Why Abigail Disney used to refer to Mickey Mouse with the four-letter word
The 59-year-old scion, who is Walt Disney’s grand-niece, sees the business that made her rich as “the last shameable company”, and is determined to shame it.
“Ugh. I hate it,” Abigail Disney groans as I ask her to clear up once and for all just how much she is worth. It’s easier to talk about sex than money, Walt Disney’s grand-niece observes.
“The internet says I have half a billion dollars and I might have something close to that if I’d been investing aggressively,” she said, repeating a line she has used before while dodging such questions. Today, though, sitting on the green banquette of an amber-lit restaurant off Manhattan’s Park Avenue, she decides to set the internet straight.
“I’m going to just say it,” she resolved. After giving away US$70 million (S$97.2 million) over the past 30 years, “I’m roughly around US$120 million and I have been for some time now.”
The Disney scion is suddenly getting a lot of practice speaking publicly about money – even if not always her own. At the age of 59 she has emerged as an unexpected class warrior in America’s battles over how its wealthiest families should be taxed and what counts as a fair wage for the people who clean its theme parks rather than sharing names with them. On the day we meet, she put her name to a letter signed by the likes of George Soros and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, arguing for a “moderate” tax on the assets of America’s wealthiest 0.1 per cent.
Most pointedly, she has questioned the way riches are distributed in the kingdom her beloved grandfather Roy co-founded with his artistic brother Walt. In her crosshairs in particular has been Bob Iger, Disney’s chief executive, the dominant media mogul of an era where such titles no longer run in families, and a man responsible for much of her clan’s wealth.
Iger has overseen an index-thrashing fivefold increase in Disney’s stock since 2005 as he assembled an irresistible content line-up for the digital age, from Star Wars to Toy Story to The Avengers series of films. And he has been well rewarded. The US$65.7 million Disney paid him last year, when some of his lowest-paid employees were depending on food stamps, was “insane”, she said in April. “Jesus Christ himself isn’t worth 500 times his median worker’s pay,” she added. Cue a social media storm – and not all in her favour, as she found herself portrayed alternatively as a speaker of truth and a virtue-signalling plutocrat. Both sides could agree on one thing: With a minimal stake in the company, any influence she has stems from her surname.
“I’m choosing to be a traitor to my class,” she said with some satisfaction, tucking a wispy ponytail into an understated sequinned blouse. But even class traitors must eat, and one thing the Cordon Bleu-trained cook enjoys about having money is the ability to eat well.
“I [always] liked the nicer table at the restaurant,” she admitted, explaining why she kept her name when she married Pierre Hauser, an author, whom she met at Yale: “I’m a less than perfect person.”
Decked out in wood and copper with backlit jars of preserved lemons around the walls, Upland is a busy Californian-Italian spot just a block from her home and unshowy enough for someone who seems not to pursue the unmistakable sheen of wealth.
“Everything is perfect here,” she assured me, picking the unfussy-sounding spaghettini pomodoro with peperoncini. I nudge her to consider two courses and when the waitress arrives she adds a starter of fluke crudo.
The raw fish, prepared in tequila and key lime juice, sounds refreshing so I follow her lead then opt for a pappardelle with spicy sausage ragu. Disney has ordered sparkling water and a Diet Coke but I ask for a glass of white that will stand up to the pasta sauce, and check that Disney is sure she does not want to join me.
She can’t, she explains with a pained look, because of a liver problem diagnosed last year. “It’s breaking my heart,” she said – and curtailing her alcohol intake. Her father struggled with drink, a harsh taskmaster she has likened to money: “Once a glass of wine becomes normal, it demands a second, and then a third,” she told a Congressional hearing on workers’ rights in May.
Disney was 11 when she lost her grandfather, whose business savvy turned his brother Walt’s inspiration into America’s first great multimedia empire. Growing up around cartoons and theme parks had its privileges but her grandparents “didn’t go to fancy restaurants, they didn’t wear fur coats, they didn’t drape themselves in jewels”, she recalled.
The family’s wealth, and its attitude to money, changed when she was in college and her father (also called Roy) brought Michael Eisner in to replace Walt’s son-in-law as chairman and chief executive in 1984. Hits such as The Lion King meant Disney’s father could suddenly afford a 737, turning him into someone she saw as a “feral billionaire”, out of touch with how he had been raised.
The younger Roy pushed Eisner out in the early-2000s, and his was the last generation to try to run the company. His daughter pursued a documentary career instead, winning awards for films such as 2008’s Pray the Devil Back to Hell and the PBS series Women, War & Peace. It is only now that she has earned a profile higher than any family member has had for 15 years.
Our orders taken, I ask why Disney has become more vocal now.
She had been airing her views for a while, but nobody was listening, she replied: “I think the ‘why now’ question is for everybody else; why was it hearable suddenly?” But there were other factors: Her four children, aged 19 to 28, had left home; and Donald Trump became president. (We are eight minutes into a meal in New York and remarkably the name has not come up before.)
“He feels like the apotheosis of this,” she said. “It’s like the ego of the wealthy has been swelling like an enormous blister and it’s got to give at some point.” Disney seems happy to be the one to prick it.
Since she arrived in New York in 1984, she has watched its more exclusive venues fill with hedge fund managers, sure of their superiority and motivated to amass eight-digit sums she claims to find hard to fathom. “I was the richest girl in the room usually. Now? Never. I feel like a little pauper.” Before I can suggest that The Little Pauper might make for a good Disney cartoon, she calls over my shoulder: “It’s for us!”
I turn to see a waiter changing course for our table. He puts a Gruner Veltliner in front of me and hands Disney a Coke in a throwback glass bottle her grandfather would have recognised.
There was a moment, when she arrived in New York and calculated what she was worth, when, she claims, she seriously considered giving it all away. “I really thought, oh, my God, no human being should have US$10 million, I’m the worst person in the world.” But fear kept her from choosing a real pauper’s life.
By then she had left the city her family helped define. “I knew from day one that I was not cut out for that place,” she said of Los Angeles. “I don’t know why except that my wildest crush in high school, who went on to be a huge cocaine dealer, said to me, ‘why would you want to go to Yale? Everyone will be ugly and you won’t have any fun’,” she laughed, calling the waiter back to point out that the Coke is not the diet version she ordered.
Far from LA, her family’s creations continued to stalk her. “When I brought my baby home from the hospital and Mickey Mouse was on her first diaper I wanted to vomit,” she said: “I used to call him ‘that f***ing mouse’, TFM for short.”
“When I brought my baby home from the hospital and Mickey Mouse was on her first diaper I wanted to vomit. I used to call him ‘that f***ing mouse’, TFM for short.” – Abigail Disney
But leaving the city of stars and studios was a chance to assert her independence, and amassing degrees – a BA from Yale, a masters from Stanford and a doctorate from Columbia – helped. No one could accuse her of buying her PhD, “so for me that was just to be able to say, ‘I am just as smart as you are.’ I needed that.”
Our starters arrive. I try my coriander-garnished fish, enjoying the sharp citrus it is cut with as Disney describes life among liberal academics who disdained her family’s lowbrow brand of culture and liked to recall Walt volunteering the names of supposedly communist employees to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.
“There was a preloaded opinion in almost everybody’s mind about me,” she recalled, even if she never inherited the conservative views her grandfather and parents shared with Walt. She has few memories of the animator, but speaks fondly of her grandpa, admiring how he split the stock to keep it affordable for fans with a less complicated relationship with Mickey.
The shareholder register’s breadth was an asset when her father was fighting Eisner. She offered to help mobilise small investors in that campaign, but he wasn’t keen.
Why? I ask, as compact mounds of pasta replace our empty dishes and she orders another Diet Coke. “Girl,” she shrugged, in a one-word explanation of a more blinkered era. She tells me how she got involved anyway. “I wanted my father to see that I could be a successor too,” she explained.
We are making happy progress through our main courses when, unordered, US$19 worth of margherita pizza appears with the chef’s compliments. “An embarrassment of riches,” Disney quipped as the waiter rearranges plates on our small table: “The story of my life.”
Taking a slice with her hands, like a good New Yorker, she explains why neither she nor her siblings Tim, Roy and Susan took any position in the company in the end: After her father ousted Eisner, “no CEO in his right mind would ever let any one of us back on the board.”
The Disney wars also caused a rift with cousins she had loved as a child. They now have little contact, “except some nice emails get exchanged – or angry ones in my case”. Some of her relatives asked her to make clear that she did not speak for the family after she applauded Meryl Streep’s claim in 2014 that Disney’s Saving Mr Banks glossed over Walt’s alleged racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. “People went bananas” after her Facebook posts, she sighed. “I kept thinking, ‘how do you need this spelt out for you?’ He made a film in the mid-’60s about how people should stay with their own kind; the source material [for The Jungle Book] was Rudyard Kipling, for God’s sake!”
She winces at the minstrel-like crows in Dumbo but still lauds the craft that went into it. As a girl, she says, she was taught to revere all the company’s employees, so when workers at Disneyland in Anaheim told her last year that they could not pay basic bills on its US$15 minimum wage, “I wrote Bob [Iger] a very long email.” He referred her to the company’s head of human resources, who cited initiatives such as its US$150 million funding for employee education. Disney was not placated and wrote a second, longer email to Iger. “That never got an answer, so I had my answer.”
She sees the business that made her rich as “the last shameable company”, and she is determined to shame it. The US$15-an-hour employees makes US$135 for each nine-hour shift, she observes, while Iger’s pay last year worked out at US$180,000 a day. “If you know the person walking home with US$135 is not going to be able to work out food, housing, education, child-rearing and the rest of it and you’re standing right next to them with your [US$180,000] how do you sleep at night?” she asked.
“If you know the person walking home with US$135 is not going to be able to work out food, housing, education, child-rearing and the rest of it and you’re standing right next to them with your [US$180,000] how do you sleep at night?” – Abigail Disney
Avengers: Endgame alone made US$1.2 billion on its opening weekend, though. Having bought and burnished the Marvel franchise (not to mention Fox, Pixar and Lucasfilm), hasn’t Iger earned his cut?
“He’s an extraordinary manager,” she conceded. “He deserves to be rewarded but if at the same company people are on food stamps and the company’s never been more profitable . . . how can you let people go home hungry?”
We have eaten all we ordered and as much pizza as we can. Usually fond of dessert, Disney declines even a coffee, but she is not finished.
She does not know what Iger should be paid, she admits, but “I’m just asking people to bring their basic Jiminy Cricket into the situation.” She slips into the Pinocchio character’s high voice as she starts to quote his line: “A conscience is that still small voice that people won’t listen to.”
Disney claims no desire to bring her voice to the boardroom where Iger’s pay is set. “It would be a waste of my time,” she insisted. Besides, thanks to her Twitter account, “I kind of caused as much trouble as if I had a seat on the board”.
Disney knows from social media that plenty of people dismiss her as an entitled leftwinger whose pedigree does not qualify her to opine on the governance of a US$250 billion company.
“Who do I think I am?” she asked, echoing their question. “I’m just a person who is looking at something that violates my sense of fairness and it happens to have my name on it.”
“I’m just a person who is looking at something that violates my sense of fairness and it happens to have my name on it.” – Abigail Disney
Her documentary career, with its focus on women’s role in conflicts and their resolution, has taken her from Sudan to North Korea, but her next project will hit closer to home, taking on what she calls Milton Friedman’s “capitalist fundamentalism” 50 years after the 1970 essay in which the economist emboldened companies to put shareholders before employees and other stakeholders.
A sensibility her grandfather would not have recognised has taken over business since then, she contended: “People just slouch into orthodoxy and you have to question it.”
Two hours into lunch, she has changed her mind on coffee and is describing an even more ambitious project. She wants to rebrand peace, with a multimedia initiative spanning documentaries, Imax film, a reality television show, a talk show and a podcast.
“When I talk about peace I tend to see people’s eyes glaze over; it’s thought of as naive, childlike and silly,” she said. “I want peace to be thought of as an active, vigorous, alive, fascinating field . . . ”
Disney is a little young to be a peacenik, but remembers seeing hippies from the family station wagon and wondering why her parents hated them so much. She has come to believe, though, that those who came of age in the Summer of Love ruined the word with “that wimpy peace sign”.
I ask about her own peace sign – a dove and olive branch tattooed on her arm. She got it with a friend while dodging a 35th anniversary Yale reunion. It sounds like a good night, I say. “Yes. I also bought some weed,” she grinned.
The peace project will cost at least US$20 million. She jokes about megalomania, but it shows a Disney scion’s life-long understanding of media power.
“Walt was a dreamer and he thought big so why can’t I? The worst that can happen is that I fail. So what? I’ve never been rewarded for timidity.”
By Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson © 2019 The Financial Times
The writer is the FT's US business editor.