All the letters in the Great American Novel, out of order: Off-Ramp for February 2, 2013

Charles Solomon debunks Disney myths, Philip Glass opera 'The Perfect American'

"Disney had his own private torments and is reputed to have railed against unions, blacks and Jews. At least that is part of the 21st century Disney legend, and it is necessarily part of Philip Glass' new opera, "The Perfect American." Far from sterilized yet also disarmingly affectionate, it looks at Disney the myth, the artist and the man. The work contrasts between the America that formed Walt Disney and the America he formed for the rest of us."  (Mark Swed, LA Times, 1/24/2013)

The premiere of Philip Glass' new opera "The Perfect American," in Madrid last month, and Mark Swed's front page review in the LA Times, reminded me of the bizarre falsehoods people seem willing to believe about Walt Disney.
 
Based on Peter Stephan Jungk's novel--which I found unreadable--"Perfect American" depicts Walt as an untalented, alcoholic, anti-Semitic racist, carrying on an affair with nurse Hazel George.

I've spent decades researching Walt Disney and his films; I've interviewed dozens of artists who worked with and for him, from his first days as an animator in Kansas City to his last weeks in Burbank. This misbegotten portrait is as bogus as the rumor Walt's body was frozen and is stored somewhere under Disneyland.
 
Walt Disney was born in 1901, and it's unrealistic to expect him to have held only opinions that feel correct more than a century later. After the bitterly fought strike of 1941, Walt grew increasingly conservative politically. He appeared before the notorious HUAC as a friendly witness, but there's no evidence he served as an FBI stoolie.
 
But an anti-Semite? Many of his top artists were Jewish, notably Marc Davis and Joe Grant, who worked closely with him. And he must rank as the only anti-semite ever to be chosen Man of the Year by the B'nai Brith. As for being a racist, designer Iwao Takamoto said that a few weeks after coming home from Manzanar, he applied at the Disney Studio because friends told him, "if you can draw well enough, they don't care what color you are." Someone examined Iwao's hastily assembled sketches, showed them to the animators--and hired him in less than hour.

I think story artist Dick Huemer correctly summed up Disney's attitude when he said, "I think Walt would have hired the devil himself if he were a good enough animator."

I have yet to talk to an artist who saw Walt drunk or even tipsy. After work, he enjoyed a Scotch Mist, a drink that's mostly ice. Hazel George used to massage his neck at the end of the day to ease the pain of the vertebrae that had been damaged in a polo accident back in the '30s.
 
Walt was never an exceptional animator and draftsman, but he was good enough to support himself for several years before his studio took off. More importantly, he was a genius, who conceived a vision of what animation could be, and inspired his artists to go beyond what they thought possible to realize that vision.
 
Was he angel? No, he was a man with a temper and faults and virtues. His worst vice was chain smoking. All the artists remembered his signature cough as he came down the hall. And the resulting lung cancer ended his life when far too many of his projects were unfinished.
 
Much as I like Glass' music, I doubt I'll see "The Perfect American." After writing intriguing, respectful operas about Muybridge, Einstein, Gandhi, Anknaten and Kepler, I don't understand why he'd want to trash another genius.
 
Oh, and just for the record, Walt Disney was cremated and his ashes interred at Forest Lawn.

(Charles Solomon is author of The Toy Story Films: An Animated Journey and The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation.)


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