Easily one of my favorite Disney history discoveries is the previously unpublished Walt interview. For twenty-five plus years I have been in search of these elusive, and rare, items. So hard to come by are these narratives, that in the time I have hunted the world’s libraries, archives, and institutes, I have only unearthed about fifty of them (that is only two a year).
I can hear the Institute’s loyal following, saying, “What, unpublished Walt interviews …. how could that be, isn’t everything ever said by Walt in print.” Perhaps my terminology for this facet of my Disney history searches is a misnomer, as the word “unknown” might actually prove a better moniker. Walt did thousands of interviews during his lifetime, and not all were by a Bob Thomas or the CBC. (A) Many smaller, one-time interviews were granted, many of these exclusives or unplanned talks happened because a member of the press just happened to run into Walt on board a ship, at a party, or at a premiere. In some cases, an author would phone up the Studio and catch Walt in a mood to talk and discuss his latest projects. Quite a few of these were done when Walt was on vacation and the local news would find out about his presence and send a reporter out to catch him on the ski slopes, a restaurant, or elsewhere. Basically, they exist for as many reasons as you can think of.
What is truly remarkable about these “Unknown Walts” is that we see Walt as he is, no publicity machine, no prepared statement, but Walt Disney, the man, the father, the grandfather, the studio chief, and so many more. You see, many of the Walt quotes that are out there–emanating from all sources: the Company, blogs, publications, books, etc.–are attributed to Walt, but were actually written by publicity people at the Studio. And if you are like me and have spent a quarter century chasing down Walt’s thoughts and words, you become pretty adept at telling if it is Walt talking, or someone else talking for Walt. In fairness, in most cases Walt had to approve his “words” and would often make changes or edits, but even at that they don’t give us a true look at Walt Disney the person.
Walt once explained to Ken Anderson that the name “Walt Disney” had ceased to be a name, but rather that the term referred more to the Studio and its films, as sort of a collective–it was the “idea” of Walt Disney and what the name represented, and not Walt the individual. While in part true, Walt was obviously still “Walt Disney”–a dedicated man who was passionate about his Studio, his art, his family, and his friends. It is this latter individual I hope to present in the “Unknown Walts”. –Paul F. Anderson
For the first “Unknown Walt” I have picked one of my all-time favorite interviews, and one that I truly feel is one of the most revealing conversations with Walt … ever! Especially when concerned with Walt Disney the family man. To all the biographer’s of the world that try to tell us that Walt had little concern for his family, I suggest a read through of this casual chat. For all of those that think Walt is a company or corporation or an idea, read here about Walt Disney the individual. I think once you finish this contribution here at the Institute, you will anxiously await future “Unknown Walts” and, more importantly, I hope some of you Disney historians out there will share your long-lost Walt interviews with me.
I discovered this interview some fifteen years ago in Australia. I was not actually in the Southern Hemisphere, but rather in the good ol’ days I would receive hundreds of book catalogs each month (this was well before the proliferation of the internet) and would study them carefully in search of just such gems. This came with little citation, and an expensive postage bill, but the description intrigued me enough to order it. Needless to say, when it arrived, I was stunned!
The interview took place while Walt was relaxing on a South Pacific cruise to Tahiti. A reporter for a New South Wales Television magazine caught up with him and suggested a talk. Apparently Walt had some spare moments as he enjoyed the peaceful waters of the ocean, and gave her some time. She ended up with the rare opportunity of chatting with him in a relaxed setting as the two sat side by side in a couple of Deck chairs. The interview was most probably done in 1962 (probably October). The lucky reporter was Suzanne Baker, and as she seated herself, Walt began to show her a batch of postcards he had collected on his trip. Walt began:
“These are for my five grandchildren. They are the light of my life. The eldest, who is eight, walked up to me the other day after looking at one of my shows on television and pointed [a] finger in my face. ‘I know who YOU are. YOU are Walt Disney.’
“I had been discovered! I was suddenly more than just ‘grandpa’ and, believe me, that meant something. Most grandchildren the age of mine are always running to someone with skirts on. But I have a kind of hold over Grandma Disney now. My grandchildren began to suspect I was a little different when I took them to Disneyland a while ago. They realized that grandpa could take them anywhere he pleased without being questioned or having to pay.”
“I’m not an ulcer type–though maybe I give them. But I do find it hard to relax while I am anywhere near my work, which I love. For the first time in years, because I’m on a ship, I get up at 9 or 10 in the morning. At home I never rise later than 6:30 a.m.
“In 1928, when Mickey Mouse hit, I quit drawing. Since then I’ve worked with teams of ideas men and artists. Nearly everything I’ve touched has turned into money–even my hobbies. For years I dreamed of Disneyland, just for fun. Then my amateur photography too, turned into making straight movies.”
Walt and Lilly were on the S.S. Mariposa, which sailed from Southern California to the Southern Pacific, and docked in New Zealand before returning to the United States. Walt mingled freely with the passengers, and while at sea, he wore easy-fitting casual clothes and strolled about the decks. As the two sat in their deck chairs, a ping-pong ball shot across them, (B) and Walt leaned out and caught it, which prompted him to a joke, and then something a little more introspective:
“Bad luck,” he called to the player. “You know, when I was a youngster, I was always game to have a shot at anything. I started out as a newspaper boy, but I was never worried that I mightn’t be able to get a job. I reckoned I could always open a hamburger stand, or something. Whatever happens, I realize by now you must never worry too much about yourself. Look, not so long ago I was at a party held for Marilyn Monroe. The photographers and reporters were all around her. The cameras were flashing and Marilyn was being the gay, vivacious person she was expected to be. After the press moved away, I went up to her and introduced myself. She grabbed my hand, and for 15 minutes we spoke together, she never let go her hold. She was a very frightened, very sweet girl who desperately needed something or someone to hold onto. Her entire problem was herself because she had to put up a front. But why, I wondered, when the real Marilyn was so sweet and genuine? (C)
“As for Liz Taylor, I think she is pathetic. She has gone so far she has nowhere else to go. This feeling comes to all of us in the movie business. We’re frightened we can’t keep up the pace. That we can’t make a picture as good as our best. I know for myself that I never make a picture that entirely satisfies me. There is always something that didn’t turn out as I wanted it. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, but I am never perfectly content.”
The topic of what Walt was currently working on came up, and of course, he mentioned Mary Poppins:
“This will have quite a few innovations. In fact, we’ll use our bag of tricks on it. It will be animation and life combined, and a musical to boot. People will float from the sky and drawings made by Bert, the sidewalk artist, will come to life.”
Of local interest, the reporter wanted to know if he would be making many return trips to England, or Australia in the near future:
“I’ve plenty of time left to visit Australia. In my family they live a long time–in the nineties usually. What I’m going to do is live long and suffer. That’s a jest! I love my work and now that I am a success with my grandchildren. I’m waiting for the day I can be the same to my great-grandchildren.”
As for me, I only wish Walt had been right with this last prediction. Walt, we miss you!
Endnotes and Citations can be seen at: endnotes.