The Hands of Walt Disney

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

While the eyes may be the window to a person's soul, hands truly communicate the story of a person's life.

To help pay my way through college, I did a number of odd jobs concurrently including a brief stint as a barker at a carnival.  As part of that job, I had to learn the basics of palmistry to fill in occasionally when the official fortune teller was “not feeling well” after a night of partying.

Part of the spiel was when you took hold of the person's hands, you said, “Your life is now in my hands.”  As corny as that was, it was the truth.  You could tell a lot about a person not just by the length of lines or their placement on the palms but the texture and shape of the hand itself.

It is not surprising, with all there is still left to write about Walt Disney, especially with new things being uncovered every week, that no one has ever really taken time to write about his magnificent hands.

Walt Disney had both the gentle and expressive hands of an artist as well as the strong and rough hands of a laborer.  His hands were equally adept at communicating through artwork or manipulating miniature objects in his private collection as they were helping his dad build a house or push heavy carts.

I was recently re-watching Walt Disney's visit to Marceline, Missouri in 1956 for the dedication of The Walt Disney Municipal Park and Swimming Pool.  During his visit he stopped by St. Francis Hospital.

While he was in the section with children in beds, Walt instinctively leaned down so that he was at eye level with them as a warm smile stretched across his face.  I have always been impressed with how gently he would cup both his large hands around the very small hand of a child to provide a comforting reassurance.

Yet those same hands could be strong enough to spin his two young daughters around and around in their backyard without any fear of letting go.

“We (his other daughter Sharon and I) thought he was the man with the most endurance.  He could throw us around by our heels, you know, just spinning and spinning and spinning,” recalled Diane Disney Miller.

Looking at photos of Walt during a story session at the Disney Studio, most people immediately focus on his expressive face.  He seemed incapable of masking his emotions when he got excited in telling a story.

A closer examination of those same pictures reveal that Walt's hands were just as expressive, dancing in the air as he tried to communicate.  I assume it was his youthful experiences doing some acting that helped spark that type of movement as well as Walt thinking visually and using his hands to try to paint what he was trying to say.

This behavior is clearly seen in the famous series of photos of Walt at a story meeting for “Pinocchio”.   While you can see them reproduced in different places, there are on page 110 in the book “Remembering Walt:  Favorite Memories of Walt Disney” by Amy Boothe Green and Howard Green and that book is highly recommended by me for anyone who is a huge Walt fan.

When receiving his honorary degree from Yale University in June 1938, the New Haven Evening Register newspaper specifically noted that while Walt sat next to the other recipients, he "at times waved his hands expressively in animated conversation”.

Diane Disney Miller told an interviewer, “Dad's autograph was a work of art.  He would begin to wind up his hand before it even hit the paper.”

Disney Legend Van France remembered in 1991 his first meeting with Walt, “Somehow I'd imagined that Walt Disney would have the soft, delicate hands of an artist drawing Mickey Mouse.  But my hand met the firm grip of a man who had grown up doing hard farm labor and working for his father in construction.”

Imagineer Harriet Burns remembered that Walt's hands were a direct extension of his personality.  “Walt was famous for picking things up and knocking stuff over.  He wasn't clumsy.  He was interested: 'What are you doing?  Let me see?'  One time, I was making little stained glass windows for Storybook Land and had 369 pieces of cut lead pleaced in this tiny window, which I hadn't soldered together yet.  Walt came in, picked it up and the lead went flying everywhere.

“Another time, I was experimenting with polyester and I had a flit gun and was squirting water into the polyester to see if it would make lasting bubbles.  Walt came in and said, 'Let me try!' and snatched the flit gun out of my hands.”

There are many similar stories of Walt loving models of attractions, not just so he could see them visually because he felt drawings could lie as to what it would eventually look like, but so he could pick things up and move them around.

Walt's hands were so expressive that just like his infamously one raised eyebrow, they would give signals to the people he was with what was going on in his mind.

Disney Legend animator Frank Thomas said, “There was the drumming of the fingers on the arm of the chair and that was when he'd just stare at you for as long as ten minutes or more.  Usually, he wan't thinking about you at all.  You just happened to be in his line of vision, although you never knew for sure.”

Disney Legend animation director Jack Kinney said, “We studied him.  A slow tap meant he was just thinking, but a fast tap meant he was losing his cool.”

Walt's wife, Lillian, told author Bob Thomas in 1972,  “Walt had the most interesting hands.  His fingers were long but they were thin.  He could get into small crevices to work in.  He liked to work in the machine shop at the Studio and that's where he made his first models…He was always making gestures while talking.”

Diane Disney Miller recently reviewed the rough draft of this article and added, “Mother loved his hands, and in one of his last photo sessions he asked the photographer to take some photos of his hands just for her. She told me about this, very pleased, touched. I'm sure we have them and I'll ask our collections department (at the Disney Family Museum) to search for them.”

Disney Legend Frank Thomas recalled for interviewer Howard Green.  “Walt always liked to do things with his hands.  One of his hobbies was making miniatures, little stagecoaches and furniture, and he was very good at it.  He grew up respecting people who could make things with their hands.  He was impressed with skilled woodworkers.”

On my Disney bookshelves, I have a variety of oddball books related to Walt and Disney in general.  Some of these books may have just a short chapter or a page or two devoted to the subject.

The book Lion's Paws was written by Nellie Simmons Meier and published in 1937 by Barrows Mussey in New York.

Meier began her study of palmistry in 1895 and for roughly the next 40 years, she "read" and took impressions of celebrities' hands. She lectured and wrote articles for magazines in an attempt to transform palmistry from "fortune telling" into a science that could be used as a guidepost to character.

Her book, published the same year that Snow White debuted, featured the palm prints and readings of dozens of celebrities including Harold Lloyd, Amelia Earhart, Jasch Heifetz, Mary Pickford, George Gershwin, James Montgomery Flagg, Booker T. Washington and… Walt Disney.

Just when you thought just about everything that could be written about Walt has been revealed, here is another aspect that has never been referenced previously.

Of course, having read palms myself, I wonder how much of Meier's descriptions were influenced by the fact that she knew her subject and his accomplishments, or could “read” the reactions to her suggestions as she sat across from her subject.

However, some of her assumptions, like Walt's "natural dislike of details" and preference for black and white rather than color for artistic expression, seem at odds with what we now know about Walt and how he worked.

In the interests of oddball Disney history, here is Meier's analysis of the palms of a 35-year-old Walt Disney as it appears on pages 155–156 in her book.

Yes, she does have the full-sized black imprints she took of Walt's palms, so you can look at the palms as you follow her description—or if you track down a copy at a used book site, maybe you can develop your own analysis.

Anyway, here is another glimpse of Walt from 1937 when the Disney Renaissance was in full swing at the Disney Studio.

"Although Walt Disney has spent little time in making a fitting background for his personality, nobody can dispute the right of the creator of Mickey Mouse and The Three Little Pigs to walk alone. The Mickey Mouse Studio is quite ordinary, not at all in the 'Hollywood manner'. Disney's own office building is unpretentious, much like that of a small town newspaper.

"I climbed a wooden stair which led to a door with 'Office of Walt Disney' in plain black letters on the glass, and entered a small room sparsely furnished with desk, chairs, tables and floor loaded with drawings, paper, odds and ends. Someone swept off a chair load to make a place for me near Walt Disney who was busily engaged in working out another Mickey Mouse story.

"His thumbs are double jointed, disclosing his liking for dramatic episodes and the ability to create them in life. His palms are square and very firm, an indication of tenacity of purpose and the practical side of his nature that makes him a worker and not a dreamer. His thumbs are very flexible: he adapts himself easily to all people and all circumstances; no background is necessary for his work, the work alone and the drama of the work count.

“The flare of his fingers reveals his natural tendency to fly off at a tangent, not a fortunate quality for him. Disney has developed the motto 'curb the impulse' because experience has convinced him of the necessity of conserving his time and his strength for his work. He has made use of the wisdom and the deep seriousness shown in the long, heavy, second finger, Saturn, to accomplish his purpose.

"The mount of the Moon in Disney's hand has a high development, indicating an active and original imagination. The mark of intuition leading to genius is there, and, coupled with the development of the mount, makes a bottomless well of joy upon which he can draw.

"His fingers, curiously enough, are rather short, which indicates a natural dislike of detail: but the nail phalanges of the third fingers are long, showing a quick eye for line and form, and with the square tip, a recognition of the necessity of practical preparation for successful results. The second finger, Saturn, shows in the shape and length of the first and second phalanges the sober second thought and the prudence which are essential to his progress, and the length of the first finger indicates executive ability and great initiative.

“The first phalange of the third finger is longer than the second, revealing Walt Disney's liking for lines, form and construction and, with the square tip, his appreciation of technique. Color, shown in the second phalange, is therefore subservient, and he prefers black and white as his medium of art expression.

"His fourth finger is unusually long, extending above the first joint of the little finger. Disney is a real diplomat: he has rare tact in management of his affairs. This finger also shows a great gift of expression in the length of the nail phalanges on all of his fingers reveal the innate conscientious qualities that make those who deal with Disney trust him wholly."

My personal impression is that Meier was as wrong about Walt as often as she was right in her analysis, and my limited training sees some interesting things in his life line and love line that she never mentioned.

Imagineer John Hench, especially later in life, used to read palms… but only those of attractive young women.

Unfortunately for those of us decades later trying to detect something in Walt's palm, only Meier actually saw Walt's palms up close for that observation.

Today, other palmistry experts also try their interpretation but, unfortunately, must content themselves with black-and-white copies of Walt's palm and fingerprints (here is one example).

The temptation writing this column was to go for puns like you had to “hand it” to Walt for being a “hands-on” boss in the art of “hand-drawn animation” and that he could really “grasp” an idea and “put his finger” on a problem.

However, I chose to take Walt's advice that he shared with Meier to “curb the impulse,” which is advice that I don't think he ever took himself.