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Wednesdays with Wade: Lillian Disney, the woman behind the man

Wednesdays with Wade: Lillian Disney, the woman behind the man

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Since March is "Women's History Month," I thought I would use this column to spotlight the woman behind the legend, Lillian Disney. Lillian Disney, the widow of legendary animator and filmmaker Walt Disney, died peacefully in her sleep on Tuesday December 16th 1997. Lillian passed away at her home in West Los Angeles at the age of 98 following a stroke that she suffered early in the morning of December 15th. Ironically, Walt Disney died thirty-one years earlier, early in the morning of December 15, 1966.

She was born Lillian Bounds on an Indian Reservation in Spalding, Idaho on February 15, 1899 (for years she kept the year of her birth secret since she was almost two years older than Walt). As the tenth and last child of Jeanette Short Bounds and Willard Pehall Bounds, Lillian grew up in Lapwai, Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. Her father worked for the government as a blacksmith and federal marshal.

She moved to Los Angeles in 1923 to join her older sister Hazel. A friend of her sister was working at the fledgling studio of Walt Disney, and told Lillian about a job opening there working for Walt Disney inking animation cels. Approximately two years later, Lillian and Walt were married on July 13, 1925 in Lewiston, Idaho by Reverend D.J.W. Somerville, Rector Protestant Episcopal Church of the Nativity with Hazel Sewell and Sydney Bounds as witnesses.

For the next 41 years, Lillian was content to quietly remain in the background, raise two daughters (Diane and Sharon), tend to her garden, play cards with her friends and constantly challenge almost every decision Walt made from producing an animated feature to creating the first theme park.

Following the death of Walt on December 15th 1966, Lillian became quite active in a variety of charitable programs, with primary emphasis toward the support of children and the arts. Mrs. Disney helped found the California Institute of the Arts, a school that has since produced many of the industry's best animators including John Lasseter. She also operated a charitable foundation, donating to many causes, including a $100,000 gift to the Nez Perce Indians to help in the purchase of tribal artifacts in 1996.

In May 1987, Lillian made a landmark gift of $50 million to the Music Center of Los Angeles County to build a world-class concert hall for the city. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, opened in 2003 nearly six years after her death, is the permanent home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the fourth venue of the Music Center.

Lillian was credited as having named Mickey Mouse, when on a train ride with Walt from New York to Los Angeles. Following Walt's death, Lillian remarried three years later to John Truyens, only to be widowed again in 1981 when she reverted back to using the "Disney" last name.

"We shared a wonderful, exciting life, and we loved every minute of it. He was a wonderful husband to me and a wonderful and joyful father and grandfather. I am distressed to learn of a new book about Walt that actually invents incidents that never happened," said the normally shy Lillian on the publication of Marc Eliot's error-ridden book, "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince."

Lillian was survived by one daughter (Diane) as well as ten grandchildren and thirteen great grandchildren. There was no funeral service . Like Walt, she was cremated and her ashes were interred just below Walt's in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.

On December 17, 1997, her nephew Roy E. Disney issued the following statement:

"This really is the end of an era for the Disneys, and it's ironic and somehow fitting that it should be at this time of the year...Walt, in 1966, my dad in 1971, my mother in 1984, and now Lily have all gone during the 10 days before Christmas. She was a great lady, full of laughter and fun and always prepared to speak the truth, tough and loving at the same time. Once you knew her, you'd never forget her. I always thought of the four of them...Walt and Roy, Lily and Edna...as true pioneers...if life had required them to pull the wagon train across the country, they'd have done it...and done it better than anyone. I'm pretty sure that the four of them are together somewhere now, having a wonderful time.''

Here is an excerpt from "I Live With a Genius" by Mrs. Walt Disney (as told to Isabella Taves) from "McCalls" magazine from February 1953:

"My husband deals in myths. One of the myths which surrounds him, and which he takes great pains to perpetuate, is that he is Mickey Mouse at heart - shy, gullible, henpecked. Walt is always telling people how henpecked he is. Last summer, appearances seemed to support him when he took five women to Europe with him - me; our two daughters, Diane and Sharon; a school friend of Diane's; and our niece. But it was all his own idea, and he loved it. I was the only one who had trouble. By the time we landed back on American soil, what with two months of counting noses and luggage, I was a wreck. A sharp young reporter asked me, "Aren't you nervous, Mrs. Disney?" And I, who have made a career out of not talking to the press, fixed everything up fine by answering, 'Who wouldn't be, married to Walt Disney?'

I never expect to live down that remark. It is going to be one of those stories about poor Lilly (my maiden name was Lillian Bounds) that the whole family will tell and retell for years. So I must say, in protective explanation, that I wouldn't have missed one minute of the twenty-seven years I have been married to Walt Disney. I'm proud of my husband and what he has done - but I'm even prouder that along the way, in bad times and good, he has never lost his sense of humor or his zest for life.

Being married to Walt Disney is never dull. There have been plenty of times when I felt as though I were attached to one of those flying saucers they talk about. Being female, I maintain that Walt's imagination flies so high he naturally sees a little farther than the rest of us. But, although Walt has been right a number of times when we have been wrong, we don't encourage him by admitting how smart he is to his face. We work on the premise that Walt may be a genius but any genius, especially Walt Disney, is wild-eyed and needs a practical family to watch over him.

I'm the original worry wart about Walt's ideas. He always tries them out on me. Although I may not classify as Walt Disney's best friend (a colorless thing for a wife to be, anyway) I am sure I can as his severest critic. I always look on the dark side. Maybe once in a while I have been right and have saved him from mistakes--but I also remember the time Walt was making his first full-length picture, 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.' And I tried to stop him because I didn't think people would go to see a picture about dwarfs!

When he decided to build a new house a few years ago, Walt began making plans to run the track for his miniature train all through the grounds. It is a wonderful hobby for him. He has built much of it himself, and it has been a fine diversion and safety valve for his nervous energy. As for me, an hour or two of backing and switching is all I can take at a time, even though Walt tried to console me by naming the locomotive 'Lilly Belle' after me.

However, I wasn't being entirely selfish when I argued against having the railroad on our grounds. In the first place, although Walt adores the train now, I am not sure his enthusiasm will continue after he has done everything possible to it. And putting up miniature tracks entails a formidable outlay of money, because there has to be so much expensive grading. In the second place our girls are growing up. When they marry we may not need or want such a big house. And if we should ever decide to sell our house there won't be many prospective buyers who'll want a place with a yard full of railroad track.

So the girls and I, using our best female wiles, tried to persuade Father to keep his train at the studio, where he could play with it at noon and run it all over the lot to entertain visiting firemen. (Some of Walt's guests are literally firemen, from the Santa Fe.) Walt said little. But one night, just as we were ready to okay final plans for the house, he brought home a formidable legal document. 'Sign, or no house,' he told us.

We almost fell out of our chairs. He had had his lawyer draw up a right-of-way contract for his railroad through the property, a contract exactly like those used by regular commercial lines. It had taken hours to do, and was so technical we couldn't wade through it. Pretty soon all three Disney females caught on that they were beaten and might as well laugh about it. We were quite prepared to put our names on the dotted line, when Walt picked up the contract and said he'd trust us.

Actually I owe that train a debt of gratitude. Not too many years ago Walt came close to a nervous breakdown simply from overwork. No matter what plans I made for the weekend, we would always end up at the studio. He couldn't get it out of his mind. And when he tried sports he worked so hard at them that he only got more tense. When we were first married he decided golf was the answer. Instead of playing it like a normal person he got up at 4:30 in the morning to get it out of the way before he had to be at the studio. He talked about the dew on the grass and the sunrise until I decided to take up golf with him. But we never went far. Walt would fly into such a rage when he missed a stroke that I got helplessly hysterical watching him.

Now Walt has something to interest him that doesn't drive him crazy. He stays home weekends. Once in a while he even comes home early to run the train a while before dinner. He also loves to entertain visitors who are really interested in it. A certain select few who have shown true enthusiasm have been given cards signed by Walt designating them as vice-presidents of the road.

The story starts more than twenty seven-years ago, when I was a visitor in Hollywood from Lewiston, Idaho, and got a job working for Walt. He and Roy had a studio back of a real estate office and were making shorts called 'Alice in Cartoonland.' A girl friend of my sister was filling in celluloids (one of the processes of animation) and told me they needed someone else. I got the job at $15 a week.

At that time Walt and Roy weren't allowing themselves much more, for nearly everything they made went into the pictures or to pay back money Walt borrowed to start the business. They lived together in a tiny walk-up apartment, with Roy doing the cooking. I've always teased Walt that the reason he asked me to marry him so soon after Roy married Edna Francis, a Kansas City girl, was that he needed somebody to fix his meals. But I have one comforting thought. Food isn't that important to Walt.

Walt would get involved in working out some idea and forget to turn up until ten or eleven at night. Once, soon after we were married, Walt did the same thing to me. When it came dinnertime he wandered out of the studio to the corner beanery for a bowl of soup and then right back to the studio to continue with his idea. It wasn't until far into the night that he woke up to the fact he had a bride at home who had cooked dinner and was waiting to throw it in his face when he turned up.

I quit work when we married. Walt loves all animals - he won't even let the gardener and me put out traps for the little ones that are garden pests - but when he created Mickey Mouse there was no symbolism or background for the idea. He simply thought the mouse would make a cute character to animate.

Everybody helped Walt. Roy was Jack-of-all-trades, and Edna and I stopped being ladies of leisure and filled in celluloids. We worked night and day. We ate stews and pot roasts which luckily were cheap in those days. We were down so low that we had a major budget crisis one night when I tripped on the garage stairs and ruined my last pair of silk stockings. Then when we had finished three Mickeys we had an even worse blow. Nobody was interested in them because talkies had just come in and the theaters wanted shorts with sound.

One of the curious things about Walt is that he is more often recognized abroad than he is at home. In South America once they made such a fuss over him at a movie theater that I got separated from him. Crowds scare me a little, because I am only five feet tall. All I could think of to do was to follow the man in front of me. I was ready to follow him into the men's room when the manager of the theater, alerted by Walt, saved me.

The first time Walt ever saw one of his cartoon shorts in a theater was two years later, just before we were married. My sister and I were visiting a friend that night, so Walt decided to go to the movies. A cartoon short by a competitor was advertised outside, but suddenly, as he sat in the darkened theater, his own picture came on. Walt was so excited he rushed down to the manager's office. The manager, misunderstanding, began to apologize for not showing the advertised film. Walt hurried over to my sister's house to break his exciting news, but we weren't home yet. Then he tried to find Roy, but he was out too. Finally he went home alone. Every time we pass a theater where one of his films is advertised on the marquee I can't help but think of that night.

Despite all the honors he has won and the fact he is an international figure, Walt is genuinely self-effacing. He likes to wander around almost anyplace the Farmer's Market in Hollywood or the Third Avenue junk shops in New York, without being recognized. He has no use for people who throw their weight around as celebrities, or for those who fawn over you just because you are famous.

When our girls were little he made a point of not having Mickey Mouse toys around the house. The only ones they acquired were gifts from people outside the family. . Although he is one of the busiest men in Hollywood, he has never neglected his family for business. When the girls were young he would take as much time over a childish problem as he would over a studio crisis. I don't think he has ever missed a swimming meet in which one of them took part, or a father-and-daughter dinner. He was simply beside himself with pride when Diane made her debut with a group of other girls and the fathers presented the girls. And I am flattered to say that, after twenty-seven years, he seems to want me around as much as when we were first married. He is actually hurt if I don't go along with him on a business trip. And he spends as much time and thought on a present as though he were still courting me.

Some years ago I had been hounding him about a disreputable old hat he insisted on wearing. Walt has excellent taste in clothes, but he won't take care of them. He ruins every suit he owns by coming through the kitchen when he gets home at night and filling his pockets with bologna and hot dogs for our nine-year-old French poodle, Dee-Dee. What he does with his hats I don't know, but something equally gruesome.

Finally the disreputable hat vanished. I didn't ask where - I was too pleased. But it turned up again on my birthday. Walt had had it copper-plated, the process they use on baby shoes to preserve them - and then filled it with brown orchids. It hangs in our projection room, and I feel very sentimental about it.

He works hard. He has high standards of taste, and he will never compromise. But applause goes in one ear and out the other. Past triumphs bore him; he is always too busy with future schemes. Right now he is planning a Disney television show, on which he will be his own master of ceremonies. He is working on a Disneyland amusement park to be built somewhere near Hollywood, with rides and displays and even live animals. And he is tossing around in his mind half a dozen ideas for feature-length cartoon pictures. These, of course, are always the greatest gambles, for each one takes years to make and involves millions of dollars.

I have a hunch that the reason Walt fails so rarely is that he isn't afraid to take chances. If the worst possible should happen Walt could start all over again making pictures in a garage. I'm sure he wouldn't waste time complaining. He might even get a kick out of it."

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