In the Belly of the Mouse

Photograph by Mark Peterson/Redux

What can you say about a head of the Disney empire who’d lie to Larry King about where Walt Disney is buried? A hell of a lot, it turns out.

James B. Stewart deserves every penny he can squeeze out of DisneyWar. The author, a former reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal, nearly fainted from heat exhaustion when he pulled a George Plimpton and wore a big, heavy Goofy costume, ambling around Disney World for a research shift of being kissed and screamed at by kiddies. Far more suffocatingly, Stewart sat through a few staff meetings with his book’s subject, Disney chairman and chief executive Michael Eisner, and had to hear him grouse about the productivity of his contracted talent (“Can we get three hits out of Elton?” Eisner snapped), shoot down a notion about remaking Rapunzel (“Someone told me a woman with long hair is old-fashioned,” fearless-leader says gnomically), but then get excited about a potential movie called Snow Queen, in which, one nervous serf explains, the title character is “a terrible bitch” whose heart is “melted” by “a regular guy.” “This is perfect!” Eisner exults. “I’m afraid to hear more!”

By this time—well toward the end of Stewart’s massively researched, tight narrative of Eisner’s sprawling empire of movies, TV, and Broadway shows, amusement parks, and cable channels—you’ll probably be feeling just the opposite. Indeed, hearing more is the stock-in-trade of Stewart, who delivered earlier insider accounts of corporate and political intrigue, such as Den of Thieves and Blood Sport. And DisneyWar, like its predecessors, does full justice to its subject: the black cauldron of the entertainment industry, filled to the brim with egotism, avarice, prevarication, and disloyalty. Stewart covers two decades of Eisner’s reign, chronicling the way his close friendships with his fellow popinjays of pop culture, such as Barry Diller, Michael Ovitz, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, invariably concluded with each of them pulling an Eisner dagger out of his back. Eisner notoriously viewed Katzenberg, for instance—who helped revitalize the company’s animation division and spearheaded The Lion King on Broadway—as more of a threat than an asset. And employees such as deposed ABC execs Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne got the full-frontal shaft, because they dared to challenge Eisner’s taste and make creative decisions he disliked. (Don’t let the current ABC prexy, Steve McPherson, fool you: It was Lyne who green-lighted Desperate Housewives and Braun who insisted on making the expensive pilot of Lost, which Eisner dubbed “another crazy” J. J. Abrams project.)

What Wilfrid Sheed once wrote of Henry Luce remains true of Eisner: “He’s a boss, and nobody likes the boss.” Meaning that one may discount some criticism as mere spite. (“Michael makes everybody miserable,” says one executive; Walt Disney’s nephew Roy, consigned to the sidelines on the board of directors—and since departed—posted on his Website a drawing of Eisner as Snow White’s evil queen, captioned, “Who’s the greediest of them all?”) But fortunately for Stewart, Eisner does a dandy job of sabotaging himself. True, I almost admire a guy with a heart condition who rejects yoga and meditation by saying, “I sort of liked stress.” But for a biz-wiz, he’s quite a saphead: Eisner initially thought Finding Nemo “nowhere as good as [Pixar’s] other films,” and he “disliked” Pirates of the Caribbean until Johnny Depp, and the gold-capped teeth Eisner so fervently wanted removed, started making the big guy lots of money.

Stewart makes it clear that Eisner—who granted the writer extensive access via interviews and internal correspondence—is one of those tycoons who, born into wealth, seizes power as his due and retains control by intimidating others with vehement opinions, no matter how boneheaded they may be. Like many who see themselves as visionaries, Eisner tends to be shortsighted about the feelings of others (immediately after John Ritter’s death, he wanted to retroactively make the wife in 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter pregnant and have her give birth during the next sweeps period). Oh, and about Walt’s resting place: On a 2004 Larry King Live, Eisner denied that the founder was frozen, but said Disney was buried in an unmarked, secluded grave. Daughter Diane Disney Miller watched, appalled—her father’s ashes lay beside those of her mother, beneath a memorial in Forest Lawn cemetery. “It’s time for [Eisner] to go,” she told her husband. We’ll see whether she gets her wish when Eisner’s chief-executive status expires in 2006.

To be sure, almost everyone I’ve named (or not named, for that matter) tried, Stewart makes clear, to do something underhanded to Eisner, either as revenge or as simple normal-operating-procedure in the Nefarious-Never-Never-Land atmosphere of the Magic Kingdom. DisneyWar, a classic anatomy-of-a-business that’s all the more impressive for the way it pins down a company that morphs with each day’s newspaper headlines, proves that the entertainment game is, more often than not, just The Apprentice (a hit Eisner missed out on, of course) with more expensive suits.

BACKSTORY The first time a troubled businessman got spotlighted in a Stewart exposé, he sent Alan Dershowitz on the warpath. Dershowitz took out a full-page New York Times ad on his client Michael Milken’s behalf, accusing Stewart of anti-Semitism in his 1991 book, Den of Thieves. The charges didn’t stick—the Anti-Defamation League itself dismissed them. Soon afterward, Stewart struck at another beleaguered executive, after Bill and Hillary Clinton asked Stewart to write an account of Whitewater. When their deal fell through, he kept on writing, and Stewart’s 1996 book, Blood Sport, was more revealing than they’d bargained for.

James B. Stewart.
Simon & Schuster. 572 pages. $29.95.

In the Belly of the Mouse