Debunking Myths About Walt Disneyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
In early September, PBS decided to rerun its four-hour American Experience documentary on Walt Disney that garnered good ratings and sold well as a DVD. When it first ran on PBS in 2015, Disney Legend Bob Gurr said the best way to watch the documentary was as a silent movie. Turn off the sound and just enjoy the wonderful new images and film clips that were a true treasure.
To try to grasp my disappointment with this terrible piece of reporting and missed opportunities, you might want to read my initial review.
As the years have passed, it has become even clearer that the filmmakers went in with a pre-set agenda to show the "dark soul" (the words in the documentary) of Walt Disney and his struggles with that darkness.
Walt was definitely not a saint (something he freely admitted himself) and, at his insistence, the Disney company did attempt to sanitize his image by doing things like removing alcohol glasses and cigarettes from his hands from photos before they were published. Walt did not want those bad habits to influence young people or make them thing it was "okay" because Walt did it.
Of course, Walt also didn't allow photos of him wearing his reading glasses either and colored his hair and mustache in his later years. He basically created a brand image for Walt Disney, which has made it very easy to attack him.
Walt was stubborn, had a fiery temper (often aggravated by his physical pain from a variety of ailments like an old polo injury, sinuses that had to be drained weekly, and recurring dental pain), and sometimes was so oblivious that he didn't realize when he was being too tough on his employees.
However, he was also a loving father, very generous to people, an unparalleled storyteller, and an unquestioned genius in many areas, such as animation, live outdoor entertainment, films, marketing, and technology.
MousePlanet readers seemed to like me debunking the myth of Walt being frozen after his death. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to myths about Walt. I could easily spend the rest of this year writing nothing but columns on these myths.
This week, I am going to attempt to debunk a few more, fully realizing that people whose minds are already made up because they know the "real truth" won't accept any of this obvious evidence. For those with more open minds, this information may help you when your friends start to trot out nonsense about Walt.
Walt Disney was NOT Anti-Semitic
Anti-Semitism means a strong prejudice and hatred of people of Jewish heritage resulting in discrimination against them. It is a form of racism and has been going on for centuries.
Walt Disney was a strongly religious Protestant Christian man who had a great respect for all religions including Judaism.
His daughter, Diane Disney Miller recalled in an interview I did with her:
"I do know that he had great respect for all faiths. Rabbi Edgar Magnin [rabbi and spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai B'rith/Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and considered the "Rabbi to the Stars") refers to him as 'my friend Walt Disney' in his book titled 365 Vitamins For the Mind.
"He was the B'nai B'rith Man of the Year for the Beverly Hills Chapter in 1955. My sister dated a Jewish boy for awhile with no objections from either of my parents. One time, Dad said innocently but proudly, 'Sharon, I think it's wonderful how these Jewish families have accepted you.'…and it was a very sincere comment. And she was accepted. She knew about lox and bagels way before I was aware of them, went to several bar mitzvahs, etc.
"Jules and Doris Stein [who were both Jewish. Stein founded MCA that later purchased Universal Pictures in 1962] were good friends. Dad had so many very good Jewish friends, going back to his childhood. Many of dad's strongest supporters in his career in Hollywood were Jewish, weren't they? I have to conclude that dad was not guilty of any kind of anti-Semitism."
For the opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955, Walt had invitations sent to editors from eight different religious newspapers (Catholic, Jewish and Protestant), as well as invitees from nearby churches in the Anaheim area, including a synagogue, and Rabbi Magnin was prominently in attendance at the flagpole ceremony with Walt.
Jewish stereotypical characters were common and prominent in comic strips and animated cartoons, as well as live-action film and stage performances, long before Walt Disney started making animated shorts.
In general, Disney cartoons avoided Jewish images as a source for humor, although a few moments did appear in a handful of cartoons (primarily characters wearing Orthodox Jewish headgear danced the Kozachok, a Russian Cossack dance) made between the years 1929-1932 as a passing gag, not the basis for an entire cartoon like some of the New York animation studios.
The one and only blatant Jewish caricature appears in the award-winning short, the Three Little Pigs (1933). As one of his disguises to gain entry to the house and capture the pigs, the Big Bad Wolf briefly presents himself as a Jewish peddler selling brushes.
From a story perspective, this was done because, at the time, it was a common image to have a Jewish peddler going door-to-door selling things as they had done since the mid-1800s. In addition, the pigs would feel safe to open the door because a Jewish peddler would never eat pork and so was harmless.
Walt's brother, Roy O. Disney personally responded, "We have a great many Jewish business associates and friends, and certainly would avoid purposely demeaning the Jews or any other race or nationality… It seems to us that this character is no more than many well-known Jewish comedians portray, themselves, in vaudeville, stage, and screen characterizations."
In 1948 for the shorts' re-release, Walt funded on his own and, without any outside pressure, having the wolf in the scene re-animated as a Fuller Brush salesman, another familiar image to audiences of someone who would come door to door trying to sell something.
The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, founded in 1913, and who monitored Jewish images in Hollywood films never voiced any objections about any of the Disney cartoon shorts after the 1933 Three Little Pigs.
The famous head of Disney merchandising for over a decade, Kay Kamen (who happened to be Jewish), once quipped that the Disney Company "had more Jews in it than the Book of Leviticus."
"As far as I'm concerned, there was no evidence of anti-Semitism," said legendary storyman and concept artist Joe Grant, who was Jewish. "I think the whole idea should be put to rest and buried deep. He was not anti-Semitic. Some of the most influential people at the Studio were Jewish. It's much ado about nothing. I never once had a problem with him in that way. That myth should be laid to rest."
Walt regularly donated (without any publicity just like his other charitable contributions) to a number of Jewish charities, like the Yeshiva College, the Jewish Home for the Aging, and the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of the City of New York. In December 1935 he also donated Mickey Mouse watches for all the children at that orphanage.
In 1955, the Beverly Hills chapter of B'nai B'rith (the oldest Jewish service organization in the world) declared Walt its "Man of the Year" after extensive investigation to determine if he had any anti-Semitic tendencies. The plaque read: "For exemplifying the best tenets of American citizenship and inter-group understanding and interpreting into action the ideals of B'nai B'rith."
Three years later, November 30, 1958, the Kansas City, Missouri chapter ("Heart of America") of B'nai B'rith awarded him a Distinguished Service Citation.
Robert Sherman was a Jewish-American composer who worked with his brother Richard to compose some of the most memorable Disney songs of all time including the music for the film Mary Poppins.
He shared the following story: "One time, [my brother] Richard and I overheard a discussion between Walt and one of his lawyers. This attorney was a real bad guy, didn't like minorities. He said something about Richard and me, and he called us 'these Jew boys writing these songs.' Well, Walt defended us, and he fired the lawyer."
Briefly, Walt was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) formed in 1944, but was not active in the organization after 1947. The MPA was an organization of conservative members of the Hollywood industry and its stated purpose was to prevent Communistic influence in Hollywood films.
Some liberal detractors tried to smear the group by labeling it an anti-Semitic organization. Another prominent member was Jewish screenwriter Morrie Ryskind, who was nominated for an Oscar for My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937). Another Jewish member of the MPA was movie producer Walter Wagner, who became a lifelong friend of Walt.
Over the decades, Walt personally employed many people of the Jewish faith in key positions in every part of the Disney Company including: Friz Freleng, Dick Huemer, George Kamen, Hal Horne, Art Babbitt, David Hilberman, Harry Tytle, Marc Davis, Otto Englander, Bernie Wolf, Jules Engel, Zack Schwartz, Irving Ludwig, Mel Shaw, Maurice Rapf, Armand Bigle, Leo F. Samuels, Ed Solomon, Sid Miller, Doreen Tracey, Sid Miller, Ed and Keenan Wynn, William Lava, Richard Fleischer, David Swift and Imagineering Legend Marty Sklar, among many others.
While Walt was not anti-Semitic and the policy of the Disney Studio was to not discriminate for any reason, some of the people Walt employed were blatantly anti-Semitic, but these interactions were often unknown to Walt.
"I can say that in extensive casting and personnel decisions, I never saw Walt being anti-Semitic," wrote producer Harry Tytle. "Too, I never even heard Walt make an anti-Semitic remark. Over the years, I've been amazed at how many different men Walt 'really was' as told by those who knew very little about him."
Walt Was NOT a Freemason
Although not a "Masonic organization" as such, The Order of DeMolay is generally considered to be part of the general "family" of Masonic and associated organizations, including several youth groups.
Walt joined in 1920 as the 107th member of the original Mother Chapter of DeMolay in Kansas City, Missouri barely a year after its formation in 1919 by Frank S. Land. Walt was 18 years old.
Walt received the DeMolay Legion of Honor in October 1931 a degree corresponding to that of a 33rd degree in Masonry, the highest attainable.
At the ceremony, Walt said, "I am proud to receive the Legion of Honor, but I feel as though I haven't done anything to merit it."
In 1936, Walt appeared as an honored guest at the first DeMolay Founder's Conference in Kansas City and to participate in the installation of 100 new members in the Legion of Honor of the Order of DeMolay.
Walt's involvement with DeMolay meant a great deal to him and he proudly wore a DeMolay ring on his right hand until the around 1948, when it was replaced by the Claddagh ring that both he and his wife wore for the rest of their lives.
Disney was a member of the first class to be inducted (posthumously) into the DeMolay Hall of Fame on November 13, 1986.
However, Walt's older brother Raymond was quite an active member in the Masonic Lodge and the Los Angeles, California Al Malaikah Shrine Temple A. A. O. N. M. S. activities for many years. He bequeathed a very considerable amount of his estate to the Shriner's Hospital for Crippled Children in Los Angeles and the Shriner's Children's Burn Hospital in Galveston, Texas. Raymond's crypt inscription at Forest Lawn Memorial Park includes the official Shrine Temple A. A. O. N. M. S. emblem.
Walt's other older brother Roy Oliver was briefly a Freemason, but saw it as more of a fraternal organization and removed all affiliation before his son married a young Catholic woman.
Walt Disney was NOT an FBI Informant
A December 16, 1954 memo from Los Angeles Special Agent in Charge John F. Malone wrote to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover recommending that Walt Disney be approved as a Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Contact.
This was a more ceremonial honorary designation rather than asking the individual to spy or actively gather information. FBI field offices keep a list of such SAC Contracts so that agents needing information or advice about a particular industry or area of expertise would have a competent, friendly, and reliable source to go to for it rather than starting from scratch.
Walt's status as a SAC Contact was not unique in Hollywood. Many others were granted the same status. The memo states, "No derogatory information concerning this individual appears in the files of this office. Because of Mr. Disney's position as the foremost producer of cartoon films and his prominence and wide acquaintanceship in film production matters, it is believed that he can be of valuable assistance to this office."
However, the relationship quickly soured when Walt Disney produced a laudatory four segments on the FBI for the original Mickey Mouse Club television show (January 24-29, 1958), but did not provide a final copy of the show before broadcast until the last minute, resulting in the bureau deciding there would be no further cooperation on future projects
In addition, Walt produced two feature-length live-action comedies—Moon Pilot (1962) and That Darn Cat (1965)—that featured FBI agents as comic foils which furthered angered the bureau. In fact, documents relating to these three productions make up the bulk of Walt's FBI files and do not show any precise information Walt may have been asked to give to the FBI.
He was officially deleted as a SAC Contact on December 20, 1966 after the FBI confirmed his death and interment.
Walt Disney was NOT a Nazi sympathizer
Walt Disney did not support Nazism, although he did feel there was a difference between the good German people and the Nazi political party who he felt had deceived them with false information. It is apparent that Walt was always 100 percent American.
During a speech on February 22, 1963, Walt said, "Actually, if you could see close in my eyes, the American flag is waving in both of them, and up my spine is growing this red, white, and blue stripe."
During World War II, Walt was active in making confidential military training films and was required to have the highest security clearance to do so. Any previous or current sympathies toward Nazism would have disqualified him or subjected him to intense scrutiny and suspicion.
Walt also made many strong propaganda shorts attacking the Nazis, including Education for Death (based on Gregor Ziemer's non-fiction book about how Nazis indoctrinated young people), Der Fuehrer's Face (about a surrealistic Nazi Germany's terror-filled life for its citizens) and Reason and Emotion (about how those two aspects must work together to defeat the Nazis and their various ploys).
Animator Art Babbitt, who held a well known grudge against Walt for a variety of reasons, claimed he had seen Walt and Disney lawyer Gunther Lessing attend a few German American Bund meetings (an association of German immigrants that supported Hitler) and that while he was Jewish, Babbitt said he also attended just out of curiosity.
It is entirely possible that Walt's own curiosity to learn what was going on brought him to the same meetings. However, no one else has ever claimed Walt attended these meetings and his busy schedule probably precluded him from doing so (no indication in his office appointment book that he did) as well as, at the time, his almost complete lack of interest in politics.
German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, whose documentaries helped glorify the Nazis and was a favorite of Adolf Hitler, was allowed to visit the Disney Studios and meet with Walt in December 1938 when she was in Los Angeles promoting her movie Olympia, about the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Other studios refused to see her.
The invitation came as a result of a request of their mutual friend, dancer and actor Jay Stowitts, who told Walt that Riefenstahl felt he was an important filmmaker. She offered to show him her latest film, but Walt turned her down and later disavowed her visit, claiming he hadn't known who she was. He may not have known what she actually represented and how despised she was.
He might have met with her to try to encourage her to use her leverage to help recover more than 135,000 Reichmarks owed Disney from his German film distributor and to get the ban in Germany lifted on Disney films.
On finding out Hitler was banning Mickey Mouse cartoons, Walt demonstrated his political naivete in the Overland Monthly, October 1933 where he stated: "Mr. A. Hitler, the Nazi old thing, says Mickey's silly. Imagine that! Well, Mickey is going to save Mr. A. Hitler from drowning or something some day. Just wait and see if he doesn't. Then won't Mr. A. Hitler be ashamed!"
Despite being a persistent urban myth, Walt never met with Benito Mussolini in Italy in 1935, although it is well documented that both Mussolini and Hitler were big Mickey Mouse fans, even though they banned those cartoons in their own countries.
In recent years, animated comedy series like Family Guy and Robot Chicken have revived the falsehoods that Walt Disney was a Nazi and anti-Semitic, introducing a new generation to these repeatedly debunked rumors.