OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Uncle Walt and Il Duce

Mary Vesta Ford of Searcy, who in 1938 was told that “[w]omen do not do any creative work” for the Walt Disney Company. Photo courtesy of Barbara S. Duncan.

We were talking about Walt Disney and Benito Mussolini the other day.

My friend swears he's seen the photograph: Disney and Mussolini, in Italy in 1931, giving the Fascist salute, extending their right arms forward with hands held straight, with fingers together and pointed upward. He'd seen it, but he couldn't find it anywhere online.

I can't find it either. I didn't convince my friend--who says I'll be embarrassed when dozens of people send me irrefutable proof of the Uncle Walt-Il Duce summit--but my belief is that he and others who contend Disney and Mussolini met in 1931 are mistaken. They are probably mis-remembering an account of a well-documented meeting between Disney and Mussolini's son Vittorio Mussolini, who was involved in the Italian film industry as an actor and director, in September 1935.

(Disney also probably visited Munich during that trip, which led some to speculate that he met with Adolf Hitler. There's little evidence to support this, but John J. Powers did write a play, "Disney in Deutschland," about an imagined meeting between the two men. Powers apparently believes the meeting took place; writing in the comments of an online review of his play 16 years ago, he said, "Disney visited Munich, and since he was visiting virtually every head of state during his European tour, it would have been extremely unlike for him to have avoided the Fuhrer.")

Disney was touring Europe with his brother Roy, who suggested the trip because workaholic Walt never took a day off. But it wasn't a pure vacation. Walt was accepting a prize from the League of Nations and was determined to publicize his studio's work. He was also scouting for stories to adapt into films; when Walt and Roy returned they brought with them 355 books, some of which they eventually Disneyfied.

Though there was nothing overtly political about the trip, there is reason to believe Mussolini and Disney admired each other. The dictator reportedly screened Disney's cartoons in his private cinema in the Villa Torlonia; Disney is said to have (like a lot of Americans) initially admired Mussolini. (There exist at least two photographs of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford giving the Fascist salute; in a 1927 trip to Italy the couple fawned over the dictator and he presented them, his "fans," with an autographed photo. Fairbanks took to wearing a fascist pin in his lapel.)

Walt's grand-niece, Abigail Disney, a philanthropist and longtime film producer who has no role in the company, even described him as "bordering on rabid fascism" in an interview with podcaster Marc Maron last year.

Abigail was on Maron's podcast to promote her documentary about income inequality in this country, and a large part of that documentary consists of a systematic take-down of the Disney corporation. (She talked to Disney employees who, while working, had to avail themselves of food stamps and experienced homelessness.)

I've seen "The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales." It's an earnest but obvious movie whose biggest hook is the inside dirt on the company. (In a 2020 TED Talk, Abigail alleged that "three out of four" workers at Disney theme parks "can't consistently put food on the table" and that "Disney has turned a pretty profit on the idea that families are a kind of magic, that love is important, that imaginations matter. That's why it turns your stomach a little bit when I tell you that Cinderella might be sleeping in her car.")

Disney is a problematic figure. He was one of the very few in Hollywood to welcome Hitler's filmmaker mascot Leni Riefenstahl when she visited Hollywood in 1938, a month after the Nazi attack on German Jews known as Kristallnacht inflamed the world.

He guided her on a tour of his studio and showed her some Mickey Mouse sketches. And he politely declined her offer to screen "Olympia," her documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, because, according to Disney biographer Neal Gabler, he was afraid word might get out he was extending hospitality to a figure the overwhelming majority of human beings would shun.

When Riefenstahl returned to Germany, her biographer Steven Bach writes, she had high praise for Disney, saying it "was gratifying to learn how thoroughly proper Americans distance themselves from the smear campaigns of the Jews."

But though Disney was a tightwad who hated labor unions and was sometimes a difficult boss, he seemed to value his Jewish employees and treat them well, so long as they were male. Gabler concludes that Disney wasn't antisemitic, but he made common cause with antisemites when it suited his financial interests.

And, like a lot of companies at the time, Disney practiced institutional sexism.

When 21-year-old Mary Vesta Ford of Searcy, who in 1938 had recently graduated with an art degree from Louisiana Tech, inquired about Disney's training program for aspiring cartoonists, she received a letter informing her "[w]omen do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school."

It went on to say that "[t]he only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink, and then filling in the tracing on the reverse side with paint according to directions." It further noted that while her inquiry had been forwarded to the inking and painting department, it would "not be advisable" for her to travel to California, as there were "really very few opening in comparison with the girls who apply."

Mary ended up all right. She married and made a career teaching art to middle schoolers in Hattiesburg, Miss. She saved her rejection notice--a form letter--and her family discovered it after her death in 2003. Meryl Streep read an excerpt from it from the stage at the National Board of Review Awards in 2014. Shaun Usher used it in one of his "Letters of Note" books.

It might be fair to say that the Disney was in person quite a different character from the avuncular host of Sunday night's "The Wonderful World of Disney" (known from 1961 to 1969, my cohort's prime viewing window, as "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color").

Even for his time, Disney may have been a nasty piece of work; he was one of the few major Hollywood figures (Ronald Reagan was another), who chose to testify before Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, and he speculated that several of his former employees--those who had attempted to unionize--were communists. (They were eventually of cleared of formal communist charges but were nevertheless blacklisted by the entertainment industry.)

But so far as I can determine, Disney never had an audience with Mussolini.

But if you've got that photo, please send it on. I'd love to see it.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at