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Disney's Daughter Attacks Book : Biography: Family members end their silence and speak out against 'Hollywood's Dark Prince,' which claims that Walt Disney served as a FBI informant.

July 17, 1993|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With its allegations that Walt Disney was an informant for the FBI, Mark Eliot's new biography, "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince," has provoked unprecedented controversy.

This week, Walt's widow, Lillian Disney, and his surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller, broke the family's long-standing policy of responding to unfavorable publicity with silence and issued a lengthy statement disputing many of the book's contentions.

Their response was accompanied by supplementary documents, including affidavits from former studio employees, FBI agents and former-FBI chief William Webster.

The book was published earlier this month, but many of its sensational claims have appeared in excerpts or stories about the book in the New York Times, Los Angeles magazine and supermarket tabloids.

In a rare interview in Los Angeles earlier this week, Miller explained that she became aware of the book when her daughter-in-law called her attention to an excerpt that appeared in Los Angeles magazine:

"I got very angry. The article went beyond the ordinary stuff: It attacked my mother and father as people, it attacked their marriage. It was just something we couldn't let stand. When the media took this FBI link and ran with it and gave it credibility without questioning it, it became just too much. He was too good a man. When something's good, why do you want to tear it down? You should cherish it.

"I would never attempt to deify him, and when people say that the family has tried to present a false picture of the man, it simply isn't true," she continues.

Much of the material in "Dark Prince" concerning Disney's political conservatism and his handling of the animators' strike at his studio in 1941 has appeared before in other books, notably Richard Schickel's "The Disney Version" and Leonard Mosley's "Disney's World."

However, the sections of "Dark Prince" that have generated the most controversy assert that Disney served as an informant for the FBI. "Among his many less-celebrated accomplishments, in 1940, at the age of 39, Walt Disney became a domestic spy for the United States government," Eliot's book states.

To support his contentions, Eliot cites documents obtained from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), including part of a letter J. Edgar Hoover sent to Disney in July, 1936, as "one of many attempts the Bureau had made as part of an ongoing campaign to recruit him."

The last paragraph of the letter (the rest remains classified by the FBI) reads as follows: " . . . I am indeed pleased that we can be of service to you in affording you a means of absolute identity throughout your lifetime. " (Italics added.)

To counter Eliot's interpretation, the Disney family released the entire letter, in which Hoover notes that Disney had his fingerprints taken at a Masonic youth conference in Kansas City and that the prints "are now on file in the Civil Identification Unit of this Bureau." (Although he states he did not have access to an uncensored version of the letter while working on the book, Eliot describes the two-paragraph document as "open to interpretation.")

The key document in Eliot's case is an FBI inter-office memo from Dec. 16, 1954, that states, "Because of Mr. Disney's position as the foremost producer of cartoon films in the motion picture industry and his prominence and wide acquaintanceship in film production matters, it is believed that he can be of valuable assistance to this office and therefore it is my recommendation that he be approved as a Special Agent in Charge (SAC) contact."

Considerable debate has focused on the significance of the "SAC contact" designation, a term the FBI no longer employs. A memo from Hoover dated Oct. 7, 1954, about SAC contacts defines the title as "persons who, because of their positions, can and do render extraordinary service, or provide unusual and highly valuable assistance to the FBI upon request of the SAC."

In the book, Eliot asserts, " . . . it meant that in addition to continuing to supply his data to the Bureau, other informants could now supply reports to him. It was Hoover's Christmas present to Walt . . . "

Eliot said in a telephone interview from his home in Upstate New York that when he first got the file "I called the FBI. It was finally told to me by the assistant to the head of the FOIA division, that basically a SAC was a paid informant or a domestic spy; and a SAC contact did essentially the same type of work, reporting to the SAC without pay. In those documents, there is enough for me to come to the conclusion that Walt Disney was a SAC contact who did informing from 1940 on and had contact personally with J. Edgar Hoover from 1936 on, possibly earlier."

Webster countered in a phone interview that "back in the '50s, there was a general policy that every Special Agent in a town should know the key people who might be helpful to the Bureau--not as informants or snitches, but as leaders in the community.

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