Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wife, Sounding Board, and Philanthropist Lillian Bounds Disney [otd 02/15]

Lillian Marie Bounds, wife of the world-renowned entertainment innovator Walt Disney, was born February 15, 1899, in Spalding, Idaho. She grew up on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, where her father was a Federal marshal and a blacksmith.
Lewiston, ca. 1918. J. H. Hawley photo.

Around her, the Indians still wore traditional garb and the pioneer environment dominated. While the old “Wild West” was passing, horses were still far more common than cars. As a teenager, she surely visited the “big city” – Lewiston, with perhaps 6,200 people. At that time, only the downtown area had paved streets; leaders hoped to find money to extend pavement into some residential areas.

In 1920, the family lived in Lewiston. Three years later, Lillian joined her older sister in Los Angeles to look for work. As it happened, a friend of her sister had a job with an outfit called Disney Brothers’ Studio (it would become Walt Disney Productions in 1929). The friend was a “cel inker” – she filled in outlined figures with colored ink – and said the brothers had another opening. The job required a good eye and steady hand, and Lillian was hired. She also did some secretarial work.

The studio, owned by Walt and his brother Roy, was Walt’s third attempt at a company to produce animated cartoons. The first two had “gone bust,” and this new venture had its own financial problems. The story is told that Walt sometimes asked Lillian to delay cashing her $15 weekly paycheck. The Disney brothers themselves were “batching it” in a tiny apartment. Lillian later told an interviewer, “I've always teased Walt that the reason he asked me to marry him so soon after Roy married Edna Francis, a Kansas City girl, was that he needed somebody to fix his meals.”

She married the boss in July 1925; the ceremony took place in Lewiston. According to the official studio history, in 1928 Lillian made a crucial contribution to the iconic Disney story: She talked Walt out of the name "Mortimer" for his new creation, who became "Mickey" Mouse instead.

Walt and Lillian Disney, 1935.
Walt Disney Family Foundation photo.
For over forty years, until Walt's death in 1966, Lillian continued to contribute to the Disney empire. Walt valued her insight and honesty as a behind-the-scenes "sounding board." She claimed to be “the original worry wart” about Walt’s creative notions. She thought no one would “go to see a picture about dwarfs!” “Snow White” was, of course, a huge hit.

After Walt’s death, she directed funds to a worthy enterprise: the California Institute of the Arts. Walt had fostered the merger of two struggling creative organizations into "CalArts," the first degree-granting school for students of the visual and performing arts.

Then, in 1987, she contributed a $50 million "down payment" for the construction of a world-class concert hall in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, numerous obstacles delayed the project. She died in December 1997, six years before construction was completed.

A year before her death, Lillian provided a $100 thousand grant that helped the Nez Perce tribe buy back historic tribal artifacts. She generally avoided publicity, but indications are that numerous other donations were known only to the recipients.
                                                                                 
References: [French]
Lillian Disney as told to Isabella Taves, "I Live With a Genius,” McCalls magazine (February 1953).
“Lillian Disney,” Disney Legends, The Walt Disney Company.
Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination, Random House, New York (2006).
Bernard Weinraub, “Walt Disney's Widow, Lillian, Dies at 98,” New York Times (December 18, 1997).

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