In 1935, as the artists and animators at the Disney Studio toiled on the animated feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt and Roy Disney traveled with their wives to New York and boarded the luxury liner Normandie to begin their “grand tour” of Europe.
With the full cooperation of Walt’s late daughter Diane Disney Miller, Didier Ghez spent years researching this seminal but little-known event that became so vital to the continued growth of the Disney company right through the creation of Disneyland two decades later. His book, Disney’s Grand Tour, is the culmination of that research.
The early 1930s was a crucial time for Walt Disney: despite the global success of Mickey Mouse, Walt knew he couldn't rely on his iconic alter-ego to sustain his studio indefinitely. He needed new triumphs. So he staked his creative future and his cinematic fortune on Snow White. But the pressure was edging Walt ever closer to another nervous breakdown; he needed a vacation.
Walt's brother Roy suggested a trip to Europe with their wives. The trip would take the Disneys from England to France, Germany, and Italy, and then back home. While the couples intended to relax and enjoy the comforts of Old World Europe, as well as the gala events held in their honor, Walt also had business in mind: his grand tour was not just about taking in the sights but about building the Disney brand in Europe and bringing back to America ideas and source material for new films, new cartoons, and far down the road, a new theme park.
In Disney’s Grand Tour, famed historian Didier Ghez traces the footsteps of Walt and Roy Disney as they board the Normandie in New York and sail to England, then travel through France, Germany, and Italy prior to boarding another luxury liner for the trip home.
But the book is no mere travelogue: you will be at Walt’s side as he conducts Disney business; meets H.G. Wells, Louis Lumiere, and other notables; attends shows, concerts, and ceremonies; and recharges his creative powers for the astonishing Disney projects ahead.
Your trip with Walt and Roy includes:
And much more!
In addition to the many “small and delightful surprises” that noted animation historian (and author of The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney) Michael Barrier mentions in his preface to the book, Disney’s Grand Tour features over 200 notes for those inclined to dig deeper into the story. It also contains a list of the hundreds of books that Walt personally selected in Europe for transfer back to the Disney Studio library. These books inspired Disney artists and animators for decades.
So pack your bags. The Normandie whistle blows. Embark with Walt Disney and join him on a grand tour of Europe!
Foreword by Diane Disney Miller
Preface by Michael Barrier
Introduction by Didier Ghez
By Train: The Trip from California to New York
Traveling in Style
England and Scotland
A Country in Love with Disney
Mobbed by the Press
Walt and the Penguins
Social Events and Wardrobe Misadventures
Busy Business Days at Astoria House
The Disneys in English Wonderland
Meeting a Visionary and the Tramp
Old Castle Secrets
Social and Charitable Events
French Artists and the Americans in Paris
The Legend of the “League of Nations” Medal
Business and Pleasure in Paris
In the Right Place at the Right Time
Reassuring News from Home
The Clock That Walt Loved
Germany, Austria, and Switzerland
A Meeting Which Never Happened
An Historic Day in Italian Disney History
Italian Music and American Drama
The Roman Holiday
Two Other Meetings Which Never Happened
Echoes of Things to Come: Pinocchio and Fantasia
The Journey Home
Beyond the European Vacation
Appendix: List of Books Brought Back from the Trip
In the summer of 1935 my dad was deeply involved in the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He had actually begun the project in 1932, and the film wouldn’t be released until 1937, but it would be his first feature-length cartoon, a massive undertaking that many were uneasy about.
At this point, midway in the project, my Uncle Roy, ever vigilant and concerned with the well-being of his younger brother, sensed that Dad needed a break. He proposed that they, the two couples, take a trip to Europe. They did. It was their first trip to Europe, though Dad had spent his seventeenth year in France with the Red Cross. They were gone for two months, starting in London, and it was a very important trip in many ways. Edna and Roy kept a journal of the trip, citing every place they went and just about everyone they met. My cousin Roy had sent me a copy of this journal, and I shared it with Didier.
Didier took Edna and Roy’s journal much further, and delved very thoroughly into every aspect of this trip. A press agent had stated at the outset that the group, when in Rome, would meet both the Pope and Mussolini. They met neither, but rumor had persisted that they did meet Il Duce. My mother had told me much about that trip over the years. She’d mentioned that they did not meet Mussolini, but did meet his daughter and her husband, Count Ciano, who my mother said was “very handsome”. My father never said much about the trip, but we did have his 16mm films of it.
Didier was determined to get to the bottom of that rumor, and to follow up on things that Roy and Edna did not detail in their journal.
When they reached Lake Como they lingered there for some time, staying at Villa d’Este. Dad and Roy would make day trips to Milan on business, while Mother and Edna enjoyed the lake and the ambience of the lovely hotel. It was here that they met the Mondadori family, which was the beginning of a long relationship with Mondadori Press. It was very much a business trip for Roy, and definitely a P.R. and good-will trip for Dad. Everywhere they went they were received with great interest by the press, and Dad made himself very available to them, as he always has. Dad returned encouraged and refreshed to get back to work on Snow White, and Roy made many subsequent trips to the European offices that they had established.
Didier has left no stone unturned. Every moment is accounted for in his monograph. He is the consummate historical sleuth and he seeks the truth, as we do. His narrative is really fascinating, and a very important segment of the history of the company.
A few years ago, when I was writing my book The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney and my wife was reading the manuscript, she surprised me one evening by laughing in astonishment. It was Walt who made her laugh—because, she said, he was always doing things, he was never still, his curiosity kept leading him in new directions. Just reading about him, it was hard to keep up. I understood what she was saying. For me, that is why learning about Walt and writing about him has always been a great pleasure. He was an exceptionally active and interesting man at every point in his life.
In recent years, thanks to Disney scholars like Tim Susanin, J.B. Kaufman, Paul F. Anderson, Todd James Pierce, and others too numerous to mention, more and more phases of this extraordinary man’s life have been illuminated in books and websites. In my own case, I have concentrated on his work as a filmmaker, particularly the animated films. The documentation of that part of his life is abundant, and I’ve never tired of exploring it.
One crucial passage in his life has been neglected—understandably, because the task of filling that gap was so intimidating. Walt Disney, his brother Roy, and their wives spent two months in Europe in the summer of 1935, visiting great cities and historic sites. We have known about the general contours of that trip, or thought we did, thanks mainly to scrappy reports in old American newspapers. An award from the League of Nations in Paris…a meeting with Mussolini in Rome…adoring crowds everywhere…Walt scooping up illustrated books that might be of use in making his animated cartoons. But the details have eluded us, hidden behind barriers of time and especially language.
Some of what we thought we knew was true—the crowds were large and enthusiastic, and Walt did buy a lot of books. But the award did not come from the League of Nations, and the Disneys did not meet Mussolini (or the Pope, as some people have thought).
A great deal of fresh information about that trip has now come to light, thanks to Didier Ghez and the remarkably large number of Disney scholars—including some within the Walt Disney Company itself, at the Walt Disney Archives—whose help he has enlisted in tracking down elusive facts, from a multiplicity of sources and in several different languages.
Thanks to Didier, we now know much more about the Disneys’ trip on a day-to-day basis—where they went, where they stayed, what they did—from the time they left Los Angeles until the time they returned. We also know much more about the trip’s business dimensions. There is a rich mine of information in this book for future chroniclers of the Disney Company’s overseas activities and Roy Disney’s role in them.
And then there are the book’s small and delightful surprises. Did we know that Gunther Lessing, the Disneys’ intimidating lawyer, had a sly sense of humor? Now we do, thanks to his tongue-in-cheek correspondence with Roy Disney. There is even a list of the highly eclectic selection of more than three hundred books that Walt brought back from Europe.
Disney’s Grand Tour is a remarkable effort, one for which everyone who cares about Walt Disney and his creations should be grateful.
For more than twenty years, I kept hitting a brick wall.
The official history of Disney in Europe seemed to start after World War II. We all knew about the various Disney magazines which existed in the Old World in the ‘30s, and we knew about the highly-prized pre-World War II collectibles. That was about it. The rest of the story was not even sketchy: it remained a complete mystery. For a Disney historian born and raised in Paris this was highly unsatisfactory. I wanted to understand much more: How did it all start? Who were the men and women who helped establish and grow Disney’s presence in Europe? How many were they? Were there any talented artists among them? How did the businessmen operate? Where exactly did Disney have offices? How were those offices structured? How did Walt and Roy interact with them?
I managed to chip away at the brick wall, by learning about the existence of Disney’s first representative in Europe, William Banks Levy; by learning the name George Kamen; and by piecing together the story of some of the early Disney licensees. This was still highly unsatisfactory. We had never seen a photo of Bill Levy, there was little that we knew about George Kamen’s career, and the overall picture simply was not there.
Then, in July 2011, Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney’s daughter, asked me a seemingly simple question: “Do you know if any photos were taken during the ‘League of Nations’ event that my father attended during his trip to Paris in 1935?” And the solution to the great Disney European mystery started to unravel. This “simple” question from Diane proved to be anything but. It also allowed me to focus on an event, Walt’s visit to Europe in 1935, which gave me the key to the mysteries I had been investigating for twenty-three years. Remarkably, in just two years most of the answers were found.
As we will see, Walt’s trip to Europe with his family proved to be one of the most influential journeys he ever undertook. It took place in the midst of the Golden Age of Disney animation, at the height of Walt’s international fame and professional success, and had a tremendous impact on his sources of inspiration and on his understanding of the world. The itinerary of the journey (United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy) was reminiscent of the one young aristocrats from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century would follow during their Grand Tour, the traditional initiatory trip of their youth. No history of Disney would be complete without a thorough understanding of what happened during Disney’s Grand Tour and what it meant to Walt and to those who surrounded him.
It was therefore with pure delight that I read Roy and Edna Disney’s diary of the trip and that I explored Walt and Roy’s correspondence from the months of June and July 1935.
But what made the journey even more special from my standpoint is that the mystery I had struggled with for so many years started to unravel: I finally understood the history of Disney in Europe before the Second World War. I discovered who was who; I understood how the Disneys had set-up their operations in Europe and how those structures had evolved during the ’30s; I understood how their European creative and business ventures operated and how they interacted with them. In other words, following a thin thread, I was able to peek behind the brick wall.
Why did it take so long? In short, because solving the mystery meant reaching a very high level of maturity in terms of Disney knowledge and personal knowledge, as well as being helped by tools which did not exist even a few years ago.
From a personal standpoint, I had to be able to read documents in French, English, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, and to get help when it came to translating those in German, Swedish, and Danish. The mastery of those languages took years to achieve.
From a Disney-knowledge standpoint, I had to thoroughly understand the business history as well as the creative history of the company, I had to know who was who within the Disney corporate structure in the ‘30s, and I also had to locate many documents that were extremely well hidden, like the never-released autobiographies of O.B. Johnston, Jimmy Johnson, and Mel Shaw, or the Robert Hartman Papers. Each of them contained key pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, which shed new light on the entries in Roy and Edna’s diary and on Walt and Roy’s correspondence, all of which led to a cascade of new discoveries.
Finally, I was lucky to have access to tools that historians of the past did not have at their disposal. Although researching the origins of Walt Disney–Mickey Mouse S.A. at the Registre du Commerce is still done the old-fashioned way and involves physically getting there and being locked up in the room for several hours without any digital tool, there were many instances in which access to online archives proved to be a game-changer: from the Open Library, to Gallica.bnf.fr, to the online archives of the Daily Mirror and The New York Times. In one instance, the old and the new merged in astonishing ways: when I tried to locate the address of the 1930s Italian Ministry of Press and Propaganda (to find out if Walt had actually met Benito Mussolini), I had to rely on some 1934 footage which had been posted online, on an excerpt from a 1936 book quoted in an online forum, and on Google’s StreetView! None of these tools—old and new—alone would have done the trick.
In the end, the brick wall crumbled, and I am able to lead you to the other side. I thought I was just following Walt’s footsteps—I ended up discovering a whole new Disney History continent.
Didier Ghez has conducted Disney research since he was a teenager in the mid-1980s. His articles about the Disney parks, Disney animation, and vintage international Disneyana, as well as his many interviews with Disney artists, have appeared in Animation Journal, Animation Magazine, Disney Twenty-Three, Persistence of Vision, StoryboarD, and Tomart’s Disneyana Update. He is the co-author of Disneyland Paris: From Sketch to Reality, runs the Disney History blog, the Disney Books Network, and serves as managing editor of the Walt’s People book series.
If you have a question for Didier that you would like to see answered here, please get in touch and let us know what's on your mind.
About The Walt's People Series
GHEZ: The Walt’s People project was born out of an email conversation I conducted with Disney historian Jim Korkis in 2004. The Disney history magazine Persistence of Vision had not been published for years, The “E” Ticket magazine’s future was uncertain, and, of course, the grandfather of them all, Funnyworld, had passed away 20 years ago. As a result, access to serious Disney history was becoming harder that it had ever been.
The most frustrating part of this situation was that both Jim and I knew huge amounts of amazing material was sleeping in the cabinets of serious Disney historians, unavailable to others because no one would publish it. Some would surface from time to time in a book released by Disney Editions, some in a fanzine or on a website, but this seemed to happen less and less often. And what did surface was only the tip of the iceberg: Paul F. Anderson alone conducted more than 250 interviews over the years with Disney artists, most of whom are no longer with us today.
Jim had conceived the idea of a book originally called Talking Disney that would collect his best interviews with Disney artists. He suggested this to several publishers, but they all turned him down. They thought the potential market too small.
Jim’s idea, however, awakened long forgotten dreams, dreams that I had of becoming a publisher of Disney history books. By doing some research on the web I realized that new "print-on-demand" technology now allowed these dreams to become reality. This is how the project started.
Twelve volumes of Walt's People later, I decided to switch from print-on-demand to an established publisher, Theme Park Press, and am happy to say that Theme Park Press will soon re-release the earlier volumes, removing the few typos that they contain and improving the overall layout of the series.
To locate them, I usually check carefully the footnotes as well as the acknowledgments in other Disney history books, then get in touch with their authors. Also, I stay in touch with a network of Disney historians and researchers, and so I become aware of newly found documents, such as lost autobiographies, correspondence with Disney artists, and so forth, as soon as they've been discovered.
Yes, some interviews and autobiographical documents are extremely difficult to obtain. Many are only available on tapes and have to be transcribed (thanks to a network of volunteers without whom Walt’s People would not exist), which is a long and painstaking process. Some, like the seminal interview with Disney comic artist Paul Murry, took me years to obtain because even person who had originally conducted the interview could not find the tapes. But I am patient and persistent, and if there is a way to get the interview, I will try to get it, even if it takes years to do so.
One funny anecdote involves the autobiography of the Head of Disney’s Character Merchandising from the '40s to the '70s, O.B. Johnston. Nobody knew that his autobiography existed until I found a reference to an article Johnston had written for a Japanese magazine. The article was in Japanese. I managed to get a copy (which I could not read, of course) but by following the thread, I realized that it was an extract from Johnston’s autobiography, which had been written in English and was preserved by UCLA as part of the Walter Lantz Collection. (Later in his career Johnston had worked with Woody Woodpecker’s creator.) Unfortunately, UCLA did not allow anyone to make copies of the manuscript. By posting a note on the Disney History blog a few weeks later, I was lucky enough to be contacted by a friend of Johnston's family, who lives in England and who had a copy of the manuscript. This document will be included in a book, Roy's People, that will focus on the people who worked for Walt's brother Roy.
That is a tough question. The more volumes I release, the more I find outstanding interviews that should be made public, not to mention the interviews that I and a few others continue to conduct on an ongoing basis. I will need at least another 15 to 17 volumes to get most of the interviews in print.
About Disney's Grand Tour
DIDIER: The research took me close to 25 years. The actual writing took two-and-a-half years.
The official history of Disney in Europe seemed to start after World War II. We all knew about the various Disney magazines which existed in the Old World in the '30s, and we knew about the highly-prized, pre-World War II collectibles. That was about it. The rest of the story was not even sketchy: it remained a complete mystery. For a Disney historian born and raised in Paris this was highly unsatisfactory. I wanted to understand much more: How did it all start? Who were the men and women who helped establish and grow Disney's presence in Europe? How many were they? Were there any talented artists among them? And so forth.
I managed to chip away at the brick wall, by learning about the existence of Disney's first representative in Europe, William Banks Levy; by learning the name George Kamen; and by piecing together the story of some of the early Disney licensees. This was still highly unsatisfactory. We had never seen a photo of Bill Levy, there was little that we knew about George Kamen's career, and the overall picture simply was not there.
Then, in July 2011, Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney's daughter, asked me a seemingly simple question: "Do you know if any photos were taken during the 'League of Nations' event that my father attended during his trip to Paris in 1935?" And the solution to the great Disney European mystery started to unravel. This "simple" question from Diane proved to be anything but. It also allowed me to focus on an event, Walt's visit to Europe in 1935, which gave me the key to the mysteries I had been investigating for twenty-three years. Remarkably, in just two years most of the answers were found.
DIDIER: Yes, I believe that casual readers, not just Disney historians, will find it a fun read. The book is heavily illustrated. We travel with Walt and his family. We see what they see and enjoy what they enjoy. And the book is full of quotes from the people who were there: Roy and Edna Disney, of course, but also many of the celebrities and interesting individuals that the Disneys met during the trip. And on top of all of this, there is the historical detective work, that I believe is quite fun: the mysteries explored in the book unravel step by step, and it is often like reading a historical novel mixed with a detective story, although the book is strict non-fiction.
DIDIER: Those books provided massive new sources of inspiration to the Story Department. "Some of those little books which I brought back with me from Europe," Walt remarked in a memo dated December 23, 1935, "have very fascinating illustrations of little peoples, bees, and small insects who live in mushrooms, pumpkins, etc. This quaint atmosphere fascinates me."
DIDIER: There are still a million events in Walt's life and career which need to be explored in detail. To name a few:
The list goes on almost forever.
Didier Ghez has edited:
In this excerpt, from "England and Scotland", Didier describes the press frenzy upon Walt's arrival in London, with a tantalizing hint about Snow White.
Accordingly, when the Disneys arrived in London they first went to the offices of the B.B.C. where Walt was interviewed on the radio. When the program was over, according to an article released in the September 1935 issue of the Mickey Mouse Magazine, and supposedly written by Mickey Mouse, Walt “hopped into a taxi to go to our hotel, and when we glanced back, we saw just hundreds of boys on bicycles following us. They wanted Uncle Walt’s autograph. One boy who could ride faster than the rest caught up with us and tossed his autograph album into the window of the cab!”
The Disneys checked in at the Grosvenor House, a prestigious hotel, close to Hyde Park and not too far away from Marble Arch. In 1934 the hotel had hosted a show called Monte Carlo Follies, which featured Hilda Knight and Evelyn Dall as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, as well as a cast of young women (Rosalie Franson, Estelle Essex, and Annabelle Lancaster) as the Three Little Pigs, and Bob Robinson as the Big Bad Wolf.
But if the Disneys expected to find peace and quiet at the hotel they were mistaken. “The rooms were full of reporters,” wrote Edna [Roy Disney's wife]. “They all asked Walt questions at the same time. We were all pretty tired when it was all finished. Walt broadcasted in the evening.”
Journalist Paul Holt, writing for the Daily Express, also described the chaotic atmosphere as:
“[… ]the craziest mass interview I have ever attended. A whole floor of the Grosvenor House was taken. A hundred pressmen followed Disney from room to room. They drove him before them like a docile sheep. In the bathroom I heard him giving a considered verdict on the future of the color film. Five minutes later, sitting on his wife’s bed, I saw him turn the other way and light a cigarette when somebody said, ‘Will Mickey ever marry, Mr. Disney?’ Throughout the storm his wife, a pretty demure brunette, sat quietly in a corner, smothered in orchids, and said to all questions: ‘Yes, I think so’ or ‘Ask my husband.’ From time to time I saw Disney look across at her and grin.”
Having interviewed Lilly, a film critic from the Daily Mirror reported:
“Mrs. Disney told me that her first view of England from the train of the glorious Devon countryside reminded her of a picture book. She added that her one regret at leaving Hollywood, where, incidentally the weather has been just as erratic as it is now in England, was having to part from Diane, her seventeen-month-old daughter.”
According to an article in the Portuguese magazine Cinéfilo, uncovered by Spanish journalist Jorge Fonte, Walt also said that he just “wanted to rest, see a match of polo, the only sport of which he is a fan, enjoy the scenery and see how his movies make people laugh in London. Then visit Europe. France, Italy, Spain and Portugal are the countries that he wants to know.”
But the Disneys would later abandon the idea of visiting the Iberian Peninsula. On July 1, Roy [Walt's brother] wrote to [Disney lawyer] Gunther Lessing: “We gave up the idea to go to Spain. Transportation facilities, we are told, are very poor and it is a tiresome long trip both in and out.”
A Spanish newspaper covering the same improvised press conference also explained that while visiting Switzerland later on during the trip, Walt was planning to meet the ten-year-old King of Siam who had sent him a telegram when Walt arrived in England.
What else did Walt actually tell the press that day? The West Australian newspaper has the most detailed account of Walt’s press conference:
“Over here I am going to visit as many cinemas as possible to watch the reactions of the audience and gain fresh ideas.”
“Can I laugh at my own cartoons in the theater? No. When we think of the ideas, we may get a good laugh then. But in the cinema one is too familiar with the jokes and too occupied with technique to do anything but ‘cry’ at missed opportunities and errors in recording.”
“It is true that some of the animal characters are based on human prototypes. Max Baer was definitely the figure behind the overconfident Hare in The Tortoise and the Hare, and Charles Butterworth, the film comedian, was the original of the Tortoise. We try to think of certain types of personalities. It helps the cartoonist in giving life to the animal characters.”
“Yes, I’m fond of Mickey. After all I’ve spoken with his voice for so many years now that I’m beginning to feel identified with him. But he’s a good mouse, and sometimes his repressions get on our nerves. That’s why we’ve created Donald Duck. Donald is an escape from Mickey’s inhibitions. He’s a composite of all the people you don’t like and a few of the people you do.”
“I was never very good at drawing. Perhaps it’s just as well I stopped when I did. I should never have made a success of it. Today I do not even draw the key pictures in my cartoons. I don’t suppose I’ve had a draftsman’s pen in my hand for three or four years. My job is supervision—coordination of ideas.”
“At present I’m working on a full-length feature cartoon (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). It is still in the rough draft and should take about a year to make. We hope to develop personalities that will be interesting enough to run through the picture without bringing in any human actors. I’m also working on a mystery thriller (Who Killed Cock Robin?). And, later on, you may see some new characters in the shape of wolf cubs—small bad sons of a big bad father.”
Here are just a few examples of the over 60 photos in the book: