was usually able to keep them on his head, except when his wife, Lilly, threw them into the road.
Walt’s earliest clothes were often “hand-me-downs” from his older brothers that his mother adjusted for him.
When Walt was running his Laugh-O-gram studio, he did not own a suit. He had a pair of loud, thread-bare, black-and-white checked trousers, a checkered jacket, a gabardine raincoat, and an old brown cardigan.
For Walt’s trip to Hollywood in 1923, his brother Herbert’s mother-in-law loaned him a suit of her son’s clothes. He bought a five-dollar pair of Walkover shoes with money from selling his movie camera.
Walt never really had much of a sense of fashion. At the early days of the Disney studio, he wore knickers with long, colorfully designed wool socks. Rather than any type of jacket, he frequently wore sweaters or sweater vests.
His wife Lillian recalled Walt asking her one night:
“If I get a suit, can I come and see you?” So he went down to Foreman & Clarks with Roy. Walt got a two-pants suit and Roy a one-pants suit. Then one night he came to see me at home and met the family. He stood up and turned around and said, “Well, how do you like my suit?” He was so proud. The family liked him immediately.
In the February 1934 issue of Hearst’s International Cosmopolitan magazine, the writer described Walt:
He is a good-looking fellow. A quick description of him would be “a younger edition of Adolphe Menjou.” However, he doesn’t strive to be well-dressed. His studio attire ranges from business suits to blue-denim overalls and tennis shoes. He will walk around the lot stripped to the waist on hot days.
Walt’s taste in clothes became more conservative as he grew older. He no longer wore the sporty and somewhat flamboyant outfits. A New York Times reporter in 1939 described Walt frequently wearing a Tyrolean jacket that was purplish on the outside and red satin on the inside with silver buttons the size of half dollars and that Walt was pleased by the impact it made.
Winston Hibler and Hal Adelquist, in the employee handbook Ropes at Disney (1943), wrote:
This is a “no-necktie-and-slacks” organization. “Businesslike informality” is an accepted Disney policy which has done much to maintain a friendly relationship between Company and employee.
That same philosophy is one of the reasons for everyone being addressed by their first name so there was no indication of status.
Walt felt wearing a fedora at a slight angle made him look dashing. He owned an assortment of various hats including gray fedoras, feathered Tyroleans, white straw panamas, and even tan Stetsons, though producer Harry Tytle recalled:
It was characteristic of him that the hats he wore, although expensive, were rather battered and askew.
Walt’s neice, Marjorie Davis, remembered:
He wore hats quite a bit. He would pick them up by the crown and put them on his head and Aunt Lilly would say, “Walt, fix that hat!” One time she took his hat off his head—that’s when he had a convertible—and threw it out of the car.
He stopped the car, went back, and got it. He took one of his hats, made a heart shape out of the crown, had it bronzed, and filled it with flowers for Aunt Lilly for Valentine’s Day.
The hat was put on a plaque reading “To Lilly from Walt. February 15, 1941,” and was still hanging at their Carolwood home in 1994.
Continued in "Call Me Walt"!
According to a story told by then child actor Mickey Rooney, Walt called him into his office one afternoon and asked him to sit on his lap. Nowadays, you can lose your career over stuff like that. So it's a good thing Mickey Rooney lied about it, among other things.
Walt Disney originally intended to call his creation “Mortimer Mouse,” but at the urging of his wife, Lillian, the name was changed to “Mickey.” There is much independent documentation that confirms the story.
On Friday, May 21, 2004, the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters had a luncheon honoring the then 83-year-old actor Mickey Rooney in southern California. At the presentation, Rooney told one of his favorite anecdotes that first appeared in his 1991 autobiography Life Is Too Short.
On a lunch break while filming the Mickey McGuire comedies, five-year-old Rooney walked by an open office at Warner Bros studios, poked his head in, and introduced himself.
“Who are you?” I asked the guy working there.
“My name is Walt Disney,” he said. “Come over and sit on my lap.”
So I went over and sat on his lap, and there was a mouse he had drawn.
“My gosh, that’s a good-looking mouse, Mr. Disney.”
“It sure is, Mickey,” he said, and he stopped and looked into space for a minute. “Mickey, Mickey,” he said. “Tell me something, how would you like me to name this mouse after you?”
I said, “I sure would like that, but right now I got to go and get a tuna sandwich.” And I jumped down.
“It’s a true story,” added Rooney as he regaled the crowd.
It’s not a true story. Rooney only began telling this fabrication decades after Walt Disney died.
Sometimes Rooney claimed he was walking down the street on the back lot and Walt called out to him from his office window to come in and look at his new character. Sometimes Rooney murmurs the word “Mickey” under his breath repeatedly and Walt gets a “thoughtful look.” Sometimes it is a cheese sandwich. In all these variations, Rooney claims he was the inspiration for the name of Mickey Mouse.
Mickey Mouse was created in 1928. Mickey Rooney didn’t even become Mickey Rooney until he officially changed his name in 1932. He was born Joe Yule Jr. on September 23, 1920, and that was his name in 1928.
Rooney got his big break in films at the age of six when he was cast as the lead in a series of several dozen comedy two-reelers beginning in 1927 named for “Mickey McGuire,” a character from a popular newspaper comic strip known as the Toonerville Folks by Fontaine Fox.
He would have been at least seven years old, not five, when he supposedly met Walt Disney and Joe Yule Jr. might have referred to himself as “Mickey” rather than his real name.
Except Walt never had an office at Warner Bros or at any other studio other than his own. Not only did Disney have his own studio on Hyperion Avenue at this time, but his Alice Comedies and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons were made at that studio and distributed by Universal. There never was a Warner Bros connection.
Walt Disney loved telling stories and if there were any truth at all in this story connecting the creation of his mouse with a young Mickey Rooney, he would have loved to share it with reporters because it would have garnered publicity.
While it might be interesting to speculate whether or not the popularity of the “Mickey McGuire” character in films, comic strip, and merchandising planted the “Mickey” name in the consciousness of Walt and his wife, Lillian, it is apparent that it was not a chance meeting between Mickey Rooney and Walt Disney that gave the world a “Mickey.”
Continued in "Call Me Walt"!