The Walt Disney Family Museum

Walt Disney Collection

Walt's Inside Story


When Walt arrived in California in 1923, he didn't even have enough clothing to fill a shabby suitcase. Ten years later he was the world-famous father of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies. The story of this incredible decade is replete with enormous disappointments for Walt along with great successes. On two occasions, men he trusted with his career and fortunes turned on him in a totally unanticipated fashion. He drove himself with such unrelenting fervor that toward the end of this period he suffered through an experience he was later to call "a hell of a breakdown." Meanwhile, in 1925, Walt married a young woman named Lillian Bounds. Their romance began when she came to work for him in his fledgling efforts at animation, and their partnership was to last the rest of his life. Lilly accepted Walt's dedication to his work, understood his drive toward perfection, and (though she sometimes fretted over his willingness to risk everything on the next gamble) had absolute faith in his genius. During this time, too, the lifelong collaboration with his brother Roy grew and matured into one that would combine brotherly love with an interdependence that led both to heights that may have been unachievable alone.

Within 10 years of his arrival in Hollywood in 1923, Walt Disney was famous around the world as the creator of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies like "Three Little Pigs." He played polo at the fancy Riviera Club with celebrities like Spencer Tracy and Will Rogers. He had pioneered color and sound cartoons and was beginning to think about yet another revolutionary step with the first feature-length cartoon, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." What a difference a decade makes. Walt boarded the train for California in 1923 with only a pair of pants, some underwear, a checkered coat, a few shirts, and a little cash to his name. In a move that seems daft -- but wouldn't surprise anyone who knew Walt well -- he had purchased a first-class ticket for the journey. "I was in my pants and coat that didn't match," he recalled, "but I was riding first class."

Fortunately for Walt, his Uncle Robert had preceded him in moving out West, so he had someplace to live. Robert was a large, outgoing man who had lost his first wife, Walt's beloved Aunt Margaret, relatively early in life. He later married a woman named Charlotte, and the two of them had a son, Robert Junior. Walt arranged to pay him $5 a week for room and board while he sought his fortune (though there's every reason to suspect that Uncle Robert frequently didn't get his rent). Walt's relationship with his uncle wasn't always smooth -- Robert had a habit of reminding Walt how much he had helped him. But on balance, Walt's feelings toward his uncle were generally affectionate.

Upon first arriving, Walt decided that perhaps he'd give up the animation business and make his way in the film industry. "I was discouraged with animation," Walt later recalled. "'Aesop's Fables' were very successful. 'Felix the Cat' was going then. And I just said it was too late. I should have been in the business six years before. . . . I wanted to get into the motion picture business. I wanted to be a director. That was my ambition. My goal was to be a director." This ambitious notion was soon squashed.

"I went from one studio to another and I went to the personnel department and everything." The only job Walt actually landed in Hollywood was as a movie extra, riding a horse in a big cavalry charge. It rained the day Walt's scene was to be shot, and Walt was replaced when they rescheduled. "That was the end of my career as an actor," he said. Back to animation -- the only skill Walt really had. He borrowed Uncle Robert's garage and set up shop, creating samples. Soon enough he had a deal to provide cartoons for M. J. Winkler, who had expressed interest in his incomplete "Alice's Wonderland" cartoon, begun in Kansas City. Never a man to delude himself about his strengths and weaknesses, Walt knew that he needed help with the money side of the business. So he convinced Roy to sign himself out of the hospital, where he had been recovering from tuberculosis, and join him. In 1923, they started the Disney Brothers Studio with $200 of Roy's money, $500 borrowed from their Uncle Robert, and $2,500 that Flora and Elias raised by mortgaging their house in Portland. Walt, of course, brought just his own skills to the venture. The two brothers moved in together and quickly discovered that there was such a thing as too much togetherness. After a long day at the studio, living in the same cramped quarters was just a little too much. Tensions grew.