NEAL GABLER steps into a biography of the legendary Walt Disney with substantive credentials. His "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Created Hollywood" (1988) was a signal achievement in art-versus-commerce storytelling that still resonates, as does his 1994 biography of Walter Winchell and, to a lesser extent, his 1998 book "Life: The Movie, How Entertainment Conquered Reality."
In "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination," Gabler confronts long-standing suspicions that Disney was a Red-baiter (yes, though ineptly and ineffectually, he writes) and an anti-Semite (a much more complicated answer, though he says it is largely "guilt by association").
One of this book's great strengths is its volleys of anecdotes and eyewitness observations, although Gabler is so historically rigorous that he's often quick to contradict a juicy story with an aside (and, occasionally, a footnote), undercutting what we've just read. Thus we watch Disney reject a suggestion from his frugal-minded brother and business manager, Roy, with an order to "Go back down and keep the books" but later castigate himself for another unkindness to Roy: "Isn't it amazing what a horse's ass a fella can be sometimes." He seems hesitant to play with Roy's first-born son but becomes devoted to his own daughters. His wife, Lillian, said that Walt "really didn't have the time to make friends," leading Gabler to observe, "No one, not even Lillian, could crack him."
Although Gabler finds much to admire -- "Arguably no single figure so bestrode American popular culture as Walt Disney" -- the portrait he paints of Disney after eight years of interviews and researching archives is of a fragile, increasingly remote workaholic, who was not just skinny, at 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds, but also, as a fellow animator described him, "rodent faced."
That's a logical metaphor for the striving, hard-luck animator who sketched a creature he originally called Mortimer Mouse after riding back from a cataclysmic 1928 business reversal in New York. Disney, Gabler shows, knew that Mickey would be the crucial meal ticket of his vicissitudinous career, indeed of his life. Ward Kimball, the longtime linchpin of the studio's animation team, says Disney told him, "I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I've ever known." Such is the triumph of the American imagination. (Walt, who was born in Chicago in 1901 and named after the pastor of the family's Congregational church, might provide a case study for Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.")
Gabler's book gains momentum slowly, as we follow the itinerant Disney clan around the country, eventually to the small town of Marceline, Mo., and later with Roy to California. Walt would try to re-create the Marceline of his youth with Disneyland, which Gabler calls "the creation of a wounded man ... devising a better world of his imagination." Building the Anaheim theme park filled Disney's need for "control, about crafting a better reality than the one outside the studio, and about demonstrating that one had the capacity to do so."
Gabler does a deft job of describing Disney's troubled reality, including the brothers' treatment by their withholding, repeatedly unlucky father, Elias. He describes a 14-year-old Walt taking a hammer from his father: "He raised his other arm and I held both of his hands," Disney told an interviewer. "I was stronger than he was. I just held them. And he cried." For all the whimsy, warmth and sentimentality of Disney's cartoons -- he drew his last in 1925, leaving the hands-on work to a roster of gifted artists he alternately inspired and tongue-lashed -- he was a distant, even spectral figure who, Gabler writes, was never quite the same after an emotional and physical breakdown in 1931 at age 30. There's something wearing, though often fascinating, in watching Gabler's subject seesaw between the need to control and to escape.
The book has its longueurs -- the depiction of Disney assembling a crackerjack team of animators mixed with an account of establishing his studio in the late 1930s is fodder more for film buffs than the casual reader. Yet Gabler's restless eye invigorates each page. He tells of Disney's colleagues growing annoyed at his impatient finger-tapping, made worse because his fingertips had been calcified by his chain-smoking. Later, they discover that he'd been at their desks after hours because of the Chesterfield butts he left in their ashtrays. When he gives up voicing Mickey Mouse in 1946, it's because the filter-less Camels he came to favor have so abraded his voice. Gabler mostly tells his story straightforwardly but at times summarizes in grander rhythms: "In animation one took the inanimate and brought it to life, or the illusion of life. In animation one could exercise the power of a god."