Walt the Bibliophile

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Walt didn’t like the holidays because he couldn’t work, Lillian Disney noted, and even at Christmas “when he got through with the festivities, he went to his room and read” according to a December 27, 1937 Time article, “Mouse and Man.”

I would suspect that Walt was primarily reading scripts that he brought home each night in a battered brown briefcase that is now on view in his “working” office re-creation at the “One Man’s Dream” attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Walt brought home stacks of scripts to read in the living room or on the porch. Because it sometimes pained him to sit up straight, he would often put them in his lap and leaned over to read them.

“There is a wonderful series of photos, taken by Earl Theissen in our Los Feliz Hills home, of Sharon and me leaning over dad in his favorite chair as he reads to us," remembered Diane Disney Miller when I showed her my rough draft copy of this article a few weeks ago. "The Siamese cat is on his lap, the poodle DeeDee on the floor in front of us [she's only visible in one], and he is reading to us from .. a script! From the time I can remember, newspapers and scripts were definitely the bulk of his reading material. I do recall dad reading to us, both of us, curled up on his lap but mother was the one who, when I was quite young, sat by my bed almost every evening and read to me from various storybooks. This had to have been before I could read myself but, then, kids do like to be read to, even when they can read very well themselves.”

Walt was curious about everything and although he was reportedly a very visual person and had to see something rather than read about it, I am sure Walt did quite a bit of reading during his life.

“I do believe that dad was a life-long reader, even though he was a rather dismal performer in school for the reasons we all know. His love of story, of history, and his sense of what makes a story work best would have come from the experience of reading,” Diane wrote.

Like many folks my age, I grew up watching Walt Disney on television every Sunday night. One of the things that impressed me about Walt’s introductions was that his office had this huge bookcase filled to overflowing with books. I remember my thrill of going to Disneyland and visiting the “Walt Disney Story” on Main Street that had the re-recreation of Walt’s “formal” office with that same bookcase.

I don’t know how many hours I spent with my face pressed tightly up against the glass trying to make out the titles of the magical books that were on the shelves.

However, Walt’s secretaries have said in interviews that people were sending him books all the time (often with the hope that he would make a movie of their story), and they would just put them up on the shelves, usually without Walt even seeing them. The inventory of the book titles on his formal office bookshelf goes on for almost 25 pages.

I knew those must be magical books because watching The Story of the Animated Drawing, Walt pulled out a copy of The Art of Animation”and showed some samples of the amazing pages of early animation history. It looked like the greatest book in the entire world!

I never realized at the time that when that show was first aired on November 30, 1955 the book had not yet been written. Apparently, Walt had wanted that book to be written and there were some existing notes done by instructor Don Graham for such a title but that was as far as it had gone. The final version written by Bob Thomas bore little resemblance to that terrific book Walt had shown me on television.

However, as a child interested in animation and just as gullible as I am today, I felt the book must be real because it was on Walt’s bookshelf!

Later, I saw the Disneyland television show rerun of The Liberty Story that originally aired on May 5, 1957. It was a promotion for the live-action film Johnny Tremain but also included the animated featurette Ben and Me that became a favorite of mine.

Once again, during the introduction Walt walked over to his magical bookcase. However, this time there was a smaller bookshelf attached to one of the shelves. Walt explained that these books had been located in a church basement when it was being torn down and since the books seem to have been written by a mouse, that it was natural that they send the books to Walt. Walt even showed an old newspaper describing the finding of the books. My eyes were wide with amazement that this must be true because Walt was telling me the story and right there on television were the books themselves!

It never occurred to me that it was just a clever introduction to Ben and Me.

Over the years, I have seen many publicity photos of Walt with books. Often, he is holding an open book and apparently sharing the contents with his daughters or the young stars of his latest film or even the monkeys from Monkeys Go Home! Often, these books look larger than real books but they sure made a great picture.

However, since I grew up loving books, thanks to my father whose love of books and learning still inspires me today, and my mother, who would read to me every night before I went to sleep, I have always been curious about what Walt read to try to get a better glimpse into Walt’s mind.

As a young boy, Walt read all the works of Mark Twain. Hannibal, Missouri, where Samuel Clemens grew up and wrote about, was only about 60 miles away from where Walt grew up. Things that Twain wrote about were pretty similar to things where Walt grew up.

Walt said his mother, Flora, read to the Disney children to sleep by candlelight but never mentioned what books she read. Walt’s father, Elias Disney, who was very religious, told his sons that if they had to read, to stick to the Bible.

At Benton Elementary School, Walt's first period was English and he said he especially liked the stories by Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe), Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island).

Walt also liked Shakespeare, but primarily the parts where the characters fought great battles and duels he told author Bob Thomas.

"You'll be a poorer person all your life if you don't know some of the great stories and the great poems,” Walt said in 1959.

All of these selections were in the McGuffey Eclectic Readers. William Holmes McGuffey was the editor of this popular series of school books. McGuffey edited the first four Readers in 1836-1837 and the final two were created by his brother, Alexander, in the 1840s.

The series consisted of stories, poems, essays and speeches. The Advanced Readers contained excerpts from the works of great writers like John Milton, Shakespeare, Poe, Sir Walter Scott, Louisa Mae Alcott, and more.

Each volume was progressively more difficult. The first reader taught reading by using the phonics method. Later, Walt would be embarrassed to read in public because he moved his lips when he read, but I am sure his doing so was the result of being taught to “sound out” the word by this method.

“He did sort of ‘lip read.’ I've thought about that, and it could have been only on dialogue passages," Diane Disney Miller wrote to me. "I find myself doing that sometimes, to help get a better sense of the words the way they might have been said. We had a ‘Treasury of the McGuffey Readers’ in our home ever since I can remember. I used to read through it.”

The second reader helped understand the meaning of sentences with vivid stories. The third reader taught the definition of words (about fifth-and sixth- grade level). The fourth reader begins with punctuation and articulation and then 90 selections written by Daniel DeFoe, Louisa Mae Alcott, and so on.

Fifth Reader has 117 writings from the Bible, Dickens, Cooper, and so on.

Sixth Reader has 138 selections from Longfellow, Poe, Shakespeare, Scott, Byron, and so on.

Henry Ford said that McGuffey Readers were one of his most important childhood influences. Revised versions of McGuffey Readers were used in schools through 1960 and are sometimes still used by parents for home schooling purposes.

Young Walt was engrossed by the stories of Horatio Alger and the adventures of Tom Swift. He was also taken by an adventure series from the pulp magazines.

Jimmie Dale, the infamous “Gray Seal” was created by Frank Lucius Packard who was a Canadian novelist born in Montreal, Quebec.

Dale appeared in serial installments in People’s Magazine, Short Stories Magazine, and Detective Fiction Magazine before they were compiled into 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). A copy of Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder appears on Walt’s desk at Hyperion in a 1935 publicity photo.

Dale was sort of an amateur private eye/safecracker in New York. His secret identity was the two fisted mystery man “Gray Seal” who could open even the most tightly guarded safes and left his calling card, a gray diamond paper seal but never stole anything. In 1952, Walt bought the rights to the Jimmie Dale stories to develop into a television series.

Several people at the Disney Studio remember Walt acting out the stories over the years.

To study animation, Walt borrowed the book “Animated Cartoons” by E.G. Lutz (1925) from the Kansas City library and recommended it to others who worked for him on the Laugh-O-Grams animated cartoons like Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising.

"Everyone has been remarkably influenced by a book, or books. In my case it was a book on cartoon animatio," Walt remembered. "I discovered it in the Kansas City Library at the time I was preparing to make motion-picture animation my life's work. The book told me all I needed to know as a beginner -- all about the arts and the mechanics of making drawings that move on the theater screen. From the basic information I could go on to develop my own way of movie storytelling. Finding that book was one of the most important and useful events in my life. It happened at just the right time. The right time for reading a story or an article or a book is important. By trying too hard to read a book that, for our age and understanding, is beyond us, we may tire of it. Then, even after, we'll avoid it and deny ourselves the delights it holds.”

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.”

Nearly 700 books became the foundation of the Disney Library that began that same year under the supervision of Helen Ludwig Hennesy. Even then, Walt realized the importance of having books available for his artists for reference and inspiration.

"It has always been my hope that our fairy tale films will result in a desire of viewers to read again the fine old original tales and enchanting myths on the home bookshelf or school library," Walt said. "Our motion picture productions are designed to augment them, not to supplant them.”

What was the Walt’s personal family library at home like? Once again, Diane was kind enough to share some information:

“We had a set of the Harvard Classics in the bookshelf of our Library, which, together with the guest room behind it became our projection room when he began So Dear To My Heart and Song of the South. The bookshelves stayed. That's where I found David Copperfield and Vanity Fair. Loved Dickens, but was not intrigued with the story of Becky Sharp and didn't finish it. Ben Hur might have been in that in that set, because I read it at that time, but nothing else that I can recall in that series. I'm not certain if dad did. We had a beautiful set of other classics. They're in our San Francisco bookshelves now. [The Walt Disney Family Museum will open in San Francisco later this year.] Oscar Wilde's Salome, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, Voltaire's Candide, The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam, AE Housman's Shropshire Lad. Can't recall the other titles. He also had books that people he knew had written and inscribed to him. This was the time of the Writer's Club in Hollywood that Bill Cottrell told me about. Dad encouraged his writers to attend lectures, and often invited the lecturers to the studio for the benefit of his writers and animators. H.G. Wells, Rupert Hughes, Aldous Huxley. We have these books, too. We did have Encyclopedia Brittanica, too, of course. “

Walt would find books anywhere. According to publicity for the film, he picked up a copy of Mary Poppins on the bedside table of his daughter, Diane, and that got him to thinking about adapting that story.

“The Mary Poppins book, now an artifact in our exhibit [at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco], was sent to him by the publisher, who inscribed it: 'Dear Mr. Disney...This is not Mickey, but we think you'll like our Mary.' I had been in our home years before I could read, and I'm certain that he'd read it before he picked it up from my bedside table,” Diane Disney Miller wrote to me.

On the Disney family cruise through British Columbia in 1966, that was the last trip with the entire family, Ron Miller (husband of Diane) and Bob Brown (husband of Sharon) would go salmon fishing while Walt spent time on deck with books about city planning or universities as he developed his plans for Epcot.

Roy O. Disney enjoyed reading American history and amassed a large collection of works about Thomas Jefferson.

I wonder if Walt would be excited or overwhelmed or perhaps both by the plethora of books and Web sites out there today filled with information and great stories for him to enjoy.

Perhaps Walt’s most famous quotes about books appeared in Wisdom magazine Vol. 32 in 1959 where he said, "There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates' loot on Treasure Island and at the bottom of the Spanish Main... and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life."