How I Organized the Writing of The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success | Part 6: Verifying Historical Facts Through Research and Reason

[Other posts in this series can be found here.]

One of the things I dreaded the most in researching and writing The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017) was to find two factually different versions of the same event or a fact from a credible source that contradicted something from another equally credible source.

Because I placed immense value on the accuracy of the details in my book, I spent a lot of time trying to verify contrary facts (usually related to dates). I learned that what appears to be the best source is not always the case. Eyewitnesses to events often had their dates wrong in memoirs written long after the fact, or conjoined into a single recollection after dozens or scores of years what were verifiably completely different events.

Here’s one example of the level of detail I obsessed about.

There is a key incident in Walt’s biography where he is trying to find investors and raise capital to build Disneyland, and his brother Roy Disney is heading off to New York to pitch the concept. The week before Roy is to leave, Walt realizes that he has neglected to produce sales material for the presentation to show and describe the concept of his park – a theme park that doesn’t yet exist anywhere in the world, but is still described as an “amusement park” – a term which carries the connotation of dirty and dangerous. The banks have already turned Walt down thinking the idea is crazy and that Walt is obsessed over an unproven losing business proposition that will be costly and unable to produce sufficient profits for the banks to recover their loans.

With little time to lose before Roy is to meet with potential investors in New York City, Walt quickly has his staff prepare a brochure, and gather up existing concept art. Walt decides he wants a map to show potential investors what the park itself will look like with its central castle and various lands and attractions. Walt gets his friend Herb Ryman, a former employee and professional artist, to drop everything and come to the studio on a Saturday morning. Roy needs the map on Monday morning for meetings in New York, and Ryman and Walt work all weekend – non-stop until Sunday evening – to produce an aerial view drawing of the park. A number of copies are made and coloured by hand.

None of this story is new, and there are many versions of the story details in interviews as remembered by Herb Ryman and other senior associates of Walt who were there at the time.

The factual question at issue was not who or when or why. The rather trivial question I was presented with in doing my research was this: when did Roy fly to New York?

There were two versions in print. The first was that Roy left on the Friday, and the maps were completed and shipped to New York so he would have them in time for his meetings on Monday. The second version was that the material was completed for Roy before he left for New York City on the Monday. I spent about two weeks seeking the correct answer, which was time that I could have invested in making further headway writing the book. And I kept asking myself this question: does it really matter?

It would have been easy to write about the incident in a way that is neutral: the material was produced and used by Roy to pitch the concept to potential investors. But it did matter to me because I was making it my mission to produce the most accurate biography of Walt Disney yet to be published. (The two prior biographies of Walt Disney by Neal Gabler and Michael Barrier were published in 2006 and 2007 respectively, and a considerable amount of new and specialized material had since become available.) I needed to know the right answer, which is that according to Herb Ryman, the work was completed before Roy flew to New York with the material after it was produced, taking it on the plane with him.

I have pages of examples of reliable authors with contradictory facts that I had to investigate and decide which version was more likely to be true. Often the sources responsible for the errors are legitimate, but other evidence proves their recollections to be mistaken. Discovery of the truth in interviews and collaborating documents is done by Disney Historians with access to archival documents and who are obsessive about doing the tedious detective work. My job was to find the proverbial needles in the haystack for inclusion in my book with the limited resources at my disposal, relying on the time-intensive detective work of such historians with access to archival documents.

© 2019, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved. 

Barry Linetsky is the author of the acclaimed book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press), and an Honorary Disney History Institute Historian. Barry is a writer, photographer, researcher, and business strategy enabler.

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