Lillian Disney, the widow of Disney founder Walt Disney and a prominent arts patron, died Tuesday night at her home in Los Angeles from complications following a recent stroke. She was 98.
Disney was born in Spalding, Idaho, in 1899 and reared in Lapwai, Idaho, with her nine siblings on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation.
In 1923 she moved to Los Angeles to join her sister. She received a job as a $15-a-week “inker” of film frames at the then-fledgling Disney Studio. Soon thereafter, she met Walt Disney and they were married on July 13, 1925, in Lewiston, Idaho.
Disney was married to the legendary studio chief for 41 years. She was her husband’s primary sounding board, and he would run his revolutionary ideas, from “Snow White” to Disneyland, by her for approval. On a train ride together from New York to Los Angeles, after a serious business setback, Walt came up with a new character: Mortimer Mouse. Reasoning that the name was too formal, she suggested Mickey Mouse instead. She played an integral role in the studio’s growth, serving as Walt’s unofficial adviser until his death in 1966.
Following his death, Mrs. Disney became quite active in a number of charitable programs, primarily children and the arts. Later in her life, she was active in fundraising for the much-delayed Disney Concert Hall, a proposed new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She began the effort with a $50 million contribution a decade ago, when plans for the hall were in their infancy. The 2,350-seat Frank Gehry-designed hall is now tentatively scheduled to open in 2001.
The publicity-shy Disney avoided the Hollywood social scene and focused her efforts on building her charities. She was also active in the founding and building of the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, a multidisciplinary school that has produced many of the film industry’s best animators.
“This really is the end of an era for the Disneys,” said Walt Disney Co. vice chairman Roy E. Disney, the son of Walt’s late brother, Roy O. Disney.
Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Co., said: “Mrs. Disney was a full-time partner to Walt and we are all grateful for her contributions to the creation of Mickey Mouse and the Disney company, and for the example she set for family life and community service.”
Disney is survived by one daughter, Diane, as well as 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. No funeral service will be scheduled. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that contributions be made to St. John’s hospital in her name.