Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

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by Neal Gabler

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The definitive portrait of one of the most important cultural figures in American history.

Walt Disney was a true visionary whose desire for escape, iron determination and obsessive perfectionism transformed animation from a novelty to an art form, first with Mickey Mouse and then with his feature films–most notably Snow White, Fantasia, and…  See more details below


The definitive portrait of one of the most important cultural figures in American history.

Walt Disney was a true visionary whose desire for escape, iron determination and obsessive perfectionism transformed animation from a novelty to an art form, first with Mickey Mouse and then with his feature films–most notably Snow White, Fantasia, and Bambi. In his superb biography, Neal Gabler shows us how, over the course of two decades, Disney revolutionized the entertainment industry. In a way that was unprecedented and later widely imitated, he built a synergistic empire that combined film, television, theme parks, music, book publishing, and merchandise. Walt Disney is a revelation of both the work and the man–of both the remarkable accomplishment and the hidden life.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Neal Gabler spent five years researching the Disney Archives and other repositories before emerging with this monumental, 880-page study of entertainment polymath Walt Disney (1901-66). By far the most detailed and evenhanded Disney biography ever published, Walt Disney: The Triumph of The American Imagination describes its subject as a consumer-conscious utopian who sought to impose order in a time of chaotic social change.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Chapter One


Elias Disney was a hard man. He worked hard, lived modestly, and worshiped devoutly. His son would say that he believed in “walking a straight and narrow path,” and he did, neither smoking nor drinking nor cursing nor carousing. The only diversion he allowed himself as a young man was playing the fiddle, and even then his upbringing was so strict that as a boy he would have to sneak off into the woods to practice. He spoke deliberately, rationing his words, and generally kept his emotions in check, save for his anger, which could erupt violently. He looked hard too, his body thin and taut, his arms ropy, his blue eyes and copper-colored hair offset by his stern visage—long and gaunt, sunken-cheeked and grim-mouthed. It was a pioneer’s weathered face—a no-nonsense face, the face of American Gothic.

But it was also a face etched with years of disappointment—disappointment that would shade and shape the life of his famous son, just as the Disney tenacity, drive, and pride would. The Disneys claimed to trace their lineage to the d’Isignys of Normandy, who had arrived in England with William the Conqueror and fought at the Battle of Hastings. During the English Restoration in the late seventeenth century, a branch of the family, Protestants, moved to Ireland, settling in County Kilkenny, where, Elias Disney would later boast, a Disney was “classed among the intellectual and well-to-do of his time and age.” But the Disneys were also ambitious and opportunistic, always searching for a better life. In July 1834, a full decade before the potato famine that would trigger mass migrations, Arundel Elias Disney, Elias Disney’s grandfather, sold his holdings, took his wife and two young children to Liverpool, and set out for America aboard the New Jersey with his older brother Robert and Robert’s wife and their two children.

They had intended to settle in America, but Arundel Elias did not stay there long. The next year he moved to the township of Goderich in the wilderness of southwestern Ontario, Canada, just off Lake Huron, and bought 149 acres along the Maitland River. In time Arundel Elias built the area’s first grist mill and a sawmill, farmed his land, and fathered sixteen children—eight boys and eight girls. In 1858 the eldest of them, twenty-five-year-old Kepple, who had come on the boat with his parents, married another Irish immigrant named Mary Richardson and moved just north of Goderich to Bluevale in Morris Township, where he bought 100 acres of land and built a small pine cabin. There his first son, Elias, was born on February 6, 1859.

Though he cleared the stony land and planted orchards, Kepple Disney was a Disney, with airs and dreams, and not the kind of man inclined to stay on a farm forever. He was tall, nearly six feet, and in his nephew’s words “as handsome a man as you would ever meet.” For a religious man he was also vain, sporting long black whiskers, the ends of which he liked to twirl, and jet-black oiled hair, always well coifed. And he was restless—a trait he would bequeath to his most famous descendant as he bequeathed his sense of self-importance. When oil was struck nearby in what came to be known as Oil Springs, Kepple rented out his farm, deposited his family with his wife’s sister, and joined a drilling crew. He was gone for two years, during which time the company struck no oil. He returned to Bluevale and his farm, only to be off again, this time to drill salt wells. He returned a year later, again without his fortune, built himself a new frame house on his land, and reluctantly resumed farming.

But that did not last either. Hearing of a gold strike in California, he set out in 1877 with eighteen-year-old Elias and his second-eldest son, Robert. They got only as far as Kansas when Kepple changed plans and purchased just over three hundred acres from the Union Pacific Railroad, which was trying to entice people to settle at division points along the train route it was laying through the state. (Since the Disneys were not American citizens, they could not acquire land under the Homestead Act.) The area in which the family settled, Ellis County in the northwestern quadrant of Kansas about halfway across the state, was frontier and rough. Indian massacres were fresh in memory, and the Disneys themselves waited out one Indian scare by stationing themselves all night at their windows with guns. Crime was rampant too. One visitor called the county seat, Hays, the “Sodom of the Plains.”

The climate turned out to be as inhospitable as the inhabitants—dry and bitter cold. At times it was so difficult to farm that the men would join the railroad crews while their wives scavenged for buffalo bones to sell to fertilizer manufacturers. Most of those who stayed on the land turned to livestock since the fields rippled with yellow buffalo grass on which sheep and cows could graze. Farming there either broke men or hardened them, as Elias would be hardened, but being as opportunistic as his Disney forebears, he had no more interest in farming than his father had. He wanted escape.

Father and son now set their sights on Florida. The winter of 1885–86 had been especially brutal in Ellis. Will Disney, Kepple’s youngest son, remembered the snow drifting into ten-to-twelve-foot banks, forcing the settlers from the wagon trains heading west to camp in the schoolhouse for six weeks until the weather broke. The snow was so deep that the train tracks were cleared only when six engines were hitched to a dead locomotive with a snowplow and made run after run at the drifts, inching forward and backing up, gradually nudging through. Kepple, tired of the cruel Kansas weather, decided to join a neighbor family on a reconnaissance trip to Lake County, in the middle of Florida, where the neighbors had relatives. Elias went with him.

For Elias, Florida held another inducement besides the promise of warm weather and new opportunities. The neighbor family they had accompanied, the Calls, had a sixteen-year-old daughter named Flora. The Calls, like the Disneys, were pioneers who nevertheless disdained the hardscrabble life. Their ancestors had arrived in America from England in 1636, settling first outside Boston and then moving to upstate New York. In 1825 Flora’s grandfather, Eber Call, reportedly to escape hostile Indians and bone-chilling cold, left with his wife and three children for Huron County in Ohio, where he cleared several acres and farmed. But Eber Call, like Kepple Disney, had higher aspirations. Two of his daughters became teachers, and his son, Charles, was graduated from Oberlin College in 1847 with high honors. After heading to California to find gold and then drifting through the West for several years, Charles wound up outside Des Moines, Iowa, where he met Henrietta Gross, a German immigrant. They married on September 9, 1855, and returned to his father’s house in Ohio. Charles became a teacher.

Exactly why at the age of fifty-six he decided to leave Ohio in January 1879, after roughly twenty years there and ten children, is a mystery, though a daughter later claimed it was because he was fearful that one of his eight girls might marry into a neighbor family with eight sons, none of whom were sober enough for the devout teacher. Why he chose to become a farmer is equally mysterious, and why he chose Ellis, Kansas, is more mysterious still. The rough-hewn frontier town was nothing like the tranquil Ohio village he had left, and it had little to offer save for cheap land. But Ellis proved no more hospitable to the Calls than it had to the Disneys. Within a year the family had begun to scatter. Flora, scarcely in her teens, was sent to normal school in Ellsworth to be trained as a teacher, and apparently roomed with Albertha Disney, Elias’s sister, though it is likely he had already taken notice of her since the families’ farms were only two miles from each other.

Within a few years the weather caught up to the Calls—probably the legendary storm of January 1886. In all likelihood it was the following autumn that they left for Florida by train with Elias and Kepple Disney as company. Kepple returned to Ellis shortly thereafter. Elias stayed on with the Calls. The area where they settled, in the middle of the state, was by one account “howling wilderness” at the time. Even so, after their Kansas experience the Calls found it “beautiful” and thought their new life there would be “promising.” It was known generally as Pine Island for its piney woods on the wet, high rolling land and for the rivers that isolated it, but it was dotted with new outposts. Elias settled in Acron, where there were only seven families; the Calls settled in adjoining Kismet. Charles cleared some acreage to raise oranges and took up teaching again in neighboring Norristown, while Flora became the teacher in Acron her first year and Paisley her second. Meanwhile Elias delivered mail from a horse-drawn buckboard and courted Flora.

Their marriage, at the Calls’ home in Kismet on New Year’s Day 1888, wedded the intrepid determination of the Disneys with the softer, more intellectual temper of the Calls—two strains of earthbound romanticism that would merge in their youngest son. The couple even looked the part, Elias’s flinty gauntness contrasting with Flora’s amiable roundness, as his age—he was nearly thirty at the time of the wedding—contrasted with the nineteen-year-old bride’s youth. Marriage, however, didn’t change his fortunes. He had bought an orange grove, but a freeze destroyed most of his crop, forcing him back into delivering the mail. In the meantime Charles Call had an accident while clearing some land of pines, never fully recovered, and died early in 1890. His death loosened the couple’s bond to Florida. “Elias was very much like his father; he couldn’t be contented very long in any one place,” Elias’s cousin, Peter Cantelon, observed. The Disney wanderlust and the need to escape would send Elias back north—this time to a nine-room house in Chicago.

He had been preceded to Chicago by someone who seemed just as blessed as Elias was cursed. Robert Disney, Elias’s younger brother by two-and-a-half years, was viewed by the family as the successful one. He was big and handsome—tall, broad, and fleshy where Elias was short, slim, and wiry, and he had an expansive, voluble, glad-handing manner to match his appearance. The “real dandy of the family,” his nephew would say. But if Robert Disney looked the very picture of a man of means, the image obscured the fact that he was actually a schemer with talents for convincing and cajoling that Elias could never hope to match. Six months after Elias married Flora, Robert had married a wealthy Boston girl named Margaret Rogers and embarked on his career of speculation in real estate, oil, and even gold mines—anything he could squeeze for a profit. He had come to Chicago in 1889 in anticipation of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which would celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, and had built a hotel there. Elias had also come for the promise of employment from the fair, but his dreams were humbler. Living in his brother’s shadow, he was hoping for work not as a magnate but as a carpenter, a skill he had apparently acquired while laboring on the railroad in his knockabout days.

The Disneys arrived in Chicago late in the spring of 1890, a few months after Charles Call’s death, with their infant son, Herbert, and with Flora pregnant again. Elias rented a one-story frame cottage at 3515 South Vernon on the city’s south side, an old mid-nineteenth-century farmhouse now isolated amid much more expensive residences; its chief recommendation was that it was only twenty blocks from the site of the exposition. Construction on the fair began early the next year, after Flora had given birth that December to a second son, Ray. The family enjoyed few extravagances. Elias earned only a dollar a day as a carpenter. But he was industrious and frugal, and by the fall he had saved enough to purchase a plot of land for $700 through his brother’s real estate connections. By the next year he had applied for a building permit at 1249 Tripp Avenue* to construct a two-story wooden cottage for his family, which the following June would add another son, Roy O. Disney.

Though it was set within the city, the area to which they moved the spring of 1893, in the northwestern section, was primitive. It had only two paved roads and had just begun to be platted for construction, which made it a propitious place for a carpenter. Elias contracted to help build homes, and one of his sons recalled that Flora too would go out to the sites and “hammer and saw planks with the men.” Still, by his wife’s estimate Elias averaged only seven dollars a week. But he was a Disney, and he had not surrendered his dreams. Using Robert’s contacts and leveraging his own house through mortgages, he began buying plots in the subdivision, designing residences with Flora’s help and then building them—small cottages for workingmen like himself. By the end of the decade he and a contracting associate had built at least two additional homes on the same street on which he lived—one of which he sold for $2,500 and the other of which he and his partner rented out for income. In effect, under Robert’s tutelage, Elias had become a real estate maven, albeit an extremely modest one.

But by this time, already in his forties, he had begun to place his hope less in success, which seemed hard-won and capricious, than in faith. Both the Disneys and the Calls had been deeply religious, and Elias and Flora’s social life in Chicago now orbited the nearby Congregational church, of which they were among the most devoted members. When the congregation decided to reorganize and then voted to erect a new building just two blocks from the Disneys’ home, Elias was named a trustee as well as a member of the building committee. By the time the new church, St. Paul’s, was dedicated in October 1900, the family was attending services not only on Sundays but during the week. Occasionally, when the minister was absent, Elias would even take the pulpit. “[H]e was a pretty good preacher,” Flora would remember. “[H]e did a lot of that at home, you know.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 48 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This may be among the best researched books ever written about Walt Disney. Unfortunately, it proves to be one of the most conflicted when it comes to an author's conclusions. While the author demonstrates an outstanding knowledge of the facts surrounding Disney's life, there is a marked change in tone when summarizing the impact of Walt Disney upon twentieth century culture. Common stories of separation and the hopeful longing for reconnection between children and parents are turned into far-fetched nightmares of unforgivable cruelty. In casting Walt Disney's career as resulting from his reaction to psychological abuse at the hands of his father, Gabler capably demonstrates that he did not talk to anyone who truly understood the complicated dynamic between these two men. In fact, the humanity of both men is diminished in the retelling of this particular episode. In addition, though Gabler faithfully reconstructs the story of Mickey Mouse's creation, he takes reason to the far side of imagination when he proposes that Mickey's 'deep and abiding popularity' was due in part to his 'sexual suggestiveness.' (p. 155) As with several less popular essays and biographies about Walt Disney that have been released in recent years, it seems that too many contemporary authors simply must reduce Walt Disney's success to the most crude levels imaginable. Since the book's release, the resulting critiques in the national press give testimony to the fact that a majority of reviewers have savored the opportunity to splash mud at the name of Walt Disney in the hope that such muckracking will sell more papers more books more magazines more advertising. 'Take a good shot at Walt! Only $25!' Students of Disney history will find plenty to appreciate in this text. However, even getting past the author's 'Introduction' was a chore. Never has one who was given such unprecedented access to the treasure of information found in the Walt Disney Archives summarized conclusions that were so bent. It is as if Gabler has two separate and distinct personalities each writing from platforms in complete opposition to one another. Which corporate genius at Disney gave away their rights to editorial control? How did the Walt Disney Company benefit from giving Gabler such unlimited access? How could anyone top Marc Eliot's ridiculous tale of the 'Dark Prince?' It appears that the impossible has been achieved. Layer upon layer, the life and story of Walt Disney is retold with the able mastery of one thoroughly acquainted with his subject. Even so, the conclusions which are reached seem to be viewed through a prism bending every truth into the outcome that the author had intended all along. If Gabler intended to retell Walt's story as only the author could have imagined it... well, he may have succeeded. Never let the truth get in the way of a writer's preconceived notions! Some of the more unique statements proposed by Gabler include: ** 'Disney was a protean.' ** Disney 'had Platonic templates in his head.' ** Disney's 'artistic status had plummeted' by the end of his life. ** Disney was 'transmogrified into aesthetic demagoguery and vulgarization.' ** Disney was 'widely identified with cultural degradation...' Maybe these things were perceived as true for a narrow slice of academically isolated intellectuals, but it is shameful to characterize such viewpoints as being common perspectives on the influence of Walt Disney. These were views not shared by the overwhelming majority of human beings inhabiting this planet during the twentieth century. This supposedly masterful biography on Walt Disney was crafted to begin with the examination of a myth which claimed that Walt Disney 'had been cryogenically preserved.' While he cannot state how such a ridiculous tale began, the author repeats a modern 'journalistic' approach and states with certainty that the source of the rumor 'may have been a tabloid...' Readers are supposed to ta
Gary Hays More than 1 year ago
This is the most in-depth account of Walt Disney I could ever imagine reading. In some cases too detailed. The author did his homework and then some! Not all of the repoted information was essential to knowing Disney. Still, a good book. One other issue, I consider myself to have a good vocabulary yet often had to look up words for their meanings. The author wore out his thesaurus I fear. I think he could have made the same points with more common wording.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Contrary to other reviews, Gabler actually let the reader draw his or her own conclusions about Walt. Walt wasn't God, but a man who had trial, troubles and successes just like anyone else. Sure he tortured himself and we all do to a point. But while Walt was a definite visionary, he couldn't see that larger picture of life. Others did take advantage of him and he couldn't understand why others didn't just naturally see his own vision. He was driven and realized that the rules of the world would only bring him down, he played by his own rules and you have to respect him for that and yet, pity him at the same time. What a truly fascinating person.
CuriousIntellectual More than 1 year ago
It was wonderful to read the factual account of a driven genius with a quest for perfection so intense that he defined the term "workaholic" for future generations. I recall Walt Disney on "The Mickey Mouse Club" surrounded by his "Mouseketeers" and "The Wonderful World of Color" on Sunday evenings, but this fatherly, paternalistic image I held of Walt Disney was revised when I read the biography by Neal Grabler. Far from being a "kindly gentleman," Walt Disney was a complex man who did not suffer "fools" gladly. His life was a series of successes bracketed by crushing disappointments and an inability to grasp how the subtle, day to day, human interactions with his employees and attention to "the bottom line" [he constantly battled with his brother, Roy, about financial matters within his empire] impacted his success. He was a visionary, a complex man and a creative genius. This biography is a must for those who want to look more deeply into the mistique and Magic of The Magic Kingdom. All the pathos of Walt's post-studio-strike years is etched in sharp relief, and although we will never know why he was such a different soul afterward, Neal Grabler leaves us with the factual information that enables the reader to draw his own conclusions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Disney and disney channel have come so far. Walt Disney is the reason why we have such great old movies, and why new ones are coming out. Although the newer stuff is not compared to Walt's work... we will never forget what he gave us.
DisneyFan2925 More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be a really interesting read. It is for anyone who loves Disney. I learned so much about his struggles and determination to bring his ideas to fruition. It is a must read for any Disney Fan.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very detailed book. I enjoyed it very much.
mikejburke More than 1 year ago
Clearly well researched, but were it not for the intrigue of Disney himself this book would be very dry. Additionally, Gabler seems to enjoy Disney but every few pages realizes that he has been too kind to Disney and proceeds to throw in some critiques of the man. Either way, it's a good book. It's worth noting that I'm reading the ebook version which is perfect; however, when I downloaded the sample, the formatting was completely gone and whole parts were repeated--this is not true for the full version.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Over 600 pages of very interesting material. Excellent book on Walt's life. Learned a lot here.
CTmaineah More than 1 year ago
A good in depth look into Walt's life though i found that the book jumped around a lot and often had me re reading sections to make sure I didn't miss anything. The writer presents both sides of Walt and offers interesting views of him and his company.
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I this book good for a nine year old
barbarella1517 More than 1 year ago
This is a great book if you're a Walt Disney fan like I am. It starts from his childhood and even a little bit of family history from before his birth. It is somewhat of a difficult read, there are a lot of BIG words used that I had to get the dictionary out for, otherwise I would have given it 5 stars. It's a wonderful book about a wonderful man. I would recommend to any Disney fan, young and old.
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Niw i understand so things that u didnt before at Disneyland. Really goid book. High read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
About a great icon
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow ok this is epic the real deal
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Walt was a very interesting man and a true genius and you learn things fro this book that reinforce that
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