Meryl Streep is making headlines for something completely unrelated to her recent Golden Globe nomination.
The lady with a million expressions gave a tribute speech to her friend and colleague Emma Thompson at the National Board of Review gala last night, and used the occasion to slip in some comments labeling Walt Disney as anti-Semitic and a “gender bigot.”
Speaking to Thompson’s starring role in the new movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” which charts Disney’s real life attempts to turn the Mary Poppins books into film, Streep noted:
Ezra Pound said, “I’ve never met anyone worth a damn who was not irascible.” Well, he would say that because he was supposedly a hideous anti-Semite. But, his poetry redeems his soul. Disney, who brought joy, arguably, to billions of people, was perhaps, or had some…racist proclivities. He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby. And he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot.
The actress also read aloud a rejection letter Disney sent to an aspiring female cartoonist in 1938, in which the Mickey Mouse creator told the woman: “Women 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.”
Putting aside the reflex to point out Thompson’s own anti-Zionist tendencies, which per US State Department guidelines could arguably be called definitionally anti-Semitic (okay, I guess I slipped it in), there’s a lot to dissect here.
Rumors of Walt’s alleged anti-Semitism have dogged the Walt Disney Company for decades. One of the most compelling pieces of proof was Disney’s work with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-Communist group that was key in Congress’s “un-American” investigations against Hollywood’s elite in the 1940’s. It’s often argued the Alliance also held anti-Semitic leanings.
Further evidence typically comes from Walt’s relationship with Leni Riefenstahl, a German filmmaker noted for the Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” Disney hosted Leni in 1938 to promote her film, “Olympia,” and though Disney later disavowed Riefensthal and distanced himself from the Motion Picture Alliance in the 1950’s, by that time it seems the reputation had stuck.
Neal Gabler, a Walt biographer, was the first researcher ever granted full access to the Disney archives. In a CBS interview promoting his 2006 book, “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination,” Gabler said answering the question of Disney’s alleged anti-Semitism was one of his most sought after goals.
That’s one of the questions everybody asks me… My answer to that is, not in the conventional sense that we think of someone as being an anti-Semite. But he got the reputation because, in the 1940s, he got himself allied with a group called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which was an anti-Communist and anti-Semitic organization. And though Walt himself, in my estimation, was not anti-Semitic, nevertheless, he willingly allied himself with people who were anti-Semitic, and that reputation stuck. He was never really able to expunge it throughout his life.
It has also been widely reported that several of the Jewish creatives Disney employed, of whom there were many, regularly came to Walt’s defense over the anti-Semitic accusation. Notably the Sherman brothers–who penned much of the Disney Company’s early musical scores, including “Mary Poppins,” and are featured in “Banks”–often spoke out against the allegation.
From the 2004 biography, “How to Be Like Walt,” by Pat Williams:
“Walt was sensitive to people’s feelings,” composer Robert Sherman told me. “He hated to see people mistreated or discriminated against. One time, Richard [Sherman] and I overheard a discussion between Walt and one of his lawyers. This attorney was a real bad guy, didn’t like minorities. He said something about Richard and me, and he called us ‘these Jew boys writing these songs.’ Well, Walt defended us, and he fired the lawyer. Walt was unbelievably great to us.”
It has also been pointed out in countless articles discussing the matter that Walt contributed to several Jewish organizations—the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, Yeshiva College, Jewish Home for the Aged, and the American League for a Free Palestine among them—and in 1955 was named B’nai B’rith Beverly Hills’ Man of the Year. He was similarly honored by Hadassah in 1958.
Evidence aside, this is obviously one colloquial tale that will continue to persist, and Ms. Streep has now done her part to help it endure. Let’s just be glad the days of Donald Duck reading “Mein Kampf” are seemingly behind us.