“Remember me,” the most famous musician in Mexican history croons in a traditional ranchero-style corrido. “Don’t let it make you cry, for even if I’m far away, I hold you in my heart. I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart.” Of course, the balladeer Ernesto de la Cruz is only famous in this particular Mexico, which is located deep in the Disney/Pixar universe, as the antagonist of their latest release “Coco.”
Now imagine how those oft-sung words of familial separation and longing land on the ears of the twelve-year-old aspiring musician Miguel who is growing up in a matriarchal hive of worker bee shoemakers presided over by the shoe-wielding queen bee Abuelita. It is Miguel’s grandmother who maintains the Rivera family’s generational ban on music and keeps family photos clipped of the musician patriarch who walked out on them to pursue his career in music. It’s Crawford as cobbler.
Let’s imagine further we’re Walt Disney, whose namesake company acquired Pixar for 7.4 billion dollars in 2006 when the company already had “Toy Story” and “The Incredibles” under its belt, along with an Oscar for “Finding Nemo.” By the time Walt was 26, he’d created Mickey Mouse. By 36, he’d won a special Academy Award for “Snow White,” but at 12-years-old, Disney biographer Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, describes a childhood “of “Dickensian deprivations” and “a severe father who beat him.”
Gabler chronicles the groundbreaking success of 1937’s “Snow White,” but tracks a string of surprisingly household-name bombs in its wake. “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” and “Bambi” all lost money before World War II when his primary financier, The Bank of America, shut the money faucet permanently with the ultimatum: no more feature films. Disney struggled through the war with little left but his carefully crafted image which morphed from young and eager artistic rube to the slick, pomaded Uncle Walt, who by the mid-50s was in most American homes with his Sunday night television program.
But as his carefully crafted public image set, the man himself retreated into his childhood. “Disney emerged from the war as something of a national symbol,” Gabler writes, “no longer a young, unpretentious folk artist, he had become the embodiment of post-war American self-confidence: calm, square, traditional and, above all, self-possessed.” By while the symbol’s stock rose, the creator withdrew into a world of model trains, eventually laying track around his Holmby Hills home, he could often be seen atop the engine conducting the train is his traditional hickory stripes.
The retrograde spectacle so shocked visiting New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, he remarked, “All his zest for invention, for creating fantasies, seemed to be going into this plaything.” But Disney being Disney, his hobby didn’t remain a hobby for long as he cooked up the idea of running train tracks around his animation studio and adding a small village where passengers could disembark.
He added other attractions such as a Western town and an Indian encampment and the whole idea soon outgrew his studio. He began buying up land in Anaheim, California, which would eventually open in 1955 as Disneyland. That gamble would more than quadruple company earnings and apply jet boosters to its stock price, quantum-leaping it into the behemoth we know today.
But it is this turn of the century village, dubbed Mainstreet U.S.A. and prominently featured in Disney parks worldwide, which allowed Disney to tinker with and correct his abusive childhood. Gabler calls it “a fully controlled environment that was the architectural equivalent of Disney’s own image, and one that was constructed to the specifications of 1950s America: wholesome, reassuring, safe and square.”
But what if the key to unlocking Disney’s childhood was not in his own backyard – a self-realized facsimile of his Midwestern roots – but rather in a faraway Never Never Land or, closer to home, the marigold-festooned Land of the Dead where 12-year-old Miguel is transported after strumming a guitar that belonged to the person he believes to be his long-lost ancestor, Ernesto de la Cruz?
There are some Disney biographers who maintain that is exactly what needs to happen, asking what if Walt were not the fourth of five children born to Elias and Flora Disney, but rather the illegitimate offspring of an illicit Spanish affair spirited to the U.S. by a clever Catholic priest who arranged a shadow adoption?
Leonard Mosley first floated the theory in his 1985 biography Disney’s World, attributing it to actress Jane Wyman, who was shooting a film in Almeria, Spain, and on a trip into a nearby mountain village came across a plaque declaring Mojacca the birthplace of Walt Disney. Wyman brought the tale back to Hollywood, spreading the “truth” about Disney’s birth at her Malibu dinner parties.
Mosley’s version goes that a Mojaccan girl, Consuela Suarez, whom he lists in his index as “mythical mother of Walt,” was engaged to a local boy who was killed at the turn of the century in Morocco before they could be wed. Suarez was already pregnant when news of her fiance’s death reached her. A local priest arranged for the baby to be taken back to the States by a visiting American couple. It was only on her deathbed in Mojacca that Suarez learned of her son’s true identity as the creator of Mickey Mouse.
Christopher Jones, son of longtime Disney press agent Tom Jones, imbues his tale with socioeconomic class strictures and shifts paternity to the village’s eccentric and married local doctor, Gines Carrilo, and a washerwoman named Isabel Zamora. But it’s not until the 1993 publication of Marc Eliot unauthorized biography, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, that the Disney birther rumors are truly exploded.
Eliot’s portrait of Disney as a right-wing bully, union-buster and spy for Herbert Hoover was highly disputed by Disney family and scholars alike, but The New York Times was able to confirm that Disney’s FBI files do detail him throwing bold-face, but redacted names to Hoover’s hungry Communist hunters.
Eliot makes no bones about his journey. In a preface to his book, he recounts how his project began as an authorized biography with full access to the Disney archives that was yanked as soon as he objected to the company’s request for full manuscript approval. He wastes no time ramping up the unauthorized version, though, painting a portrait of the young Disney before his mother’s dressing mirror teetering in Flora’s high heels and clothing, but he adds a missing birth certificate to the Disney birther drama.
Eliot goes with the doctor and washerwoman combo, adding that the doctor passed shortly after his illegitimate child was born, but not before naming his son Jose. Isabel Zamora, who became known in the village as “La Bitcha,” swiftly departed to live with a brother in Chicago, and that’s where the Disneys secretly adopted Jose, hence no official birth certificate for his December 1901 birth, but a certificate of baptism from June of the following year whereby young Jose became Walter Elias. The parish, St. Paul’s Church in Chicago, was one both Zamora and the Disneys were said to frequent.
What does it all mean? Can a paragon of the American Dream be born outside of United States? Weren’t we just down this road with another of Chicago’s favorite sons? Of course, there are the many products of the Walt Disney Company that feature a quest for the lost patriarch to consider. “Coco” is just the latest example, but certainly their upcoming installment in the “Star Wars” franchise and next year’s “A Wrinkle in Time” also revolve around the idea. Could they still be subconsciously working out of a theory around their long-lost founder that made it all the way to Uncle Walt’s FBI file?
Disney died in 1966 and so we may never know, but it’s at that juncture that Eliot closes his book, ironically dismissing one of the most prevalent rumors about Disney: the cryogenically frozen head. Eliot maintains it was something Disney would often muse about with his older brother Roy, who gave the idea the same patronizing nod reserved for his younger brother’s more far-fetched schemes. It got no further, but turned into a posthumous running joke at the studio, where employees called cryogenics ”Walt’s attempt to make himself a warmer human being.”