The Best Walt Disney Biographiesby Wade Sampson, staff writer
I recently added to my Walt Disney biography collection with an autographed copy of the just-released paperback edition of The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney by Michael Barrier. It’s a bargain for less than $15 at Amazon (link).
Barrier has always been one of my heroes and was the inspiration for me to start writing articles on animation history many decades ago when his legendary Funnyworld magazine was being published. The paperback edition is a special treat because he has made corrections and additions to the previously published hardback edition (that is also in my permanent library).
However, there weren’t that many corrections and additions to be made because Barrier has a reputation for accuracy. Despite the hype surrounding other recent Disney biographies, some folks forget that Barrier began his interviews and research in 1969, almost 40 years ago, and had full access to the Disney Archives, as well as to people who worked with Walt who had long since passed on to their great reward when others decided to begin work on their Walt biographies.
However, readers need to be warned that Barrier has a well-deserved reputation for being highly opinionated and those opinions are sprinkled throughout the text along with never-before revealed information. Also, Barrier most interested in Walt’s work in animation (hence the title of the book) so those wanting fresh insights into Disneyland or other projects that fascinated Walt may be disappointed that they are not given greater attention.
If you are a fan of Walt Disney and want information that you know you can trust, then I definitely recommend you add this book to your collection and visit Mike’s always fascinating Web site at MichaelBarrier.com (link), where he continues to unearth treasures of Disney history. This recommendation comes from a guy who has dozens of Walt Disney biographies in his personal library from foreign editions to unpublished versions (and trust me, they deserve to be unpublished) to children’s biographies.
There are two other Walt biographies that you will also want to make sure you have in your library. In 1955, Saturday Evening Post magazine approached Walt about telling the story of his life in a series of installments that would be “told to” staff writer Pete Martin who had done the same type of thing with other celebrities from Bing Crosby to Arthur Godfrey.
Walt wasn’t interested but realized that it would be a way to help his daughter Diane and her husband Ron Miller get enough money to buy a house if the series was formatted as if his daughter was telling the story of her dad’s life.
“Throughout that summer, Pete, Dad and I met in a poolside room at my parents’ home," Diane Disney Miller. "Dad told the story of his life, occasionally interrupted by Pete, and Pete got it all on tape. Although my father had given many interviews and was always willing and eager to talk about his life, this exercise presented an opportunity for him to offer the whole narrative—a story he loved to tell. I was at times spellbound. It was a precious experience for me and we did, eventually, buy our first home.”
Beginning with the November 17, 1956 edition, the “Saturday Evening Post” began an eight-part series titled My Dad, Walt Disney by Diane Disney Miller as told to Pete Martin. She gives Martin full credit for shaping that raw interview material into such an entertaining series that with some editing it was issued by Henry Holt and Company in 1957 as the first book biography of Walt titled The Story of Walt Disney by Diane Disney Miller.
For $5 you could buy a copy at Disneyland in the mid-1950s autographed by both Walt and Diane. (I also have the British and German editions in my library since they have different photos or photos cropped differently and a copy of the 1959 DELL paperback reprint.)
Fortunately, for the 50th anniversary of Disneyland in 2005, Disney Editions released a reprint (ISBN 0-7868-5562-2) that unfortunately was not well publicized and appears to have gone quickly out of print. Try to locate a copy because it also includes End Notes by Dave Smith of the Disney Archives that corrects and enlarges on some of the information since Martin took Walt’s information at face value and Walt was not always correct on titles or chronology.
The original edition of The Story of Walt Disney was out of print by the 1960s and the Disney Company decided that, with Walt’s death, there was a need for an official updated biography, especially since an “unofficial” and often critical biography titled The Disney Version by entertainment writer Richard Schickel appeared in 1968.
Card Walker, then president of the Disney Company, encountered Associated Press entertainment writer Bob Thomas at a UCLA cocktail party where the two men had gone to school and realized that Thomas was the perfect person for the job.
In 1973, Thomas was invited to lunch with a few Disney executives at the Disney Studio. They told him that two other writers had tried their hand at writing the official biography but both of the attempts had proven unsatisfactory.
Walker represented the Studio and Ron Miller, who was then vice president of production, represented the Disney family and told Thomas that “You will have complete freedom to write Walt’s story as you see it.” (Out of respect for the family in the final draft, Thomas left out the fact that Sharon Disney was adopted although that information now appears in the current edition.)
At the time, Thomas had written biographies of entertainment figures like Harry Cohn, David O. Selznick, and Walter Winchell. However, this was the first time that Thomas would have full access to family members, letters, and official documents as well as others who might have refused to be interviewed if it were not an officially sanctioned project.
In the late 1950s, Thomas had written The Art of Animation book under Walt’s supervision to promote the upcoming film, “Sleeping Beauty.” It was the first book to identify and showcase a picture of the famous Nine Old Men, as well as giving credit to a number of other Disney artists who had worked in obscurity for decades. This original edition is much treasured by both animators and Disney historians. Later, revised editions in the 1990s are missing much of the fascinating technical information and illustrations of the original edition as well as the detailed information on “Sleeping Beauty.”
In 1965, Thomas was approached by a publisher who wanted a biography of Walt Disney geared for children. While Thomas felt he would have to write the book based on file material, he soon discovered that Walt despite being busy with numerous projects was excited to participate and allowed Thomas to interview him at length four times during the writing of the book.
“He seemed eager to sum up the lessons he had learned as a boy and tell young people how he applied them in his later life,” Thomas remembered in later years.
The book Walt Disney: Magician of the Movies was released in 1966 from Grosset and Dunlap as part of its “Pioneer Books” series of children’s biographies. It was the first children’s biography of Walt and the first new biography of Walt in a decade.
For the biography that the Disney Studio wanted done, Thomas insisted on being a free agent and requested that his book not be labeled an official company biography.
For An American Original, Thomas called upon his own acquaintance with Walt. Walt had driven Thomas in a car through the ditches that would become Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise while Walt described what would be happening along the banks. Thomas remembers being enthralled with Walt’s vision. He also had the many interviews he had done with Walt over the years, including the four for the children’s biography.
In addition, he pulled from the Pete Martin interviews, as well as new interviews with people who had known Walt personally including Walt’s nurse, Hazel George, who had been a confidante of Walt’s.
Sadly, for those of us who would like to study those interviews for greater insight into Walt, only about 15 of those interviews were ever recorded and transcribed. Thomas only took reporter notes on many of the others who he talked with about Walt. Fortunately, the interviews that survive will be reprinted in upcoming editions of the “Walt’s People” book series. In addition, Thomas used notes from story conferences and organizational meetings for reference.
“Garson Kanin once told me that all my books deal with power. Thalberg, Cohn, Selznick, Hughes—all had tremendous power of a kind that is virtually nonexistent today. Disney, too. Some see him as a political conservative, some see him as a benefactor of mankind, some as a benevolent despot, some as the tyrant of the studio. The truth is somewhere in between as it most often is,” said Thomas when the book was first published in 1976.
“Each life is different; each subject requires a different approach," he said. "Cohn—his life was outrageous. I had to use an almost documentary approach. His audacity had to be offset by a more straightforward view. Thalberg was not as exciting, but the dynastic elements of his family intrigued me. With Walt, his daughter Diane told me that he once said he pitied his biographers because he had lived such a dull life. I found myself going into the creative aspects of his life to try to explain where his creativity came from, how it worked.”
In some ways, Thomas’s book was a response to Richard Schickel’s book The Disney Version.
“I wanted to do an independent, objective book. I don’t consider it an assault. In many respects, I gave Disney high marks. In any event, it is always good to have a second biography,” stated Schickel when Thomas’ book was released.
Maintaining a demanding schedule of writing four articles and two columns a week for the Associated Press, Thomas wrote the Walt biography on weekends and vacations. Instead of working with index files as he had done when compiling his previous books, he adopted the same method of storyboarding material that Walt himself used for animated cartoons. Thomas wrote three drafts and that was unusual compared to his previous books.
Author Ray Bradbury reviewed Thomas’s book for the Los Angeles Times in January 1977:
“And here’s a new book by Bob Thomas which tries to explain the mystery of a man who looked like a Kiwanis chairman, who became Charlemagne and Merlin and St. George, who killed a dragon to make it live forever. I don’t, of course, for a moment believe that Uncle Walt can be explained. Bob Thomas makes the best weather report he can on a man whose ups and downs would drive a billion barometers paranoid.
“Thomas knew Disney when he was alive, has written two other books on Walt and his arts and ideas, and this time out has talked with members of the Disney family as well as most of the animators, producers, directors and personal secretarial staff out at the studio. The result is a calm and complete analysis of a free spirit who failed again and again and again in order to succeed.
It’s all here in Bob Thomas’s book. The bouquets and the bombs…..If I have any carps at all it is simply that Bob Thomas’ book isn’t long enough, especially in those sections which describe the idea confetti tossing at WED and the resultant fallout into architecture and joys at Disneyland and Disney World.”
Decades later in 1998, Thomas wrote a companion book from Roy O. Disney’s perspective: Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire. I don’t feel it as a strong a book and I don’t feel it gives as much insight into the underrated Roy as I wanted.
I think the fact that Bob Thomas’ biography of Walt has remained in print for more than 30 years is an even better recommendation than I could ever give it. It is the first Disney biography I suggest to people who want to know more about Walt. If you are interested in other biographies about Walt or just books about Disney history or Disney animation, then you should be frequently visiting Didier Ghez’s outstanding Ulitmate Disney Book Network Web site (link).