Forgotten Disney Heroines: The Disney Secretaries

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Recently, there has been a lot of information published about women at the Disney Studio with the fascination that they were involved in more than the traditional ink and paint role.  In fact, I’ve written a few columns about women at Disney.   However, there is one group of women who worked at the Disney Studio that always seem to get slighted or forgotten:  the Disney secretaries.

Most secretaries usually get “roses instead of raises” but I remember my dad telling me to always be nice to secretaries and janitors because “they will either help you get things done or they can prevent things from getting done.” I’ve followed his advice and often been happily rewarded.

The role of a secretary came from the need for a prominent person to have someone whom confidential matters could be entrusted and who could act as an assistant.  Secretaries existed in Ancient Rome and were usually educated men who took dictation as “scribes” and acted as trusted advisors.

Women didn’t enter the office workforce in clerical roles until the turn of the 20th century. With the growth of the cities and industry, the demand for secretaries outpaced the supply and soon women who had attended business colleges or secretarial schools were filling the roles previously held by men.

In 1942, the National Secretaries Association (NSA) was formed (now know as the International Association of Administrative Professionals). NSA first administered the Certified Professional Secretaries Examination, a standard of excellence for the profession, in 1951.

Today, female secretaries (also known as administrative assistants, office coordinators, executive assistants, office managers, et al) are more commonplace than men.

Fortunately, much of Disney history survives because of the skill and attention of the Disney secretaries.

Dave Smith of the Disney Archives stated:   “We have all of  [Walt Disney’s correspondence]. That was, thank goodness, maintained by his secretaries and it's well arranged by year and then alphabetical by each year. It must be a couple-hundred boxes of correspondence. We have Roy Disney's correspondence, too.”

Walt was old fashioned and a bit paternalistic when it came to his secretaries but it was obvious that he respected them and gave them a great deal of authority and actively solicited their opinions on a variety of topics. 

Here is the official list of Walt’s secretaries, although I have documentation that others assisted at various times.  There were often times when Walt had two secretaries at the same time. 

  • Lillian Bounds: 1924-25, 1928
  • Gerrie Gilson/Lucille Benedict: 1929
  • Carolyn Shafer Churchill: 1930-34
  • Dolores Voght Scott:1930-65
  • Tommie Laurine Wilck: 1958-66
  • Lucille Martin: 1965-66

Walt’s first official secretary was Lillian Bounds whom he would later marry.

“I was not very artistic at all and I was never very good at inking and painting," Lillian said. "Later, Walt made me his secretary, but I made too many mistakes when he was dictating.  He always said I was so bad he had to marry me. They tried to use me as a secretary, but I wasn't very good at it. So I went back to painting."

One day when they were working overtime, Walt leaned over the desk as she was taking dictation and kissed her.   Today, it would be considered sexual harassment to do that with a secretary but in those days, it was romantic.  If you watch the Disney home movies from the 1920s, Walt is constantly pulling Lillian to him and kissing her.  I often wonder if he promoted Lillian to his personal secretary just so she would be closer.  They married in 1925. 

In an interesting twist, their daughter Sharon later worked for two years at the Disney Studio as a secretary.  Employees were suspicious that she was a spy reporting back to Walt but the one time she made a comment to her dad about what was going on at work, he replied, “You stick to your job and I’ll stick to mine.”  

Sharon punched a time clock and Walt would every so often call the Personnel office to find out if she was goofing off. She was on time every morning and never left early.

With the popularity of Mickey Mouse and the growth of the Disney Studio, it became necessary for Walt to have a dedicated secretary.  Carolyn Schaefer became that person.  Among her other duties, she edited and distributed the “Mickey Mouse Melodeon”, a newsletter that was the “house organ of the Disney Studios.”  It was mimeographed and appeared once a month for several years.  She wrote a gossip column under the name of “Clara Cluck.”  

Later, she married composer Frank Churchill who wrote music for Snow White and Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.  Walt used the marriage as an excuse to let her go by stating that there should be “no studio marriages.”  That stipulation changed in later years. 

Perhaps the most influential secretary was Dolores Scott from Sheridan, Wyo. Her brother owned the bank in Sheridan.  Her grandparents owned the only five-star restaurant in Wyoming, The Copper Kettle, also located in Sheridan.

Dolores Scott started at the Disney Studio in 1930 and became secretary to Roy O. Disney and then later to Walt.  She was stationed outside of his office and controlled access to the inner sanctum.  For decades, she was the primary “gate keeper” for anyone wanting to see Walt.   She worked for Walt from 1930 until she retired in 1965.

"The Hyperion studio was a fun place to work.  Everyone was so young and excited about what was being created.  We all worked like dogs, but we enjoyed every minute of it,” she remembered in later years.

Scott had her own office.  Walt paid little attention to his own personal bank account which Scott fortunately supervised.  Roy often asked her, “How are Walt’s finances?  Don’t let him get involved in some crazy scheme. Let me know if there's something that doesn't seem right.”

One day when the burdens got overwhelming Walt told Scott , “Let’s shut down this office.  We’ve got Disneyland.  We don’t need the studio.”

I’ve often wondered if Scott's name was the inspiration for the name of the circus elephant in Disney cartoons like The Big Wash (1948) and Working for Peanuts (1953).

Employees often called Scott to ask if Walt was in a good mood.   The studio password for a bad mood became “Walt’s got his wounded bear suit on.”

Tommie Blount joined his staff in 1958 and Walt referred to her as his “secretary of the exterior.” She was Walt’s personal secretary from 1958 to1966.  Walt considered her “sassy” because she would stand up to him.

In 1962, she married Thomas Wilck, who worked in the studio’s public relations office.  Walt gave the bride away and paid for the reception.  As he walked Tommie down the aisle of the church, Walt whispered to her, “I didn’t tell Tom how sassy you are.”

With the retirement of Dolores Scott, Wilck became Walt’s No. 1 secretary.  Each evening she prepared a calendar of the following day’s appointments for him.  She tried to keep him on schedule, and one day when he continued talking with visitors past the 12:30 p.m. lunchtime, she rang a ship’s bell, a gift from the Coast Guard.  Walt was amused, and he instructed her to sound the bell every day at lunchtime.  

Wilck learned the best way to get his attention for pending matters was to type the message in all capital letters on three-by-five-inch note paper.  He then wrote his quickly scribbled decisions on the paper in colored ink.

It was Wilck who prepared Walt’s daily end-of-the-workday Scotch Mist drink at 5 p.m. in anticipation of his massage and lower-back treatment from Studio nurse Hazel George.

“The Scotch Mist is mostly ice,” Wilck remembered.  “I would put ice and water in it and then float the scotch on top and not give him very much of it.  He may have consumed a lot of liquid but I don’t think he really got much liquor.”

Walt had first considered actress Bette Davis for the role of Mary Poppins since the original book portrayed the character as a middle-aged woman.  It was Wilck who suggested Julie Andrews who was then appearing on Broadway in Camelot so Walt went and took a look and the rest is history. 

One of Wilck's duties was to call Walt’s house every night to let their housekeeper Thelma know that he was one his way home.  One particular night she forgot and didn’t call and when Walt showed up, Thelma said, “What are you doing here?  Tommie didn’t call.”  Lillian said the same thing. 

Walt picked up his hat and stormed back out the door yelling “That’s a hell of a greeting when you get home.”

When Scott retired in 1965, Lucille Martin came aboard as Walt’s second secretary.  She began her Disney career in the steno pool.  Later, she served as Ron Miller’s executive secretary and Michael Eisner’s administrative assistant.  She was named a vice president and special assistant to the board of directors in 1995.

Although she only briefly worked with Walt, she had fond memories of him.

“I would answer the intercom: ‘Yes, sir’ and he’d say ‘Yes, WALT,’" Martin recalled.  "The next time it would be ‘Yes, sir’ and he’d correct me again:  ‘Yes, WALT.’"

(Finally, Walt drew a little cartoon caricature of Lucille with curly hair and walking with a big sign that said "Down with SIR" — "I had it taped on my intercom until the day he died,” she said.

“Shortly before he went into the hospital at the end of the workday, Walt sat talking to Tommie and me about Cal Arts and Epcot," she said.  "Walt was unusually tired as he got up and said, ‘Sometimes I just feel like chucking it all.’  Then he looked over at me and said, ‘But Lucille and her girls need me’.  ‘That we do’ I said and Walt smiled.  I’ve always cherished his saying that.”

Walt’s brother, Roy, had some outstanding secretaries, as well, including Marian Margaret Collins who married Harry Tytle (later producer on Wonderful World of Disney) in a secret Las Vegas wedding in 1939 in fear of that stipulation of “no studio marriages.” 

However, like Walt’s Dolores Scott, Roy also had a secretary who was with him for 34 years, Madeline Wheeler.   She was born in Scotland and her duties included reminding him of birthdays of family and friends and sending out flowers and notes for him.

When he traveled, he always brought her gifts such as scarves or perfume.

“You know, Madeline, I can never pay you what you’re worth,” Roy would always say.  

To compensate, he gave her shares of Disney stock from his own portfolio.  Years later she attended a stockholders’ meeting and discovered her 6,000 shares worth more than $1 million.

Roy could be as moody as Walt. Roy’s wife, Edna would call Wheeler and warn her that Roy was wearing his “Indian face” which meant he had a grim look on his face and to take care to tread softly.

Unlike Walt ,who often started his day at the Studio around 7 a.m., Roy seldom arrived at his office before 9 a.m.  Copies of the company cables and outgoing checks were sent to his office, and he reviewed those that Wheeler deemed important.  She also presented him with that morning’s correspondence which he customarily answered on the same day. 

Although not one of Walt’s secretaries, a woman who played an important and forgotten role in Disney history was Helen Ludwig Hennesy who was the librarian for the Disney Studio.

On a 1935 trip through England, France, Switzerland, Italy and Holland, Walt brought back with him children’s books with illustrations of little people, bees and small insects.  In a memo, Walt wrote: “This quaint atmosphere fascinates me and I was trying to think of how we could build some little story that would incorporate all of these cute little characters.” 

Those books became the foundation of the Disney Library that began that same year under Hennesy’s supervision.

Most folks know about the Disney Archives in Burbank, Calif., that houses the history of Walt Disney and the Walt Disney Company including correspondence, documents, photos, awards, books and other publications (U.S. and foreign), product samples, press releases and other publicity materials, employee newsletters, video, film production files, interviews and oral histories, biographies, stockholder reports, park materials (attraction files, ticket media, menus, etc.), newspaper and magazine articles, records and sheet music, props, costumes, etc.  All of that information is a challenge to catalog and store and even more of a challenge to locate, especially if it relates to something obscure. 

However, the Disney Company Library system is more extensive than just Dave Smith, Robert Tieman and the rest of the gang who struggle daily to catalog, research and preserve Disney history. 

The Florida Disney Library Network includes an Animals Program Library, a Creative Costuming Library, Entertainment Resource Center, Disney Design Group Resource Center, WDI Library, Marketing Resource Center and more scattered over the property.  There is also a California Disney Library Network that includes resource libraries like Walt Disney Imagineering Art Library, Disney Consumer Products, and Media Research.

Here is an article from December 1939 written by Janet Martin of the Disney Studios that appeared in the Wilson Library Bulletin that explains a little more about the early Disney Library:

For the library staff of Walt Disney’s studio, it is nothing more than regular routine to receive such strange requests as:

“Get me a close up of a knothole!”

“Where can I get a drawing of a whale’s stomach?”

“Have you anything listed on people walking under water?”

When Walt Disney selected Pinocchio, story of a wooden marionette who comes to life, as the feature-length successor to Snow White, studio librarians began a lengthy session of research that gained momentum as the picture went into production.  First of all they combed book lists, both American and foreign, for every possible treatment of the classical story.  These went to the story department, not to be copied, but to aid writers in transporting the tale to a form suitable for the medium of the animated picture.

Preliminary story research, however, is pretty much a cut and dried affair.  Once the artists take up their pencils and go to work on the thousands of drawings from which emerges the finished picture—then, for the librarians, the fun begins.  Phones buzz, messengers scurry back and forth, and the odd demands for reference material start to pour in.

Always wanting to be as accurate as possible, the Disney artist makes sure that he bases his drawing on as exact a model as he can obtain, although he is free to give it his own individual interpretation.  Hence the need for constant reference, and he immediately turns to the library—storehouse extraordinary of all manner of pictorial and written information.

Does he need something on a puppet show?  Very well, the shelves are already stocked with ballet books, texts on the art of marionettes, books of stage settings, puppet dances, and hundreds of clippings dealing with Arabian, Russian, Dutch, French and German marionettes, and the costumes they wear.

A substantial portion of Pinocchio takes place under water.  All right, the library stood ready to furnish artists with illustrations of all manner of undersea life, both big and small, from tiny sea horses to the most terrifying character of the entire picture, Monstro the Whale.

The development of the Disney library has not been an overnight affair.  Like all projects within the studio, it evolved as the result of careful study, calculated to fill a vital need in creative work.  Up until 1935, the library was strictly a catch-as-catch-can affair.  It consisted of approximately 200 indiscriminate books locked up in a case.  If anyone wanted one, they hunted up a secretary who wasn’t too busy, sent her to trail down the key, and had her open up the case.

As the studio grew, the creative personnel realized the importance of reference books to their work and in 1935, Helen Hennesy, an accredited librarian, was hired and turned loose with the books.  Assisting her at the present time are two other graduate librarians, Verlaine Rowen and Carol Jackson.

Today, the collection has grown to a point where there are more than 2,000 books on hand, all cataloged by the Dewey decimal system.  A unique phase is the clipping collection, culled from magazines and books of every description, covering more than 100,000 diversified subjects.  Here so many classifications are possible that an ordinary filing system for clippings wouldn’t work.   Only a librarian trained in the unique demands of the Disney artist could evolve system to meet this situation.

Mrs. Hennesy isn’t content to sit back and wait for the phone to ring as artists reach hurdles which require her help.  As the story is portioned out into sequences, she makes it a point to keep in constant touch with the daily progress of each animator.  Anticipating their next moves, and familiar with the latest books as they come from the publishers, she sees to it that they are rushed to the animator’s room even before he actually needs them.

The pride and joy of the library, strangely enough, is their collection of Sears Roebuck catalogs from early 1900s to the present time.  These volumes, looked upon as pearls of great price by the Disney artists, are continually referred to because of their excellent illustrations of practically any article you might mention.

In addition to regular library material, this Disney unit has a mammoth film collection.  Reels are kept of different types of dancing, fishing, fighting, sports of all types, and valuable bits of Silly Symphonies already made.  It saves considerable time to have them in captivity, in a tin can, where they can easily be reached.

Being a Disney librarian has its gay moments, too.  Part of the action of Pinocchio takes place on Pleasure Island, a delightful place where bad little boys can indulge in all sorts of boyish amusements.  Seeking pictures of a typical fun zone, the librarian called for a cameraman and headed for Ocean Park, seaside amusement city located west of Los Angeles.  Orders were to cover the Midway from beginning to end.  The reward was a week of glorious fun in which every show, every ride was “taken in” with all the trimmings, by the delighted pair.

Hardest task of such a career comes when an exacting animator wants a picture showing some certain angle.  No, he’s liable to say, “that picture of the left front view of a pigeon in flight won’t do.  It was the right front.  Remember?”

The librarian remembers.  Only an undying love of research and a saving sense of humor prevent her from seeking refuge in a quiet home for the insane at such a point.  Five minutes later, a messenger is on his way to the artist’s room with the right front view.  Pinocchio is that much closer to completion.