HOW I GOT WALT DISNEY'S AUTOGRAPH
"How much is it?" I asked, and held my breath.
"Forty pounds," he replied.
It's more than thirty-five years ago now, but I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday.
It was an awful lot of money.
I was just twenty years old and had not long been bitten by the Disney-bug.
My fascination with Disney movies had been suddenly intensified when I borrowed R. D. Feild's book, The Art of Walt Disney from my local library.
Anyway, here was someone who, unlike my Mum, didn't think of 'cartoons' as the kind of kid's stuff you ought to have grown out of by the time your voice breaks.
I wanted a copy of The Art of Walt Disney more than anything else in the world and began scouring the second-hand bookshops, which is how I stumbled on Fred Zentner. He later became The Cinema Bookshop in London’s Great Russell Street, but then he sold film books, stills, posters and other gems - including a copy of The Art of Walt Disney - from the basement of The Atlantis Bookshop, in Museum Street, just round the corner from the British Museum. Once found, I began, bit by bit, buying up Fred's stock of Disneyana.
Then came the day when he placed into my hands a copy of The Story of Walt Disney as told by Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, to Pete Martin.
It was a first edition American hardback, published by Henry Holt & Co (New York) 1956.
It still had its original dustwrapper with a design by Disney studio artist Al Dempster and, what's more, it was ----- SIGNED!
On the half-title page, in green biro, with that distinctive bold handwriting was the inscription: 'Best Wishes Walt Disney'.
It was his very signature - including the little circle over the 'i' in 'Disney' that I emulated in my own signature. This man - whom I had never met but who exercised an obsessive fascination over me - had held this book, opened it and inscribed his name inside.
I wanted it! No, I craved it! But, FORTY POUNDS... Forty pounds for a book? My mother would go bananas! Besides, I couldn't afford it. I didn't have forty pounds. I didn't know when I ever would have forty pounds. But, right there and then, I desired that book with a passion that, call me eccentric if you will, I have scarcely felt about anything since.
But, FORTY POUNDS! That was way beyond my meager means. Then Fred Zentner showed himself to be a man who understood the full anguish of desire, because he made me an offer. If I paid him ten pounds a month for the next four months, he would keep the book for me until I had paid the full forty. Month by month, I made my pilgrimage to The Atlantis Bookshop, looked at the swirling green signature and paid another ten pounds. Then, one day, it was mine.
Fast-forward thirteen years. I am standing in the Archive at the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank, California, talking to Archivist, Dave Smith. I am there researching a television documentary about EPCOT and I mention, in conversation, that the prize of my Disney collection is an autographed copy of The Story of Walt Disney.
Dave Smith laughs and asks a question that almost brings the universe crashing down around my ears.
“Are you sure it's actually signed by Walt Disney?”
“Of course! It says so, in green biro: ‘Best Wishes Walt Disney’!”
“That may be,” he replies, “but many people at the Studio - some of them distinguished animators - signed books and pictures on Disney's behalf.”
I look stunned. But, Dave goes on: “The Disney signatures by these other artists are more like the famous logo signature that appears on Disney movies and merchandise. Walt's personal signature, however, is quite distinctive. Would you like to see a GENUINE Disney signature?'
Nothing could be simpler: within seconds I could know whether or not I owned the real thing. Or, I could leave things as they were. Except, of course, that now I couldn't. Dave Smith had sowed the seed of doubt...
I hesitate for no more than a second. “Yes, let's see a GENUINE Disney autograph…”
Then, relief and joy! “It is just like mine!”
When, a few years later, I got to know Diane Disney Miller, I asked her about the book and she told me that her father used to sign copies for sale in the bookshop at Disneyland, which was very probably where my copy had originally been purchased.
She also explained that whilst The Story of Walt Disney carried her name as author (and, indeed, included several of her own reminiscences) it had been Walt himself who had collaborated directly with Pete Martin on the book. However, her father had decided that it would be better if his life-story were presented as if told by his daughter partly because he felt that to tell it himself might appear arrogant, and partly because he wanted the recently married Diane to earn some money.
A decade passed and I found myself in San Francisco working with Diane in co-presenting a radio series for the BBC about her father. On this occasion, I had carried the treasured volume with me and I asked her to add her signature to the book’s title page.
Diane was modestly reluctant - since, as she had already told me, she didn’t consider herself in any sense the book’s ‘author’. However, she eventually relented and graciously inscribed the book: “For Brian Sibley - a very good friend - Respectfully, Diane Disney Miller”
A few more years down the road, I attended the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary ‘Walt Disney: The Man Behind the Myth’ in which I appeared as an interviewee.
By this time, I had acquired a British edition of The Story of Walt Disney published by Odhams Press (London) in 1958.
At the party afterwards, chatting with Diane and her husband Ron, I produced this volume and asked whether the book’s Non-Author would oblige with another inscription!
Appreciating the joke, she unhesitatingly agreed...
Beneath the printed sub-title - ‘An intimate biography by his daughter, DIANE DISNEY MILLER, as told to Pete Martin’ - she wrote: “Actually, Brian - we know better, don’t we? Warmest, warmest regards, Diane.”
Nowadays, the autograph business is big business: copies of the recent reprint of The Story of Walt Disney with Diane's signature sell for several hundred dollars and someone, in a recent American auction, paid over three thousand dollars for a copy of the original edition signed (also in green biro!) by Walt.
So, all in all, I think that original - and seemingly astronomical - forty pounds of mine was money incredibly well spent!
It is not, however, for any financial value that I treasure these volumes, but for the even more valuable memories and associations that they hold…
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