Obituary: Lillian Disney
"I'm sorry," said Lillian Disney to her husband Walt. "You can't call a mouse Mortimer."
"Why not?" asked Walt. "I used to have a mouse in my old studio in Kansas City, I called him Mortimer."
"No," said Lillian. "Mortimer Mouse, it's not catchy enough. Change it to Mickey."
And so Mickey Mouse was born on a train from New York to Los Angeles. Or a legend was born, according to whether you believe the Disney studio's publicity department, who have nurtured Mickey's tale since the Thirties.
One fact is firm; Lillian was certainly Walt Disney's first and only wife, and mother of his daughters Diane and Sharon. Outliving her late husband by 31 years to the day, Mrs Disney died on Tuesday at the age of 98.
She was born Lillian Bounds in Lapwai, Idaho, the daughter of a federal marshal and blacksmith, and attended the Idaho Business College before moving to Los Angeles to share a flat with a girlfriend. Her room-mate was an art assistant at the small Walt Disney Animation Studio, and, when her boss asked her if she knew anyone who could help out with the inking and painting of the celluloid cels, she recommended Lillian.
Disney was going through the usual crisis that affected independent film producers, a somewhat bent distributor. Walt was making cartoons under contract to Charles Mintz in New York, the adventures of a live little girl and her animated animal friends in a series known as Alice in Cartoonland. The combination of a living actress with drawn figures was nothing original with Disney, but he had brought the technique to a reasonably amusing perfection. Or rather, his chief cartoonist and partner Ubbe Iwerks had, for already Disney was showing he was better as a producer than as an artist.
A new character at a new price was needed, and Mintz sent his brother- in-law George Winkler to Los Angeles to pose the problem. Disney and Iwerks came up with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but after a good start Winkler demanded a cut in Disney's price per reel. Unable to agree, Disney refused and Winkler fired him, passing Oswald over to his young rival Walter Lantz. Winkler had kept hold of the copyright.
By this time Disney had both a studio to maintain and a wife to support. Disney was basically a somewhat shy chap; his proposal and subsequent wedding had not exactly been as romantic as movie love affairs should be. He was paying Lillian Bounds $15 a week and to help her out drove her home each night in his car. As he was only paying himself $35 this seems a reasonable arrangement, but the story goes that he fell behind in her salary payments and married her to save the mounting expense of the backlog. Even then Disney had several critics on his underpaid staff and this yarn may be taken with the proverbial pinch.
What is a matter of record is that they married in the house of Lillian's brother, the Fire Chief of Lewington, Idaho, in July 1925. Walt's proposal had been unorthodox: "I've got $75; shall I buy a new car or a wedding ring?" The honeymoon was equally off-centre. Their wedding night was spent aboard a train to Seattle, where Walt developed a violent toothache and spent the night helping the black porter polish the passengers' shoes.
After living a while in a small apartment the couple bought a prefabricated Tudor-style house at Silver Lake, not far from Hyperion Avenue where Disney had bought an empty store and converted it into his studio. The purchase price of the house was $7,000.
Disney's fateful trip to New York, when he gave up Oswald the Rabbit and worked out his new star, Mickey Mouse, was to be the turning-point of his life - eventually. The first two Mickey films, animated by Ubbe Iwerks, were not yet publicly shown when Al Jolson burst into audible song in The Jazz Singer (1927). Immediately Disney knew what he must do and set his studio working on a third Mouse cartoon. This was Steamboat Willie, designed to carry a soundtrack of music and effects specially synchronised to Iwerks's rhythmic pictures. The film opened at the Colony Theatre, New York, on 20 November 1928 in support of a forgotten feature called Gang War. It was a huge success with the audience, who applauded, and the critics, who raved. "It is impossible to describe this riot of mirth," said the Exhibitors' Herald. "It knocked me out of my seat!"
After long years of hard work Disney had finally made it - although it must be added that Steamboat Willie was not the world's first animated cartoon with a soundtrack, despite the claims of all Disney histories.
The work now piled up on Disney to such an extent that he would take Lillian out to dinner, drop by the studio afterwards, and while she dozed on the couch he would work away, often until three in the morning. Lillian would then wake, Walt would tell her it was half past ten, and they would drive home. Now and then he would buy her a gift as an apology, once giving her a hatbox containing - surprise! surprise! - a chow puppy with a ribbon round its neck.
Badly overworked, Disney was sent on a holiday trip by his doctor, and when the pair returned he plunged forcefully into sports, trying everything in sight from athletics to golf. Lillian went with him but, as she said, "He would fly into such a rage when he missed a stroke that I would get helplessly hysterical watching him."
Soon Disney took up polo, buying himself a string of 20 horses and eventually purchasing an interest in the Hollywood Park Racetrack. It is said that all this physical exercise removed an apparent disability for the Disneys to have children.
Although Lillian changed Disney's fortunes when she changed the name of Mortimer to Mickey, her reactions to her husband's proposal for his first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1936, was directly opposite. "Dwarfs?" she said, as Disney was fond of quoting. "But there's something so nasty about them!"
The film has of course become a landmark in animation history, mainly due to the totally delightful Doc, Happy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Bashful, Dopey, and even the grim Grumpy.
With Disney's increasing success came some indulgences. One was the fruition of a childhood love of steam trains. He built a huge model railway in his back garden and when he wasn't working overtime at the studio spent hours giving his children, their chums and a reluctant Lillian trips around their lawn. His ultimate toy, the first Walt Disney World, was not completed until after his death. His brother Roy opened the theme park with a touching speech about Walt and his works. Afterwards he asked Walt's widow what Walt would have thought of it. "I think," she said, "Walt would have approved."
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