The Cute Walt Story That Never Was

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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The Cute Walt Story That Never Was

The moral of today’s story is not to believe everything you read…even if it is complimentary and fun.
 
Many things have been written about Walt Disney over the years by people who never met Walt nor even talked with his family nor people who knew him. Some of these authors have written terrible things about Walt that are clearly misleading at best and horrible slanders at worst.
 
I am certainly not going to mention specific authors and their books because human curiosity being what it is, I assume readers will then check out these flawed works and give them more attention than they deserve. I am troubled not only by these works but that, since they are in print, other authors have used them as source material for their own articles.
 
I will admit that I am pretty vain in the fact that after decades of researching, reading, and interviewing that I can pretty much spot some “bad” information about Disney in a recent book or article. However, even I can be taken by surprise at times.
 
Some things are pretty obvious. Walt was not frozen. Walt was not born in Spain. Walt was not anti-Semitic. Walt was born in Chicago, not Marceline.  There is unfortunately a whole long list of Walt Urban Legends that some people still believe are true.
 
Long-time readers of this column know that I love old newspaper and magazine articles about Walt Disney, especially those written during Walt’s lifetime. I know that not all the quotes were direct from Walt but probably wordsmithed by the magazine writer or someone on the Disney publicity staff like Joe Reddy.  I also know that Walt loved a good story whether it was entirely true or not and would sometimes let something slip pass simply because he felt it would interest the readers.
 
Most of the articles are fairly similar, devoting a good amount of space either to the birth of Mickey Mouse and Walt’s achievements in animation or focusing on the “new” Disneyland or some smaller aspect of Walt’s many accomplishments like his miniature railroad or the True-Life Adventures.
 
While rummaging around my ill-filed collection, I ran across the article “The Amazing Secret of Walt Disney” by Don Eddy in The American Magazine, August 1955, on newsstands in July—the same month that Disneyland first opened.
 
The article included a story supposedly told by Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife, that I loved because it once again reinforced how much Walt loved his daughters. In all the stories told about Walt and his many achievements, I think we often forget what a loving husband and father he was.   He cared about his family a great deal.
 
Anyway, here is the story that I loved from “The American Magazine”:
 
“In 1952, Walt took five women to Europe—Mrs. Disney, the daughters, a niece and a friend of Diane’s. On this trip he taught them to reach for what they wanted.
 
“'Before we started,'” Mrs. Disney remembered, “'this poor henpecked character laid down the law, but good! He told the girls he intended to have a good time for himself, didn’t want to be disturbed by silly females, and was not to be teased to do anything he didn’t want to do. Well, you know how long that lasted! But it seems he really meant it.'”
 
“In New York, the girls begged him to take them to Washington, D.C. 
 
“He flatly refused. 'If you want to go,' he said when they besieged him in their hotel suite, 'go ahead. But I’m not going with you.' They asked when and how they might go. 'Suit yourself,' he said testily, 'You’re old enough to think for yourselves. Go down and ask the porter; he’ll tell you about trains.'
 
“Wide-eyed and nervous, never having traveled alone, the girls trooped downstairs. 'And you know what their father did?' Mrs. Disney demanded with a smile. 'The minute they left the room, he called the porter and told him exactly what he wanted done. Then he called the hotel in Washington and gave explicit instructions. The girls had a whirl for themselves, of course, and they’ll never know until they read this that their father arranged the whole thing.'
 
“In Europe, he followed much the same procedure..”
 
Cute story, right? You can almost picture it as a scene from a Disney live action comedy with Fred MacMurray playing the concerned father.   It doesn’t put Walt in a bad light at all. He is merely a father who wants to help his daughters learn some independence but is still there as a safety net.
 
The only problem with the story? It is completely fabricated even though it might have been briefly checked and approved by Walt himself. 
 
How do I know? Well, I checked it with the ultimate living authority on Walt Disney as a father: his daughter, Diane Disney Miller.
 
Over the last decade, Diane has been very active in not only sharing stories about her father but spending at least an equal amount of time clearing up mis-information about Walt.   I will tell you the first time I was contacted by Diane about something I had written I was flattered, thankful and shocked and I am still in awe when she sends a comment on something I have written.  I will also tell you that the entire Disney historian community is grateful more than they could ever show that Diane shares this information so freely and willingly so that there is a more accurate portrayal of her father in print.
 
Here are Diane’s comments on this story:
 
“This never happened. It might have come from the pen of a very overly creative PR person. 
 
“We never went to Washington. Our first trip there was after dad's death to receive the Presidential Medal from President Nixon. We went as a whole family. Mother, Ron and I and six of our seven children went on the same plane with Jim and Sally Stewart. My baby, Patrick, and Sharon's toddler, Victoria, were left at home with the wonderful Fou Fou (You know who she is).
 
 “Roy and Edna came on the Gulfstream with their entire family, that is, Roy E., Patty, and their four children. Sharon flew in the following day. We have many pictures of our sight-seeing trip around Washington, all of us together in Senator George Murphy's office... He took us to lunch in the Senate dining room. It was the first time my sister and I had been to D.C. I really hate it when something phony is told. The truth is always more interesting, anyway. I've heard this story before, and I thought I'd corrected it.
 
“Sharon and I were never on our own in Europe, but always with them. On our last family trip in 1952, my cousin Marjorie, mother's niece and a friend of mine, Karin Bergstrom were with us. Dad sent us off to Switzerland, because Karin and Marjorie wanted to see Zermatt, etc., and he had to return to London. 
 
“Marjorie was quite a bit older that us .. 17 years.. divorced, and the mother of 3 at this time in her life. On the same trip, dad arranged for Karin and I to go to Helsinki to see the Olympic Games, because Karin wanted to. Her father had become dad's doctor, and was paying Karin's travel expenses. Dad was determined to give Karin the trip she wanted. I can remember his accompanying us to the airport, and holding our passports in his hands until the last minute, when he absolutely had to relinquish them to us. We had just finished our freshman year at USC. We had wonderful seats at the games, and stayed in a really nice apartment in Helsinki that had been made available to us God only knows how. It was very exciting to be there and see the games. I would never have thought to ask him to arrange it on my own. This is probably what mother is referring to.
 
“It doesn’t even sound like dad. I know he enjoyed that trip. As I said, I never would have thought about asking dad to send us off somewhere without them. It was too much fun to travel with him. Karin kept harping on the Olympics, and they certainly were not a part of the planned agenda. Dad felt he had to do his best to give her a great trip. I can still see him there, not able to go further, having surrendered our passports to us and sent us off on our own. He looked worried. Isn't that a better story?
 
“This is just bad 'journalism'… if you can call it that. I wish you could correct it.”
 
I am certainly pleased to be able to do so. I wrote Diane that I was going to print the story with her correction so that there would be something in print for future researchers to find. I think Diane’s true version of the story still spotlights that Walt was a caring father and that he would go out of his way to make others happy when he could. 
 
I would also like to publicly thank again Diane Disney Miller for all that she has done, especially in the last decade or so, for helping writers like me be as accurate as possible. I will also share with you that she does it in the nicest possible way and exhibits a real sense of class that would make her parents proud. She is even willing to admit she might be wrong sometimes because she primarily knew Walt at home rather than Walt at work but I haven’t found her wrong yet.
 
I know we are all looking forward to the Walt Disney Family Museum that she is creating in San Francisco. To find out more about that and Walt Disney, I highly recommend the Walt Disney Family website:  www.waltdisney.org and make sure you look through the archives of interviews and articles.