Every time I chatted with Diane Disney Miller I had to pinch
myself, realizing that I was talking to Walt
Disney’s daughter. Now I have to come to terms with a different reality
following her sudden and untimely death. I mourn for her large, loving family—her
husband Ron, seven children, thirteen grandchildren, and one
great-grandchild—as well as the extended family she fostered while mounting a
series of tributes to her dad, culminating in the opening of the Walt Disney Family
Museum in San Francisco.
Walt Disney was a very public figure, but Diane did her best
to avoid the spotlight until she realized that her father’s centennial year was
approaching in 2001. She worried that people didn’t know who he was any more.
The once-familiar face and voice from years of television exposure was fading
into the shadows. If people recognized the name it was as a corporate entity
and no longer associated with a real, live person. She made up her mind to
reverse that process, even if it meant having to sacrifice some of her own
Our first meeting took place, fittingly enough, at
Disneyland, where I moderated a panel about Walt Disney for a crowd of fans and
devotees. She was reticent about public speaking but gamely agreed to participate.
Everyone who attended—including me—found her to be sincere, self-effacing, and
most of all, down-to-earth. This was no Hollywood princess, even though she had
every right to be.
When, toward the end of the lively discussion, I asked what
misconceptions about her father she’d most like to set straight, she could
barely be heard over the chatter of the other panelists as she replied, “Well,
he isn’t frozen!” I asked her to repeat that statement so everyone could hear.
I knew it would get a big response, and it did.
That night I brought along my worn copy of the 1957 paperback
book called The Story of Walt Disney on
which her byline appears. She expressed embarrassment, as the book was actually
written by Saturday Evening Post
contributor Pete Martin, but she was kind enough to sign it all the same. That
small gesture was typical of her.
We got to know each other better year by year as I participated
in early meetings about her proposed museum and interviewed her at the
centennial tribute to Walt Disney at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences. When, at the end of the program, I asked how she liked to remember
him, she disarmed the crowd by saying, “He was just my Dad,” or words to that
effect. That’s the Walt Disney she knew best, and the one she wanted us to know
Diane took any attack on her father as a personal sting and
couldn’t understand why so many people seemed to thrive on wildly false accusations
and name-calling. She knew he wasn’t perfect and came to accept the idea that
her Museum timeline wouldn’t be complete without an examination of the Disney
studio’s painful labor strike of 1941. (Diane had her own childhood perspective
of that watershed event: she recalled some of her father’s leading animators
swimming in her family pool on weekends during happier times in the 1930s. That
casual camaraderie faded after the strike.) No father—or mother, for that
matter—ever had a stronger advocate.
Diane Disney Miller leaves behind her own legacy, including
a world-class museum, Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall (for which she
heroically campaigned at a crucial moment in its gestation) and many cherished
friendships. My family and I will miss her and her great spirit. Our only
consolation is knowing that she is reunited with her sister Sharon and her