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- December 21, 1998
- Vol. 50
- No. 23
Growing Up Disney
Diane Disney Miller, Walt's Only Surviving Child, Defends Him from Critics and Remembers Him as a Warm, Loving Father
To most Americans the man who came into their living rooms as host of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color was the gentlest of icons—the soft-spoken creator of the movie versions of Never-Neverland and Snow White, and of a talking mouse named Mickey. But for Miller, the only surviving child of this man who left such an enduring mark on American popular culture—and whose original 45-acre amusement park in Anaheim was a cornerstone for an entertainment empire that now generates $22.4 billion annually—the Disney legacy has been more complex.
Since her father's death from lung cancer in 1966, Miller (whose only sibling, adopted sister Sharon Disney Lund, died of breast cancer in 1993 at 56) has been content to live far from the limelight at the 105-acre Silverado vineyard in the Napa Valley that she owns with her husband, Ron Miller, 65, a onetime pro football player and former Disney CEO. But in 1997, after a decade of watching the family's pet project suffer cost overruns and delays, she stepped forward to guide the planning committee for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a $209 million auditorium in downtown L.A. intended as the family's landmark tribute to her father. Today, as she sits in the living room of her 1906 Craftsman farmhouse, Miller reveals that she has another reason for seeking the spotlight. "As a daughter, I have been very upset by things that have been written and said about him that were not true," says Miller, who shares her views in a new CD-ROM, Walt Disney: An Intimate History of the Man and His Magic. "He was a good, warm father to me, and I have decided it's time to speak out."
Despite his affable public persona, Disney was something of an enigma in his private life. For years after his death, there were rumors he was a closet homosexual and had arranged to have himself cryogenically frozen. "Cruel and bizarre," says Miller. "He met his death with courage and dignity." And in 1993's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, author Marc Eliot alleged that Disney was an FBI informant and an anti-Semite. "Vile rumor and ugly myth," says Miller, whose daughter Tamara Scheer finds the speculation equally disturbing. "We know all the rumors about my grandfather," says Scheer, "and he was none of those things. He was not gay, he was not frozen, he was not a Nazi, he was not an FBI spy. From everything I've been able to piece together, he was a pretty good guy."
Ironically, Disney's own P.R. machine may have been responsible for some of the speculation. "For years they tried to perpetuate an image of Walt Disney that was deeply sanitized for his protection," says a friend of the family. "They cropped cigarettes out of his hands in photographs and so thoroughly tried to disguise Walt as someone he really wasn't that they kept his memory open to this kind of stuff."
In truth, Disney was a man of contradictions—a public teetotaler who enjoyed a drink or two before dinner, an entrepreneurial genius who spent weekends in the backyard playing conductor on a child-size steam locomotive. But, insists Miller, her father was no despot. "At times my dad made people angry and hurt their feelings," she says. "But that is the worst thing you can say about him, other than that he smoked himself to death." Or, perhaps, that his daughter sometimes had to share him with the world. "I never felt jealous of Mickey, but the public had a large share of my father," says Miller, "and I was jealous of that."
Born in 1933 in Los Angeles, Miller cherishes memories of her father reading her Winnie-the-Pooh and Mary Poppins (both later made into Disney films) and of watching a 1937 screening of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at her father's Hyperion studio. "When the queen started changing into a witch, I started screaming," she says. "Next thing I knew I was in the bright sun, a tall man looking down at me. It was a security guard who had volunteered to take me outside."
Often, Miller was treated to dailies of Disney's films in the family's private projection room. "I was such a brat," she says of the critiques she offered. "When I was about 11, I said, 'That's so corny.' That's when he stopped screening them for us." She did love Alice in Wonderland, which was not, she says, one of her father's favorites. "You would hear him with the animators at work saying Alice was cold, you couldn't get any warmth into her," she recalls.
Disney fought hard to keep the demands of his growing business from intruding on his private life. After the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping, he refused to allow either of his daughters to be photographed in public. And within their Holmby Hills home, "he was ours," says Miller. "He was our daddy and he was very physical. He would twirl us around by our heels, and we would crawl all over him and stand on his shoulders in the swimming pool."
Disney, who had hoped for a large family and whose wife had two miscarriages before Diane was born, doted on his two daughters, driving them to school each morning and outfitting their playroom with a working soda fountain. In a home movie taken when Miller was a year old, "the whole day was devoted to getting to hear my first words," she says. "There was a boom and a microphone. Dad was saying, 'Daddy's little girl. What does the kitty cat say?' I would go 'Meow' "
But Walt was also capable of sudden flashes of temper. One morning at the studio—according to Walt Disney: An American Original, an authorized 1976 biography written by Bob Thomas—a company confidante asked Disney what was bothering him. "If you must know," he said, "I slapped Diane last night." "She must have done something bad," the woman replied. Walt said, "Damn right she did. She stood there giving me that dirty Disney look."
Miller's mom, Lillian, on the other hand, "wasn't like other mothers," she says. "Once, a boy called and asked me to go someplace, and Mother said, 'Okay.' I immediately said, 'I shouldn't drive in cars with boys, should I, Mother?' I wanted her to say no like the other parents."
Lillian Disney, who died last December at the age of 98, also had what Miller describes as a "different sense of humor." Once, when Walt was making a home movie of Miller in her playhouse, he told her to lean out its window. "You hear him say, 'Lean out farther,' and I fell out the window," says Miller. "You see the camera drop, and you hear my mother laughing. I had a bloody lip, but my mother was laughing while she was comforting me. She loved the pratfall."
Still, Lillian, credited with naming Mickey, was one of her husband's most trusted advisers—except when it came to Disneyland. She was opposed to the park. "He mortgaged his life insurance, sold a vacation home to buy the land," explains Miller. "If it hadn't worked..." Disney visited the construction site almost daily, overseeing virtually every detail of the grounds and rides (Peter Pan and the Mad Tea Party rides were favorites). The night before the opening, he and Lillian celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary in the newly finished park. "I have never seen a happier man," recalls Miller.
Opening day, July 17, 1955, proved to be a nightmare. Thousands more people arrived than anticipated, and several rides and concession stands were overcome by glitches and lack of adequate supplies. But it wasn't long before the park was declared a huge success, and Disney eagerly scooted his grandchildren to the front of the line at the best rides.
In 1951, four years before Disneyland was christened, Miller enrolled at USC. It wasn't long before she met football star Ron Miller on a blind date. ("It wasn't love at first sight—what do you expect from a blind date after a football game?") But she dropped out in her junior year and married Miller in 1954.
After a season with the L.A. Rams, Ron joined his father-in-law's company in 1957. In time, the couple had seven children: Chris, now 44, Joanna, 42, Tamara, 41, Jennifer, 38, Walt, 37, Ron Jr., 35, and Patrick, 31—none of whom are in the family business. Miller believed in a hands-on approach to raising children. "There was no nanny. My mother was it," says Scheer. "She would take me to my geometry tutor, then the little kids to soccer practice across town." Walt, too, was on the scene. "He adored his grandchildren," says Lucille Martin, Walt's former secretary. "They often spent weekends with him and Mrs. Disney at Disneyland, and Walt's house was a favorite babysitting place."
Then, in the summer of 1966, after what Miller describes as one of her family's happiest years, Disney insisted on taking the whole family on a two-week cruise off the coast of British Columbia. In retrospect, says Martin, "I think he knew he was ill, and he wanted them to have a wonderful memory." Shortly afterward, Disney, who "had been limping for over a year in pain, thinking it was an old polo injury," consulted a doctor, says Miller. "It was during an X-ray to find the source of the pain that they discovered a spot on his lung." Scheduled for surgery that November, "he drove himself in and acted like it was no big deal," she says. "After-ward the surgeon came out and said, 'I give him six months to two years.' " He died six weeks later.
After Walt's death, and that of his brother and partner Roy in 1971, their families, never close, pulled even further into their respective worlds. "My parents are our best friends, and they rely on their family for friendship," says Scheer. "[Walt and Roy] were the ones who kept the families in unison." In 1984, less than two years after Ron Miller became Disney's CEO, the family divide grew greater when Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney, then one of the company's largest stockholders, led the move to replace him with Michael Eisner. That same year, Diane and Ron separated for several months. Neither will discuss the rift, but "it wasn't a particularly good year for the family," says Scheer.
In time the two not only patched up their differences but began mending fences with the other side of the family, which recently made a contribution to Miller's Disney concert-hall project (Walt's family has put up $115 million). Miller's mother conceived of the project in 1987 as a "people's music center" that would host popular acts in a world-class hall and help revitalize downtown Los Angeles. Lillian continued to push for funds and political support until not long before her death and was frustrated to the end, says Miller, by delays caused by heated battles over the design. But last year, with the center still nothing more than an empty lot and award-winning architect Frank Gehry threatening to bolt, Miller finally exercised the power of her legacy and demanded the architect be kept and the project proceed. "Assertiveness isn't in her nature," says Amy Forbes, a lawyer once involved in the planning, "but she stepped up to the plate."
Until the hall's expected completion in 2002, Miller is now content to focus on her 13 grandchildren and tend to operations at Silverado. "I've had a good life because of my father," says Miller, limping slightly from hip surgery last summer. "My first taste of wine was when my dad was making Treasure Island in England, and we traveled to France for a vacation. It was a wonderful time," she adds wistfully, looking out onto a vista of rolling vineyards. "He would have loved all this."
Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Napa Valley and Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles
- Vicki Sheff-Cahan,
- Karen Grigsby Bates.
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