He is one of the most celebrated cartoonists of all time. He was 'Uncle Walt', the amiable old man all American children loved like a member of their own family.
However, the good-man image of the legend has been brought under the scanner in a new biography. The picture that has emerged is far from the genial figure of legend. Disney has emerged as a troubled man, a lonely and reclusive depressive. He is also said to have notoriously ill-treated his staff and close friends and was a ferociously right-wing anti-communist during the Forties and Fifties.
The book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, was written by Neal Gabler, who received unprecedented access to records about Disney. He is the first author to get the Disney family's permission to examine fully the complete Disney archives.
Gabler portrays Disney as an emotional son of a cold father who sought to create a fantasy world for himself in which he would feel loved and safe, and ended up spreading that invention to the world. 'During a peripatetic childhood of material and emotional deprivation, at least as he remembered it, he began drawing and retreating into these imaginative worlds,' Gabler writes.
|Walter Elias Disney with his most popular creation at Disneyland|
Yet those personal worlds would shape much of modern America and far beyond through characters such as Mickey Mouse, films such as Snow White and eventually theme parks. The figures alone show the astonishing reach of Disney.
By the time he died in 1966 more than 240 million people had seen a Disney film, 80 million had read a Disney book and 100 million had watched a Disney TV show.
Pop culture experts see Disney's influence as unrivalled. 'He was the dominant culture of childhood for such a long time. He was making a product on a mas sive industrial scale. It just happened that this product was part of the culture industry,' says Professor Bob Thompson of Syracuse University in upstate New York.
Thompson says it is unrealistic to imagine that the real Disney would match the public image he created.
Certainly Gabler's book dispels many of the kindly old man images. He details an at times tragic life. Disney's father ended up resenting his son and their relationship fell apart. Disney refused to cut short a business trip when his father died and missed his funeral. He also had a mental breakdown in 1931 as he and his wife struggled to have children and she suffered several miscarriages.
Disney was also cruel and controlling to employees, terrorising them with humiliating dressing-downs. It included even his brother Roy, who kept the company afloat with a financial acumen Walt did not appear to possess.