The Day Walt Disney Lost His Luck

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Many years ago, I worked with Disney historian Paul Anderson on several projects and we all lament that personal issues have resulted in Anderson going into virtual seclusion for several years and wish him and his family all the best that he may soon rejoin the Disney historical community.

However, during that time, Imagineer Herb Ryman shared a great story that I had never heard before while he was being interviewed by Anderson.  Ryman was responsible for that famous drawing done over a weekend with Walt that Roy O. Disney used to convince the money people in New York to invest in a concept known as Disneyland. However, Ryman’s Disney career started as early as his first work on the animated feature Pinocchio and continued through many projects including the concept sketches for New Orleans Square at Disneyland. He was made a Disney Legend in 1990.

Anyway, I’ve always loved this story and it doesn’t appear in the book, A Brush With Disney: An Artist’s Journey told through the words and works of Herbert Dickens Ryman published in 2000 by Camphor Tree Publishers and edited by the sorely missed duo of David Mumford and Bruce Gordon, who did so much over their short years on this planet to share Disney history with the rest of us.

So here in Ryman’s own words is the story of the day that Walt Disney lost his luck, followed by some additional commentary by Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller:

“Getting a compliment from Walt Disney never was easy. To his way of thinking, a pat on the back for me could lead to pats on the back for all, and he didn’t have time for stuff like that.

“This didn’t bother anybody. In fact, we often joked about it. Here’s my favorite story of how far Walt would go to keep from handing out a bouquet.

“I was working as an animation director at the studio when Walt took me aside one day and asked for a personal favor. Would I paint a portrait of his daughter Sharon for her 16th birthday? Now you don’t say 'yes' right away to a question like that.

“It’s tricky. If the Disney family liked the portrait, fine. But what if they didn’t? So thinking fast, I said, 'Look, Walt, there’s a whole lot of artists that are far more famous and better portrait painters than I am. Norman Rockwell’s a friend of yours. Norm Rockwell has already done a beautiful charcoal sketch of your two daughters together…'

“'No, Herbie,' Walt said, 'I don’t want Rockwell to do the portrait. I want you to do it.'

“So I said I would.

“The sittings took a while. Meanwhile Walt was finishing his new home in Holmby Hills. The time finally came when I had to go out to the house and talk to Walt about the portrait, which would soon be completed. Did he like it or not?

“Now this was the day that his wife, Lilly, had finally approved their living room carpet, which was about an inch and a half thick, genuine wool, with open fibers. It was like walking on a cloud.

“But instead of talking about the portrait, Walt walked over and got something out of a cabinet. It was a tiny red bean, about half the size of a pea.

“'There are 49 elephants inside of that,' he said.

I didn’t want to argue with Walt, so I said, 'That’s interesting.'

“Walt pried the thing open with his finger nail, disclosing something that looked like grains of salt. 'Those are ivory elephants and every one of them has four legs and a little trunk,” he said. “Get a magnifying glass and you’ll see what I’m talking about. A Chinese gentleman gave them to me after Snow White opened. He told me my lucky number is seven, for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He said, ‘Seven times seven is 49, and 49 is a luckier number than seven. An elephant is the most good luck animal in the world, and ivory is good luck. There are 49 ivory elephants insider here. They will bring you good luck for the rest of your life. Don’t ever lose them, because if you do, you’ll have bad luck.’

"So then Walt said to me, 'Now we’re gonna count ‘em, see if they’re still there. Hold out your hand.'

“He poured the little elephants into the palm of my right hand, and at the same time gave my elbow a shove. I didn’t expect that. The elephants flew out of my hand and disappeared into the pile of the carpet.

Walt said, 'Look what you did, Herb! Look what you did! You brought me bad luck!'

I said, 'I didn’t do it. You did it. You jiggled my elbow.'

He said, 'I did not.'

Lilly said, 'You did, too. I saw you do it. You jiggled Herb’s elbow.'

“Now what do I do? All those elephants are down in the rug. Walt yelled for Sharon to get a magnifying glass and some tweezers. Then we all got on our hands and knees, trying to get the elephants out of the rug.

“Well, we couldn’t do it. We got 37 of them or something like that, and I thought, “Oh boy, now I’m in for it, because every time anything happens to Walt, he’s gonna say, ‘Herbie, you’re the guy that did it.’ Here’s the end of any friendship we ever had.

“However Walt never mentioned it again. It dawned on me later that Walt needed some reason for not talking about Sharon’s portrait, which was well received by the family. It cost him a few elephants, but once again Walt was able to avoid paying a compliment.

“But if you want to go back over the story and think about it. Walt didn’t have any bad luck after that. He built Disneyland, Walt Disney World and he did so many beautiful films. Walt achieved international fame.

“But still, I sometimes think of the luck he might have had if I hadn’t lost those elephants.”

I have become recently suspicious of “cute stories” so I asked Walt’s daughter to review the story and if she had any insights or additional background on Herb’s memories.

As always, she was kind enough and gracious enough to share with me some additional memories:

“A very funny story! Dad had portraits done of both of us [Diane and Sharon] at the same time in our lives. He thought that we were beautiful, really. All daddies do. He chose Neysa McMein for mine, characteristically meeting her at a dinner party or he may have gone to the dinner party expressly to meet her. Who knows? He admired her Cosmopolitan magazine covers of pretty girls. I have a copy of his initial letter to her.

“Neysa had cancer, and died before she had put the finishing touches on the portrait. It is lovely, but the nose and mouth are not mine. I know that dad was disappointed. He mentioned to Herbie that ‘it was never finished.’ But he sent his check and a nice letter to Neysa.

“It was really a lovely experience for me. I was 15, in my 16th year so to speak. Neysa was staying with Clifton Webb, one of our most admired actors. I would go from my school to Beverly Hills for the sittings. Maybelle, Clifton's mother and a really adorable little Englishwoman, would pop in to watch, and sometimes Clifton, too. I actually wore my school uniform with the addition of a light blue angora sweater that Neysa had selected from my very meager (at that time in my life) closet. Neysa was warm and kind.

“Dad selected Herbie to do Sharon because he admired his work, and liked him. I think he was disappointed in it, but I don't know why. Herb captured Sharon's spirit, I think. I like it a lot. Herb and Sharon had a very comfortable friendship because of this. Actually, Herb was a very close friend of the whole family. I grew to know his sister Lucille, not well, but enough to admire her a lot. They were a remarkable family.”

As always, many thanks to Diane for sharing some wonderful “untold” stories behind the story.