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 privacy.
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 better.
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 beloved parents.