I’ve been in a biographical state of mind this year, largely eschewing crime and contemporary works in favour of delving into the life and times of colourful and often creative individuals. I’ve got to know the likes of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (Winnie Mandela: A Life, Anne Mare du Preez Bezdrob); Agatha Christie (Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, Agatha Christie); Georgette Heyer (The Private World of Georgette Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge); Audrey Hepburn (Enchantment, Donald Spoto); Jane Fonda (My Life So Far, Jane Fonda); Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou) and Walt Disney (Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler). Next on the list is Willie Nelson’s The Tao of Willie, Burt Reynolds’ But Enough About Me: A Memoir and The Real James Herriot by Jim Wight, which will transport me to the Yorkshire Dales and into the life of Alf Wight (aka James Herriot).
The joy of reading a biography, or an autobiography for that matter (although the latter can run the risk of being overly sanitised by the author) is the ability to see things from another’s perspective, to walk in the shoes of another human being and appreciate their choices, their luck, their hard work, their human foibles, their strengths and their weaknesses. It is a beautiful way to connect with your own humanity.
In the case of Walt Disney I was captivated not only by the personal insights into this visionary, but by the business and leadership lessons which sprung out as I devoured this book.
In the interests of full disclosure, Disney was a childhood hero of mine, in part because I was a keen cartoonist in my youth. My high school art teacher once took my mother aside and asked her to gently discourage me inserting cartoon characters into all my artwork; apparently still life paintings don’t require cartoon ducks and rabbits. Tell that to Mary Poppins, I thought at the time, and proceeded to drop art. I wonder what would have happened if Disney had given up on the art of animation as quickly as I did in the fact of criticism? Fortunately he didn’t.
As New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani noted in a 2006 review (https://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/14/books/14kaku.html), Disney’s animation legacy is increasingly up for debate, perhaps unfairly. Kakutani makes mention of Yale art historian Vincent Scully’s comment that Disney “so vulgarizes everything he touches that facts lose all force”. He’s been criticised for stereotyping complex issues, pushing a social and cultural agenda, and perpetuating a simplistic view of the world. All of these may be true, but in Gabler’s fascinating biography he reveals that as a 26-year-old animator working in a nascent industry, Disney started by eking out a living as a commercial illustrator, struggling to survive and fighting to bring his ultimate vision to reality. One has to judge (if at all) any man or woman by the historical and social context of their time, and Gabler does this with delicacy.
Over and above Disney’s personal story, this impeccably researched book is essential reading for any business owner or would-be entrepreneur. Particularly his early years when he lost the intellectual property rights to his Oswald the Lucky Rabbit animated series (a setback which ultimately led to his creation of Mickey Mouse), and came a cropper thanks to an unhappy association with producer Charles Mintz, Disney’s initial business forays hold lessons for anyone who has ever tried to shake up the establishment or disrupt old established ways.
The Disney story may be around 100 years in the past, but the Millennials and Centennials of today looking to reinvent the current business environment or launch bold new initiatives should take heed of Disney’s tenacity, vision, hard work, determination and, yes, luck. Beware who you partner with. Trust, but remain sceptical and on high alert. Always keep moving forward, and learn how not to hold a grudge (something Disney didn’t master).
Behind Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, behind Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio is an empire built on blood, sweat, tears and financial stress. That’s the real Disney story. And, yes, it comes with cartoon rabbits and ducks. Loads of them.