A LIFE SPENT AWAKENING THE IMAGINATION OF CHILDREN
By Bob Vickrey
From my perch on the mezzanine level of festively decorated Santa Monica Place, I had a birds-eye view of the scene playing out below me as a forlorn-looking Santa Claus sat by himself watching scores of admiring children mob the famous children’s author at the opposite end of the mall.
With only two weeks left before Christmas, one would have assumed that Santa would have little problem commanding attention amidst the spirit of holiday revelry. However, poor Santa had met his match the day he competed with heralded children’s author, Bill Peet.
After having accompanied the former Disney artist and storybook mastermind in his many Southern California appearances, his winning the face-off with Kris Kringle was no great surprise to me. Mr. Peet’s unique storytelling skills and compelling artwork had connected powerfully with children for several generations—both on the big silver screen, as well as in his many picture books.
Bill Peet had been an instrumental player in the early growth of the Walt Disney Studios dating back to the late 1930s when he joined the company as a graduate of John Herron Art Institute in Indiana. His early work as an artist in the animation department was on display in the 1937 film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He eventually became one of Disney’s top writer-illustrators on such animated classics as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Alice in Wonderland, 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.
Animation historian John Canemaker called Bill Peet “Walt Disney’s greatest story man. He profoundly influenced some of the studios greatest features and created some of its most memorable characters.”
While he was attending the Herron Art Institute, Bill had taken an interest in a beautiful girl named Margaret Brunst who was sitting on the front row in one of his classes. They eventually married after moving to Southern California when Bill secured his job with Disney. Bill began to write stories for their two boys when they were only toddlers and those early stories were what led him into his second career as the storybook author he had always dreamed of becoming.
His first book in 1959, Hubert’s Hair Raising Adventures, launched his book-writing career and Bill Peet soon became a veritable force in children’s publishing. He began to receive thousands of letters from young readers praising his work and asking for more of his stories.
His frequent disagreements and clashes with Walt Disney became the stories of legend among company employees. Walt was never known as being terribly generous about giving credit to his staff for their project contributions. He would say, “We are all in this together,” but Bill often countered: “What he actually meant was ‘the credit is all mine.’ Everything came out ‘Walt Disney Presents,’ and the rest of our names might as well have been listed in the phone book.” Even though they fought frequently, the two usually managed to accommodate each other’s strong will and would come to an uneasy agreement. Bill later exacted his playful revenge by drawing Peter Pan’s villainous “Captain Hook” in Walt’s likeness.
Margaret had always felt he was under-paid and encouraged him to confront Disney about the inequity of earnings contrasted with his invaluable contribution to the company. Walt claimed he had been totally unaware of the situation and promptly doubled Bill’s salary the same day. When he finally left Disney after 27 years, he discovered he had much more creative freedom in the writing and illustrating of his storybooks.
Margaret was instrumental in Bill’s work as she offered story advice; proof-read his stories, and typed the rough drafts. His elegant and charming wife was his partner in the truest sense, as she encouraged him during his toughest times—all the while running the household and raising their boys.
After moving to Southern California in the late 1970s as the publisher’s representative for his many books, I was invited to the Peet’s house for dinner where I witnessed the stacks of mail sacks located in a corner of his home studio. He told me that he answered each and every letter that young readers sent him—much to the chagrin of Walter Lorraine—his longtime editor at the Boston headquarters of Houghton Mifflin. Walter had encouraged Bill to get assistance in answering the children’s letters so he could concentrate on the development of his books. Bill refused to yield under his editor’s pressure. He said he felt his direct communication with his young readers was what ultimately kept him connected with their sensibilities.
Bill, Margaret and I struck up an instant friendship and the Peet’s played host to numerous Monday night football telecasts in those first few years after my arrival in Los Angeles. Bill knew I was a fan of the game and we enjoyed one another’s company while often feasting on Margaret’s fried chicken dinners. I had assumed the dining fare must have been a nod to my Southern upbringing.
Bill took me to the studio and allowed me to look over his shoulder at his next project and watch as he produced his enchanting animation on the canvas. I began to sense what children loved about his work in the way he drew each character with a distinctive facial expression which greatly complemented his marvelous storytelling skills.
As his health began to fail in later years, we spent less time together doing bookstore appearances. He told me that he sadly missed the direct contact with the children who bought and read his books. He felt suddenly disconnected from his young audience and he said it dramatically impacted his creativity and work.
When Bill died in May of 2002 after a long battle with cancer and heart-related issues, I planned on seeing Margaret one more time and offer my appreciation for the kindness the two of them had shown me throughout the years. (That visit turned out to be a significant one because Margaret died later that same year.)
My good friend and fellow publisher’s rep from the Bay Area, Michael Harrison, joined me in attending the memorial service. What we both noticed about the assembled crowd at the tribute that day was the perceptible absence of children—his most devoted fans. There were pleasant and poignant remembrances from his son, Bill Jr., and yet another from a long-time neighbor in Studio City.
When asked if others in the audience wanted to contribute stories about Bill, there was a period of uncomfortable silence as most of us had come to the service completely unprepared to speak. Moments later, a young man sitting on the very back row of the chapel slowly made his way to the podium and stood silently, and after a long pause, he said: “I never met Bill Peet. However, I’m here today because of Bill Peet and his work at Disney. The stories of Bill are legendary in the hallways of Disney Studios. I’m an artist there, and have drawn my inspiration from his work and have him to thank for my wonderful career as an animator in the film business.”
The young man then nodded to Margaret in the front row and walked calmly back toward his seat. When he finished, another young man stood up and walked toward the podium and began: “Nor have I ever met Bill Peet, but I too am here today because of his vital influence that inspired me to become an artist.”
And so it went as many others there paid their respects to a man whose books they had taken pleasure in and whose career had been instrumental in guiding them into their chosen professions, largely because of his matchless imagination and talent.
As I thought back to the day of Bill’s appearance at the Christmas shopping mall event years earlier, I remembered the wide-eyed and eager children who had come there to finally meet their favorite storybook author. Several kids from one school stood near him excitedly chanting, “We love Bill.” It seems that he had finally gained rock star status in the children’s book world.
It took several decades for Bill to receive the accolades he should have been accorded years earlier in the film business. If there had been credits rolling for the second half of his marvelous career, one name would have to be conspicuously absent: that of Walt Disney. This time, the entire second act belonged exclusively to Bill Peet.
Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns frequently appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors at the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.