by Jim Korkis
Who was Diane Disney Miller?
Most Disney fans would immediately reply that she was the daughter of Walt Disney.
Some might know that she married former President and CEO of the Disney Company, Ron Miller, back in 1953 when he was considering becoming a professional football player and were both 20-year-old students attending USC. Others might associate her with being the driving force behind the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco that opened in 2009.
Of course, she and her sister were the official inspiration for the creation of Disneyland, a place where a daddy and his two daughters could have fun together. It was Diane who, as a child, was so delighted at the adventures of Mary Poppins that her father became convinced to fight to make it a motion picture.
Then, people might struggle coming up with some information. She was the owner with her husband of the well-known Silverado Winery in Napa Valley that opened in 1980. She stepped forward after her mother’s death to complete the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 1997. She had a younger adopted sister, Sharon, who passed away from cancer. In recent years, she appeared at Disney events.
Diane Marie Disney Miller, the only biological daughter of Walt Disney, passed away at the age of 79 on Tuesday, November 19, after severe complications of a fall she had several weeks ago. She had seven children, 13 grand-children and recently welcomed her first great-grandchild to the world.
I knew Diane. She wrote the foreword for my first book about Disney history and one of her personal stories appears in my newly released Vault of Walt: Volume 2. We corresponded through e-mail and I was a guest speaker at the Walt Disney Family Museum where at lunch I shared chili with Diane and her husband.
She was a remarkable, strong-willed, self-effacing, supportive woman who sacrificed her comfortable private life to step out into the spotlight during the last decade or so to protect her father and his reputation.
Her unexpected passing from a stupid accident is still unbelievable to me and so many others as I write these words. She was a physically fit woman with a razor-sharp mind filled with dreams for the future. We all thought she would be around forever.
She was Walt’s miracle baby. After two miscarriages, Lillian finally had a healthy pregnancy with little Diane Marie Disney being born December 18, 1933, 13 days after Walt’s 32nd birthday. Later when Lillian tried to have another child, she suffered another miscarriage and her doctor warned her it would be unwise to try again and Diane would be the only one. In January 1937, the Disneys adopted 2-week-old Sharon Mae Disney.
Diane used to joke when being shown pictures of a young Walt, “When I first met him, he was older.”
She loved talking about her dad. She did not pretend he was a saint but she was greatly disturbed that he seemed to be merchandised like any other Disney character and that people who never knew her father would write such terribly wrong things about him or make false assumptions as to why he did things.
Diane and Sharon had been raised out of the limelight to allow them to try to have a normal life, not like other children of celebrities. They didn’t always get things that they wanted and often had to wait for things they did get.
“People would want to peer at my dad as if he was a curiosity and in college people began to peer at me as if I was a curiosity too,” recalled Diane.
For Diane, Walt was not the internationally lauded cartoon genius. As she often said, “he was just Dad”.
When she was younger, Walt was her primary playmate teaching her how to dog paddle in their pool, how to ride a horse and taking her along on visits to the Disney Studio on Sunday afternoons where she and her younger sister would run around and sometimes go into an empty soundstage to have a shouting contest because of the echo.
“Both Sharon and I said we were going to marry him when we grew up. Then we discovered horses and were going to marry a horse and then we discovered boys,” Diane joked.
At her small wedding away from everything in Santa Barbara, Walt, who gave her away, sobbed through the entire ceremony with tears unashamedly running down his cheeks.
Walt did everything he could to help the newlyweds including designing their first house and getting Ron a job at the studio.
In recent years, Diane was a strong advocate for the research and sharing of Disney history and was an enthusiastic cheerleader of many of us, myself included, with a sincere joy at every new discovery. She genuinely appreciated everyone who shared a memory of what her dad meant to them. While she never considered herself a writer (Walt had tried to encourage her to pursue that career several times), she was a tremendous storyteller.
I will miss her, as will so many others, and remember her with respect and affection. I don’t think the realization of what a great loss this is will become apparent for many months. With her passing, it really is the end of an era of a direct connection to Walt. I hope she is enjoying being reunited with her family, especially her dad, and knows how much she was truly loved.