By Michael Barrier
As I mentioned in my piece about Diane Disney Miller's denunciation of Neal Gabler's biography of her father, the nation's libraries have been enthusiastic supporters of the Gabler book. Some large cities' libraries have bought dozens of copies of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. That libraries should have embraced the book, with its terribly distorted portrait of Walt, is not really surprising, considering how much criticism librarians directed at the man and everything bearing his name in the last years of his life. Some of the licensed children's books were easy targets, but the criticism extended far beyond that, to even the greatest of his films.
The most celebrated such attack came in 1965, from Frances Clarke Sayers, a senior lecturer at UCLA's School of Library Service. In a letter to the Los Angeles Times she called Walt "to account for his debasement of the traditional literature of childhood, in films and in the books he publishes. He shows scant respect for the integrity of the original creations of authors, manipulating and vulgarizing everything for his own ends. ... He made a young tough of Peter Pan, and transformed Pinocchio into a slapstick sadistic revel."
Last year, just before Gabler's book was published, the Library Journal published a brief interview with him in which he described Walt as a person of the sort who can quite easily be imagined committing the literary crimes Sayers accused him of. Gabler's interviews and speeches, like his remarkable statements at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, are revealing reading. Some readers, Disney fans especially, seem to be mesmerized by the Gabler book's cascading notecards of facts (far too many of them inaccurate for such a supposedly "definitive" and "meticulously researched" book), and they overlook his bizarre interpretations of Walt's life and personality. In Gabler's interviews and speeches, though, that strangeness is usually fully on view. Here is part of what he told the Library Journal:
As I vicariously lived Walt's life, I was surprised by his obsessiveness, which is so at odds with the media image of genial “Uncle Walt.” Disney was, from virtually the time he was a teenager, a man possessed by a vision, a man who believed that he could ameliorate the hurts he felt he had suffered by constructing a more perfect world and then inhabiting it.
I was surprised, too, by the price he paid for his obsessiveness: the loneliness, the mental anguish, and the disappointments. He was anything but the happy, simple man we think of when we think of Walt Disney.
Like any other human being, even the most contented, Walt was at times in his life restless and dissatisfied, sometimes very much so; that was certainly true in the postwar years, and I think it was true in the 1960s, too. Like other people as famous and sought-after as himself, he undoubtedly found it difficult to sustain real friendships. But the "obsessiveness," the "mental anguish," the "loneliness"—these are all Gabler's inventions. Like his depiction of a ogreish Elias Disney, his characterization of Walt is testimony only to his limited capacity for empathy.
The Library Journal gave Gabler's book a starred review, of course: "Gabler is the first writer to have complete access to the Disney archives, and it shows in this revealing and fascinating portrait. Fans of compelling biographies and of Disney himself will be thrilled to have this in their collection. A mandatory purchase for all public and academic libraries."
The same reviewer, Jeff Ayers, gave my Animated Man a nasty writeup a few months later. He decried my failure to write about Walt's polo playing at greater length, said (inaccurately) that I'd not had access to the Disney Archives, declared that my book "will disappoint, bore, or anger fans of the man," and endorsed Gabler's book once again. "Not recommended," he concluded of mine.
Ayers, a Seattle librarian, is a Star Trek devotee; I can't imagine why someone at Library Journal thought it was a good idea to assign him to review two serious Disney biographies. He undoubtedly did a lot of damage. In other words, more than forty years after Walt's death the librarians are still at work. That's why it's so much easier to find Gabler—and, worse, Marc Eliot—in the Disney biography section than it is to find my Animated Man or even Bob Thomas's biography, Walt Disney: An American Original.
If you want to slow the Gabler's book progress toward becoming the "standard" biography—and if you value Walt's memory, you should want to do that—visit your local library, in person and online, and see what it offers in the way of Disney biographies. If it has only Gabler or Eliot (and it's depressingly likely that that's the case), ask the librarians if they won't provide some alternative. It doesn't have to be my book; Bob Thomas's book, for all that it's an "official" biography, is a solid piece of work. And if they give you the brushoff, rage, rage against the librarians!
[Posted August 27, 2007]