by Marty Demarest & r & Walt Disney by Neal Gabler & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & eal Gabler's hefty biography of Walt Disney bears an equally weighty subtitle: "The Triumph of the American Imagination." Despite the fact that Disney was a struggling studio owner most of his life, his name is still linked with big-ticket ideas like "triumph" and "American" even by his biographer, who should know better. If Gabler's exceedingly well-researched book makes one thing clear, it is that Disney sold the image of strength and whimsy while he himself was often weak and tense.
It's jarring to encounter Walt Disney talking about "coons" and "commies," but Gabler goes to great pains to contextualize many of Disney's harsher qualities as generational, and points out that Disney also managed to preserve some of his era's best values. Most biographers would be content simply to bang Disney on those two contrasting drums for 600-plus pages, but Gabler is after something more elusive.
At the heart of the book is a genuine attempt to explain Disney's day-to-day actions, not his publicized intentions. Wading through Disney's often self-contradictory publicity material is inconclusive. He clearly lied and dreamed out loud, and it's difficult to know where the lies ended and the dreams began. Gabler's heavily annotated quotes from Disney's correspondence, office memos and meeting transcripts draw the line more clearly, making Disney less mystical and daemonic.
He was a perfectionist and a workaholic who wanted only to be surrounded by passionate artists. In his drive to achieve this, he drove his company into overwhelming debt and alienated himself from the rest of the world. Despite having a name that now means franchise, Disney hated being motivated by financial concerns, and became obsessively protective of his work after suffering several early career setbacks.
What Gabler keeps suggesting -- annoyingly, after a while -- is that Disney was a control freak, and that he was drawn to animation and utopian communities because they gave him a sense of power. Gabler seems almost uninterested in the fact that Disney wanted to keep his park in a state of perpetual change -- leaving the final spire on the castle unfinished. It's also hard to attribute control-freakery to someone who nurtured a long-running, fruitless collaboration with Salvador Dali.
Certainly the protean ability to change the world is something that any artist enjoys, and animation and theme-parkery provide plenty of opportunities for micromanagement. But Walt Disney seemed primarily interested in entertaining people. As he blithely remarked about the end of World War II, "If people would think more of fairies they would soon forget the atom bomb."