What Walt Knows About Girls

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

One of the joys of having this regular slot on Wednesdays is that I am able to share some of the treasures in my personal archives. I certainly appreciate all the other websites and blogs that have been so generous in sharing old photos of Disneyland and Walt or scans of Disney documents like booklets, exposure sheets and conference notes. 

Frequent readers of this column know that I love to share some obscure articles that were supposedly written by Walt or at least with Walt’s personal input. Not everything that is credited to Walt had that personal input. Just recently I was looking at a British Film Annual from the 1930s that had an article on the making of the Silly Symphonies that claimed it was written by Walt. It was pretty clear that the rhythm of the article and the choice of language, especially several uniquely British expressions, did not sound like Walt at all.

Even worse, the article shared no interesting information. It was more of a publicity puff blurb about how magical it was to make animated cartoons and how so many people (none of them named) were involved in the process.

On the other hand, there are several articles that appeared in newspapers and magazines that seemed to have Walt’s direct involvement. However, even though I am an “old dog,” it is possible to teach me “new tricks.”  So, instead of just accepting what I believed to be an actual article by Walt in “Parents’ Magazine” from January 1949 where Walt talked with staff writer Joe Alvin about what he had learned from women, I thought I would once again contact Diane Disney Miller since the article talked a good deal about her during her teenage years.

Again, I am personally thankful for Diane’s time and patience and generosity in helping me even while she has so many other much more important priorities on her agenda. Even more amazingly, she got back to me in less than 10 hours.

Here is her response: “Amazing!  I'd edit out parts that embarrass me, but that wouldn't be fair.  I think this came right from dad.  One correction, though .. I was very young when the Monkey pulled my hair .. maybe only half as old as he says I was. It's a story I heard told, rather than remembered.

“Dad did drive us to school every morning, along with two other classmates of mine in junior high school.  It was a long drive.  He dropped us off, then continued on with Sharon to Westlake School, just beyond Beverly Hills. Then he'd go on over the hill to Burbank. They eventually bought a lot just around the corner from Westlake, and built the home that mother continued to live in after his death.

“I've often said that dad got a lot of the material he contributed to ‘Parent Trap’ from driving us to school.  When we were very young he had a captive, and very happy, audience in us, but when two other preteenagers joined us for those few years, dad and Sharon, in the front seat, were the captive audience.  And he took it all in, and enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing this.  I've never seen it.”

Wow! I can’t tell you how happy it made me to share something with Diane that she hadn’t seen and to find out that it is basically fairly accurate. I am also happy to be able to share with you this hidden treasure from my collection to add to your Disney knowledge and to give you a greater insight into Walt and his appreciation of women.

While there is an occasional tone of male chauvinism in the article where I almost expect Walt to complain about “women drivers” at any moment, it is important to remember the time period when this was written and that type of attitude was fairly standard. 

It is also important to realize that Walt might be considered one of the first feminists. Not only did he love his mom, his wife and his daughters, he also respected them, listened to their ideas and acted upon them. After all, if not for his wife Lillian, we would have Mortimer Mouse instead of Mickey.  Walt was fairly aggressive in supporting Diane’s interest in being a writer even bringing some of her early work to the studio to be evaluated by writers.   That action was atypical of the time period.

Also, Walt provided opportunities for many talented women at the studio from Mary Blair to Harriet Burns to Alice Davis to Hazel George (who wrote many songs for Disney under the pseudonym “Gil George”) to countless others that weren’t always available elsewhere. Walt employed women in every step of the animation process, not just ink and painters, from concept artists to writers to animators and that was also atypical of the animation studios of the day. Of course, men still vastly outnumbered women in these roles but some women also did those jobs over the years and added significantly to the Disney legacy.

So, here from my personal archives, is my transcription of Walt Disney’s article from a battered and yellowed magazine copy of Parents’ Magazine from January 1949 that I found over a decade and a half ago at a swap meet. 

“What I know About Girls by Walt Disney”

What I know about girls, I learned to a great extent behind the wheel of my automobile.

I live only 10 minutes by car from the studio in Burbank, but I spend an hour getting there. The other 50 minutes are consumed playing school bus to a load of excited young females.

I would recommend this school bus method very highly to any dad who wants to know what his children are thinking.

Sometimes, I admit, it’s something of a shock. I never knew females could be so aggressive and predatory!

My oldest daughter, Diane, who is 15, goes to Marlborough, a girls’ school in Hollywood. Sharon, who is 12, attends the Westlake School for Girls, a little farther out. Altogether it takes me about an hour to pick up their chums and deliver my garrulous cargo to their respective destinations. It’s been worth every moment.

I learn, for instance (to the accompaniment of Fred Waring and others on our radio) that Joe is a “jerk” and a girl shouldn’t be seen dead with him. I discover that the new first baseman of the Hollywood Stars is just 'too cute' and the new catcher, well, he’d be just right if he weren’t so self-conscious. I know who’s going to date whom for every school dance, who dances just too divinely for words, and who should stay off his feet (and everyone else’s).

Every morning of my life, I live an hour in a feminine world which looks on everything from baseball to the prom in terms of the boyfriend, and others like him who haven’t quite been metamorphosed into boyfriends, plus some who, from hearsay at least, never will.

If I haven’t said it before, I must say it now. “School bus college” can do much toward the education of a parent. It’s an education which as a person I can’t afford to miss, because it’s an education in the healthiest and most important natural interest I can ever expect a daughter to have—the unfolding of her interest in a life mate. Maybe it’s selfish, but I happen to want to be in on that interest.

I want to be very close to my daughters. It’s a lot of trouble (but what a lot of fun!) to raise them. I’m just selfish enough to want to be 'in' even a little when the girls make that selection. I don’t want to dictate their choice in the least. I’d only like, if I can, to prevent them from making a serious mistake. 'Dad, what do you think of John?' is a question I definitely want to hear before, not after, Diane’s or Sharon’s marriage.

Up to this time, from all I have overheard, at least one boy is going to have some order to fill. He’ll have to look like Tyrone Power, but be taller, and not look as though he always needed a shave! The other one (so far) will have a lot of leeway. All he has to do is look like Daddy!

What I know about girls I also learned in my home workshop. It’s not a bad place for an education, either. As a hobbyist, you might say I’m a putterer. Nothing elaborate. Nothing so complicated if it can’t be built with a screwdriver, glue, sandpaper and a whittling knife. For a long time, my education was pretty static. I used to build things like trains and got nothing but yawns and polite 'how nices' from the family, while I hunted up nephews to give the trains to.

One day the wife of a studio associate, a fine painter in her own right, happened to mention that she needed models of rickshaws for some Oriental oils she was doing. I volunteered to make her one. What that rickshaw did for me and my family still astounds me. I became overnight “The Man of the House.” The woman got as excited as Dodger fans at a World Series game in Yankee Stadium. It took me a little while, but I finally found out that trains leave women cold, while “cute” things, rickshaws, and buggies 'send' them.

The fact that women like cute things is a lesson I also learned in another phase of my education about the gentle sex—the studio. Women, for example, like Donald Duck for reasons quite opposed to the interior logic of us poor males. We like the Duck because he never lacks a snappy comeback and has more spunk than a Southern Association umpire. To the women, Donald is cute. That’s supposed to explain everything and generally does—to women.

Men prefer characters like Goofy who give them belly laughs. Women prefer situation comedy to slapstick and don’t laugh as quickly at a funny fall. They like the kind way Donald Duck treats his nephews and don’t like it as well as men when that kindness puts him on the spot.

What I know about girls I also learned from my wife. A man can’t be married to a woman like Mrs. Disney for a generation without learning something about the nice and—let’s face it—annoying things about her sex. (I imagine she has a catalog about me too, which should make me very glad Parents’ Magazine didn’t ask her to write what she knows about men.)

I don’t think it’s ever safe, however, for a husband to discuss his wife right out in public. So I’ll pass on quickly.

Keeping company with my daughters away from home I learned, of course, that teenagers have a lot of healthy interest besides the male sex—interests which sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t share together.

Diane likes baseball. She’s a regular follower of the Hollywood Stars and likes to watch the games on television. She’s a consistent but not a rabid fan. She’s interested in horses, too, and at one time planned to study animal husbandry. She’s also interested in football—an interest we share.

Both Diane and Sharon love dancing. They like swimming. And, if I might boast a little, they’re good at it. Diane has a lot of form. Sharon swims naturally, takes to water like a fish. I can’t help thinking how much luckier kids are today in this respect that we were.

When I was a boy in Kansas City, we had one swimming pool in the whole town. We kids used to do our swimming in a muddy river which was full of water moccasins.

What I know about women I learned in no small degree from a close family life together. As I look back on my life with Mrs. Disney before the girls came, and since, the thing that stands out is the fact that it’s been a lot of fun. I think it’s because we’ve tried to get along with a minimum of rules. Too, we’ve tried to make our home a satisfying place to be without depending too much on outside contacts.

For example, I have tried to avoid bringing my work home with me. I don’t think there’s any object in my house that has any connection with the studio, except for a screen and projector on which, however, I seldom show a picture of our own. Then, we have tried to do as many things together as we possibly could—healthy, wholesome, constructive things, both as spectators and as participants.

One of the most serious problems I find confronts parents is how to make children obey. For some reason this has never been much of a problem around our home. Maybe it’s because we started very early to have the girls do things through a sense of fair play, rather than responsibility to parents or fear of them.

When we’d go out for a ride on the merry-go-round, for example, we would have an understanding in advance of how many times we’d ride. When the times were up, that was that. A bargain was a bargain! One was expected to be a good sport.

One Sunday, when Diane was about 8 or 9 years old, I took her to the old Seliz Zoo in Los Angeles. I warned her to stay behind the railing at the monkey cage because simians have a habit of reaching through the bars.

My attention was distracted for a moment. When I turned around again, there was Diane, white as a sheet, struggling to get free from a monkey who had her by the hair and was pulling for all he worth. It must have hurt plenty, but Diane never let out a peep. The only concession she made was one plea, 'Daddy, you won’t tell Mother, will you?'

'But, Diane,' I remonstrated, 'you don’t keep any secrets from Mother.'

But she took care of that situation. When we got home she dashed in and said, “Mother, you don’t care if a monkey pulls me by the hair, do you?

Mrs. Disney and I found that treating the girls as individuals and encouraging them to think for themselves was a far more satisfactory way of bringing them up than by trying to regulate every step of their conduct with an elaborate set of rules.

The most disillusioning thing I know about women I learned by watching my two girls grow up. They taught me that daughters are fickle. There was a time not so long ago when the ambition of both was to hurry and grow up so they could marry Dad. Now, I’ve been stood up by Diane, and it will be only a few years, I f eel, before Sharon will find someone more interesting than a 46 year old father, even if she still goes to the studio with me on Saturdays and putters around the office to keep me company, while I clean up the odds and ends accumulated over a week. Diane used to do that. Now she’s too busy with appointments that are telltale of her new interests—appointments with hair dressers and dressmakers.

I also know that the day Sharon says to me, 'Sorry, Dad, but I won’t be along today. I’ve got to see my dressmaker,' my reign as the sole male object of her affection will be over. She might as well say, “Move over, Dad, and make room for Bill.'

Finally, what I know about girls I learned by inference from men—to be specific from the old King in Cinderella which we are now making into a feature picture. You all know how according to the fairy tale, it happened that the King proclaimed a festival which was to last three days and to which all the beautiful maidens were invited in order that his son might choose a bride.

I got wondering one day why the King did this, and the answer I got was so simple that there wasn’t any doubt that it was right.

The old King felt exactly as I know I’ll feel when my girls desert me. He felt old and lonesome. He looked around the big, empty castle and thought of all the fun he used to have bouncing the little Prince on his knee and riding him piggy-back around the royal parlor.

Then he struck his knee, just as I’ll do some day and said: 'By golly, what I need is some grandchildren!'”