Walt's Smoking and Infamous Cough

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

In an interview with Hazel George, the Disney Studio nurse and confidante of Walt Disney, she remembered that one evening Walt Disney told her, "You're right about one thing. Smoking and drinking are sins. Because you are one of God's creatures and if you don't take care of the body He gave you, you are committing a sin."

Yet, Walt still continued to smoke his entire life.

My dad smoked much of his life until he gave it up cold turkey after his first heart attack. Unfortunately, years of smoking had caused some health issues that still plagued him for the rest of his life.

As much as I admired my father and tried to emulate him (and still do), I was never interested in smoking. Of course, for a couple of weeks at college, I tried smoking a pipe so I would look older and smarter and girls would think I was cool. However, I would never pay attention and so could never keep the darn thing lit. Besides, it tasted horrible to me despite trying different tobacco mixtures.

Many of my dad's friends smoked as well and the point of all this is that I was very familiar with the type of cough that a smoker would have. Because Walt Disney was a smoker, I just assumed that his famous cough was the result of his smoking so when I interviewed people who knew him and they mentioned the cough, I imagined that dry, rasping, uncontrollable sound.

Chesterfields and Camels were Walt's cigarettes of choice, but he also smoked Gitanes, a French import brand, as well.

Walt's father did not approve of smoking.

"My dad never drank whiskey or smoked or used any swear words," Walt said.

When the two oldest brothers, Herbert and Raymond, ran away from the Marceline farm for the big city, they would occasionally send their old clothes to their mother so she could tailor them to fit Roy and Walt.

However, to upset their father, the brothers made a point of putting cigar butts and chewing tobacco in the pockets because they knew he would assume they were going down the wrong path.

Walt took up smoking when he was a young man overseas as a driver for the Red Cross in France. Like young men in the military when they were confronted by long periods of boredom broken by brief, unexpected moments of intense activity, Walt turned to cigarettes, especially since they were easily available.

"[Walt] resisted all warnings that he should give up cigarettes," wrote author Bob Thomas. "They had become too much a part of his life, too great a necessity for his restless hands. He smoked them until they were almost too short to hold, sometimes longer.

"When the Surgeon General of the United States announced that cigarettes were a cause of cancer, he tried switching to low-nicotine cigarettes. He couldn't stand them. Someone told him that brown French cigarettes were safe to smoke, and he tried them. He realized that they were no better for him, and he returned to his American brand. His wife, his doctors, Hazel [the Disney Studio nurse] and other urged him to give up cigarettes. He still smoked."

"I just can't picture him without a cigarette," his daughter Diane told me.

However, he was insistent that no publicity photos be released with him smoking, because he did not want to influence young people.

I remember when I visited the Disney Archives many years ago and was looking through some old photos of Walt and I kept seeing this white fuzz sometimes next to him, which I originally thought was glare from the camera shot.

Disney Archivist Dave Smith pointed out to me with a smile that in all of those photos, that two of Walt's fingers always had a space between them. They had airbrushed out the cigarette in his hand but had not airbrushed out the puff of smoke next to it.

Some claim that the famous two finger point that Walt did and became common practice for Disneyland cast members was based on Walt pointing with a cigarette in his hand.

Walt began to smoke a pipe by the time he was 20 years old and it can be seen dangling from his lips in an old movie clip of him sitting doing animation but he quickly gave it up. Later in life when he tried taking it up again, after a pipe burned a hole in a pocket, he told Disney Legend Joe Grant that pipe smokers were "too slow" and "too laid back" and abandoned the practice.

At one point, prankish animators would shave off some pieces of rubber from their art erasers and sprinkle the shavings into Walt's pipe tobacco pouch and await a reaction.

When doctors came to the studio to lecture the Disney staff on the hazards of smoking, Walt was always absent.

One Christmas, his daughters bought him two cartons of filtered cigarettes hoping to minimize the damage. Walt promised he would use them but when they weren't around, he broke off the filters.

"I didn't say how I would use them," Walt told Disneyland performer Fulton Burley when he noticed Walt breaking off the filters. "She said, 'Dad, the way you're coughing, please use these cigarettes instead'. I promised her I would, but as you've noticed, I didn't tell her how I would use them."

Walt would often go to smoke in the area behind his apartment located over the Firehouse on Main Street at Disneyland. The area was part of the jungle of the Jungle Cruise attraction. Disney Legend Bill "Sully" Sullivan remembered in an interview I did with him in 2007 that Walt would come out and smoke and chat with the men working the Jungle Cruise.

One source for Walt to obtain cigarettes was the Tobacco Shop on Main Street at Disneyland. Among other things, the shop sold pipes that had the Disneyland logo on them and later in Florida, pipes with the Walt Disney World logo.

At the Tobacco Shop, guests could also purchase private label Disney cigars, cigarettes, Disney "Special Blend" bulk tobacco (all with a Disney theme park logo prominently displayed), ashtrays, and, of course, after their purchase, guests could even light up in any of the Disney theme parks, and walk while smoking along Main Street without being harassed.

Disney Legend Van France regretted the closing of the Tobacco Shop because, after all "a tobacco shop was always found on Main Street at the turn of the century" and that like Walt, France smoked three packs of cigarettes a day so always needed more.

Believe it or not, the shop in the 1970s also sold the 14-ounce "Walt Disney World Fruit Cake Smoking Tobacco" described by a pipe expert as a "wet, slick, gooey" tobacco. While many of the pipes sold in the store were inexpensive basket pipes, there were more upscale versions like a sandblasted black billiard pipe with a white three-circled Mickey Mouse head silhouette inlaid in the stem.

Disney Legend Ward Kimball told the following story many times to interviewers, including myself: "I was right in the middle of describing a storyboard on a space show for television and he got into one of these coughing jags. It was longer than usual. It was embarrassing. I stood there and blurted out, 'For crying out loud, why don't you give up smoking?'

"Walt looked up, his eyes watering and said, 'A guy's got to have a few vices, doesn't he?' In other words, he knew damn well he ought to give up smoking. But he never did," Kimball said. "I just blurted it out because I was kind of mad that here's this guy we all look up to and depend on and he's destroying himself."

However, when I heard Walt's coughing for the first time on some audio tapes during meetings, it struck me that it wasn't a smoker's hack. Obviously, the smoking probably contributed to the coughing, but most people I have interviewed seem to indicate that the cough was bad only when Walt got very excited or was under stress.

When I heard Tom Hanks cough in the film Saving Mr. Banks, it immediately sounded wrong to me.

Hanks told Bill Zwecker of the Chicago Sun-Times in a December 10, 2013 interview: "If we smoked cigarettes in this movie, it would be rated R. That's just the way it works. You couldn't believe the negotiations. It came down to us not being able to light a cigarette or inhale a cigarette. You do see that one big scene where Emma as Travers storms into my office and you see me putting out a cigarette in the ashtray on Walt's desk.

"I did always have a pack of cigarettes in my shirt pocket and sometimes I was playing around with them and a cigarette lighter here and there, but I never could smoke one," Hanks said. "The man smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. People who knew Walt say that you could always hear him coming down the hall, because you'd hear him coughing from smoking all those cigarettes."

Many people have stories of hearing Walt's coughing in the hallways of the studio. It served as an early warning that Walt was coming and some felt Walt did it on purpose. That jarring cough, however, often produced anxiety that Walt was on the way.

Cigarette smoking obviously contributed to Walt's dying from lung cancer. But was Walt's cough really the cough of a cigarette smoker or was it something else?

In summer of 1955, Walt did a series of audio taped interviews with journalist Pete Martin. During the course of those interviews, Martin sometimes just talked privately with Walt's wife and daughters to get some perspective.

Here is an excerpt where Lillian and Diane talk about Walt's cough:

Diane Disney Miller – Daddy has this distinctive cough and wherever we are, we hear this cough and we know that Dad is around.

Lillian Disney – We can never lose him. It's a nervous cough.

Pete Martin – A cigarette cough?

LD – Yes, I think that or it's a nervous cough.

DDM – I don't think it's a cigarette cough. The last thing mother remembers before going under, before I was born, is my father's cough. And in graduation ceremonies, both my sister and I were unnerved by our father's cough. Sharon had a senior play up at Westlake and she said, "Well, don't bring Daddy because if I hear him cough, I know I'll forget my lines." That sort of thing. Of course he ended up going anyway.

LD – We can tell when he comes home at night. If I'm upstairs I can hear his cough as he comes through the gate. It's…distinctive.

PM – Try to describe it, will you?

DDM – It's one of those things you can't describe. It's a distinctive sound. Like every car horn has a different noise and you get used to it, you know. That's the way with coughs, I guess. And Daddy's cough is sort of a chronic thing.

LD – You just know it.

DDM – You can always tell Dad's cigarette butts in the ashtray.

PM – How do you tell it's Dad?

DDM – They're about a quarter of an inch long and just brown all the way through. He smokes 'em until he can barely hold them. And they're all gummy on the end. It's because he forgets to put them out. He lights them and he gets carried away with what he's thinking about or talking about and he holds them…very rarely…I mean sometimes he holds them in his mouth or in his hand and he'll get an ash on it two inches long, sometimes. He forgets to smoke it. He just holds it there until it practically burns his fingertips.

LD – He's burned more furniture and more rugs and more everything with his cigarettes than anybody I ever knew.

DDM – But you always know it's his butts in an ashtray. It's very funny. There are these little tiny pinched things.

LD – We can always tell where he is. If we're in a crowd or anything and I'll say "Well, where's Walt?" "I don't know." Pretty soon I'll hear that cough and I'll say "Oh yeah, there he is." It's just sort of clearing his throat. He has a nasal condition.

PM – Post nasal drip.

LD – Um hum. When we were first married, we lived in this little apartment and the landlady told me that she wished that I would have him go to a doctor because she thought he had tuberculosis 'cause he coughed so hard.

PM – But he doesn't cough that hard now, does he?

DDM – Yes. Every now and then he does.

LD – It's when he goes to bed that it gets bad. He goes to doctors all the time and there's nothing there at all. He uses two large pillows. If he puts his head down too low, then it starts up.

PM – It almost sounds a little bit like asthma, wouldn't it?

LD – Um hum.

I followed up by contacting some people who knew Walt and heard that infamous cough. Interestingly, some people couldn't give me an answer because Walt coughed so frequently that people got used to it and learned to ignore it as just background noise. Others gave me some specifics.

Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr wrote to me, "Diane's remarks are correct. Not a dry smoker's cough but more like someone clearing his throat and it was distinctive. You knew it was Walt's cough not just somebody coughing. He did use the cough as a way of warning us he was near.

"Walt did indeed do his early warning cough about ten seconds before he walked into my office," Gurr. "It was sort of a quick double cough, partially closed mouth type, not loud or bronchial hack sounding. In meetings it was just sort of his regular background cough sounds - we never focused on it. But the smoke was very bothersome, especially riding in a car with him, worse on the company Gulfstream I airplane. He smoked Sweet Caporal, then onto the final brand, Erik, those little cigarillos."

Harrison Ellenshaw, the son of Disney Legend Peter Ellenshaw, replied to my inquiry with this response:

"I'm afraid I have only a little to add to your research about Walt's cough.

"Though I worked at the Studio as an intern in the matte department (thanks, Dad) during the summer of 1963, I only rarely saw Walt. However on those few times, I do remember he would clear his throat often before he spoke.

"Of course, he had a very distinctive speaking voice; it was confident and strong, which is clearly evident in his introductions to the Sunday night Disneyland shows.

"My guess is that ALL of the memories of those to whom you spoken are correct. Everybody has their own interpretation of the past. We all know that Ward Kimball was given to some embellishment of stories for dramatic/comedic effect. Obviously Diane knew her father well, but probably didn't spend much time in meetings at the studio. A father's behavior in the workplace is not the same as at home.

"My father claimed that Walt had a recognizable cough, due to his smoking, that he could hear in his office on the 3rd floor as Walt was coming down the hall. Whether Walt did it on purpose or by habit, I don't know."

Disney Legend Floyd Norman said:

"That's a fascinating question concerning Walt's cough. I don't think anyone has ever asked this question before. I really have to give this some thought.

"Now, being at the Walt Disney Studio in the 1950s and 1960s , this was a cough I heard often enough. It didn't sound like a smoker's hack. And, it didn't have that distinctive sound of someone who was ill. There's that special 'movie cough' when we know someone is going to die in a film.

"I would have to say the cough I heard most often was what I might call Walt's 'fake cough'. That is, a cough someone purposely uses to make you aware of their presence. I think Walt had done this 'cough' so much over the years it had simply become a habit.

"I used to sit in one of the offices in D-wing near the door. I was used to the door opening and closing all day long. However, when I head the door open and there was a loud cough, I always knew it was Walt. Some years later when I moved upstairs to Woolie's unit in 2C on the second floor, Walt Disney still announced himself with that distinctive cough. As I said, it never sounded like a real cough to me. Especially, since it was purposely loud."

Disney Legend Ollie Johnston told Disney historian Michael Barrier that, in later years, Walt's coughed more frequently and it had a rougher sound. Johnston said, "that nervous cigarette cough. It seemed he'd get into this hacking awfully quickly if anything worried him a lot."

When Walt entered Saint Joseph's Hospital, right across from the Disney Studio, on November 2, 1966, roughly a week after appearing in the fabled short film where he explained the E.P.C.O.T. concept, a routine X-ray showed a spot the size of a walnut on his left lung. He had surgery the following Monday, November 7, 1966.

The surgeon told the immediate Disney family that he had six months to two years at most left to live. Not all of Walt's family was told. His brother Ray and his sister Ruth found out about the operation through the newspapers that downplayed any seriousness and made no mention of a malignancy.

The doctor told Walt that they had removed all the cancerous lesions and that with a little rest, Walt should be "as good as new" in an attempt to keep Walt's spirits up, but it was obvious that Walt sensed his time was limited.

"I don't think he ever accepted it," stated Disney Legend Ward Kimball. "Knowing Walt, not until he closed his eyes for the last time was he ever convinced."

Walt Disney died under the name of "John Smith" at 9:35 a.m. on December 15,1966 in Room 529 of Saint Joseph's Hospital of "cardiac arrest due to Bronchogenic ca(rcinoma)" which basically meant his heart stopped because of lung cancer.

Walt died feeling that if he could just have 10 or 15 more years, he would exceed everything he had done in his entire life.



  1. By Pinkhoody

    Wow, thank you for that. The last sentence is very powerful!

  2. By carolinakid

    Great article. However, I think it's ridiculous that showing someone smoking in a movie gets the film an R rating. That's insane. And I personally HATE smoking myself. And don't get me started on Disney censoring their old films featuring characters smoking (Melody Time for one)!

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