Walt Disney aka the Gray Seal

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

For today's column, I am going to reveal a secret passion of the young Walt Disney that he kept right up to his death, and yet no one has ever really written about in all the Disney biographies that have been published. However, like all good stories, the reader will have to patiently endure some background material to fully enjoy this discovery. No, this is not another attempt to dreg up scandal. This is a fun thing that made me happy when I discovered it.

Artist and animation storyman Floyd Norman (whose blog about his time at Disney and Pixar can be found here) once mentioned that, in an early storyboard meeting on The Jungle Book, Walt’s dissatisfaction with the direction of the story was summed up by him telling the storymen that the story was “too dark, like Batman.” What did Walt know about masked mystery men? Ah, that is the mystery that has been solved!

When I was a preteen in the 1960s, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be a Super Secret Agent Spy. I was enamored of all those cool spy guys from James Bond to Napoleon Solo to Steranko’s Nick Fury to Patrick McGoohan’s Danger Man to... well, all those males of a certain age can certainly fill in the rest of this paragraph with a multitude of names.

These spies always knew what to say, what to do, beat the bad guys, saved the world, had wonderful gadgets, sometimes had an entire organization to back them up and, most importantly, had beautiful women madly throwing themselves at them. (Beautiful women don't seem to madly throw themselves at Disney historians I have discovered to my great regret. Just another bad life choice on my part!)

I was not unique among my preteen friends in that fantasy of being a secret agent. Hearing the song "Secret Agent Man" still stirs my aged blood and makes me want to karate chop foreign spies, say something incredibly witty, and of course, allow myself to be adored by women of all ages. For other generations, young boys wanted to become cowboys or spacemen or nowadays rock stars or celebrities, I guess.

But who did the young Walt Disney fantasize about becoming?

By the time Superman and Flash Gordon and Batman and their peers first appeared, Walt was already in his 30s and had been struggling for many years with adult responsibilities on his animation studio so these types of characters didn't capture his boyhood "sense of wonder" as they did so many others.

I know that, as a young boy, Walt supposedly read all the works of Mark Twain as he told at least two interviewers and that he also read books by Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, which was all probably standard reading for most youngsters in those days told author Bob Thomas that he liked reading Shakespeare as a boy but only the "fighting parts."

As I was going through the chaotic jungle that masquerades as my private archives, I ran across some handwritten notes I had taken in the late 1980s when a fellow Disney fan showed me an interview he had done with Walt's brother-in-law, Bill Cottrell.

One of the things that I had written down for further research (and it has only taken me two decades) was that Cottrell mentioned that Walt loved the fictional character, Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal, and as a boy would re-enact those adventures with his boyhood friend, Walt Pfieffer.

I also know that, in the 1950s, Walt purchased the rights to all the Jimmie Dale books in the hope of developing a television series based on the character.

Thanks to the research and kindness of Disney historian Michael Barrier, I have a copy of a document from the Copyright Office of the United States.

Originally signed April 2, 1952 and filed for record on May 19, 1952, Marguerite Pearl Packard, acting on behalf of the late author Frank Packard, freely gave “for valuable consideration paid to the undersigned by Walt Disney Productions” the “sole and exclusive” rights to make “motion picture, photoplay, television, radio and/or any other adaptations of every kind and character” as well as the right to “obtain copyright in all countries upon said work and upon any and all adaptations”.

This document was for the rights to “All stories which were written by Frank L. Packard, deceased, utilizing the fictional character, JIMMIE DALE." Want to look it up? It is in volume 832, pages 120-123 at the Copyright Office.

So just exactly who the heck was Jimmie Dale?

Jimmie Dale, the infamous "Gray Seal," was created by Frank Lucius Packard (February 2, 1877 - February 17, 1942), who was a Canadian novelist born in Montreal, Quebec. He worked as a civil engineer on the Canadian Pacific Railway and his first stories were railroad stories but he earned a living by writing other "pulpish" stories including several Westerns. If he is remembered at all today, it is for his work on "Jimmie Dale."

Those adventures first appeared in serial installments in People's Magazine (and later magazines like Short Stories Magazine and Detective Fiction Weekly Magazine) before they were later compiled and published in novels: The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1917), The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1919), Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue"(1922), Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder (1930), and Jimmie Dale and the Missing Hour (1935).

You can purchase the earliest Jimmie Dale adventures at Amazon. Since the Gray Seal is apparently no longer copyrighted, there are some Web sites that reprint the first book so you can read a copy here or here.

When the stories first appeared, the Saturday Review called them: "Stories of excitement, intrigue, etc., which have no equal."

The New York World said: "These tales are abounding in 'pep'! Beyond doubt the most polished narratives of the underworld yet published."

In fact, the character was so popular that Broadway actor E.K. Lincoln (not to be confused with actor Elmo Lincoln) starred in a 16-chapter silent movie serial titled Jimmie Dale Alias the Gray Seal from the Monmouth Film Company distributed through the Mutual exchanges.

Directed by Harry McRae Webster and written by Mildred Considine (based on Packard's stories), the film was released March 23, 1917 and fairly closely followed Packard's concepts including using the mystery woman.

But who was Jimmie Dale?

Well, writer Walter Gibson who created The Shadow claims that he "borrowed" elements for that famous character from Jimmie Dale.

As Disney Legend Donn Tatum told author Bob Thomas in an interview on May 24, 1973:

"He (Walt) also used to talk about... He loved The Gray Seal stories. Do you ever remember that? Jimmie Dale Alias the Gray Seal? He used to compose that as a television show. The "Gray Seal" was really an amateur private eye who lived in Boston. His name was Jimmie Dale and Walt used to act them out all the time. Jimmy Dale was a disguise artist. In every story he'd put on a different disguise and find the criminal. And if he didn't find the criminal he prevented someone from committing a crime. And his trademark was a gray seal pasted somewhere. Walt had bought all the books. There were a number of them and he owned all the rights to them."

According to the Disney Archives, there was a story number (1764) assigned to the "Jimmie Dale project" on December 26, 1951, and John Lucas headed the story crew. This was several months before Walt actually got the rights to the character. However, no other information that can be easily found about the project exists at the Disney Archives other than the project was eventually abandoned within the following decade.

Part of Walt's agreement with ABC and later NBC was that the networks had the right of first refusal on any new television series that Walt wanted to produce. For ABC, of course, those series included the original Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro.

One of the projects that Walt proposed to NBC was a series to be called Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal but the network felt the concept was not what the public expected from Disney and rejected the proposal.

Jimmie Dale was the son of a wealthy New York City family. He spent his teenage years working at his father's safe manufacturing factory and later entered Harvard University where he spent a lot of time reading detective fiction and amusing himself with amateur theatrics.

After graduation, he joined the exclusive St. James Club and lived the life of leisure that only a gentleman could.To amuse himself, he created the identity of the "Gray Seal", a two-fisted masked mystery man, who broke into homes, stores and public buildings and opened even the most tightly guarded safes just to prove that no safe was safe. He always left his calling card, a gray diamond paper seal, and never took anything.

He lived alone in his mansion except for his faithful older butler, Jason, and his devoted but rough chauffeur, Benson. In addition to being the "Gray Seal," he also adopted another secret identity, "Larry the Bat", a disreputable dope fiend who could more easily maneuver through the underworld of crime to obtain information. Later in the series, he creates yet another persona, "Smarlinghue,” a junkie-artist.

He kept all his equipment including his disguise kit at a secret hideout on the third floor of a tenement in the worst part of New York, the Bowery. This fortress of solitude is called the "Sanctuary" and it also serves as a refuge for the foppish playboy.

As the Gray Seal, his attire includes a "wide leather belt filled with small pockets," each with the tools of his trade.

Unfortunately, Jimmie made a mistake on one of his playful capers and ended up being blackmailed by a mystery woman known only as "the Tocsin." She later turns out to be Marie LaSalle, a young and beautiful woman, who uses Jimmie's skills to put an end to the crime bosses controlling New York City's criminal organization known as the Crime Club. After many years of flirtations, Dale and LaSalle walk off into the sunset together once the Crime Club is destroyed.

During these adventures, the Gray Seal developed an adversarial relationship with Herman Carruthers, a former Harvard classmate of Jimmie Dale and editor of the Morning News-Argus newspaper.

Packard describes Jimmie’s physical appearance in this paragraph: "Six feet he stood, muscular in every line of his body, like a well-trained athlete with no single ounce of superfluous fat about him--the grace and ease of power in his poise. His strong, clean-shaven face, as the light fell upon it now, was serious--a mood that became him well--the firm lips closed, the dark, reliant eyes a little narrowed, a frown on the broad forehead, the square jaw clamped."

Jimmie had an unusual aptitude for all things mechanical and his memory is phenomenal. He is also an accomplished painter, disguise artist and mimic among other talents.

A thief who uses his talents for good? Well, that was the Saint. A gentleman safe cracker? Well, that is probably Raffles. A special utility belt with the tools of the trade? Well, that was Batman. Multiple secret identities? Well, that's the Shadow. A secret lair? Well, that was Doc Savage. Leaving behind a signature icon? Well, that could be the Spider or even the Scarlet Pimpernel (who never left behind flowers in the book but did in his first film outing made long after Jimmie Dale's success) or maybe even Zorro who left the famous “Z”. I could literally fill several paragraphs with comparisons.

However, the Gray Seal stories appeared in 1914 when Walt Disney was about 13 years old and almost two decades before the era of pulp hero and all these other characters I’ve mentioned. The only pulp-like hero to precede the Gray Seal was probably Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel (1903).

Jimmie was, in many ways, a model for later classic heroic characters we all love who made use of secret identities (especially the ineffectual wealthy playboy who becomes a masked two-fisted man of action), secret hideouts, special gadgets, beautiful mystery women who helped them in their endeavors, costumes and disguises, battling with the local newspaper editor, and so many other iconic elements.

When I was 13 years old, I was ready to be an American James Bond.

When Walt was 13, he was ready to be Jimmie Dale and apparently that dream stayed with him until his death and it warms my heart that Walt, a boy who had to grow up so fast, could occasionally escape into a fantasy world of a gentleman thief thwarting the criminals of New York.

We all wonder about Walt’s unrealized dreams from Mineral King to Epcot to whatever but maybe it’s time to take a look at bringing the adventures of Jimmie Dale to life and introduce new generations to the gentleman safecracker that captured Walt’s young sense of wonder.

This column is my way of leaving a gray paper seal to remind future researchers that Jimmie Dale was once in Walt Disney’s life.