Remembering Diane Disney Millerby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As I explained to fellow Disney historian Didier Ghez Tuesday night over the phone, the notification of the passing of Diane Disney Miller was like being hit hard in the chest and all the air leaving your body.
Diane was an amazing woman and so full of life and with so many things left to do that it seems unreal that she is gone. I do not have the skill or the words to write how much I will miss her as a person and as an active patron of Disney history.
When I spoke at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, which exists only because of her vision and dedication, I remarked later to friends how taken aback I was that Diane was so physically fit that she could easily bound two steps at a time going up stairways without any effort. Her mind was razor-sharp and, like her father, always curious. It seemed like she would be around forever.
"Upon seeing the Storytellers statue, Diane remarked with a sparkle in her eye that she didn’t remember him being this young, saying, 'He was older when I met him!'" Caption and official photo © Disney.
Like her father, she was both simple and complicated. She could shift from being the keen public business woman who never forgave people who tried to take advantage of her or her famous name to, a shy almost-Midwestern grandmother with a child's sense of wonder and eagerness.
Diane Marie Disney Miller, the only biological daughter of Walt Disney, passed away at the age of 79 on Tuesday, November 19, after complications of a fall she had several weeks ago.
She was the last living connection to Walt Disney's family and, in the last decade, was an aggressive advocate for researching and preserving Disney history. Her enthusiastic support of the efforts of Disney historians like myself, Didier Ghez, JB Kaufman and so many others enriched the documentation of Disney history in the last years of her life.
She married Ron Miller, former President and CEO of the Disney Company, in a small church ceremony in Santa Barbara, California, on May 9, 1953. They were both almost 20 years old. Her father, Walt, cried throughout the ceremony.
Ron and Diane had seven children: Christopher Disney Miller, Joanna Miller, Tamara Scheer, Jennifer Miller-Goff, Walter Elias Disney Miller, Ronald Miller and Patrick Miller.
When I hesitantly asked Diane if she would even consider writing a foreword for my first book about Disney history, she had it written within 24 hours and worried if it was OK. It was more than OK, as anyone who has read it can affirm.
We corresponded for several years and the following is some of the material from those wonderful exchanges, and perhaps the best way to get a sense of her as a loving and sometimes stubborn person just like her dad.
Diane was born December 18, 1933, 13 days after Walt's 32nd birthday.
Walt was concerned because his hopes had been raised twice before that he might become a father but were always shattered when his wife, Lillian, would miscarry. This third pregnancy had been healthy but would be the last that Lillian would be able to have.
In a letter a few days before her birth, Walt wrote to his mother, Flora, who was living in Portland, Oregon:
"Lilly is partial to a girl baby. She seems to feel that she could get more pleasure out of dressing up a little girl than a boy. Personally, I don't care—just as long as we do not get disappointed again.
"The spare bedroom, where you and Dad stayed, is all fixed up like a nursery. We have a bassinette and baby things all over the place. On the dresser, bed and everywhere else are all kinds of pink and blue 'tinies' that I don't know anything about.
"Really, it's quite a strange atmosphere to me—I can't conceive of it belonging to us. It seems all right for somebody else to have those things around, but not for us. I presume I'll have to get used to it, and I suppose I'll be as bad a parent as anyone else. I've made a lot of vows that my kid won't be spoiled, but I doubt it—it may turn out to be the most spoiled brat in the country."
On the day of Diane's birth, Walt was getting a special award from Parents magazine for his "distinguished service to children" at a luncheon at the Disney Studio.
Marion Savage Sabin, representing the magazine, had just concluded her speech praising Walt's many achievements and handing him the award when Walt was interrupted by someone whispering the contents of a note that had just arrived. Lillian had gone into labor at Good Samaritan Hospital.
Walt quickly mumbled a "thank you" and grabbed his hat and dashed out of the room without further explanation. It was up to the toastmaster, USC President Rufus Von Fleinsmid, to reveal to the confused crowd that Walt and Lillian were having a baby girl. He proposed a toast to little Miss Diane Marie Disney that was enthusiastically joined by the audience.
"Among our favorite photos of Diane and the Disney family is this special moment captured during Walt and Lillian’s wedding anniversary celebration in The Golden Horseshoe, just four days before the grand opening of Disneyland park—her father's dream that she and her sister Sharon inspired years earlier on that day when their dad watched them play from a nearby park bench." Caption and official photo © Disney.
Walt got to the hospital just as Lillian was going under from the anesthesia and she later said that her last memory before drifting off was the sound of Walt's distinctive cough.
After Diane's birth, Lillian later suffered another miscarriage and her doctor told her it would be best not to try again. In January 1937, the Disneys adopted a two week old Sharon Mae Disney.
"One of the first things I remember was at the age of 3. I can remember (Sharon) coming home from the hospital. And this wonderful thing came and I couldn't even see it. It was up in a high bassinet and I was standing down there looking at all these ruffles. And I couldn't touch it. It couldn't talk to me. It didn't move. That's one of the first things I remember. I was very disappointed," stated Diane.
"I used to put signs on my door 'Everyone can come in here except Sharon Disney.' And she'd stand at the door and look wistfully at me and I'd say 'Go away. I hate you.' Other girls at school hated their sisters too. It's a wonder that people grow up and live, isn't it? With all the things they are subjected to when they're little."
However, as Sharon got older, she and Diane were daddy's little girls. He was their playmate and these three amigos shared fun and adventure together.
"My dad would be the Old Witch (from Snow White) and chase Sharon and me all over the house and we'd go into a dark corner and yell 'The Old Witch is Coming!' and we'd scream and hide our heads and love it," recalled Diane.
Diane and Sharon were shielded from publicity, in part because of the Disneys' fear of the tragedy of the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping, a fear held by many other celebrities about their children at the time.
"There was that big (Lindbergh) kidnapping at that time. He (Walt) just didn't believe that his family should be touched by publicity, that we should be allowed to live our lives away from the limelight and everything and not be colored or anything by people regarding us as personalities like they do regarding anybody related to a famous person. That continued even as we grew older."
Diane was so unaware of her father's celebrity that she was taken aback when one day at school a classmate asked for a favor.
As Walt remembered when talking to a reporter, "She was looking at me in a very serious way. And she says, 'Are you Walt Disney?' I said, 'Yes, honey.' She said, 'Give me your autograph.' And I said, 'Honey, what do you want my autograph for?' She said, 'A little girl from school asked me whether my daddy was Walt Disney, and she said she wanted me to get his autograph.' I guess she didn't quite understand what an autograph was then… but she'd heard the kids talking. I got quite a thrill out of that."
"I was just very disgusted and said, 'You never told me you were Walt Disney' or something like that. I was just irritated at first that anyone should care who my father was and make a fuss about it. I remember one little girl at Immaculate Heart asked if my dad was Walt Disney and if she could come take a peek at him when he dropped me off at school. I was so furious with her that I made Daddy let me out a block away from school the next day. He never knew why.
"When Daddy'd come home at night that was fun time. Sundays were the most wonderful days because Daddy was home all day long.
"Daddy would drive us to school every day and take us to Sunday school and afterwards around to Griffith Park or to the zoo or little playgrounds. Daddy taught me to ride. He set me on the horse and led me around with the lead rope, and he'd take me out for hours and devote so much time to getting me over my fear of horses. He'd take many pictures of us. He was naturally a camera bug. We have many pictures of me showing off on horse. I'm about five years old. I am making faces and things.
"We had a pool, too, in the old house. He thought it was very important for us to know how to swim, even though he himself was not more skilled. But he'd get down in the pool with us for hours and we'd leap into his arms and have all sorts of fun with him. We never did learn to really swim until we were around ten. I mean the formal way. We could dog paddle around.
"From the word 'go' Daddy was our playmate. He was the person you wanted. When Daddy came home at night that was the fun time. He could do anything. We 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. Both Sharon and I said we were going to marry him when we grew up and then we discovered horses."
When Walt would go to the Disney Studio on the weekends, his daughters would tag along and ride their bikes. "Oh, we'd just run around. Just run through the studio or something. (They liked going on to an empty soundstage and shout loudly because of the echo.) We'd just sort of follow him from room to room and we'd get ice cream from the ice cream machines and run around in the baseball diamond outside the restaurant."
Walt taught Diane how to drive a car when she was about 12 or 13 and they practiced in the Disney Studio parking lot.
"I went to a public school for two years, Los Feliz Grammar School and then from there to Immaculate Heart girls school and then by the age of 18 I went to USC. I was a freshman there and I remember a girl came up to me in the dorm and said, 'Have you heard? Walt Disney's daughter is in school here!' I didn't say anything. I was just so embarrassed for her because how will she feel when she finds out it is me. People would want to peer at my dad as if he was a curiosity and in college people began to peer at me as if I was a curiosity too."
It was at USC, that Diane met a tall, attractive football player named Ron Miller.
"For some reason, Dad seemed to think that Ron was the guy for me and that if we waited too long we might lose each other or something. He said, 'Diane, we feel that you are ready to get married anytime you like to. And we think Ron's a nice guy so if you want to get married it's perfectly all right with your mother and me'. I practically fell through the floor. It was so unexpected and so unlike the both of them. They had advised us not to get married until we were at least 25. And this was a complete reversal. So I told Ron and he looked at me with this funny look as if he was trapped, you know. When he came to dinner a few days after that, he walked into the living room and mother and dad said, 'Well, we hear you want to get married.' And, well, he kind of flipped.
"It was a casual wedding. It was informal. My sister was my only attendant. Ron's brother was his best man. I didn't have a formal dress. We were married in a little church up in Santa Barbara… a little Episcopal Church. And so, Daddy naturally led me down the aisle and stood with me. In an Episcopal ceremony, he stands with you until the minister says 'Who gives this woman to be married?' And Daddy was to say 'Her mother and I do." And before it came Daddy's turn to say the little thing, I hear this sobbing and I turn around and tears are running down his cheek. And I squeezed his hand and he gave me a soulful look. Ron was giggling through the ceremony because we were all so nervous so you either cry or you giggle.
"The wedding couldn't be any better… small, just a group of friends and relatives and lovely buffet supper at the Biltmore Hotel afterwards and the champagne was flowing and everybody was happy. At the reception, dad was his old gay self. He's wonderful. He had to stand on tiptoe for the photographers because Ron is so tall. Since we've been married, he's did everything he could to make things easier for us and happier and everything. The only thing we could do to repay him was to give him his grandchildren."
Roughly five months after the wedding, Ron went into the military. Walt loaned them the Disney Studio car for free because they couldn't afford a car. He designed their first home (with the help of some architects at the studio).
Sometimes when Diane would drop by to visit, she told me that Walt would pull out 10 dollars from his wallet to give to her and she tried to refuse. "Take it, kid. It's the only way I can give it to you without the government getting part of it." Walt always thought that Diane was the intellectual and encouraged her to write.
Diane preferred living a quiet, private life of philanthropy but in later years had to step out into the public arena to defend her father and his reputation.
In 1976, Lillian Disney, widow of Walt Disney, with Diane and Ron, purchased two vineyards in the Napa Valley that became the well-known Silverado Vineyards Winery in 1980. Diane was the driving force behind The Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio of San Francisco that opened October 2009.
In a 1950s interview with Saturday Evening Post reporter Pete Martin, Diane said, "My dad said that biographies were sort of like epitaphs after a completed life or endeavor. And he is always in the midst of a million new ideas and ambitions and so the thought of being a biographical subject seemed almost insulting to him. Dad feels he hasn't reached all his goals yet. There's always something new to do…."
The same could be said of Diane. I mourn that such a wonderful woman has passed much too soon, but am grateful of all she accomplished while she was still alive. I will always remember her with great respect and affection.