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Remembering Diane Disney Miller

by Leonard Maltin
November 19, 2013 6:51 PM
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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.

Photo Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum Diane poses in front of the elaborate Disneyland diorama inside the Walt Disney Family Museum.

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.

Photo Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum Diane Disney Miller reads from her notes at the gala opening of the Walt Disney Family Museum.

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.


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More: Journal, Diane Disney Miller

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  • Steve Segal | November 20, 2013 9:15 PMReply

    We are all saddened by this news; your tribute was eloquent and heartfelt. I have been to her museum at least a dozen times, and was in her presence several times, but unfortunately never met her. I'm glad she left such a lasting legacy in the Disney Museum.

  • Ted Thomas | November 20, 2013 5:46 PMReply

    When we made "Walt & El Grupo", the story was told in large part by the children of those who went on the trip. Normally reluctant to appear on camera, Diane agreed to a session together, saying, "We'll, I'm one of the kids, too." A very special lady, a very remarkable spirit.

  • Edythe Bronston | November 20, 2013 3:43 PMReply

    What a warm and wonderful tribute. It sounds like you were part of the extended family and I'm sure that you were loved and appreciated by this amazing lady.

  • Jeff Heise | November 20, 2013 12:56 PMReply

    Very sad-would have loved to have heard her comments-pro or con-about SAVING MR. BANKS, since her father was interested in the Mary Poppins book based on seeing his daughters reading it, so she was part of the inspiration for the original film and probably the new one.

  • Toonicorn | November 20, 2013 11:42 AMReply

    Thank you, Mr. Maltin, for this worthy tribute to a worthy and admirable lady. How I wish I could have met her and thanked her for her efforts on behalf of protecting her father's legacy and for dispelling the envy-based nonsense some individuals apparently love to spew about him. I plan to visit her Museum in the very near future. It will be a sort of pilgrimage to pay homage to a man who, for me, still serves as a shining example of decency and vision - and to his daughter, his stalwart defender against the cynicism and mean-spiritedness of a darker age.

    And by the way, Mr. Maltin, your commentary on the Pinocchio DVD is one of the reasons I play it so often. Your insights, along with Eric Goldberg's and J. G. Kaufman's, add so much and teach so much. Oh, and I must also thank you for your great book "Movie Comedy Teams". While other kids were reading Starlog and Tiger Beat, I was reading THAT, and I read it over and over so much that it literally fell apart in my hands!

  • Jim Korkis | November 20, 2013 10:55 AMReply

    Leonard, you have always been an inspiration to me and this tribute once again reinforces not only what a good writer you are but what a caring man. I think many of us are still stunned because this wonderful woman was stolen from us by a stupid accident. The last time I saw her I remember thinking how physically fit she was and how her mind was razor-sharp and that she was so full of dreams for the future. I think she was very much like her dad in many ways, including a stubborn temper that could flare at a moment's notice if she felt the person was being dishonest or trying to take advantage. I also often found her one of the most supportive people with a kind and encouraging word for so many others. I think you truly captured the fact that she would have preferred living a private life but felt it was her duty to step out into the spotlight to defend her dad and his reputation. No, she didn't think Walt was a saint but her obvious affection for her childhood playmate lasted for decades. Thanks for writing this tribute. I really enjoyed it.

  • Danny Justman | November 20, 2013 10:00 AMReply

    I was fortunate to be at the Academy back in 2001 for the tribute to Walt's centennial. The program was filled with recollections of the man by those who knew him and worked with him. As usual, you presided over the evening with your special warmth and enthusiasm. Diane's comments were sincere and quite touching, especially when referring to her father as "just Dad." Once the event concluded, I quickly approached Diane in the left aisle of the theatre and asked her to autograph my program, which she graciously did. I told her how much I admired her father, and mentioned reading an article in which her Aunt Ruth (Walt's sister) had indicated that her father had wanted more children, and that her gift of grandchildren had brought untold joy into her father's life. She smiled and thanked me for my "kind words." What a classy lady!

  • Karen Snow | November 20, 2013 9:46 AMReply

    Diane's passing is truly a mounful event. I never met her but so admired her devotion to the Disney legacy, especially to Walt Disney, the person. I visited the new museum in SF and it is indeed a marvel ! I am sorry for your personal loss as well. RIP Diane, with thanks for all your contributions to the world and history of Disney.

  • John Musker | November 20, 2013 3:25 AMReply

    Beautiful heartfelt tribute, Leonard. A sad day for anyone who was ever touched by a Disney creation. Diane was one herself.

  • Andreas Deja | November 20, 2013 12:40 AMReply

    What a beautiful tribute to Diane. She protected and defended her dad's legacy fiercely, and we love her for that. During a meeting last September she was full of ideas for future events at the Disney Family Museum. Her enthusiasm and energy was infectious.

  • Leo | November 19, 2013 11:57 PMReply

    Thank you, Leonard. I was lucky to have been able to interview her, her husband and her children with strong memories of Grandpa Walt. Nice piece shared with The Friends of the Walt Disney Family Museum group page on Facebook.

  • Ava | November 20, 2013 12:33 AM

    upto I looked at the bank draft which was of $5895, I be certain mom in-law had been realey taking home money part time at there computar.. there friends cousin haz done this 4 only about 13 months and recently repayed the dept on there appartment and bought a gorgeous Ford Focus. why not find out more

  • gary meyer | November 19, 2013 9:30 PMReply

    Thank you Leonard. As always you make every word count, tell us things we didn't know and pay a fine tribute to a wonderful woman. Diane clearly proved that she was her own person, inspired by her parents but a strong individual who fought to make things happen that she felt passionate about.

    The Disney Family Museum in San Francisco is one of the most unique and satisfying places I have been to...and I have returned often bringing delighted friends from around the world---- even skeptics. She had a vision to create a environment that celebrates creativity using Walt as our guide. It is as far from a Disneyland ride as possible but every bit as satisfying if not more so.

    I got to know her a bit in recent years and there are few such dedicated dynamos around. We are lucky to have her legacy but it was too soon for her to leave us.

  • Doug Rager | November 19, 2013 8:54 PMReply

    When I heard the sad news and started looking across the Internet for tribute articles, I knew I had to go find the tribute from one of the biggest Disney fans ever. Great tribute Leonard, helping us mourn and remember this most special lady. We will miss her. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.

  • Stephen Shannon | November 19, 2013 8:04 PMReply

    Great tribute to her contributions to foster her father's creative genius and insure he will not be forgotten. She will not be forgotten either.

  • Steve Ison | November 19, 2013 7:36 PMReply

    Leonard, thank you for your wonderful tribute. Her tireless energy and positive influence in making the world a better place will be missed.

  • Paula Sigman Lowery | November 19, 2013 7:16 PMReply

    Beautiful tribute, Leonard. Our hearts are heavy.

  • Kelli P. | November 19, 2013 6:31 PMReply

    Thank you for the lovely and evocative memoriam, Mr. Maltin.

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