walt disney

Fact-Checking the Age-Old Rumors of Walt Disney’s Dark Side

Le producteur americain Walt Disney (1901-1966)avec la peluche de Mickey Mouse vers 1948 — American producer Walt Disney (1901-1966) with Mickey Mouse stuffed animal c. 1948 Photo: Apic/Getty Images

If you have watched a single trailer for Saving Mr. Banks, the story of how Walt Disney attempted to convince the stubborn author P. L. Travers to sell him the movie rights to her book Mary Poppins, then you will already have put together that this is not a “warts and all” take on the mythical mogul. “He wasn’t a warty guy,” Tom Hanks, who plays Disney in the film, told The Hollywood Reporter. “There was the labor issues that were in the forties and stuff like that. But by and large, no.” That will come as a surprise to anyone who has read mentions of Walt Disney’s alleged anti-Semitism, or his cryogenically frozen head, or any of the other rumors that swirl around the icon. So in order to get things straight, here is a factual analysis of all the many charges laid against Walt Disney in real life. Spoiler alert: He is not buried beneath Pirates of the Caribbean.

The charge: Walt Disney was an anti-Semite.
The evidence: Well, there’s the famous Three Little Pigs scene, in which the wolf was portrayed as a Jewish peddler. (The scene was later reanimated.) And there is the fact that in 1938, a month after Kristallnacht, Disney personally welcomed Nazi director Leni Riefenstahl to his studios. In Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (the most thorough biography of the mogul), Neal Gabler explores the rumors but argues that Disney practiced tolerance in his home life. “There is some dispute whether the same spirit of tolerance extended to the studio, but of the Jews who worked there, it was hard to find any who thought Walt was an anti-Semite.”
Believability: Gabler posits that the charges stemmed less from personal behavior and more from Disney’s association with the very anti-Semitic Motion Picture Alliance, which the CEO founded after a particularly bitter labor dispute in 1941. Even if he wasn’t personally anti-Semitic, Gabler allows that Disney “willingly, even enthusiastically, embraced [anti-Semites] and cast his fate with them.”

The charge: Walt Disney was racist.
The evidence: These charges stem primarily from the use of racial stereotypes in Disney movies from the 40s: Dumbo’s black crows; Fantasia’s black servant centaurette; and Song of the South, a movie so offensive that the Disney company will no longer let it be seen in public. Then there is Walt Disney’s own behavior: Gabler cites a meeting in which Disney referred to the Snow White dwarves as a “nigger pile” and another in which he used the term “pickaninny.” The book notes that Disney anticipated the Song of the South controversy and attempted to make it less racist with a rewrite and meeting with the NAACP. The meeting never happened, and the movie was released anyway. There was also some controversy about the company’s unwillingness to hire minorities at Disneyland.
Believability: Those are certainly not flattering facts, but they are facts.

The charge: Walt Disney was also sexist.
The evidence: From Gabler: “Some of his associates thought Walt didn’t particularly like women. ‘He didn’t trust women or cats,’ Ward Kimball observed.” And then there is this letter, sent from the Disney company in 1938, informing an applicant that “women do not do creative work.”
Women didn’t get hired for most things in 1938. But again: not flattering.

Photo: Kevin Burg/Flickr

The charge: Walt Disney was an FBI informant.
The evidence: The 1993 biography Hollywood and the Dark Prince published documents alleging that Disney reported political subversion in Hollywood to the Bureau for 26 years. The New York Times deemed the documents authentic, but the Disney family then denied the reports, and the book has since been discredited. But! According to Gabler, Disney helped found his own anti-Communist organization — the aforementioned Motion Picture Alliance — and he testified publicly in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Believability: Walt Disney definitely did not like Communists. But everything else here is suspicious.

The charge: Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen, and his body is stored in a chamber underneath Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
The evidence: Two mostly discredited biographies claim that Disney expressed “an interest” in cryogenics before his death. Then his family held a private funeral. Somehow, the frozen story sprung up from here. (Sometimes it’s his whole body that was frozen, sometimes just his head.)
Believability: This is made up. Walt Disney’s ashes are located in Glendale. Sorry.

Fact-Checking Rumors of Walt Disney’s Dark Side