Walt Disney: Ruler Of The Magic Kingdom

The first multimedia empire was built on animation, but its happy toons masked the founder's darker soul

  • He created Mickey Mouse and produced the first full-length animated movie. He invented the theme park and originated the modern multimedia corporation. For better or worse, his innovations have shaped our world and the way we experience it. But the most significant thing Walt Disney made was a good name for himself.

    It was, of course, long ago converted into a brand name, constantly fussed over, ferociously defended, first by Disney, latterly by his corporate heirs and assigns. Serving as a beacon for parents seeking clean, decent entertainment for their children, the Disney logo--a stylized version of the founder's signature--more generally promises us that anything appearing beneath it will not veer too far from the safe, sound and above all cheerful American mainstream, which it defines as much as serves.

    That logo also now identifies an institution whose $22 billion in annual sales make it the world's largest media company. It purveys many products that would have been unimaginable to its founder, a few of which (the odd TV show, the occasional R movie) might even have been anathemas to him. Not that one sees him pondering long over such trifles, as his company fulfills the great commercial destiny this complex and darkly driven man always dreamed for it.

    The notion of Walt Disney as a less than cheerful soul will ring disturbingly in the minds of older Americans taught by years of relentless publicity to think of Disney as "a quiet, pleasant man you might not look twice at on the street," to quote an old corporate promotional piece--a man whose modest mission was simply "to bring happiness to the millions." Going along with the gag, he implied that the task was easy for him because he always whistled while he worked: "I don't have depressed moods. I'm happy, just very, very happy."

    Sure. You bet. It sounded plausible, for if anyone seemed entitled to late-in-life contentment it was Walt Disney. Did not his success validate the most basic of American dreams? Had he not built the better mouse and had the world not beaten a path to his door, just as that cherished myth promised? Did he not deploy his fame and fortune in exemplary fashion, playing the kindly, story-spinning, magicmaking uncle to the world? No entrepreneurial triumph of its day has ever been less resented or feared by the public. Henry Ford should have been so lucky. Bill Gates should get so lucky.

    The truth about Disney, who was described by an observant writer as "a tall, somber man who appeared to be under the lash of some private demon," is slightly less benign and a lot more interesting. Uncle Walt actually didn't have an avuncular bone in his body. Though he could manage a sort of gruff amiability with strangers, his was, in fact, a withdrawn, suspicious and, above all, controlling nature. And with good--or anyway explicable--reason.

    For he was born to a poverty even more dire emotionally than it was economically. His father Elias was one of those feckless figures who wandered the heartland at the turn of the century seeking success in many occupations but always finding sour failure. He spared his children affection, but never the rod. They all fled him at the earliest possible moment.

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