Mirabile dictu! – he’ll be 82 this year (2006), a star who surely ranks with Chaplin in stature and in influence, among the greatest entertainers of this or any other century. Yet no biography has ever been written of the most popular performer in all history, doubtless the most famous of all animals endowed with human characteristics. Certainly “Mouse, Mickey,” as one scholarly index lists him, deserves space somewhere, so at the risk of being called misanthropic, let’s forget Princesses and Presidents for the nonce and forthwith embark on the first biography of a mouse – there have surely been biographies (recent ones, too) penned of far less appealing creatures.
To begin with, all scholars should know that Mickey was a real mouse. For the sake of convenience we’ll call our Mouse “him,” though the original may just as well have been a Ms. as a Mister. Mickey Mouse (b.l924) came into this world somewhere within the musty, malodorous cobwebbed walls of the garage that served as Walt Disney’s Laugh O’Gram studio in Kansas City, Missouri. The ur-material is scarce, but he appears to have come from a family of ten, though no accurate biography of his immediate ancestors is available. Yet to those cynics who question his reality, we submit abundant testimony that our hero (at first christened Mortimer) did indeed exist. Disney’s daughter confirms this: “Several stories have been told about Father’s having had a mouse who lived on his desk during his early days in Kansas City,” she testifies. “The thought back of this tale is that the mouse had given Father a special fondness for mice. ‘Unlike most of the stories that have been printed,’ Father told me,’ that one is true . . . Mice gathered in my wastebasket when I worked late at night. I lifted them out and kept them in little cages on my desk. One of them was my particular friend. Then before I left Kansas City I carefully carried him out into a field and let him go.”
Another Disney biographer informs us that he let his mouse go in an empty lot, exactly where in K.C. still remaining something of a mystery: “Nine mice skittered off into the weeds, but the tenth stayed put. It was Mortimer, watching him with bright eyes. Walt stamped his feet and shouted. The mouse took fright and ran. ‘I walked away,’ Walt would later recall, ‘feeling such a cur.’”
Other sources go as far as to say that Mortimer even “trespassed on his master’s drawing board, cleaning his whiskers with unconcern or hitching up his imaginary trousers;” that he plagued the other cartoonists to the extent of gnawing their pencils and erasers; that Walt often brought two lunches to the office, one for himself and the other for his pet – at a time when the artist more than once actually had to scrounge stale bread for his super. There is even a tale that Disney forbade his employers to set traps for any marauding mice, keeping his favorite Mortimer in an inverted wire basket during the day and letting him romp free with his friends at night. Here we have the familiar story of the neglected artist in his garret, the variation being that this artist starved with a pet mouse who was to become the inspiration for his greatest creation. “Other people would leave lunch scraps in the wastebaskets,” Disney later recalled in referring to his Mouse. “What I didn’t eat the mice came around to eat. One (Mortimer) was bolder than the rest. There was a shelf above my drawing board and he wouldn’t move off it.”
There we have all the hard-core facts of our Mouse’s real life before Disney left K.C. for Hollywood with just 40 bucks in his pocket. But we can speculate that Mortimer was about six months of age when Walt let him go free in that empty lot, and judging by the l ½ year lifespan of micekind, lived until August l925 – unless famine, feline or other bad fortune befell him. He could have had as few as nine brothers and sisters, but then again the common house mouse bears 5-8 litters a year, so the family was doubtless larger, say 50 sibling rivals. As for his vital statistics, Mortimer probably measured a little smaller than the average Mus musculus at 2 ½-3 inches in length. His heart, however, though weighing only about the usual 1.15 grams, was infinitely larger in the way of soul, having inspired Disney to the greatness he achieved.
No one had ever created a Mouse anything like Disney’s. The idea came almost five years after he let Mortimer go – to be exact, as biographers must in monumental works, on the evening of March l6, l928, aboard a train carrying the cartoonist from New York to Hollywood, when Disney dreamed of his all but forgotten pet. Call it what you like – fate, serendipity, Tyche, Lady Luck – but while he dozed that night another world was born. Walt didn’t know it, but he was gestating a mouse realer than real. Mortimer was actually put on paper for the first time on the next day, somewhere between Toluca, Illinois and La Junta, Colorado. Disney at first drew him with ruffled hair like Charles Lindbergh’s – for his first cartoon, Plane Crazy, was to parody that great Viking flier, who had just flown across the Atlantic, being about a mouse who built a plane in his own backyard. But the familiar red velvet pants with red buttons, the black dots for eyes, the pear-shaped body, pencil limbs, big yellow clodhoppers, and three-fingered hands in white gloves were already all present. So was a tail, which the rarest of rodents lost to the eraser in the future. Walt doodled and drew all day. Suddenly, in the midst of his sketching that evening, he shouted to his wife Lillian, “I’ve got him – Mortimer Mouse!”
“Mortimer is a horrible name for a mouse,” Lilly said with the certainty only artist’s wives and film critics can affect.
“How about Mickey then?” Walt replied. “Mickey Mouse has a good friendly sound.”
Lilly agreed, suggesting “Minnie Mouse” as a helpmate for Mickey in the process, and the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Mouse was born. Prenom Mickey now, patronym still Mouse. It was both a second life, a reincarnation for Mortimer probably long in his grave and a new birth for Disney, who even became the Mouse’s squeaky voice when sound films were made by Mickey. “I fathered him when he was called Mortimer Mouse,” the artist once told reporters, “and he was my first born and the means by which I ultimately achieved all the other things I ever did – from Snow White to Disneyland.”