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The Mysterious Dumbo Roll-A-Book

[Click on this link to go to the Essay page on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book.]

From Andrew Mayer: I have been reading your updated essay on Dumbo and find it very interesting. I would like to share with you a few comments my mother, Helen Aberson Mayer, made to me over the years regarding the book, film, and dealings with Disney Studios.

At the time Eric Pace spoke to me for my mother's obituary in April 1999 [in the New York Times], she was living not in Staten Island, as some articles stated erroneously, but Manhattan, and had been married almost 55 years to my father, Richard J. Mayer, an import-export businessman (R.J. Mayer & Co., Inc.) At the time of my mother's passing, she was 91 and my father was in ill health, thus I gave most of the interview information to newspapers and magazines at the time. My father passed away April 19, 2000, at age 90 (he was born December 16, 1909)

As far as I was told in discussions with my mother about Dumbo, she was the original author, not co-author as some have posthumously written. She was adamant on the subject that her first husband, Harold Pearl, was her illustrator. She admitted to a short marriage to him, and I know she went to a dude ranch in Reno, Nevada, in 1940 to culminate her divorce from him. She then went to Washington D.C. to work for the War Department, and met my father there in 1941. He then went overseas extensively for the government on secret work, later defined as acquiring plutonium for the atomic bomb project from the Belgian Congo.

During a stateside return in 1944, he married Helen Aberson on September 9, 1944, at the Pierre Hotel in New York City. Then he returned to Europe and at the rank of brigadier general did secret pre-economic recovery work in Britain and the Netherlands in 1944-45 (precursor of the Marshall Plan). He set up his own business in New York City after the war with his partner, Michael Hessberg. Mr. Hessberg, a boyhood friend, then set up his own business in 1955. My father hired my mother at that time to be secretary-treasurer of the firm, a position she maintained until the end of the firm, which I sold at the end of 2000. I was vice president and researcher for the firm from 1984 to its closing. The last decade of their lives I was, as the only son, guardian and administrator of most of their affairs.

I was interested in getting the story right about my mother because I also was a newspaperman and journalist with the Washington Post, New York Law Publishing Co., Condé Nast Traveler, and freelance covering the conventions of the American Historical Association for over 25 years. I am currently a teacher and tutor and adjunct professor in Staten Island.

Dick Case [writing in the Syracuse Post-Standard] had it closest (and he reviewed archives at Syracuse University): Helen Aberson was the original author of Dumbo and in 1938 wrote and published as a Roll-A-Book the story of Dumbo, the Flying Elephant. She was married to Mr. Pearl at the time, and swore he was the illustrator and not author, per se. But after an acrimonious divorce, it appears he attempted to take more credit than necessary as far as authorship is concerned. Proof of her presence in California is on our wall, an illustrated picture of Dumbo signed by Walt Disney at the time to Helen Aberson.

Also her quote of the original contract with Disney is correct—she only got $1,000 in 1944, and never got a cent after for all the future books (royalty lasted through only the one edition), film and updates, TV versions, all the way to the 2011 Blu-ray. This was the source of considerable bitterness in the family. She was of the view Disney deliberately diiminished her role, even though she was in Hollywood and on set from the period of 1939-41 when Disney called her out. She stressed she was consulted repeatedly, and even though the film version of the book was changed and elongated, she was consulted throughout. I have no reason to feel she embellished the story.

She renewed legal action years later when it became apparent she was no longer getting screen credits for TV versions of Dumbo that repeated yearly, like The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, they came to naught when Disney lawyers, led by Roy Disney, who had originally limited her contract, found out she had neglected to renew her copyright with the Library of Congress in 1968 (this was noted in 1979). After that time, her lawyer in California told her, unfortunately, he could not pursue the case successfully. I do not have these documents in my possession,but mother showed me his letters to her at the time, around 1979-80.

Re: Roll-A-Book. According to my mother, there were very few copies. of the original Roll-A-Book ever printed, maybe at most two or three. One supposedly did make its way to the Library of Congress at the time the card was issued, but I have no idea if it survived in its collection this long.

MB replies: There are puzzles here that may never be resolved, unless relevant contemporaneous documents exist and somehow come to light.

There's the matter of Hal Pearl's supposed role as the Dumbo Roll-A-Book's illustrator, rather than its co-author with Helen Aberson. Since Helen Durney unquestionably illustrated the Roll Book version, as evidenced by her materials at Syracuse University, how does Pearl fit in? Did he make preliminary illustrations that Durney used as the basis for her own? If he did, there seems to be not a trace of such involvement. He was, however, identified from the start as the book's co-author.

Likewise with Helen Aberson's supposed involvement in the writing of the film version of her story. There's simply no evidence I've been able to find of any such involvement. This is a case where the lack of transcripts of story meetings is a real handicap. If there were such transcripts, some of them might show that Aberson was present and contributed to the writing of the story; or they might not. But certainly none of the Disney people who worked on the film remarked on her presence (or absence).

There is definitely no copy of the Dumbo Roll-A-Book in the Library of Congress or, so far as I've been able to determine, anywhere else, apart from the galley proofs at Syracuse.

[Posted October 20, 2011]