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Walt Disney Page 6

by Bob Thomas

  Paris still looked like a city at war. As he rode a taxi down the Champs Élysées, he saw the sidewalks filled with men in uniform. Sandbags still protected the monuments of the Étoile, and gun carts rattled through the streets. Walt had only a brief tour of the city before reporting to the American Ambulance Corps headquarters at St. Cyr, site of the French military academy. St. Cyr was a disappointment after the enticements of Paris. The volunteers were billeted in a chateau so dank and chill that Walt wrapped himself in newspapers before going to sleep on his cot. The food was dismal—mostly pork and beans. When December 5 arrived, Walt faced a grim seventeenth birthday.

  Late in the afternoon he stopped by the canteen and found only one friend there. “Come on over to the bistro and I’ll buy you a grenadine,” the friend said. The pair walked to the nearby café and discovered it was deserted. As soon as they closed the door, Walt’s friends emerged from under tables and behind counters shouting “Happy birthday, Diz!” All crowded to the bar and ordered grenadine, wine and cognac. They slapped Walt on the back and downed their drinks, leaving him to pay the bill. He emptied his money belt, but that was not enough. Walt had to sell his extra pair of Red Cross shoes for 30 francs.

  Walt was transferred from St. Cyr to Evacuation Hospital 5 in Paris. First he drove five-ton trucks and ambulances converted into small cars by cutting off the back end. Then he was assigned to the motor pool—in reality, a taxi service for Army officers. He soon learned the geography of Paris, driving majors and colonels to various headquarters, hospitals, legations and, on occasion, bordellos.

  Headquarters assigned Walt to drive a White truck loaded with beans and sugar to the devastated area of Soissons. He selected an assistant and set off through the Paris suburbs and into the French countryside. After he had passed through a village, the motor started to clank. The noise grew louder, and the chassis vibrated with the pounding of the engine. Finally, with a great rattling sound, the engine halted, and Walt coasted around a comer, parking off the road near a railway watchman’s shack. Walt suspected that the truck had thrown a rod; no amount of tinkering would induce it to start again. He remembered the Red Cross driver’s credo: Never leave your vehicle. So he dispatched the assistant back to the village to ride a train to Paris and bring help. Walt resigned himself to a long wait in the February cold.

  He stayed in the cab for a few hours, but as night fell his feet grew numb from the cold. In his hesitant French he asked the railroad watchman if he could share the tiny shack. The watchman agreed, welcoming the young American’s offer of the truck’s emergency rations—bread, cheese, tinned beef and chocolate. Walt dozed through the night in the four-feet-square shack, enjoying the warmth of a tiny stove, to which the watchman added a lump of coal every half-hour. The next day brought no help from Paris, and Walt spent another night before the small stove. On the third day he was so hungry and so numbingly tired that he walked to the village inn and ordered a meal and a bed. When the meal arrived, there was a cockroach among the lamb chops and peas; Walt merely pushed it off the plate, swallowed the food and fell asleep on the bed.

  He awoke in a panic, discovering that he had slept for twenty-four hours. He raced back to the railroad crossing and discovered to his horror that his truck was gone. He trudged back to the village, dreading the consequences when he returned to Paris. A freight train arrived, and the trainman allowed him to ride in the cupola on one of the cars. When Walt arrived at headquarters, he discovered what had happened. His assistant had enjoyed a two-day drunk before reporting the breakdown. The disabled truck was towed back to Paris, its cargo intact. Disney faced serious charges of abandoning his truck. A friendly sergeant from Evacuation Hospital 5 appeared before a board of officers and argued that the young driver had done all that was physically possible by remaining near his truck for two nights. The board agreed, and no discipline was imposed. The errant assistant landed in the guardhouse.

  Americans continued leaving France in the postwar months, and little work remained for the Red Cross motor pool. Disney was reassigned to a canteen at Neufchateau, near Nancy. During long hours of idleness, Walt got out his pad and pencil and began cartooning. He mailed cartoons to Life and Judge, America’s two leading humor magazines; all were returned with polite, printed notices of rejection. Composing a letter to his high school magazine, he illustrated it with a self-portrait and impressions of soldiers and prisoners-of-war he had seen. He drew posters for the canteen and caricatures for the soldiers to send home, and he decorated the canvas top of his ambulance with an alluring female. Borrowing a Croix de Guerre from a French officer, he painted a replica of the medal on his jacket; others at the canteen admired it and paid him to do the same on their jackets. He teamed up with an enterprising Georgian who had established a souvenir industry. The Georgian realized the desire of homeward-bound doughboys to collect mementoes of the war—especially those soldiers who had seen no combat. When the troop trains stopped at Neufchateau to change engines, he went down the aisles selling German helmets he had collected on battlefields. One day he noticed that Walt had painted his footlockers in camouflage colors. “Hey, Diz, can you paint me a sniper’s helmet?” asked the entrepreneur. Walt obliged, and he aged the helmets with quick-drying shellac, earning five francs apiece. The Georgian rubbed the helmets in the dirt, shot holes in them, attached hair to the jagged edges, and sold them on the troop trains at inflated prices.

  Walt mailed the profits from his enterprises to his mother, along with half of his monthly salary of $52. One day he entered a barracks crap game and emerged with $300. He hurried to the American Express office and dispatched the money to his mother with instructions to buy his sister Ruth a watch and bank the rest.

  A dozen years later, Walt reminisced about the days at Neufchateau in a letter to Alice Howell, a Nebraska woman who operated the Red Cross canteen:

  …Just in case you can’t place me, I will try to give you a brief outline of the work I did. I was the chauffeur of the canteen car. It was my duty to hang around the canteen all day and run errands. I used to drive the girls back and forth from the canteen to their quarters, take them into the country to buy eggs, drive them to the Army commissary for supplies and occasionally on picnics. My main hangout was the little shanty attached to the canteen where the bread was cut….

  You will perhaps remember the time that General Pershing sent [his son] Warren down to spend the day with you and we all got into the little car I drove and went up to Domrimi [Domrémy], Joan of Arc’s birthplace, and had a wonderful picnic with fried chicken and all sorts of good things to eat. And boy! how good that fried chicken tasted!

  I remember some of the boys from the Second Cavalry who used to be around the canteen, and I also remember the squad of German prisoners who worked in the shower rooms. I especially remember one of the prisoners whom I liked real well, I believe his name was Rupert. I remember how they used to play tricks on me to get me to buy things for them.

  One day Rupert came to me with an empty wine bottle in his hand and gave me some money saying that Miss Howell wanted me to buy her some wine. Unsuspectingly I carried out his orders, although all the time wondering how it happened Miss Howell wanted me to buy her wine. When I returned Rupert was waiting for me and insisted that he take the wine to you. I did not think any more about it until about half an hour later when I went in the shower rooms. I found all the German prisoners having a great time on that bottle of wine. That was only one of the pranks Rupert and his gang played on me….

  When the prisoners went on work crews, Walt and Rupert sat in the canteen car and talked about the war and the future of Germany. They became good friends and helped each other in finding ways to relieve the daily tedium. One day they drove to the outskirts of a village, where the prisoners loaded cord wood onto trucks. Schoolchildren strolled by on their way from school. They had never seen German soldiers before, and they started throwing rocks. Walt told Rupert, who spoke fluent French, to order the children to stop. They p
ersisted, and on Walt’s suggestion, the prisoners filled their pockets with rocks. When the schoolchildren ignored a second order to stop, Walt called, “Rupert, charge!” The prisoners loosed a fusillade of rocks and chased the children into the village.

  Walt was assigned to chauffeur two dignitaries on a tour of the Rhine country, and before leaving he consulted the village priest on what to see. He gained a reputation as an expert guide, and he drove other visitors through France and Germany. On one trip he arrived in Strasbourg on July 14, 1918, to witness the first Bastille Day celebration in fifty years for the recaptured city.

  In August the Neufchateau canteen was disbanded, and Walt was transferred to Paris. He found the city changed. The uniforms were disappearing, and the tempo and attitudes of Parisians were returning to normal. Walt found that the American Ambulance Corps headquarters at St. Cyr had been shut down, and his friends in the organization had departed. The Red Cross issued a call for ambulance drivers for a war in Albania, and Walt was tempted by the salary of $150 a month, more than he had ever earned. Then he encountered Russell Maas, the Chicago boy with whom he had joined the Red Cross. They talked of home, and over French coffee and cognac they concocted a scheme to build a raft and float down the Mississippi like a pair of Huck Finns. Both had bought German shepherd puppies, and they agreed the dogs would join them on the voyage. Russell was returning to America immediately, and Walt paid $75 for his dog to go with Russell.

  The two young men from Chicago visited a photographic studio in Paris and posed for postcards to send to their friends and family back home. The two photographs afford a character study of the seventeen-year-old Walt Disney. In one, he appears in overseas cap, khaki uniform with jodhpurs and leggings, his heavy overcoat draped casually over his arm. He is bemused and proud. Then he posed in battle helmet, looking like the doughboy he had wanted to be. He is grimly serious, dedicated, a traveler of the world. There can be no doubt what Walt intended the photographs to accomplish: to let those at home know that he had grown to manhood in France.

  On September 3, 1919, General Pershing and his staff departed from Paris, and other American units followed. The American Ambulance Corps was finally disbanded, and the remaining volunteers were dispatched to Marseilles for passage home. When Walt Disney and his companions reached the dock, they found their ship floating high in the harbor; a dock strike prevented loading. The unit was ordered to Nice until the strike was solved, and for three weeks, Walt lived a splendid life at a Riviera resort. Then the strike ended, and Walt boarded the ship at Marseilles for the voyage back to America and the start of his career.

  A year in France had been a heady experience for a Midwesterner not yet eighteen, and Walt Disney landed in New York brimming with hope and optimism. He was stimulated by the size and energy of Manhattan, and he wandered the streets with unabashed awe of the high buildings. Among the delights he found in New York were two new comedies of Charlie Chaplin. Walt hurried home to Chicago, and like many other young men returning from overseas, he saw his hopes turn to ashes. He had brought French laces and perfume to the girl who had promised to wait for him; but she had married three months before. When Walt visited Russell Maas to claim his German shepherd, he learned the dog had died of distemper. Russell had acquired a job and a girl friend and had lost all interest in a voyage down the Mississippi.

  Elias and Flora Disney were astonished at the change in their youngest son. He had grown to five feet ten inches, and he was broad-shouldered and husky at 165 pounds. He had matured in other ways. His outlook was worldly—too much so for his father’s taste. But Walt could still be boyishly playful, as when he described to his believing mother the huge Prudential Insurance sign he had seen atop Gibraltar as his ship passed through the strait. He showed her a small box which he said contained a battlefield souvenir. She shrieked when he opened it. Inside was a bloody human thumb, in reality Walt’s own, painted with iodine and stuck through the back of the box.

  A return to high school was unthinkable after Walt’s European experiences. Nor would he consider a job his father offered at the jelly factory for the handsome salary of $25 a week. “Dad, I don’t want that kind of job,” Walt insisted. Elias reminded him that thousands of unemployed veterans would welcome such a position, but Walt remained firm.

  “Then what do you want to do, Walter?” the father asked.

  “I want to be an artist,” Walt replied.

  “And how do you expect to make a living as an artist?” Elias asked.

  “I don’t know,” Walt admitted.

  He knew that he didn’t want to remain in Chicago; the city seemed noisy and dirty and unappealing. He decided to return to Kansas City. Roy had gone there after his discharge from the Navy at Seattle in February 1919. Walt wanted to see his boyhood friends, and he was convinced that the Kansas City Star would hire him as a political cartoonist. Against his father’s wishes, Walt packed all his belongings, including the Red Cross uniform, and boarded a train for Kansas City.

  Walt and Roy Disney had a joyful reunion at the Disney house on Bellefontaine Street, and the brothers talked until early morning about their adventures overseas. Roy was working as a teller for the First National Bank of Kansas City at a salary of $90 a month. He was hoping for an advancement so he could marry Edna Francis, sister of Mitchell Francis, who had gone into the Navy with Roy and worked in the same bank. Walt told Roy of his plans to become a political cartoonist, and he displayed drawings he had done in France.

  He packed up the drawings and went to the offices of the Star, where he was curtly informed that there were no openings for a cartoonist. Walt decided he would work his way up through the ranks, and he answered an advertisement for a copy boy at the Star, wearing his Red Cross uniform to lend him maturity. It worked too well, and he was told he was too old for the job. Walt protested that he was only eighteen, but the employment man was unhearing. He cited Walt’s experience as a Red Cross driver and suggested that he apply for work in the transportation department. “I want to be a cartoonist, not a driver,” Walt replied. He took his cartoon samples to the Kansas City Journal and drew a favorable reaction from the editor, Lawrence Dickey. But the Journal had no immediate need for another cartoonist.

  Walt reported his disappointments to Roy, who tried to persuade his brother to seek more practical employment. Roy mentioned his brother’s plight to another bank worker, who told him of two commercial artists who were seeking an apprentice. Roy telephoned his brother and told him to apply at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio in the Gray Advertising Building. Walt hurried downtown and met Louis Pesmen and Bill Rubin, who were impressed with the young man’s eager manner. They asked him to return with samples of his art work, and he showed them his sketches of Parisian streets. Pesmen and Rubin told him to report for work the following day, the salary to be determined later.

  The new employee was assigned to create rough drawings of advertisements and letterheads for farm equipment and supply companies. The first job was for a firm that sold egg-laying mash, and Walt sketched hens on nests, eggs overflowing nests, hens hatching dollar signs. Lou Pesmen, who taught night school at the Fine Arts Institute, had noted that most young artists resented criticism. Not Disney. One day he was working on a layout for the Carey Salt Company, drawing cows licking salt blocks. Pesmen looked over his shoulder, erased some lines, added others, and Walt welcomed the changes. At the end of the week, the two partners announced that their new assistant would be paid $50 a month. “That’ll do fine,” said Walt, not looking up from his work. When he reported the news to Roy, he admitted that he would have accepted half that amount.

  Walt was eager to please his new employers. Pesmen designed covers for the weekly program of the Newman Theater, and he instructed Walt to finish the art work on the front cover. It was a job that normally would have required a day, but Walt finished both the front and back covers in three hours, adding original touches of his own. He was assigned to the art work for the Newman Theater ne
wspaper advertisements, and years later in an advertising conference at his Burbank studio, he recalled one of his contributions: “The Newman was playing a Cecil B. DeMille picture, Male and Female, and all I had to work with was a standing photo of the stars, Gloria Swanson and Thomas Meighan. Well, I thought it would make a better ad if they were lying down, and that’s how I drew them.”

  A co-worker at Pesmen-Rubin was a stolid young Dutchman with the curious name of Ubbe Iwwerks. The son of a Dutch immigrant, he was the same age as Walt; like Walt, Ubbe had left high school before graduating. Ubbe had worked for a bank-note company and on a farm, then was hired by Pesmen-Rubin in the fall of 1919 to do lettering and airbrush work. When Walt Disney arrived a month later, the two eighteen-year-olds became friends. Walt showed Ubbe the lettering samples he had executed when he was hired. Most applicants lettered the alphabet, but Walt had written variations of his own name: “Walter Disney, W. E. Disney, Walt Disney, Walter Elias Disney.” He asked Ubbe which one seemed best. “Walt Disney,” said Ubbe, and Walt agreed.

  Both young men turned out a large volume of art work for farm catalogues and Christmas ads for department stores and theaters. Then the pre-holiday rush ended, and both Walt and Ubbe were let go. Walt applied for work with the post office, and he delivered mail until after New Year’s.

  Walt and Ubbe Iwwerks (he later shortened his name to Ub Iwerks) discussed going into business for themselves. Walt Pfeiffer, Walt’s boyhood pal and co-performer, persuaded his father to hire the two artists to design lettering for the United Leatherworkers’ Journal. Walt searched for other business, and he called on a former neighbor, Al Carder, who edited a trade publication, the Restaurant News. Carder said he didn’t have enough work to keep the two young artists busy, but he offered them a couple of desks in his office in return for an occasional design. Walt saw this as the chance to begin his and Ub’s enterprise. He wrote his mother to send him the $500 he had earned as a Red Cross worker and sometime crap-shooter in France. His mother insisted on knowing why he wanted the money. He replied that he was going into business, adding that it was his savings and he could do what he wanted with it. After more exchanges of letters, she sent him half the amount.


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