“Aren’t you going to ask me if he was a drunk?” she said. That’s when I met Diane Disney Miller, who died Tuesday at 79.
It was 1993, and Mark Eliot had just published “The Dark Prince of Hollywood,” a biography of Diane’s father, Walt Disney. Diane was furious about the book and didn’t like talking with the press, but agreed to give me the first interview she’d ever done.
She asked her question about Walt supposedly being a drunk, her eyes flashing with anger and her chin sticking out defiantly. And I said no, because I’d never heard he was. None of the artists I’d interviewed had ever seen Walt have more than one Scotch Mist, a drink that’s mostly ice. She later told me she that’s when she began to feel more comfortable.
"I got very angry ... It attacked my mother and father as people, it attacked their marriage. It was just something we couldn't let stand. When the media took this FBI link and ran with it and gave it credibility without questioning it, it became just too much. He was too good a man. When something's good, why do you want to tear it down? ... I would never attempt to deify him, and when people say that the family has tried to present a false picture of the man, it simply isn't true." -- Diane Disney Miller to Charles Solomon in the LA Times, 7/17/1993
After my article ran in the LA Times, Diane sent a note saying she’d be happy to help my research into her father’s work, and we quickly became friends. When we talked, it was always interesting to hear the links — and the disconnects — between Walt, the genius who completely re-imagined the art of animation, and the man who was just “dad” to her.
Diane and her sister Sharon were carefully raised out of the Hollywood limelight, where they preferred to stay. Diane’s philanthropic work ranged from the Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Symphony to keeping children from acquiring the cigarette habit that killed her father.
But she always worked behind the scenes; she didn’t need plaques or public thanks, she was just doing what she felt needed to be done. When she appeared at the launch of the CD-ROM biography of Walt, she was genuinely surprised when fans lined up for her autograph. I had to explain that to them, she was royalty.
When I worked with Diane as an adviser on the documentary "The Man Behind the Myth" and the Disney Family Museum, I saw she truly was her father’s daughter. The energy, enthusiasm and dedication she brought to those projects reminded me of stories the artists told about Walt.
She surprised many people when she brought those qualities to the battle to over the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Although she often described herself as a housewife, she stood up to then-mayor Richard Riordan and philanthropist Eli Broad, using her family name and wealth to ensure that the iconic building Frank Gehry envisioned was built.
After she won that fight, I got to visit the construction site and watch steelworkers manipulate fantastically shaped beams on a tour she arranged.
Diane Disney Miller at the Disney Family Museum. (Credit Disney Family Museum)
When Diane decided to establish the Family Museum in the Presidio in San Francisco, I went with her to tour the building for the first time. It had been a hospital barracks during the Spanish-American War, and looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since.
A thick layer of dust covered the broken floorboards and rickety steps. Cement had been poured down the chimneys to stop drafts. But Diane had a vision of what it could become and forged ahead, just as her father had on Steamboat Willie and Snow White. During the years of meetings, email, letters and phone calls that followed, she remained true to her vision of the museum.
She often said she accepted that some people disliked her father and his work, but she wanted the Museum to present him honestly and fairly so people could make an informed decision. So, the Museum includes the bitterly fought animators strike of 1941 and Walt’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Diane lives on in her two great achievements, the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Disney Family Museum, and in the hearts of her family and friends. I’m sad that I’ll never again come home to a phone message that invariably began with an unmistakable voice announcing, “Charles? Diane Miller!” A message that always meant the start of another shared adventure.
Off-Ramp and FilmWeek animation expert Charles Solomon's next book comes out in April. It's The Art of the Disney Golden Books, available now for pre-order.