For years I had been thinking about writing some sort of memoir but, for so many reasons, all my attempts had died on the vine. A short but life-changing bout with cancer in 2009 coupled with endless vacillation, hesitation, and, to be honest, my lifelong struggle to be organized had left me with little more than a stack of dog-eared old exercise books, which was frustrating to say the least. I wanted to go back and remember, to make some sense of it all, not only for myself but also for my children, who I felt deserved some clarity. After all, it was they who had borne the brunt, as well as reaped the benefits, of my unusual childhood.
Then in 2016 I was invited back to the Walt Disney Studios by a charismatic character called Howard Green—the vice president of Animation Communications. We had a convivial lunch with some friends: the great songwriter, and fellow Disney Legend, Richard Sherman was there with his wife Elizabeth; Arlene Ludwig, who had been head of publicity back in the day; and also some new friends, Michael Giaimo and Chris Buck, the brilliant co-creators of the global phenomenon that is Frozen.
After lunch they took me to the Animation Building, a place I’d visited many times as a child, where Walt’s private office used to be. It is well known that on the day Walt left his office for the hospital, and for some considerable time after he died, nothing was changed or moved, apart from a bit of regular tidying by his secretaries. Everything was left almost exactly how it was when he walked out of the door for the last time, never to return. Eventually of course, it all had to be packed away, but not before every single inch of the office, and every object and article in it, was painstakingly inventoried and photographed, and then meticulously packed away in boxes and stored under the care of the Walt Disney Archives. One day, a smart young woman (now director of the archives) named Rebecca Cline had the inspired idea of restoring it to its original condition and turning it into a permanent exhibit. Which is exactly what they did—much like the Art Department would have done for the movie Saving Mr. Banks, only this time they had Walt’s real materials—reconstructing everything down to the smallest, most precise detail. So, as you can imagine, I approached his office with some trepidation. I hadn’t been back since I was eighteen and didn’t know how I was going to feel.
But when I walked through that door all my initial concerns fell away, as did the years, and I was literally sent back in time... First you entered the outer office, where his smiling secretary always sat at a small brown desk on the left. On the wall directly in front of you, on rows of glass shelves, gleaming under the lights, were just some of the Oscars he’d won over the years. In total, there were thirty-two of them. Each one representing years of work, each one imbued with his genius, and each one collected by Walt himself via the Academy Awards.
Straight ahead was the door to Walt’s office. I opened it, stepped inside. It felt like a waking dream. Everything was unchanged, exactly as I’d remembered it. As if Walt had just stepped out of the room and would be back at any minute. This was a simple and comfortable space: a sofa, some armchairs, not at all the office of a movie mogul designed to impress. Walt’s office was a place to work and think, to meet and talk. The more I walked around, the more came back to me. On his desk, little objects, papers and letters in the tray, photographs of his two girls, Diane and Sharon, his wife Lillian. A pen left on a pad with scribbled notes. Had he written to me sitting there at that desk?
And there was the baby grand, where the wonderful Sherman Brothers—Robert and Richard—used to play for Walt. I remember them both sitting there like it was yesterday, performing the song they’d written for me to sing in The Parent Trap. It was the first song they’d ever composed for a movie.
There was the little kitchenette with a bar and stools that had fascinated me as a child, fully equipped, every cupboard stocked with food and small bottles of Coca-Cola—all circa 1960.
And as I looked around, I became aware of the California sunlight streaming through the window, filling the room with shimmering, dancing beams of light. It was like returning to the Magician’s study, a kind of sacred space.
Afterward, Howard Green and Rebecca Cline kindly took me to the Walt Disney Archives and gave me access to this remarkable historical department, which is typically reserved for internal company research only. Of course, all my files were there too, relating to the six films I had made for Disney, and I was given unrestricted access to these. As I went through box after box, I marveled at how every single scrap of information had been preserved, recorded, and carefully filed away. Press releases, interviews, in-house memoranda, all the letters that I had written to Walt (many of which had had to be typed out since my scribbling at that time was excruciating and often incomprehensible), and, of course, all Walt’s letters to me. I was struck by how sweet they were, how personal, generous, and loving. There were also letters between Walt and my parents, correspondence I was aware of but had never read, revealing tensions and disagreements about my career, much of which was a revelation to me. I was swept up by memories, so many came flooding back: the golden years of my childhood, the films I made, and of Walt Disney, the man.
Earlier that day, at lunch, Michael Giaimo had turned to me with his sweet smile, and said, “So come on, Hayley, tell us ...What was he like?” The table hushed; they waited for my reply. And then it hit me—of the hundreds of people now working at Disney, most had never known him, hadn’t even met him. But I had. Walt Disney had been a kind of surrogate father to me through my teenage years, and the Studios had been my extended American family. For better or for worse, I’d literally grown up in Disneyland.
And that was it. The penny dropped. Not a bolt of lightning exactly, but the missing piece of jigsaw puzzle that I needed to write this book. For while this is the story of my childhood, and of course my career, it is also about a time that has now passed into history—when Hollywood was still “Tinseltown” and the great Walt Disney was at his zenith, ruling over what was, at least in his own head, still a family business.
The long shimmering line of black limousines inched their way forward. Cadillacs and Lincolns, all with their uniformed chauffeurs, seemed to glide toward the bright lights and the huge expectant crowd. It was a stifling hot California afternoon. Palm trees stood motionless under a cloudless sky as the leading car, a dark blue, shark-finned Cadillac, pulled up and the buzzing crowds began shoving and pushing forward, eager to get a better view. The passenger door swung open; two small feet, clad in white satin with diamond buckles, were placed delicately, side by side, upon the thick red carpet. The fans strained closer, the cameras flashed, and the owner of these two little feet finally revealed herself. Wearing a dazzling white dress with beautifully embroidered flowers tumbling down a long skirt, Elizabeth Taylor emerged like a goddess, sparkling with diamonds, smiling and radiant, at her most glorious.
The fans gasped and cheered as she moved like a queen into the barrage of exploding lights. The date was April 17, 1961 (the day before my birthday), at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium— the 33rd Academy Awards. A glittering, glamorous, star-studded evening that would be etched in my mind’s eye for the rest of my life—but for all the wrong reasons ...
Hollywood royalty was turning out in force. These were the glory days when all the big stars still lived in Tinseltown, in the great mansions of Rodeo Drive, on Benedict Canyon and Laurel Canyon. When the Brown Derby restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard and the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel were still bustling with the Bad and the Beautiful, glamorous stars, famous faces, writers and directors, movers and shakers, before they later dispersed all over the world, and before the new kid on the block, television, claimed the town, watered it down, and changed it all forever. But that was yet to come. This warm evening in 1961 belonged to old Hollywood when it was still the world capital of the Motion Picture Industry. The stars were out and everyone who was anyone was there: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Alfred Hitchcock, Yul Brynner, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, the legendary Greer Garson, evoking the charm and dignity of a bygone era; the beautiful Eva Marie Saint and Deborah Kerr, the sultry Gina Lollobrigida, the exquisite Janet Leigh with her husband Tony Curtis.
The anticipation in the great auditorium was intoxicating. As the stars settled down in their seats, a sharply dressed man in a dapper tuxedo walked out on stage: the evening’s presenter, Bob Hope, by now already an Academy institution. With his dry wit and deadpan delivery he instantly held them all in the palm of his hand. And yet, behind the smiles and careless laughter of this illustrious congregation—silent prayers. All the hopes, ambitions, and dreams of so many people. To win an Oscar has always meant so much: recognition and acceptance—and, in an insecure business, also the guarantee of more work. Bestowed by one’s peers, it is the highest accolade. To win an Oscar is to have a little piece of immortality.
The 33rd Academy Awards saw the crowning of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, which won five Oscars, including Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. A sweetly shy Billy Wilder collected his award from Audrey Hepburn, enchantingly fawn-like in Givenchy with long white gloves.
The Apartment’s Shirley MacLaine was nominated for Best Actress, but she lost to Elizabeth Taylor, who played a call girl in the film Butterfield 8. She walked slowly up to the stage to collect her Oscar, carefully escorted by her new husband, Eddie Fisher; she was suffering severe pain from a recent back injury.
Jack Lemmon had also been nominated for The Apartment. This was his second consecutive nomination for Best Actor. The year before he’d been nominated for another Billy Wilder film, Some Like It Hot—surely tonight it would be his. In the end, it turned out he lost. Again. Even to this day, it seems comedy performances are not appreciated in the same way as dramatic roles. That night was no different; Burt Lancaster won for his dramatic role as the fiery preacher in Elmer Gantry. He walked up to the stage, looking like an image carved into Mount Rushmore, while Jack remained in his seat applauding generously.
The evening was not long by today’s standards; speeches were brief and to the point—some even left you wanting more (Billy Wilder: “Thank you so much, you lovely discerning people. Thank you.”). Peter Ustinov bounded up to the stage to collect Best Supporting Actor for Spartacus, sporting a distinctly Bolshevik-looking beard, which many people remarked on as being incredibly brave—or slightly reckless—considering Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunt was still a bitter taste.
And then came the Honorary Oscars. Gary Cooper, one of the most charming, romantic, and charismatic actors of all time, was given a lifetime achievement award; the wonderful Stan Laurel was awarded for “Creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy”;...and then—a newcomer. A miniature statuette was awarded for Best Juvenile performance, an Oscar not given since
1954. The very first winner of this award had been Shirley Temple in 1935, when she was a tiny tot, aged six. Bob Hope stepped aside and with a great fanfare Miss Temple herself appeared on stage to present the award. At thirty-three years old, with her sweet face and charming smile, she still looked exactly like the young star who had sung and danced her way into the hearts of America.
“Charles Boyer invests in real estate,” she announced. “Fred MacMurray has cattle. And John Mills has daughters.” An appreciative chuckle echoed in the auditorium. “The Academy tonight presents an Oscar to a young actress who has brought grace and talent to the screen: the star of Walt Disney’s Pollyanna—Miss Hayley Mills.”
The audience burst into warm applause. Shirley Temple beamed merrily at the camera while so many famous pairs of hands clapped together in celebration...
I was only fourteen at the time. One day shy of my fifteenth birthday. I want to tell you how it was the most amazing night of my life, or at least one of the most memorable, but I’m afraid I can’t—because I wasn’t there. Not only was I absent, I wasn’t even conscious of it taking place. I was thousands of miles away in England, fast asleep, in a freezing cold boarding school dormitory, totally unaware of the honor being bestowed.
The fact that I slept through the 33rd Academy Awards would prove strangely prophetic. Looking back with the hindsight that time has given me, I can see how, for so much of my childhood career, I was like a passenger, passively “sleepwalking” through so many incredible experiences, never completely aware or in control of my life. To say I went “through the looking glass” and “down the rabbit hole” would be putting it mildly. At the age of twelve my life was tipped on its head and I was plunged, literally, into Wonderland, often feeling very much like Lewis Carroll’s bewildered Alice.
Perhaps that’s just how it is to grow up. One minute you’re free and innocent, full of the joys of life, and then suddenly you’re struggling to make sense of anything. I had some amazing luck and good fortune, but it all came at a price. The sole purpose of every young girl should be to become a happy, strong and well-adjusted woman, but growing up is tough at the best of times, let alone when a multimillion-dollar career depends on you remain- ing a child. Writing about it sixty years on, I wonder whether this book is perhaps my first real chance to understand and take ownership of the strange and remarkable things that happened to me—and to that young girl who went through the looking glass.