In Service of the Red Cross: Walt Disney’s Early Adventures

In Service of the Red Cross: Walt Disney’s Early Adventures by David Lesjack

What could be so fascinating about Walt’s time in France serving in the Red Cross?

I started reading about Walt Disney and the Disney Company more than 25 years ago. I never imagined that a book covering two years of Walt’s life would be so intriguing.

David Lesjack is a renowned Disney historian who focuses on the early years of Walt’s life, with a specific interest in the World War I and World War II years. Lesjack has written two other titles that look at the Disney Studios and their contribution to the war effort during World War II. In Service of the Red Cross is a 2015 release and was on my To Read list for a few years.

Why Should I Care About Walt Disney in 1918 and 1919?

People talk about formative years, especially in someone who has been cultural touchstone; with a person as influential and revered as Walt Disney, you’re going to have researchers, biographers and critics looking for anything that will help shed light on Walt. Biographers always point to Walt’s time in Marceline and Kansas City with being the most influential periods of his life.

Lesjack is an intrepid researcher with a deep knowledge of Disney history. When you try to piece Walt’s life together to understand where his creative genius came from, you have to look at his whole life. With scant mention of what Walt Disney during World War I, you wonder how that experienced changed the young adult Walt Disney. As we all know, after the war, Walt pursued animation and filmmaking, where most of the biographies focus.

Lesjack takes us back in time to see Walt at three different periods of his life that define the man that helped define modern film and outdoor entertainment. We also get the rare treat of learning about Walt’s friendship with Alice Howell, an educator who ran a commissary during World War I. She was known as the Doughnut Queen and fostered a lifelong relationship with Walt. In Lesjack’s book, Alice plays the friend and fan of Walt Disney, as many of us wish we could have. We get to experience a time in Walt’s life, from Alice’s perspective, that shows Walt quickly become a revered name across the globe.

Image courtesy of Phil Sears

In Service of the Cross shares Walt’s desire to be part of something larger. We also learn about his need to make the world a better place. Lesjack sprinkles quotes from letters sent to and from Walt throughout the book. There are also several never-before-published photos that have been collected and curated by Paul Sears and Eric Queen.

Why Should I Read In Service of the Cross?

The book is more than just a glimpse into Walt’s life during the war. Lesjack shares information about the current events of the time and how they related to Walt. This gives the reader a deeper insight into the popular culture of the time. We also get a glimpse of Walt as a person and not a studio head. We follow along Walt’s journey to being a Red Cross driver in France and all of the other duties that enabled, including a court martial!

Lesjack leaves us with a decent look at Walt’s life during the World War I years that foreshadow his choices later in life. The insight provided tells us about Walt’s thoughts before, during and after the war. In a few cases, Walt shows a preternatural positivity that would last throughout his life, even against hardships and loss.

What Other Disney Biographies Should I Read?

My two favorite Walt biographies are The Animated Man by Michael Barrier and Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas. Both books are well-researched and provide a different look at Walt Disney.

You can also check out my bibliography of Walt biographies!

What’s Your Favorite Walt Disney Biography?

FTC Disclosure: In some cases, a copy might have been provided by the company for the purpose of this review. This post contains affiliate links, which means that ImagiNERDing receives a percentage of sales purchased through links on this site. Thank you for your support!

Meet the Disney Brothers by Aaron H. Goldberg

Meet the Disney Brothers by Aaron H. Goldberg, a book review

Are you looking for a great biography of Walt and Roy Disney?

Aaron Goldberg, author of The Disney Story and The Wonders of Walt Disney World, just published a new biography, called Meet the Disney Brothers, focusing on the relationship between the Disney brothers. Aaron sent me a review copy and I was surprised and excited to see that Aaron wrote the book for a younger audience. I field a lot of questions about biographies about Walt and I recommend the Bob Thomas and Michael Barrier books. Bob Thomas also wrote a wonderful biography of Roy Disney. Beyond that, there aren’t many books that offer a straightforward look at either Disney brother, let alone their relationship.

Meet the Disney Brothers

The book is a slim work, coming in at 89 pages, including a bibliography. It is a children’s biography, but adults that want a quick and authoritative look at Walt and Roy will enjoy the book. There are twelve chapters and a few extras that make the balance of the title.

Table of contents for Meet the Disney Brothers by Aaron H. Goldberg

As expected, Aaron hits the highlights of Walt’s life as Walt works through hardships and setbacks to create one of the most revered entertainment companies in the world. Throughout the biography, Aaron explores the relationship between Walt and Roy through their interactions and projects. Aaron takes care to not focus on myths and urban legends; he pulls information from authoritative sources.

This title is a great read for young students that want to learn more about Walt Disney. OR for adults that are looking for a quick refresher on the subject.

I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the contributions of illustrator extraordinaire, Rob Yeo. Rob is a Disney fan who has created artwork for other Disney-related titles (like the Wonders of Walt Disney World) and he brings a special spin to each work. With Meet the Disney Brothers, Rob designed the cover and the multitude of illustrations throughout the book. Like thumbnail sketches, Rob’s illustrations are like Disney story board artists signatures drawings. Bringing the story of Walt and Roy to life are over 80 small sketches.

An illustration by Rob Yeo of Walt Disney sitting on the bench watching his daughters ride the merry-go-round at Griffith Park

Should I Buy this Book about Walt and Roy?

If you’re a fan of Walt Disney and want to learn more about his life without reading a 400 page book, then, yes. Aaron offers a quick read that hits all of the highlights of the Disney brothers in an accessible format. I highly recommend this book for younger fans that are enamored with the park and want to learn more about the guys in the statues at the Magic Kingdom. This is a great book for public libraries and school media centers.

So, grab a copy and learn more about the trials and tribulations of the Disney brothers!

Special thanks to Wes B.,  Aaron R. and Nicole S. for supporting me on Patreon.

Check out the ImagiNERDing Patreon page to be part of the ImagiNERD community. Get special updates, behind-the-scenes information and more!

FTC Disclosure: A copy was provided by the company for the purpose of this review. This post contains affiliate links, which means that ImagiNERDing receives a percentage of sales purchased through links on this site. Thank you for your support!

Book Review: The Animated Man

I just finished reading Michael Barrier’s biography The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. In my opinion, this is one of the more important biographical treatises on Walt’s life.

Before we get into the review, I want to share a little about the author, Michael Barrier. Barrier has written several animation- and comic book-related titles. The most well-known are: Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book and A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics. He also published Funnyworld, a magazine devoted to animation and comics. Funnyworld lived in the early 1970’s and you can find reprints of it on his website.

Barrier takes a different approach to looking at the life of Walt Disney. Instead of just focusing on the more mundane facts and figures, Barrier shows us the man through Disney’s work, artistry and relationships. Barrier does impart the sense that after creating Snow White, Disney was never quite happy with the films and was striving for another challenge. Even Disneyland, with the audio-animatronics, never quite compared to the challenges of Snow White.

The Animated Man is a thoroughly enjoyable read. I never felt like Barrier was reciting a litany of facts, but instead, he was telling the story of Walt Disney. Barrier is renowned for his research, but I never felt burdened by the text. In other words: I had trouble putting this book down. It is quite obvious that Barrier is an animation fan and has tremendous respect for Disney and the art that was created.

One of my favorite passages from the book concerns the Kansas City Public Library:

Disney was intrigued by animation’s possibilities and by what he called “the mechanics of the whole thing.” He was essentially self-taught as an animator; he wrote to an admirer many years later, “I gained my first information on animation from a book … which I procured from the Kansas City Public Library.” That book was Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development by Edwin G. Lutz. According to its copyright page, Lutz’s book was published in New York in February 1920, the same month Disney joined Kansas City Film Ad, so he must have read it very soon after it was added to the library’s collection. He said of the book in 1956: “Now, it was not very profound; it was just something the guy had put together to make a buck. But, still, there are ideas in there.”
–p. 26, The Animated Man.

Knowing that Disney utilized a public library to help jump start his career would make any of us public librarians proud.

If you’ve spent any time checking out Disney-related books, then you may have heard about the scuffle between Barrier’s work and Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. See, at the beginning of Gabler’s research (1995 or so), he started out to write a simpler biography of Disney after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship. At some point, Gabler was given unprecedented access to the Walt Disney Archives and corporate authorization to write a definitive biography; Barrier was denied access while writing The Animated Man. The press has been enamored with the fact that Gabler was given full access to the Archives and they have heaped accolades on him. Barrier’s more authoritative research stems from the amount of work he had done while writing Hollywood Cartoons and Funnyworld and through the interviews with animation legends. Barrier knows his stuff. He does rely on a large amount of primary sources and his endnotes are well-documented and as intriguing as the rest of the text. I found myself taking much longer to read The Animated Man because I spent so much time flipping back to the notes to get more information. Since both were published within a year of each other, it is inevitable that comparisons will and have been drawn. I would have liked more comparisons between the works–from the critics–as Barrier’s book is more definitive while Gabler’s book comes off as a little snobbish and presents a seemingly misunderstood view of Disney.

I read Gabler’s book first and found it hard to continue at points. It read as tenuously as it was long. From the beginning, Barrier captured my attention and interest and framed a picture of Disney through the art produced and the company he founded and ran. Thematically, if you look at how the authors present their vision of Disney, they take decidedly different routes. Gabler paints a man obsessed with control who is never happy because of the lack of control and his attempts at escaping his father’s shadow. Gabler presumes to psychoanalyze Disney through memos, letters and notes–ultimately presenting a self-centered and egotistical slave-driver. Barrier takes us on a journey through the work of Disney to present a man who is less a control freak and more of an entrepreneur. Barrier wastes none of our time looking into Disney’s psyche and instead focuses on what is tangible with Disney in order to provide a glimpse into his life.

Bottom Line: This is the best biography of Walt Disney that I have had the pleasure of reading. Barrier does focus predominately on Disney’s opus of work–personal and corporate–but doesn’t that define Disney as we know him and why Disney is significant to us?




I’ve added links to the hardcover (left) and the paperback (right).
The paperback is not scheduled to be published until late March.

Daily Figment 112 – Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

Book Review

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

Clocking in at 851 pages, this is the longest non-Harry Potter book that I have ever read. The text itself is only 633 pages with an additional 171 pages dedicated to Mr. Gabler’s notes and research. A bibliography, acknowledgements and the index round out the rest of the book.

This release was heralded as a true, in-depth look at Walt Disney’s life. Not quite the glossed-over corporate biography by Bob Thomas nor as dark and mis-leading as Hollywood’s Dark Prince. It has also been compared to The Animated Man by Michael Barrier.
Mr. Gabler spends a lot of time discussing Walt’s early career in animation. I came away from the book with one over-arching theme: control. According to Mr. Gabler, Walt spent most of his time and creative energies looking for control. Whether it was running from his father’s control or seeking his own by creating animated worlds and theme parks; Walt was always looking for a perfect and controlled world. The work is broken into four main parts: we see his early life until he leaves Kansas City; the animated days in Hollywood; the live-action films; and, ultimately, Disneyland and the beginnings of the Florida Project. In each era, we see Walt rise to greatness and break barriers until he ultimately loses feeling for the project(s) or loses his ability to control every aspect. Mr. Gabler supposes that Walt actually lost interested in animated films after completing Snow White. He realized he could never actually top it.

I would recommend this title if you have read other Disney biographies and you are looking for more information about his animation career and how he ran the studios. It paints a picture of Walt that doesn’t jibe with the corporate symbol that has become the myth. After reading the biography, Walt does seem more intent on controlling everything and it is obvious that the animation strike hurt him deeply. He never quite regained the trust in his animators after that.

I will reserve full judgment on which Disney biography to recommend until I have read Michael Barrier’s The Animated Man. For now, Gabler’s work is very exhaustive and focuses very heavily on the period from the 1920’s to the latter part of the 1940’s. For us theme park junkies, there just isn’t a lot of information available on Walt’s activities at Disneyland. Granted, Disneyland and the plans for Project X only took up about thirteen years of his life.

It is a very compelling, detailed and well-documented work. You will learn a lot (I did) and will leave the book with a greater appreciation for the fact that the Disney Studios were never quite solvent until after Disneyland.

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