Obituary: Helen Aberson Mayer

Nicholas Tucker
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:50

HELEN ABERSON - the "Mayer" came later - was the otherwise unknown author of Dumbo, the Flying Elephant, first published in 1939 and two years later made into the famous Disney film.

Born in Syracuse, she later graduated from the local university before becoming host to a radio programme. She was still in Syracuse when she wrote her one great story, illustrated by Harold Pearl and published in 1939 by Roll-a-Book. This enterprising company produced box and scroll versions of a story, whereby the main text and illustrations could be wound through a small box, each tiny page appearing behind an aperture in the front rather as if watching a film.

Almost immediately, Disney brought the book rights, summoned the surprised author to California, and set about making one of his most popular animated films. Previous longer Disney films had focused on acknowledged classics of children's literature. Dumbo was different: a contemporary story carrying no particular cultural baggage in its wake and therefore open to a more irreverent approach.

Even so, there was no softening of the main plot of Miss Aberson's story, concerning the sometimes piteous tale of a baby elephant whose outsize ears provoke laughter wherever he goes. This so enrages his mother that she finally spanks one of a mocking crowd with her trunk. Locked away from her son in a boxcar as a suspect mad elephant she sings him a lullaby through the bars: "Baby mine, don't you cry". Dumbo himself is duly comforted, but there have always been those in the audience who reach for their own handkerchiefs at this point, regardless of age.

Extra details in the film, however, were often Disney's own, such as the bird psychiatrist, whom Dumbo consults over his general timidity. Also outstanding was the "pink elephant" drunk sequence, later to become a renewed hit with student audiences in the 1960s who sometimes found echoes of their own psychedelic experiences with what was happening on the screen. There were too some cynical crows talking like caricatures of black American jazz singers. These teach Dumbo to fly - the final stage of his successful come-back and eventual happy reunion with his mother.

Six weeks after the film was released America went to war. By this time, Dumbo was without doubt mammal of the year, starring in a hit film and selling 50,000 copies of his story. The general message about overcoming personal adversity through sheer tenacity was not lost on generations of young fighting men and the families they left behind them.

Miss Aberson herself was by now married and with her own son, Andrew. Living on Staten Island, she continued to write children's stories into the 1960s, but without further publication. Asked to explain how his mother came to write such a famous story, her son believed that Dumbo's travails in some ways represented his mother's own struggles when young. Certainly her enormous success from a single book was as dramatic as Dumbo's own sudden reversal of fortune.

Nicholas Tucker

Helen Aberson, author: born Syracuse, New York 1907; married Richard Mayer (one son); died New York 3 April 1999.

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