Ms. Disney

Warren Beatty once observed, “If you get married in Hollywood, you should always do it before noon. That way, if it doesn’t work, you don’t kill your night.” But in 1925 Walt Disney, still wetting his feet in Tinseltown, was not interested in spoiled stars. His eyes were on an employee of his named Lillian Bounds, originally from Lewiston, Idaho, who worked for him as an ink painter and earned fifteen dollars a week. She reminded him of the working girls she met growing up in Missouri. For his part, he found it charming, the way he grew his mustache to look older at business meetings, and how he refused to visit her until he could afford a new suit. Since he was gentler to women than to men, she got rid of the temperamental swearing she used to do to her entertainers. Walt later joked, “I didn’t have enough money to pay her, so I married her.”

Early in her marriage, Lillian loved going to the movies with him and listened intently as she criticized her competitor’s cartoons and shared her own exciting ideas. But as time passed, it became more challenging. Perhaps she understood that she needed an echo box, she was surrounded by herself, men who were afraid of her. I don’t like the name Mortimer, he told her in 1927. Why don’t you call your mouse Mickey? She agreed with her business partner and brother Roy in 1934 that making the first full-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, would ruin them. When it turned out to be a huge success, Walt was pleased to hear Lillian admit that she was wrong. But then he scared her again. “Why would you want to build an amusement park?” She asked him. “Amusement parks are dirty. They don’t make money.” His answer didn’t make her feel any better. “That’s the point. I want a clean one to do it.” But she was at Disneyland the night before it opened with a broom, cleaning the dust off the Mark Twain Steamer.

Walt was a good provider for Lillian and her two daughters, even if he had to be in debt to do so. It hurt when he had to sell his Mercedes during the depression to pay his studio payroll, or when old friends called him for a loan and he was so exhausted he had turned them down. They were both happy to spend their nights at home avoiding the advertising glare of Hollywood parties. When times were better, she put up with Walt and called him “a sin” in owning six polo horses, which he paid dearly for with a nasty stroke. He became a lifelong whiskey drinker to ease recurring pain in his neck. Her next hobby annoyed her the most, a miniature railway in the backyard running through her flowerbed. She relented only because it seemed to release him from the pressures of the studio. Sometimes he thought that maybe he was using the attractions to hide and avoid facing overwhelming problems. Later, Disneyland would provide her with a bigger train that would give Lillian more peace at home.

Lillian wasn’t worried about Walt cheating on her with another woman, but she did get jealous of his work sometimes. He would often come home late, choosing instead to spend the night in the studio hanging around his animator’s desks, even going through his trash cans to come up with his best ideas. Once he was late for an appointment and was drunk. Angry, she threw him out of the house. He made amends the next day by introducing her to a dog in a hat box. That event later became the basis for the Disney classic Lady and the Tramp (1955).

The Disney people were world travelers. Lillian was delighted to get Walt’s call to pack for her next surprise vacation and marvel at how he would turn her experiences into Disneyland attractions. They fell in love with skiing in Switzerland and he took them on the Matterhorn Bobsled Ride. They enjoyed shopping for antiques in the French Quarter, which inspired the creation of New Orleans Square. They learned of a hidden treasure on an island near Cuba that sparked the construction of Pirates of the Caribbean, which Walt did not live to see completed.

Lillian fell short of her own dream. She did not share Walt’s love of classical music, preferring to listen to Lawrence Welk. But she felt his pain when Fantasia (1940) flopped at the box office. In 1987, 21 years after her passing, she donated fifty million dollars to build the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which would be the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. What better legacy than to bring Beethoven and Mozart to the masses as Walt wanted. But he was put off when his idea for a simple brick building became much more elaborate in the hands of architect Frank Gehry. Soon the fifty million was gone and he wanted to get it back for fear of wasting his money in incomplete squandering. Her daughter Diane convinced her that Gehry’s design was wonderful, but she died six years before the room was opened.

One great thing about Walt’s building at Disneyland was that he and Lillian became tour guides for world leaders. But Ms. Disney was very disappointed when Russia’s director Nikita S. Khrushchev and his wife did not go to the park in 1960. Anaheim police said they could not provide enough security. The Soviet prime minister grumpily settled for a star-studded lunch at Twentieth Century Fox. During the meal, Frank Sinatra was informed of the existence of Ms. Khrushchev’s disappointment at missing The Magic Kingdom. Old Blue Eyes hit the table with his fist. Fuck the police. I’ll take the old woman and watch her myself. He grabbed her hand and was near the door when he was detained by the KGB. Back at Disneyland, Walt made Lillian smile by telling her that he was as disappointed as she was. He was dying to show the communist ruler his new fleet of submarines.