Michael Barrier knows his stuff when it comes to animation and when it comes to Walt Disney. So I’ve been looking forward to reading his review of the Neal Gabler biography Walt Disney – The Triumph of the American Imagination. As it turns out Barrier has been working on his own biography of Uncle Walt, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, and he has a few bones to pick with Gabler’s version.
The two books are very different, in sources as in length (Gabler’s is twice as long as mine) and in almost every other way. As Gabler’s notes show, he relied on Disney Archives files that I wasn’t allowed to see, including documents related to the family’s history and Roy O. Disney’s personal correspondence. (He also examined Walt Disney’s correspondence more thoroughly than I did.) For my part, I made extensive use of the interviews with more than 150 of Walt’s former employees and associates that Milt Gray and I recorded starting in 1969, two and a half years after Walt died.
I also drew upon material from a variety of archives that Gabler either did not consult or did not explore as thoroughly as I did. He seems to have made little or no use of a number of valuable published sources, including Walt Disney Productions’ annual reports to stockholders and The "E" Ticket, a magazine devoted to Disneyland’s history that has published unique interviews with some of Walt’s "Imagineers." And I saw a lot of Disney Archives documents that Gabler either didn’t think were as important as I did or didn’t see at all.
I sense a little professional one-up-manship, but that’s to be expected. Barrier and Gabler wrote two different styles of biography with two different methods of research and in doing so found two different versions of the man whose enigmatic life has perplexed every attempt to define it.
In addition to the stylistic differences, many of the errors Barrier finds with Gabler’s book are of a factual nature (timeline issues, name mis-spellings, and sometimes unsourced opinions). Barrier has collected a list of errata and reading it gives me pause about how trustworthy the rest of the book is, until I remember that Gabler’s book is over 600 pages of written material. There were bound to be some factual errors. And that’s what the internet is good for, collecting them and correcting them. So thanks to both Gabler for the original research and Barrier for the additional examination and fact finding.
At the end of the review, Barrier lays some of the blame for inferior biographies at the feet of The Walt Disney Company’s lawyers who think they’re being protective of the company’s image by controlling access to key documents. Which means, here is another area new CEO Bob Iger can step in and help produce a better product. Disney Archivist Dave Smith, who is not as young and spry as he once was, will eventually have to retire and with him will go the chance for the penultimate biography of Walt Disney with ultimate access to source material and the mind that has so thoughtfully collected much of it. What do you say Bob? Information wants to be free but time is running out.