Walt and Lilly: A Disney Love Storyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
On Valentine's Day, there are a number of great Disney love stories that could be the topic of a column. I debated about doing a column focusing on Mickey Mouse and Minnie celebrating their 90th anniversary later this year, and then realized that it might be more interesting to focus on their real life surrogates: Walt Disney and his wife Lillian.
"I think my dad fell in love with her almost immediately. He liked that she was an independent little lady. It took a little while for her to succumb to his charm but when she did, she was completely smitten for the rest of her life," their daughter Diane Disney Miller told me.
Walt and Lillian both shared quite a few similar qualities with the early version of their animated alter-egos. Walt's optimism, friendliness and playfulness are well represented in Mickey Mouse. Lilly's independence, focus on being a good homemaker and not putting up with any nonsense are shown clearly in Minnie.
The Disney family was actually quite shy and modest and kept their private life very private so it is difficult to find specifics about their personal lives especially about the special affection between Walt and Lilly.
Even though Lillian did a small handful of interviews, she remains a bit of a mystery and is usually defined by her accomplishments, like making sure Mickey was not named Mortimer and opposing Walt's plans to make an animated feature and then later Disneyland as well as other things because it might put the family in financial jeopardy.
Lillian wrote in 1953: "I'm the original worry wart about Walt's ideas. He always tries them out on me. Although I may not classify as Walt Disney's best friend (a colorless thing for a wife to be, anyway) I am sure I can as his severest critic. I always look on the dark side. Maybe once in a while I have been right and have saved him from mistakes — but I also remember the time Walt was making his first full-length picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). And I tried to stop him because I didn't think people would go to see a picture about dwarfs!"
Like her daughters, she was quite jealous that she had to share Walt with the rest of the world and his work. However, Walt and Lillian remained happily married for more than 40 years until his death. That is not to say they didn't have arguments or that Lilly didn't occasionally lock him out of the house when she got mad at him, but they were always physically affectionate.
The Disney family remembers that Walt would never come into the house without hugging and kissing Lilly and always spoke proudly about her. He deferred to her authority about anything related to the house, always gave her the window seat on a plane when they traveled, and allowed her to pick the rooms at a hotel.
Lillian Marie Bounds was born in Spalding, Idaho, on February 15, 1899. She kept the year of her birth secret thoughout her entire life, since she was roughly 3 years older than Walt and did not want to seem like a cradle robber.
While today that may seem amusing, in the era when she lived, it was a very real concern, just as the adoption of her daughter Sharon was not publicized because of the possible reaction from some people. Lillian personally asked author Bob Thomas not to include her birth year or Sharon's adoptive status in his biography of her husband and he agreed. (That information now appears in the revised version published after her death.)
Most people just always assumed that Lillian was the same age as Walt, or a year or two younger, and, as the decades went on, the slight age gap between them made very little difference.
As the 10th and last child of Jeanette Short Bounds and Willard Pehall Bounds, Lillian grew up in Lapwai, Idaho, on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation where her father worked for the government as a blacksmith and federal marshal. He died when she was 17 and she remembered him affectionally as a "good time Charlie" who even when he had no money would somehow get presents for the family.
After she graduated Lapwai High School, she and her mother moved to Lewiston where she attended a year of business college. In December 1923, she decided to accept an invitation from her older sister Hazel Sewell and move to Los Angeles, California to live with Sewell, her husband, and daughter.
Hazel had a friend, Kathleen Dollard, who was working as an ink and paint girl at the Disney Brothers Studios on the Alice Comedies series. When the brothers asked her if she knew anyone else who was reliable who might be able to help out with the work, Dollard suggested Lillian, because her training as a stenographer would give her a steady hand and her need to find a job.
From a 1986 interview done for the book The Man Behind the Magic (1991), Lillian recalled:
"One morning this girl came down and said, 'Would you like a job?' and I said, 'Doing what?' And she said, 'Well, I'm working for these two fellows up there, making cartoons, and they need somebody to fill in the ink'. Anyway, it was close so I could walk to work and save on bus fare so I said 'yes' and took the job. She would do the inking and I would do the painting filling in the spaces.
"They tried to use me as a secretary but I wasn't very good at it. So I went back to painting. I made fifteen dollars a week. And sometimes Roy would ask me to hold off on cashing the check right away so that they would use that little bit of money to pay their bills. I was living with my sister so didn't immediately need the money so I had a handful of uncashed checks.
"Walt always said I was so bad as a secretary, made too many mistakes when he was dictating, and they owed me so much money from those uncashed checks that he had to marry me."
Dollard had warned Lillian that she would help her get the job on one condition: "Don't vamp the boss." Vamp was a popular expression at the time referring to a "female vampire" who was a "femme fatale" who would use her feminine wiles and flirtatious attitude to ensnare a helpless male.
In later years when the story was retold, the work "vamp" was changed to "marry." Lillian insisted she had no intention to do so and after meeting Walt was not terribly impressed. She thought he was nice, but not a romantic prospect. Dollard, however, had made some flirtatious overtures to Walt that he was oblivious to or just not interested.
After all, Lillian had a young fellow she was dating back in Idaho who was ambitious and a banker, who would later also come to the Los Angeles area and become a judge.
Actually, it was Walt who was the one who was flirtatious, just like Mickey Mouse, who verges on sexual harassment when he tries to force Minnie repeatedly to kiss him in Plane Crazy (1928). Minnie chooses to jump out of the plane instead.
Lillian started working at the studio officially on January 19. 1924, and was almost 26 years old. She was short, slender, had a strong Midwestern face and stylish dark hair. She was a little timid at the size of Los Angeles compared to Lewiston and so her seven year old niece, Marjorie, accompanied her that first day so she wouldn't get lost.
Even though she lived within walking distance of the Disney Brothers Studio, Walt would drive her and Dollard home, but would drop her off last even though she lived closer. It was during those rides and conversations that she started to become attracted to this magnetic man who seemed so interested in her stories and family.
They almost dated by default. Lillian had no other gentleman callers and Walt didn't seem interested in seeing other women. Obviously, the closeness in the small studio and the long hours together helped create a sense of intimacy.
Walt was ashamed of how he dressed and asked if he got a new suit whether he could meet her family. Lillian told him her sister didn't care about Walt's clothes, but he bought a suit anyway. Hazel and her husband were entertaining friends, when Walt walked into their living room for the first time and proudly showed off his new suit. Lillian found it endearing and her family liked Walt immediately.
"On a typical date, we would go to see a picture show or just take a drive," Lillian recalled. He had a Moon Roadster and we would drive up to Santa Barbara sometimes. We used to take rides in it out to Pomona and Riverside, driving through the orange groves. Walt would take me out to dinner at tearooms. He also would like to take me to theater shows. Our first big date was No, No, Nannette which was appearing in Los Angeles."
Diane remembered that neither of them talked much about their courtship. However, Lillian did mention to her that one night when they were working late at the studio and she was taking dictation that "Suddenly, your father leaned over and kissed me."
When Diane asked what happened next, Lillian replied, "I blushed. It was customary in those days."
in an interview with writer Katherine Greene, Lillian's niece Marjorie recalled:
"Aunt Lilly was warm. She was gentle. She was a real lady, always. And a very caring person. My mother played the guitar and she and Aunt Lilly had two other sisters who also had beautiful voices. It was a very musical family. They loved harmonizing together. Very talented without any training. Aunt Lilly made me clothes for my dolls.
"Walt was at our house an awful lot. My mother was an excellent cook and we never could really decide whether he was there because of Aunt Lilly or because of my mother's cooking. But I guess it was Aunt Lilly.
"I slept on the sofa in the living room and he would come over and he and Aunt Lilly would be together and talking and whatever they were doing, and I was moved into her bed in her bedroom so they could have some privacy. Then, when he was ready to go, he carried me down back to the sofa. He was the only one that ever got me into that bed that I didn't fall out of it.
"He fixed it so and tucked it so that I never fell out of the bed. Otherwise, I would always wake up in the morning on the floor."
Roy O. Disney and his sweetheart Edna got married on April 11, 1925 and Walt and Lillian had already grown so close she was Edna's maid of honor. Home movies show Walt giving Lillian a lengthy kiss on camera and a big bear hug.
Edna who was taller, more self-assured and older bonded with Lillian as if she were a younger sister. Over tea and card games, the two would commiserate over the fiery and stubborn "Disney disposition" of their husbands.
"She worshipped him," Roy told writer Bob Thomas. "She had a lot of patience with him and they used to fuss at each other in their own kind of kidding way."
Lillian remembered: "After (Walt) proposed to me and I accepted, he said, 'I can buy you an engagement ring or I can make a down payment on a car. Which will you have?' I don't remember what I said, but he always told everybody that I said the car because he bought the car first."
One of the things Walt claimed that he loved about Lillian was that she was "a good listener. I'd talk to her about what I'd hope to do and she'd listen."
Roy and Walt found a wholesale diamond dealer where Walt bought a four-carat diamond mounted on a thin platinum band surrounded by blue sapphires for $75. The wedding band was white gold with a half-dozen "microscopic diamonds."
Approximately a year and a half after she started working at the studio, and just three months after Roy and Edna's wedding, Lillian and Walt were married on July 13, 1925 in Lewiston, Idaho by Reverend D.J.W. Somerville, Rector Protestant Episcopal Church of the Nativity. Her sister Hazel B. Sewell and brother Sydney O. Bounds were witnesses.
It took place in the living room of Lillian's brother's house. The marriage license was filed with County Recorder Thomas Burton on October 27, 1925.
Her brother, who was chief of the Lewiston Fire Department, gave the bride away. She wore a dress which she had made herself and it was colored lavender.
"I remember that Aunt Lilly giggled through the ceremony and Walt got mad," remembered Lillian's niece Marjorie. "My mother giggled too. Oh, Aunt Lilly, whenever she'd get nervous, she would giggle."
"After we married, on our way on the train, we stopped off in Portland, Oregon. That's where his parents lived at the time and that was the first time I had met them," Lillian said. "They were just ordinary people. Very warm and very friendly and they loved him very much. They wanted him to be happy so they were happy with me for that reason."
The couple honeymooned at Mount Rainier National Park and then Seattle. Unfortunately, on their wedding night, Walt had a toothache so painful that he could not sleep (Walt had lifelong dental problems) and spent the evening wandering the train, even helping the porter shine shoes until the train stopped in the morning and he could find a dentist. The rest of the honeymoon proceeded without incident.
Lillian wrote in 1953:
"I've always teased Walt that the reason he asked me to marry him so soon after Roy married Edna Francis was that he needed somebody to fix his meals. But I have one comforting thought. Food isn't that important to Walt.
"Walt would get involved in working out some idea and forget to turn up until 10 or 11 at night. Once, soon after we were married, Walt did the same thing to me. When it came dinnertime he wandered out of the studio to the corner beanery for a bowl of soup and then right back to the studio to continue with his idea. It wasn't until far into the night that he woke up to the fact he had a bride at home who had cooked dinner and was waiting to throw it in his face when he turned up."
For the next 41 years, Lillian was content to quietly remain in the background, raise two daughters (Diane and Sharon), tend to her garden, play cards with her friends, and constantly challenge almost every decision Walt made—from producing an animated feature to building a backyard railroad.
Walt would make sure he was home for dinner every night at 7:30 p.m. and once their daughters got married and had left the house, they would still eat dinner on TV trays together and watch their favorite shows like Groucho Marx in You Bet Your Life.
As actor Dick Van Dyke remembered, "On a couple of occasions, we [my wife and I] went out to dinner with Walt and Lilly. It was like going out with your parents. They were maternal and paternal. He would say, 'What do you say, Mother?' or 'What do you want to have, Mother?'"
They traveled together everywhere, but she eventually stopped attending events with him because of the crowds. Lillian recalled, "In South America once they made such a fuss over him at a movie theater that I got separated from him. Crowds scare me a little, because I am only 5 feet tall. All I could think of to do was to follow the man in front of me. I was ready to follow him into the men's room when the manager of the theater, alerted by Walt, saved me."
Following the death of Walt, she became quite active in a variety of charitable programs. She helped found the California Institute of the Arts. She donated to many causes, including a $100,000 gift to the Nez Perce Indians to help in the purchase of tribal artifacts in 1996.
Lillian remarried in May 1969 to John Louis Truyens (1907-1981), only to be widowed again roughly a dozen years later when she reverted back to using the "Disney" last name for the rest of her life.
In May 1987, Lillian made a landmark gift of $50 million to build The Walt Disney Concert Hall that opened in 2003, nearly six years after her death.
Regarding her marriage to Walt, Lillian stated, "We shared a wonderful, exciting life, and we loved every minute of it. He was a wonderful husband to me and a wonderful and joyful father and grandfather."
Lillian died peacefully in her sleep at the home she and Walt shared on Carolwood Drive on Tuesday December 16, 1997, following a stroke that she suffered early in the morning of December 15. Ironically, Walt Disney died 31 years earlier, early in the morning of December 15, 1966.
Lillian was survived by one daughter (Diane) as well as 10 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. There was no funeral service. Like Walt, she was cremated and her ashes were interred just below Walt's in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.
Michael D. Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Company, said, "Mrs. Disney was a full-time partner to Walt and we are all grateful for her contributions in the creation of Mickey Mouse and the Disney Company and the example she set for family life and community service."
On December 17, 1997, her nephew Roy E. Disney issued the following statement:
"This really is the end of an era for the Disneys, and it's ironic and somehow fitting that it should be at this time of the year…Walt, in 1966, my dad in 1971, my mother in 1984, and now Lily have all gone during the 10 days before Christmas.
"She was a great lady, full of laughter and fun and always prepared to speak the truth, tough and loving at the same time. Once you knew her, you'd never forget her. I always thought of the four of them…Walt and Roy, Lily and Edna…as true pioneers…if life had required them to pull the wagon train across the country, they'd have done it…and done it better than anyone. I'm pretty sure that the four of them are together somewhere now, having a wonderful time."