Letters to Ruth Disneyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Siblings are interesting. I have two brothers who I both love and respect. We've performed in theatrical plays and on television shows (The Gong Show, The Dating Game, Family Feud, etc.) together and shared many "ups" and "downs."
However, if a future biographer ever contacted them about my life, he would be surprised to learn that they have never read any Disney-related article or book I have ever written in more than 30 years… even the ones where I mention them—like this one. They would be hard pressed to name even one "Disney" friend in my life and have recently told me that, if I should die, they would have no idea what to do with my extensive Disney collection other than dumping it in the trash or trying to sell it at a yard sale for $1 an item.
Sometimes, even the best of siblings have no clue and that's just the way it is. Other times, siblings can provide a different perspective about a person and can sometimes share items that they have saved that enrich that perspective. That was the case with Ruth Disney.
While most of us have a passing familiarity that Walt had an older brother named Roy who seemed to be primarily interested in finance, few Disney fans know that Walt had two other older brothers (mailman Herbert and insurance salesman Raymond) and a younger sister, Ruth, who was closer in age to Walt and so tagged along everywhere and shared some of his earliest childhood adventures.
Ruth was the only girl that Elias and Flora produced and she was the childhood companion of Walt, attending Benton Grammar School with him. When Walt was 9 years old, Ruth became ill with the measles and Walt entertained her by drawing a series of figures on paper and then flipping them to make them appear to move. This was the first recorded attempt at animation by Walt.
Ruth was very shy and private and in later years protected Walt's privacy, as well. I only know of less than a half dozen interviews she ever gave over the decades.
"Walt always seemed like a kid to me," Ruth recalled.
Ruth Flora Disney was born December 6, 1903 in Chicago, Illinois, and died April 7, 1995 in Portland, Oregon, where she had been living for more than 50 years. Her husband was Theodore Charles Beecher (1906–1995) and they produced one son, Theodore Warren Beecher (June 10, 1940 – April 7, 2009) known most often as just "Ted" or "Teddy" (all three are buried in Lincoln Memorial Park in Portland.)
When she was 30-years-old, Ruth became infatuated with Theodore Beecher, who had no job and no prospects. She wrote to her brother Roy that they planned to build a house since Ted had been a sheet-metal worker and would do much of the construction himself.
After two years of marriage, the house was still incomplete. Older brother Roy wrote to his parents, "I don't know what it is all about, but from a distance I am sure fed up with that husband of hers and his activity or inactivity on that house."
"Ted hasn't anything, financially, but he has got time, plenty of it, on his hands—and nothing to do," wrote Ruth originally to her older brother Roy to ask him to lend her money to buy a lot and material for the house. Ruth married Ted on June 19, 1934. He never seemed to hold a steady job and Ruth often wrote to Walt and Roy for financial assistance. They usually complied as well as sending her Disney stock.
Her son, Ted married Carolyn Boggs in May 1964 and they had three children: Pamela, Daniel and William. Ted was active in many organizations, including being a member of the National Fantasy Fan Club (now known as the Disneyana Fan Club). His chapter in Clackamas, Ore., planted a tree in his memory in the garden of Marceline's Walt's Hometown Museum. (In a letter to Roy in 1956, Ruth wrote that a dentist had discovered 32 cavities in little Ted's teeth because of his excessive eating of sweets).
Walt would send an annual December birthday letter to Ruth, accompanied by a check so she could buy herself something she wanted, as well as the news that a selection of Disney-related merchandise was being sent to the younger Ted for Christmas.
"I always tell myself I'm going to buy you something for your birthday, but when I get right down to the matter of color, size and what, I'm bewildered and stuck. So here it is, the check—now you go out and buy something that you'll like," wrote Walt in his December 1951 letter.
He often began his Christmas letters to her apologizing for just sending a check but hoping she would use it to buy herself something nice.
Roy also wrote to his little sister, as well, and copies (to prevent exposure to heat and light) of both Walt's and Roy's letters are on display at Walt's Hometown Museum in Marceline, Missouri.
She did not attend Walt's small private funeral for fear of being mobbed by the media but did go to the services for the passing of Roy where more than 400 people were in attendance.
Shortly before her death at the age of 92, Ruth instructed her family to release these letters from her brothers as well as other items including photos, diaries and more to Kaye Malins who was creating the museum and who had become a friend in Ruth's final years. Ruth left specific instructions that she wanted the story of the Disney family, especially its time in Marceline, told.
In 1998, Malins got a call from Ruth's son, Ted, that his mom wanted Kaye to have a few personal items. A few days later, Kaye left for Oregon with one empty suitcase, assuming she might return with a few items that could be put on exhibit at the Marceline City Hall lobby.
The family had pulled things out of the closet, from under beds and other odd locations. Kaye eventually spent three weeks cataloging more than 3,000 items. It not only formed the basis of the museum's collection but encouraged four local Missouri donors to purchase the abandoned train station that became the physical home for the Marceline museum.
For all of you who have met Kaye in person, she is a firecracker. I love and respect her dearly and her passion for Disney storytelling is second to none. One of the stories she told me (and others like my good friend and Disney historian Werner Weiss) was how as she was going through the material, she ran across a receipt for a color television set that Walt had bought for Ruth in 1963 so she could enjoy his weekly television show.
"Oh," mentioned Ted casually, "we still have that old set downstairs if you would like it."
The television is on display in the museum.
"I'm glad you're looking forward to the television set," wrote Walt in December 1963. "I'm sure you will enjoy it. There's something about color television that gets you 'hooked' on watching TV all over again."
Here are just a few excerpts that caught my attention from some of Walt's annual letters to Ruth. Again, if this provokes any interest in the MousePlanet readership, there are more excerpts to share. Imagine getting an annual chatty letter from Walt Disney about his family and the studio and be thankful that Ruth saved them and decided to share them.
November 28, 1944:
It's been some time since I've had a chance to write to you so I hardly know where to start to bring you up to date, but anyway, here are the highlights of the happenings around the studio. To celebrate the completion of (The Three Caballeros), the boys and girls around her put on a big carnival-dance last Saturday night at the Oakmont Country Club. Most of them came in Latin costumes and there certainly were some pips on exhibition. Lilly [Walt's wife] wore a simple peasant outfit and had a good time with the rest of the bunch. Some well known stars also came out and enjoyed themselves. Probably the best-looking gal among them was Ilona Massey, the Hungarian actress. She is a beautiful blonde and a grand person along with it. Jack Haley and Carlos Ramirez were also there.
We are in the midst of getting another feature under way and that is the story of Uncle Remus. Tests were made last week on some prominent Negro actors for the part of Uncle Remus, but as yet we haven't selected our man, although we will decide definitely this week. Another story that we have in mind is based on the Currier and Ives drawings. They offer a lot of possibilities from a musical and cartoon standpoint.
December 5, 1945:
We are working on Uncle Remus, which will be done in combination live action and cartoon, as we did in The Three Caballeros. The live action has been finished for some time and now we are doing the animation. Jim Baskett, who does Uncle Remus, is the best actor, I believe, to be discovered in years. I am hoping that we can get out two or three features a year now, and are preparing stories for nearly five years ahead.
December 4, 1952:
I'm enclosing a newspaper clipping which gives you some idea about my newest project. I am hoping it will become a reality but at this point it's very much in the thinking and planning stage. This cabin (which I built myself) is a replica of Granny Kincaid's cabin from our picture So Dear To My Heart. I also made a spinning wheel, bed, tables, kitchen sink, rocker, chairs, and a number of other items that you are unable to see in these pictures, which are not particularly good anyway.
I've been collecting all sorts of miniature pieces for the past three or four years, with this project in mind. It's been a wonderful hobby for me and I find it is something very relaxing to turn to when studio problems become too hectic.
Incidentally, Herb retired December 1 after more than 37 years with the post office. Well, he's earned it and I hope he'll be happy. (Korkis comment: This refers to Walt's plans for a Disneylandia project and the cabin is preserved today in the One Man's Dream attraction at Disney Hollywood Studios. Herb was Walt's older brother.)
December 3, 1953:
I have just returned from Mexico City where I had to go for the premiere of Peter Pan. The proceeds from this showing went to a children's clinic which is sponsored by the president's wife. It was a successful affair and the picture was very well received.
Our Disneyland project is getting nearer an actuality all the time and I'm anxiously awaiting the time when it does get underway. In the meantime, we are gathering up all sorts of things for our exhibits. We have some wonderful old music boxes—about 30 miniature ponies that we keep out on the back end of the studio lot, with most of the mares in foal! Then there are three stage coaches that we made here at the studio—they're real beauties, painted in bright red, with gold trimmings. We're all very excited about this project and feel it will be a wonderful thing for everybody.
December 5, 1956:
Lilly and I have been at Palm Springs for the past week while I have been trying to recuperate from a flu bug which I picked up on our recent trip East. We just came in for the day and will go back down tomorrow, as I am still not quite up to par.
Our Eastern trip was a bit strenuous as we had a pretty tight schedule of stops at Williamsburg, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston and New York. Each day was crammed full of places to go and people to see… so there wasn't much time to rest. After I was laid low with flu, I still had TV and radio commitments to meet and had to haul myself out of bed to meet them. It was pretty rugged and that is probably why I have so much trouble getting rid of the germ.
Sharon [Walt's youngest daughter] is making like a career girl, with quite a string of modeling jobs to her credit… she is the "clothes horse" in the family so this work seems to be right up her alley. I let her have a try at acting in our latest live action picture, Johnny Tremain, but after this one stint, she has decided that modeling is still her first love and will stick to that.
Now that Ron is out of the service, he and Diane [Walt's oldest daughter] are settling down and are building themselves a home here in the Valley. While they are waiting for it to be completed, they are spending most of their time at the house with us, and although it gets a bit hectic at times, Granddaddy and Grandma are having the time of their lives with little Chris and Joanna. Joanna is as cute a little pixie as ever drew a breath and Chris is still as wonderful as ever.
December 4, 1957:
We were more than glad to return home after our two months abroad. Lilly just about had a fit having to be away from the grandchildren so long and I guess I'll have to admit to being homesick for them, too. We were as happy as two grandparents could be with just Chris and Joanna, but then little Tammy came along and found her little niche in our hearts, too.
December 6, 1958:
It seems to me that you and I have become another year older with unusual swiftness—it couldn't have been a year since I sent birthday wishes to you—but the calendar says so and here I am again.
Speaking of Christmas—little Joanna and Tammy gave us a chuckle the other day—(I should say another chuckle because our grandchildren manage to keep us smiling most of the time)—anyway, Joanna and Tammy asked for guns and holsters for Christmas. Lilly thought she hadn't heard right. We weren't surprised that this was Chris' wish, but it seemed to these old-fashioned grandparents that the little gals should want dolls—but guns it is! I guess little girls made of sugar and spice are things of the past. Although—in spite of the desire for guns, Joanna prefers skirts to blue jeans—Sharon has sore feet from trying to find an "Annie Oakley" outfit for her.
Roy, Edna, Lilly and I, as well as Roy Edward and Patty are going up to San Francisco next week to open the "Art of Animation" exhibit at the San Francisco Museum. We're looking forward to the trip. The exhibit was prepared here at the studio and shows the history of animation. The previews of the exhibit have been well received. You might like to see it.
December 6, 1959:
When we were in Ireland this summer for the premiere of Darby O'Gill, the Irishers presented me with a pony which they shipped over here. The little fellow—who incidentally was named "Darby O'Gill"—is being broken and fattened up and will eventually make a marvelous pony for the grandchildren. They already show an interest in ponies.
December 1, 1964:
December has rolled around again and somebody is sure to remember it is also birthday time. I plan to do all I can to ignore December 5 [Walt's birthday] and will not mention December 6 [Ruth's birthday] except to offer the enclosed (check) to help make it as nice a day as possible.
I may not be getting as excited over Studio goings-on as I once did—but I haven't hit the rocking chair either. No sir. As a matter of fact, I bought myself a jazzy little sports car this year. A Mercedes 230 SL. That probably won't mean much to you… but I'll bet Teddy will know it. Anyway, it's a car for the man who thinks young and I am just the guy for it. I thought for a while I was going to have to fight Sharon for possession it. I loaned it to her one week while we were away and she threatened to steal it. It's a little beauty and almost as good as a blonde on each arm for getting a little envy from my fellow men.
December 1, 1965:
The years seem to be going by faster and faster. I guess it's because so much happens these days that's going at top speed.
As for the family---well, we have another grandchild on the way come January. Sharon is expecting this time. Needless to say we're all looking forward to the event. Diane's brood continue to be a great pleasure to Grandpa and Grandma Disney. They're getting to be quite a family of little ladies and gentlemen.
That reminds me of a thing that happened recently when Lilly and I were in England. For years I have been hearing about a Disney Street and a Disney Place in London. On this last trip, we had a little extra time and I decided one morning to go find them. Lilly went along reluctantly pooh-poohing the idea of looking up ancestors. We found the streets all right and out of curiosity I had asked our London office to see if they could find out how they came to be named Disney. The report came back that night that the streets were named Disney in 1860 or thereabouts after a philanthropic gentleman of that surname. However, Lilly got a good laugh out of the report because it went on to say that before they acquired the name of Disney, they had been known as Harrow's Dunghill!
From your last couple of notes, I see that you, too, are enjoying being a grandparent. They're lots of fun, especially since you always know that when they begin acting up, their parents are going to have to cope with them.
With love, Walt
Walt was unable to write Ruth a letter in 1966. He was in St. Joseph's Hospital. Two days before his death, Walt's secretary sent a short letter to Ruth with a check from Walt.
December 13, 1966:
I know he usually writes you a newsy letter at this time and I'll try to bring you up to date on the family at least. Sharon's little Victoria is a real go-go girl. She's about 10 months and walking all over the place. Diane's "babies" are hardly that any more. They're all getting quite grown up. She only has the two little boys at home all day now. All the rest go to school. When Walt is back in the office I'm sure you'll get a more up- to-date and personal note from him. In the meantime, he sends his love.