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A driven dreamer

Biographer Neal Gabler renders Walt Disney in new detail -- and some of it is shaded darkly.

November 05, 2006|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York — WALT DISNEY'S ashes are buried in a Forest Lawn mausoleum, in a private garden. Standing nearby, in a patch of flowers, is a small white statue of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid. The setting might strike some as a coincidence, since Disney's studio turned Andersen's tale into a box office hit. Others might find it incongruous, noting that the original story was dark and troubling, while the Disney remake was upbeat and lighthearted.

But for biographer Neal Gabler, who wrote the just-published "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" (Alfred A. Knopf), the setting was a symbolic echo of his book's central theme: For much of his life, Disney sought to escape the dull, suffocating limits of daily routine, trying to replace them with a more entertaining creative reality that he alone could control. Just like Ariel, the Little Mermaid who rose happily ever after from the murky sea into a brighter realm, Disney built an elaborate fantasy world that transformed the face of American pop culture.

"The ultimate message of Walt's life is that he believed he could reinvent everything, on the screen, in amusement parks, in all aspects of his creative life," Gabler said during a recent interview at his publisher's office. "Everything he did was designed to perfect this new world. And the secret of his success is that his visions coincided with America's yearning for the same kind of escape and wish fulfillment."

Gabler offers fascinating insights in his 858-page book: Until he completed Disneyland in 1955, the mogul spent much of his career fighting off creditors and bankers. They told him that animated films were unprofitable. Later in his life, blessed with one triumph after another, Disney failed in his ultimate quest: He dreamed of building an idyllic, problem-free city, modeled after his films, to be filled with real people. Although Disney has some obvious heirs, such as Steven Spielberg, it is "highly unlikely" that another free-spending chief like him could come along today, Gabler said.

"Can you imagine a modern corporation allowing an individual to make 'Pinocchio,' which bombed, 'Fantasia,' which bombed bigger, and 'Bambi,' which also bombed? And then giving that person the OK to build an amusement park?"

While some believe Disney's obsession with small-town America was phony and calculated, few dispute his continuing influence. But his inner nature and the forces driving him remain elusive, if not mysterious. Was he a smiling, genial man, the reassuring "Uncle Walt" made famous by television appearances to millions of viewers? Or was he a closet anti-Semite and redbaiter? Did Disney's films convey an innocent, gee-whiz view of American life, or were they part of a calculated plan to spread a political doctrine of patriotism and obedience? Outwardly polite and gracious, Disney suffered a mental breakdown in 1931 and was a reclusive, remote figure for much of his life. Even his death in 1966 was controversial; for years it was rumored his body had been frozen.

Enter Gabler. A historian who previously wrote about Jewish filmmakers in Hollywood, the life of Walter Winchell and the collision between entertainment and reality, he wanted to write a definitive biography of Disney. When his campaign to gain full, unprecedented access to Disney's records succeeded, Gabler said family members' sole condition was that he write a "serious" book. But that only underscored the dilemma that he and other biographers confront.

The author, a trim, gray-haired man who lives in Amagansett, N.Y., and teaches at USC Annenberg's Norman Lear Center, said: "I tell students there are six words that summarize what you need to do in writing a biography: 'What's the story?' and 'What's the point?' " A biographer, he said, must find a narrative arc within the massive details of one person's life. "When you have this narrative, you've created a fiction," he noted. "Because no one's life resolves into neat, narrative episodes. A good biographer fictionalizes a life, but not the facts."

As he saw it, the theme of Disney's life was a perpetual quest to escape and to control. Gabler spent two years sifting through thousands of documents in the Disney studio archives before he began writing. From there, his ideas took shape.

A bittersweet childhood

A bright, puckish boy, Walt was stifled by his father, Elias, a dour, penny-pinching man who took much of the joy out of his son's childhood. The family was forever battling money woes, and Disney spent hours as a kid delivering newspapers in the Kansas and Missouri towns where they lived. His unhappiness grew, Gabler said, because the little money he earned was taken to pay bills. There was also an idyllic side to Walt's childhood: He treasured the years spent in Marceline, Mo., a quiet community where life mirrored a Norman Rockwell painting.

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