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Walt in South America

The Approved Narrative

I have wanted to see the Ford plant for a long time. To me the main point of interest was the assembly line. There is a strong similarity between the Ford assembly line and our animated picture business. We have hundreds of workers all helping to assemble the cartoon that you see in continuity. Of course, it's somewhat different to run an assembly line with temperamental artists.

Walt Disney, speaking to a Detroit Free Press reporter on April 12, 1940, after a visit to Ford Motor Company's huge Rouge plant at Dearborn, Michigan

It occurred to me, when I was reading the impressive new books about Disney animation by J. B. Kaufman and John Canemaker, that what might be called "independent" historical writing about Hollywood animation, of the kind I have practiced, is all but impossible for anyone starting out now, especially when the subject is the Disney studio.

Disney has always been touchy where copyrighted illustrations are concerned, but back in the 1990s the Walt Disney Archives was open to serious researchers, and I spent countless hours there, often in the company of other outsiders. By then, Milt Gray and I had already interviewed hundreds of the veterans of animation's "golden age." Many of them were still alive and reasonably well throughout that decade, and they were willing and sometimes eager to be interviewed by other researchers.

How things have changed. The Disney Archives has been firmly sealed to almost all outsiders for a decade and more. Most of the animation veterans I interviewed, from Disney and other studios, are dead, their personal archives typically lost or scattered. Other important resources—the RKO archives, for instance—that once were open to researchers are now difficult or impossible to access.

There are compensations, of course. Many more interviews are in print than was true in the 1990s, thanks to diligent compilers like Didier Ghez and Don Peri, and the internet has made it easier to locate and use other sources, public records especially. Most important, the films themselves are much more accessible. But such gains are not enough to make up the difference. The prospects of any really independent new writing based on extensive research into Hollywood animation's "golden age" have all but vanished.

That is, I'm sure, perfectly fine with many people, and not just the Walt Disney Company and the other proprietors of the cartoons. I think a great many Disney fans in particular are satisfied with books that embody what I've come to think of as The Approved Narrative: the familiar story of Walt Disney's struggles and triumphs, supplemented now by a gingerly handling of the decline after Walt's death, glowing praise for the revival in the Eisner-Katzenberg period, and hosannas for Pixar.

J. B.Kaufman's new book, South of the Border with Disney, is perhaps the strongest possible argument for the new dispensation under which, as a practical matter, serious books about the Disney animated films can emerge only under the Disney imprint. (Kaufman's and Canemaker's books were both published by Disney Editions, a division of the Walt Disney Company. Kaufman's is copyrighted by the publishing arm of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, which runs the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco; Kaufman is a member of the foundation's staff.)

South of the Border with DisneySouth of the Border with Disney is an account of the Disney studio's involvement with the federal government's Good Neighbor program just before and during World War II. (To break up this very long piece, I've spotted through it photos from the 1941 trip that Walt and members of his staff made to South America; they were given to me in 1991 by John P. Miller, one of those who made the trip. I don't think any of them are in Kaufman's book.) Kaufman has made excellent use not just of the Disney Archives but also of Disney's Animation Research Library, a repository of production art and related documents that was off-limits to most outside researchers even when the archives was open. He has also mined interviews, the U.S. National Archives, and a variety of other outside sources. I was still living in the Washington, D.C., area in March 2003, when I gave Kaufman free run of my own files dealing with Disney films like Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros—interviews, clippings, meeting notes, and so on. As that date indicates, his book has been in the oven a long time, and I'm sure he used the years to make it better.

It's hard for me to imagine that South of the Border will ever be challenged as the most comprehensive, detailed, and accurate account of an exceptionally interesting period in the Disney studio's life. The book's errors, if there are any, are too small to have any significance. I'm tempted to make a big deal out of Kaufman's failure to mention the Joe Carioca story in Walt Disney's Comics & Stories for December 1942—the first original comics in that flagship title, for heaven's sake!—but I think it would be a little too obvious that my tongue was in my cheek.

What does bother me is what I might call the book's lack of a distinct authorial point of view. South of the Border with Disney, like any book that is not simply a phone directory or a similar compilation, is necessarily selective in what it tells us; when I say that the book lacks a point of view, I'm saying that it's not clear to me that the author's basis for that selection extended beyond the requirements of The Approved Narrative. In keeping with those requirements, the book treats everything that Walt touched as being of exceptional interest and, usually, merit, but the man himself is only intermittently present, as in a striking quotation from a 1944 interview with Dorothy Kilgallen about Three Caballeros. Kaufman is for the most part a clear and engaging writer, but his commitment to The Approved Narrative sometimes leads him astray. When, for example, he describes at length what went into the making of bare-bones educational films for Latin American audiences, the detail about trivial quarrels grows oppressive; most of that chapter belongs in an appendix.

When I was reading the chapter on The Three Caballeros I couldn't escape the feeling that Kaufman was bearing down on the technical aspects, especially what was involved in combining animation and live action, as a way of minimizing the larger questions about the film. No other of Walt's features, except possibly Fantasia, has met with so much skepticism and puzzlement. To condescend to the doubters, as if they simply couldn't see as far ahead as Walt, is less than satisfactory as a response, especially considering that such combination work never played the major role in the studio's filmed output that Walt briefly hoped that it would.

To take an opposite tack, I think it's unfortunate that Kaufman's treatment of an Ub Iwerks innovation that greatly facilitated the combination work—an innovation that I don't think has been described in print before—seems so truncated. After reading those paragraphs on pages 203-204 several times, I still couldn't make sense of them. I was reminded of the passages about Pixar's innovations in Amid Amidi's The Art of Pixar Short Films. In both cases—and perhaps this is a reflection on the editors at Disney Editions—a fear of boring the reader seems to have resulted in cutting back an explanation until it is incomprehensible, and thus really boring.

In the same vein, I was disappointed by the vagueness in Kaufman's references to the cost and box-office performance of Three Caballeros, in particular, so much in contrast to his specificity elsewhere. Maybe the Disney people have decided that such financial data must be muffled, although I can't imagine why.

What I see as a deficiency in Kaufman's book, the lack of a distinct point of view, may be owing in part to his choice of a subject. His earlier books on the Disney films have been about the silent cartoons and the Silly Symphonies, and I have no doubt, from what I've read, and from what I've heard in conversation with him, that his sympathies are heavily weighted toward the pre-war Disney films (as are my own).

John Canemaker has always cast his net wider, and in his new book, Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Ranft & Joe Grant, he spans seventy years of Disney/Pixar history—that is, almost the entire period embraced by The Approved Narrative—as mirrored in the lives of the two Joes. Both men died in 2005. Ranft, who was a story man for Disney and then for Pixar, died much too young, at only 45, in an auto accident. Grant, whose Disney career began in the 1930s, left the studio in 1949—temporarily, as it turned out—and returned part-time in 1989 and then as a full-time employee in 1991. He died at age 96.

Like Kaufman's book, Canemaker's has been heavily researched, often to excellent effect. The chapters on Joe Grant's pre-Disney years are wonderfully detailed, in both words and illustrations, reflecting not just intensive use of the internet resources for such research but also in-person examination of the relevant Los Angeles documents by Canemaker's partner Joe Kennedy. Like Kaufman, Canemaker draws on some of my own research, including interviews with Ward Kimball and Joe Grant himself.

Two Guys Named JoeCanemaker's is a warmer and more personal book than Kaufman's. It's evident throughout that he not only knew both Ranft and Grant well, but regarded them with the greatest affection. Canemaker slips into the first person occasionally, and he should have done so throughout. The book cries out to have been written as a memoir. Perhaps Canemaker simply didn't see Ranft and Grant often enough to feel comfortable writing in that form (he has lived in New York most of his life, whereas Ranft and Grant lived in California). Perhaps Disney Editions wasn't interested in publishing such a book. As it is, it seems to me that Canemaker, from the most sincere of motives, has inflated the importance of both men, presenting them as "unique influences on storytelling at two major studios during important periods in the history of animation" when it is doubtful that either was really such.

I'm less certain where Ranft is concerned, since I was never interested enough in Pixar to try to meet Ranft (or his colleagues) or learn the dimensions of his contribution. Surely, though, it is John Lasseter who has always dominated Pixar and is most responsible for its increasingly queasy mix of the sanctimonious and the morally incoherent (as exemplified by Cars, which Lasseter directed). I don't see anything in Two Guys Named Joe to suggest that Ranft did more than make the Pixar features a little livelier and wittier than they might have been otherwise. His comic sensibility seems to have been a better fit for Tim Burton (Ranft's name is in the credits for The Nightmare Before Christmas) than for Pixar.

Canemaker presents Grant as "Walt Disney's right-hand man and most trusted confidant from mid-1933 through 1949"—a striking overstatement, given that it has Grant becoming Walt's "right-hand man" as soon as he was hired and remaining in that position even as his rapport with Disney shriveled in the mid-1940s. "Walt Disney discovered in Grant a storyteller extraordinaire; he was a unique, intellectually rich resource of new ideas and possibilities for the art of animation and inspiring others. Both he and Grant had creative minds and a shared passion for this new medium of storytelling. Kindred spirits, they were simpatico in energy, drive, and ambition." Canemaker acknowledges that Grant's awareness of his own talent provoked the hostility of some of his colleagues, but as he presents it, their hostility was overdrawn, sometimes descending to crude anti-Semitism.

Walt in South AmericaGrant was certainly talented, and he certainly provoked hostility, but far from being uniquely important, he was one of a cluster of Disney people whose responsibilities were generally similar and whose careers followed comparable arcs.

Grant came onto the Disney staff as a caricaturist and story sketch artist—not an inconsequential position, but not all that important, either—and rose in the ranks rapidly, ultimately forming and heading the studio's character model department, sharing story direction of Fantasia and Dumbo with Dick Huemer, and producing Make Mine Music before his fall from grace. Compare his Disney career with that of Perce Pearce, who started even lower, as an inbetweener, then moved into story work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and wound up directing part of that film, thanks to his talents not as an artist—Grant's strong suit—but as an actor who could impersonate the dwarfs for the benefit of the animators.

Like Grant, Pearce moved on to other significant projects after Snow White, heading story work first on "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and then on Bambi and Victory Through Air Power. (He also shared Grant's reputation as a skilled manipulator of Walt Disney himself.) Then his career took a major turn: he began working in live action, serving as Walt's associate producer on Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart before moving to England to shepherd Disney's first entirely live-action features (Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose, Rob Roy the Highland Rogue) onto the screen. In other words, Walt repeatedly chose Pearce to act as his surrogate where his interest was strongest. Joe Grant, in the meantime, made his exit from the studio.

There may have been a bit of typecasting when Walt sent Pearce to England—he was the son of English immigrants—but what was undoubtedly more important was Pearce's adaptability, and his willingness to respond to the demands Walt made on him. Throughout the 1940s and '50s, people who had joined the Disney staff to work on animated cartoons followed similar paths, moving into live action or, later, into television or designing attractions for Disneyland. Ben Sharpsteen was an animator, then a director of short cartoons and feature sequences, and ultimately the "supervising director"—that is, Walt's man on the ground—of Fantasia, Dumbo, and other features. But then, as Walt's interest turned toward the True-Life Adventures and the People and Places series, he took Sharpsteen away from animation and put him in charge of those live-action films. Likewise, the director James Algar moved from animation into directing the True-Lifes.

Keeping up with Walt's demands could not have been easy; Ben Sharpsteen, when I first met him in 1976, still seemed a little shell-shocked when he talked about Walt. From all appearances, Perce Pearce adapted well to his life in England—in stories about him that I turned up during work on The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, he sounds like a true English eccentric, particularly in his devotion to a battered hat—but he occasionally crossed the Atlantic with Walt on an ocean liner, and as much as I wish I'd met Walt Disney, I balk at the thought of being confined on a ship with him for four or five days. Talk about stress! There's no telling if such stress contributed to Pearce's early death in 1956, but it couldn't have helped.

For the most part, the people who accepted Walt's assignments and stuck with him did so with no regrets. Others resisted in some way, and they were soon gone. Dave Hand was evidently one such casualty, although the exact circumstances of his fall are still murky. In Gerry Geronimi's case, there's no room for doubt: after years as an animation director, he balked at directing live action in Europe for the Disney TV show. Goodbye, Gerry, and don't let the swinging door hit you on your way out. Such departures weren't always so abrupt: Wilfred Jackson, a meticulous soul who had suffered a heart attack and felt sure that directing live action would kill him, was sent on a trip around the world and allowed to retire gracefully. But if you worked for Walt, and he thought you could fill a job you'd never done before, you'd better give it a try, or you'd better leave. More often than not, Walt's assessment was correct.

Walt in South AmericaJoe Grant ascended at Disney when the studio was making films that played to his strengths as a graphic artist: films with a rich pictorial emphasis, like Pinocchio and Fantasia. Dumbo was different, a true cartoon, and it's not at all clear how important a role Grant played, compared with Dick Huemer. It's impossible to say, in the absence of meeting notes and other such evidence, whose ideas might have dominated, but the long Dumbo treatment that Grant and Huemer submitted to Walt in 1940, a chapter at a time, is more in Huemer's mock-serious voice than in Grant's.

Grant and Huemer collaborated on a handful of wartime shorts before Grant produced Make Mine Music, conceived as a sort of pop-music Fantasia and thus a natural assignment for one of the principal creators of the earlier film. In the meantime, the character model department, the base of Grant's strength, had disintegrated under the pressures of the 1941 strike, the war's demands, and the studio's financial difficulties.

Grant was involved with Cinderella for several years. As early as 1943, according to an October 29 memo from Hal Adelquist to Walt, Grant and Huemer had worked out a "talking plan" for Cinderella but had put nothing in writing. In meetings on Cinderella early in 1946, before Walt placed that story in other hands, Grant spoke enthusiastically about the Alice Duerr Miller version, a book that is in verse and is, compared with the eventual Disney film, a tad precious. Grant also spoke of the "old Vogel books" as a promising source for settings, but Hermann Vogel's elaborate nineteenth-century illustrations could not be further removed from the Mary Blair designs actually used in the film.

Grant's Disney career sputtered out in 1949, for predictable reasons when that career is measured against the careers of his contemporaries: Grant wanted to do what he wanted to do, rather than what Walt Disney wanted him to do. Canemaker quotes Grant quoting Walt, evidently in the postwar years: "You know, I can't figure you out, Joe." It was, I'm sure, a highly practical observation: if the studio wasn't making films of the kind that Joe Grant wanted to work on—films like a Cinderella that was not at all what Walt had in mind—how was Walt to justify keeping Grant on the payroll? Having known Joe fairly well, I can't imagine that he could ever have followed a career path like that taken by Perce Pearce or Ben Sharpsteen. Could Joe Grant ever have been, say, a producer of live-action hours for the Disney Sunday show? Not possible.

Walt in South AmericaSo, one might regard Joe's exit from the Disney studio as evidence of his integrity, or, alternatively, evidence that he recognized his own limitations and didn't want to fail Walt and himself by accepting responsibilities he couldn't fulfill. But if you love Joe Grant and want him to be regarded as one of the seminal figures in Disney animation's history, you can't settle for describing him in such restrictive terms.

And so Canemaker has Grant being hounded by lesser talents at the Disney studio, pygmies jealous of the great man's genius: "He was a figure of authority, a studio manager with unique access to Walt Disney, who relied on and trusted his advice regarding films, story, design, and personnel. This did not sit well with those who did not enjoy similar privileges, such as the animators. Envy was inevitable." He goes so far as to present the animator Ward Kimball as something like a villain because his hostility to Grant never cooled over the years. Kimball wasn't just critical of Grant, he "fumed" about him, in "sulfurous interviews," and there was the odor of anti-Semitism in in his characterization of Grant as a conniving "Sammy Glick."

It's unfortunate that Canemaker, so earnest in his admiration for Grant, descends into pettiness in his characterization of Kimball, who was, to my mind, a considerably more significant figure in Disney animation's history than Joe Grant. As Canemaker notes, Kimball made only one long trip with Walt, to the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948, in contrast to Grant, who traveled east with Walt on a number of occasions. But other people made long trips with Walt, too, people like Emile Kuri, the set designer, whom no one would confuse with a major figure in the studio's life.

Walt traveled with people who were good company, and he traveled with people who could be useful to him on a particular trip, as with Kimball on the Chicago trip—since Kimball was of course a fellow train buff—and as with Grant and Huemer when they accompanied Walt to Philadelphia in April 1939 for the recording of the Fantasia soundtrack. What Walt never did, as best I can tell, is choose traveling companions as a way of bestowing his favor. When he visited New York and Detroit in April 1940, on a Fantasia-related trip, Ben Sharpsteen went with him, and both men were accompanied by their wives. Did Joe Grant's wife, Jennie, ever travel with Joe and Walt on their trips to the East Coast? Not so far as I know. Does that fact have any significance? Almost certainly not.

Canemaker quotes at length from my 1976 interview with Kimball, in which he described Grant's efforts to bring animators like Kimball under his control while they designed characters for Cinderella; that episode may have occurred in 1946, but, as I've indicated above, it could have been earlier. As Canemaker does not say, I asked Grant about that episode, and he told me that nothing like it ever happened. I'd still put my money on Kimball. So far from Kimball's being jealous of Grant, it may have been the other way around; it was, after all, Kimball who in the 1950s was allowed to make cartoons (Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom, Mars and Beyond) that were much more to Kimball's own taste than to Walt Disney's, precisely the sort of liberty that Grant was not allowed.

Grant and then his posthumous reputation have thrived for two reasons: he outlived most of his colleagues (and his critics, like Ward Kimball), and he returned to the Disney studio and worked there for the last fifteen years of his life. To Canemaker's credit, he makes clear that some of Grant's co-workers in those last years found his presence annoying and his work less than useful, but more of them seem to have regarded him as an astonishing emissary from the studio's golden age, a good-luck charm in the new digital era. If his ideas often were flimsy, to the point of being frivolous—like many of the sketches Canemaker reproduces—that would not have mattered much.

In old age, as Canemaker notes, Joe had not lost his talent for charming people who could be helpful to him. Canemaker has most of Grant's former colleagues warming up to him, even when, like the animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, they had expressed reservations about him before; but such mellowing was encouraged, no doubt, when those colleagues saw Joe enjoying the patronage of the likes of Roy Edward Disney and Howard E. Green, a Disney vice president.

(The Kaufman and Canemaker books both heap praise on Howard Green, Canemaker going so far as to dedicate his book to Green and identify him as "a patron saint to animation historians." Just for the record, not all animation historians. Howard is a nice fellow, and he once saved me some money when the Disney licensing vultures were trying to charge me an exorbitant fee for reproducing a few old publicity stills, but if I ever had anything like a "patron saint" at the Disney studio, it was Dave Smith, the recently retired archivist.)

Walt in South AmericaTwo Guys Named Joe is the culmination of the approach Canemaker has taken in all of his books about Disney animation, each book consisting mainly of biographical sketches—typically well researched and highly sympathetic to their subjects—of members of the Disney staff. Grant himself was the subject of such a chapter in Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists (1996). Because Hollywood animation has always been such a collaborative medium, I've never been persuaded by the biographical approach, although it can be justified most easily when the people in question, like those profiled in Before the Animation Begins—Albert Hurter comes immediately to mind—worked in greater isolation than most Disney artists.

There's a larger problem, one bound up in that word "artist."

Although Canemaker's focus has always been on the Disney films of earlier decades, his books typically extend to the present day; for instance, there's a concluding chapter on the sketch artists of the '90s in Before the Animation Begins. His biographical approach is, I'm sure, highly appealing to many people who work in today's Hollywood animation, because in its close attention to the individual it in effect validates their own status as artists. But most of the people working on Hollywood animated films, whether in the "golden age" or today, have been "artists" only in the most limited sense, as people who draw or paint or otherwise work with the materials of the visual arts. They are for the most part not true creative artists, that is, people who determine the essential nature of a film, but rather craftsmen who carry out the wishes of others. Their work may have a great deal of art in it—it often does—but only the people in control of the films, the people whose vision (or lack of it) determines what winds up the screen, can legitimately claim that title.

When Walt Disney spoke in Detroit about the similarities between the Ford assembly line and his own studio, he wasn't being facetious—and like Henry Ford, he wasn't inclined to let his employees determine how they went about their jobs.

Certainly, there are many people working in animation today who are unquestionably artists, John Canemaker himself being one; his Academy Award-winning film The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation is intensely personal, as Hollywood animated cartoons never are. And there are others, like Michael Sporn and Bill Plympton. But they are much more likely to be found working away from Hollywood, in New York and elsewhere, and to be working on films very different from the Hollywood product.

In Hollywood, in the "golden age," it didn't much matter whether you thought of yourself as an artist, because artists were in charge: if you were working for Bob Clampett or Chuck Jones or Tex Avery or John Hubley, you were contributing to a work of art. Today, the reverse is more nearly true: a lot of Hollywood people, especially those who have worked at the Disney studio, think of themselves as artists, and they flock to shows like the Motion Picture Academy's Milt Kahl retrospective, projecting back onto dedicated craftsmen like Kahl their own self-perception. The reality is that not only are they not artists, they're carrying out the wishes of someone who is also not an artist but is instead a John Lasseter or a Jeffrey Katzenberg or a faceless corporate master. Perhaps that discrepancy, between what's wished for and what is, accounts at least in part for what I've come to think of today's default "Disney personality": a compound of naïveté, sycophancy, and seething rage.

Of the artists making animated films in the "golden age," the most important was, of course, Walt Disney. In reading John Canemaker's new book, as in reading his earlier books, I can never escape the feeling that he doesn't quite approve of Walt, who was, of course, always determined to have his own way, often at the expense of people, like Joe Grant, whom Canemaker finds more sympathetic.There's never any direct criticism of Walt, and that's a pity; how much more enjoyable (if wrongheaded) the book might be if Canemaker's sympathy for his protagonist were given free rein, as of course it could not be without violating the rules implicit in The Approved Narrative. And so Walt remains a shadowy but faintly ominous presence.

Me, I find Walt Disney boundlessly interesting and entertaining. One of the sad ironies of the triumph of The Approved Narrative is that Walt's place in it will almost certainly become more shrunken and diminished over time. Writing about him in anything but the most conventional terms will be too difficult, given that the Walt Disney Company and the Walt Disney Family Foundation will be peering over the writer's shoulder. And that's a pity, because there are so many aspects of Walt's life and work that still invite close attention.

By way of illustration, let me touch the third rail of Disney studies: the claim that Walt was anti-Semitic.

Roy Disney was born in 1893, a few years after my grandparents; his younger brother Walt was born in 1901, about fifteen years before my parents were born. All of those people grew up in the middle of the country, a few hundred miles apart, when bigotry of many kinds was the air everyone breathed and racial slurs were a normal part of conversation. My parents and many other members of their generation eventually purged their speech and, I'm sure, their thoughts of most such prejudice, but I don't think my grandparents ever did.

So, when in research for my own books I found an occasional trace of prejudice in letters and interviews by Roy Disney, and interviews about him, I wasn't surprised or offended—it would have been absolutely amazing if none were there. More important, I found plenty of evidence that Roy enjoyed warm and mutually respectful relations with Jewish motion-picture executives, in particular. He simply wasn't a bigot, in any meaningful sense of the term.

Where Walt is concerned, what was truly amazing was that even the traces of prejudice were absent. In reading thousands of pages of documents at the Disney Archives, I can recall only one instance in which someone—not Walt—spoke disparagingly about a race or ethnic group in the notes from a story meeting, and the notes do not show Walt responding favorably, or at all. As I quote Roy Disney saying in The Animated Man, "For an artist that had delivered, Walt didn't care how he combed his hair, or how he lived his life, or what color he was or anything. A good artist to Walt was just a good artist and invaluable."

So I was surprised, to say the least, when I ran across this passsage in Boffo! How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb, a 2006 book by Peter Bart (then the editor-in-chief of Variety, earlier a reporter for the New York Times), in a chapter devoted to the Disney studio:

The moguls (except for Darryl F. Zanuck) were Jewish guys whose manner and tastes were still tied to their Eastern European roots. Disney remained something of a hick from the Midwest who thought of Jews as accountants and merchants. I once made the mistake of asking Walt a question that had business implications (we were having lunch in the Disney commissary at the time) and he replied by saying, "Let me check that with my Jew." He started to summon a financial aide nearby, but I quickly changed the subject.

Bart's book (which was, ironically, published by Hyperion, a Disney publishing imprint) appeared after I'd finished writing my Disney biography, so I couldn't mention it in my own book. But I wasn't sure what I would have said about it, anyway. I don't think what Bart wrote attracted much attention on the Web, except for a piece on Jim Hill's site. What a curious episode! What did Walt mean when he referred to "my Jew" (assuming that's what he actually said, as opposed to saying something like "Let me check that with Montague")? Was a reference to "my Jew" actually a relic of 1920s Kansas City? Or was it an in-house joke of some kind? Did some Jewish staff member, aware of the mutterings about Walt's supposed anti-Semitism, refer to himself (in Walt's presence, and for his amusement) as "Walt's Jew"?

It would be good to know what was going on at that lunch table. I don't foresee any startling revelations; we already know too much about Walt for any such passing remark, however awkward, to acquire great significance. But still, it would be good to know. With The Approved Narrative dominant, we never will know, I'm sure, and there's a great deal more about that very interesting man Walt Disney we'll never know. That's too bad, for us and for his memory.

Walt in South America

[Posted October 27, 2010]

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