I have always been perplexed by the fallacy that Walt and his father had a contentious and estranged relationship. Sadly this notion is prevalent as it has stemmed primarily from a lot of the more prominent Walt Disney biographies. In these books Elias is often portrayed as an unloving, evil task master, bent on whipping his boys into submission. Like any family, there were obviously tensions in the Disney household, especially when times were difficult on the farm. In some oft-told stories, they are given without a dose of historical context (which I heavily preach, offering almost a full hour lecture on this in my Walt Disney & American culture class); that is we should not view an early 1900s family relationship with today’s sensibilities. Even when these biographies explore the Disney family during the times that were good and plentiful, they can make Elias sound demonstrative and hateful, but in reality without the editorializing the events described are simply representative of a turn-of-the-century family. Within this context, various writers have taken some isolated events, and turned them into far more than they ever were, often adding a nefarious element to Elias and his supposed disappointment with Walt.
As Walt evolves into manhood these normal sociological stresses continue, as changes within the family dynamic, especially as it relates to the father/son relationship, are at their peak. And yet, once again, many writers over emphasize the angst and anger Walt felt due to, according to them, his overbearing father. In several cases this is done to support the writer’s pre-conceived notion of Walt and his creativity (or his “escape”); in other instances, this is done simply for the purpose of tarnishing an American icon with the end result of trying to sell more books. Whatever their reason, the final father/son picture always seems to portray the relationship devoid of love and affection, while at the same time villainizing Elias as a disconnected father who never supported Walt or his dreams.
The research and interviews that I have done portray a completely different picture … which brings me to the subject of this essay … a picture (allegorical and literal!). In honor of Elias’ upcoming February 6th birthday, I thought I’d share this 1941 photograph of Walt celebrating his father’s 82nd birthday (oddly 41 years in the 19th century and 41 years in the 20th century). What I like most about this “moment caught in time” is the obvious appreciation and affection they have for each other. Before someone counters with the “well, Paul you idiot, it is staged” argument, let me state that I have seen tens of thousands of Walt Disney photographs over my decades of research; I know what a staged Walt photo looks like! I know when Walt is genuinely faking interest or a smile (can you say Robert Kintner!) and I know when he is thoroughly enjoying himself (and most everything in-between). As for Elias, most candid photos I have seen of him, he is smiling and generally seems to be content with life. And so I offer this rarely seen Institute photograph which shows them … well, I’ll let you decide. But to me, it seems to be as clear as the smile on your (Elias’) face!