Happy Birthday, Diane Disney Miller

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Many of us in the Disney history community are still reeling from the passing of Diane Disney Miller November 19 at the age of 79.

Some of those friends have been so deeply affected that they have still been unable to put their feelings and memories into words. I struggled to put down some of my thoughts in a previous column.

I think most of the readers of MousePlanet primarily knew Diane as the eldest daughter of Walt and Lillian Disney with little if any personal contact with her beyond seeing her talk briefly at an event or a newscast.

While Diane was proud of being her father's daughter, she never wanted to take advantage of that celebrity. She had seen her father bombarded by attention, especially when he was at Disneyland:

"It's kind of trying to be out there [Disneyland] with Dad because people recognize him all over," Diane stated in an unpublished interview. "As a matter of fact, when we were walking in the park, someone saw him up there (at the train station) and this girl as we walked by, she said, 'That's Walt Disney up there. Did you see him?' I don't know how he stands it. He just keeps walking. When people ask him to sign autographs, he doesn't do it. He says 'Oh no, I can't.' He thinks that he can do it without anybody else seeing but once he stops and signs something, he's at the mercy of everyone. He's surrounded.

"People stop him all the time. He says he doesn't mind having his picture taken but then some camera bug will just keep him there and follow him all around. It's that bad. But he handles it quite well, I think. It doesn't bother him too much anymore except that he can't get too much done. He has to go out there before the park opens."

I remember seeing her at her first Official Disneyana Convention in Orlando in 1998 where she spoke briefly about her father. She was hesitant because she thought she would either bore the audience or that they would swarm the stage and start poking at her like some limited-edition piece of Disney merchandise.

In an interview with writer Pete Martin in 1955, she explained why she usually only went to Disneyland when her father was there to get her and her family into the park.

When asked why she just didn't go on her own and identify herself at the front gate, she replied, "It sounds kind of obnoxious to say, you know point blank, 'Well, I'm so and so's daughter, throw open the gate' more or less."

Walt shared the same philosophy that he had no respect for someone who attempted to flaunt their celebrity in order to get special treatment.

While Diane spent the last two decades in the spotlight, it was not a place where she wanted to be, which helps explains why the general public knew so little about her and her accomplishments. When she found herself in the public eye, she usually shifted the attention to her father.

So, today, on what would have been her 80th birthday, I thought I would celebrate her life with a few more rarely known Diane stories.

I know some stories I won't be able to share for quite some time and some stories I will never be able to share. Diane told me she didn't want some stories, especially about her father, shared because then they would become public property and she, like many daughters, wanted some stories just as a personal memory.

In today's column, are some stories that I know that Diane wouldn't mind my sharing, even though she was a private person forced into a public life. She was aware that these particular stories were ones that I would write about eventually when the time was right.

Whenever possible, I would allow her to review any stories about her or her family and she was always supportive.

On one story, she wrote back that what I had written was true but she wished I wouldn't reveal such and such about a relative. I wrote back that I would eliminate that reference and she responded, "You are a good writer. I should just leave you alone. You know what you are doing and nothing was untrue, but I am thankful you have decided not to include that information."

She wanted the truth out there, but was always hesitant to share anything where a person was long gone and could not defend themselves.

Diane was born December 18, 1933 and she saw her first Disney animated cartoon one week later on Christmas Day.

No, it was not a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

In 1933, Walt had a huge success with a Silly Symphony titled The Three Little Pigs. However, because Lillian had already suffered two previous miscarriages, she was especially cautious during her pregnancy with Diane and had been primarily housebound and not had a chance to go out to a theater to see Walt's latest triumph.

So, on Christmas Day, Walt came into the nursery of their Los Feliz house where Lillian was with baby Diane. Walt struggled to put up a movie screen that had to be unfolded and balanced on its tripod legs. Some readers may remember their parents, like my father, doing something similar in the good old days.

Walt set up a movie projector and showed Lillian and Diane the animated short that had been uniformly lauded that year. Lilly laughed throughout the film and told Walt it was one of his best.

When it was finished, she turned to Walt and said, "I feel I should have given you… " Walt assumed she was going to say "a son" but Lillian started laughing and pointed at the screen "triplets!"

When people complained that the Old Witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was too scary for children, Walt would tell reporters that his own young daughters were not too frightened of the character and would fight to play the character around the house.

That was not completely accurate, as I found out when I asked Diane about it:

"I was born after Three Little Pigs and just prior to Snow White. I remember very well I was sitting there on the sound stage [at the Disney Studio] watching [Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs] when the old witch came on. I was so terrified I was sitting there with my hands in front of my face peeking through my fingers… sometimes not peeking at all. And crying...just being so terribly afraid (that) they took me out into the sunlight.

"Daddy was there. He was interested in my reaction and he was a little bit upset at me, you know. But, he said, and it's true, children love to be scared. You really do… but I remember just coming out of the dark and the fright and going into the sunlight.

"I remember one of my favorite games when I was little was 'Old Witch.' And my dad or my Uncle Bill would be the Old Witch. They'd chase Sharon and I all over the house and we'd go in a little dark corner and scream 'The Old Witch is Coming!' We'd scream and hide our heads and just love it. We loved to be scared… like having somebody sneak out from behind a corner and say 'Boo!' like at Halloween. You're covering your face but you're peeking to see what's coming next."

With the release of Saving Mr. Banks, more people are aware that Walt decided to make the film Mary Poppins because, when Diane was about 11 years old, her mother would read her a chapter from a Mary Poppins book each night at bedtime. Both Lillian and Diane would laugh loudly and Walt would come in from the living room to find out what was causing all the laughter.

Lillian, Diane and Sharon all told Walt he should make a movie about the nanny character and Walt was convinced enough to actively start exploring getting an option on the books.

However, Walt paid close attention to all the books that Diane read and enjoyed.

As Diane remembered, "When Dad was doing these television things [the Disney weekly television show in the late 1950s], he asked me at the breakfast table one morning if I could remember the name of this one book that I used to be very fond of and I was so surprised that he remembered it.

"He wanted the name of the author of the book that I had liked. He said, 'Was it Hinkle?' (Author Thomas C. Hinkle wrote several books about horses and Diane loved horses.) They were stories of horses. He had remembered and carefully noted it in his mind. He bought (the rights to) several of the books that I'd read and liked. 'Johnny Tremain' was one. Very well written for a children's book. Daddy thought there couldn't be anything more exciting than American history."

I really liked Diane as a person but I could see that she was very much like her father when it came to being stubborn and having a fiery temper. Walt was sometimes the victim of that heat.

Usually, if Diane was angry, it was because someone was trying to take advantage of her or her name or was unfairly making assumptions about her father. She never considered her dad a saint. but she bridled at people who never met him making psychological conclusions about why Walt did the things he did.

For Diane, Walt Disney was "just Dad" and she had a fairly normal upbringing where she struggled with the same insecurities that all young girls do.

Here is another excerpt from the interview she did with journalist Pete Martin that I would have titled "Dancing with Daddy". I am sharing it here because I think through her own words, people might get a better sense of who she was.

"My Dad and I have never been dancing partners. My Dad's got a funny little two-step that he does and that's about it. And he thinks he's quite good. (laughs). And he says all the women at the parties they go to want to dance with him and he thinks this is testimony to his ability.

"But we've never been able to dance well together. In the first place, I used to go to dancing school when I was little and I hated it passionately. I think I was too young. I started at an age when I still hated boys and I grew up with a complex.

"I'd always watch my feet and things like that. And then I danced with my dad who was my first real dancing partner and we couldn't dance together. I couldn't follow him. I think I was too unrelaxed or something and so we would get into arguments on the dance floor.

"He would lead me off in a huff and we would go in separate directions. And he'd dance with my sister [Sharon] and say how superior she was and Sharon could really dance.

"I don't think I'd hit my teens yet when we first began dancing together. And on one occasion in particular was at dancing school. Daddy came with mother to pick me up and they came a little early. I guess they were going to watch and see how cute I was and all that. Didn't Diane look pretty? All this stuff.

"Diane, of course, was completely miserable and I think they must have had someone encourage Daddy to go out and ask me to dance at one time. And I was in a midst of a terrible fit of self-consciousness and I thought it was terrible to have my father of all people to ask me to dance.

"I must have been about 12. So I keep saying 'Daddy, Daddy why did you ask me to dance? Why are we standing out here? Daddy, do something. I don't want to dance. I want to sit down.' Finally, my father just abandoned me in the middle of the floor. A big terrible scene. He was terribly upset.

"I don't believe we can even dance together now. Daddy gets a little hot. He avoids me on the dance floor. It's given me a sort of phobia all my life. Afraid to dance.

"Now I plague my husband to take me dancing because I feel I conquered the fear and I want to try again. We've only danced twice together since we've been married [more than two years ago].

"We had a fight on our first [wedding] anniversary. My husband is a school dancer, too. It happened to be a Samba. He has rhythm but he's not much better trained at it than I am. So we both kind of flounder around together. I'm certainly not a qualified expert. I mean I couldn't criticize anybody's dancing.

"Ron had never done a Samba before. And it was the only thing that I even knew a little bit about because it has such a rhythm that you can't go wrong once you get it. He said, 'How am I doing?' and I said something incredible. It was just a joke.

"He thought I meant it and he stomped off the dance floor and left me there. It was just like a repeat with Dad. We didn't speak to each other the rest of the evening. We were there with other couples. He went off and sat at the bar and sulked.

"Maybe I am at fault with dances but even when we go to Europe on the boat and everything, Sharon was the only one Dad could dance with."

What can you do to show your appreciation for Diane Disney Miller?

Well, the family is very private and I suspect none of you heard anything else after the announcement of Diane's passing about how things were handled. Just like her dad, she just disappeared to rest in peace.

In lieu of flowers and gifts, donations may be made to the memorial fund that The Walt Disney Family Museum has created in honor of Diane Disney Miller.

Donations will support the museum's ongoing education efforts, exhibitions, and programs. Donations and cards can also be sent to the family through The Walt Disney Family Museum, attn: Director's Office; 104 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA 94129.

Happy Birthday, Diane! I wish you were still here to share stories with all of us because I know you still had many, many more stories to tell.

I've shared a couple today so that people might remember you on your birthday. I hope others will share some more stories once they feel they are able to do so.