Friday, November 20, 2009

As mentioned a few days ago I had a chance of corresponding recently with the granddaughter of Helen Hennesy, first Disney librarian and wife of legendary layout artist Hugh Hennesy. I will post more illustrations linked to this interview next week.

Didier Ghez: When and where was Helen born?

Charlene Sundblad: Helen Josephine DeForce was born 23 December, 1900 in Spokane, Washington. Her father was a railroad man eventually becoming the Superintendent of the Northern Pacific railroad for the Eastern Division of Washington.
Education was important and she attended private schools including Ramona Convent in Alhambra California and colleges such as: Wells College in Aurora New York; Stanford in California; University of Washington, Seattle, Washington and finally the University of Southern California, Pasadena, California where she earned her BA degree.

DG: What did she do before joining Disney?

CS: Her first marriage was to Ernest Ludwig, in Seattle Washington on Nov 16th 1925. It ended after the birth of their daughter, Helen Ludwig (my mother) in 1927. During those divorced years, Helen Josephine and her baby daughter lived with her parents who had retired in Pasadena, California. Her mother watched the baby so Helen Josephine could attend Library School. Helen Josephine graduated in 1929 from the Los Angeles Public Libraries accredited Library School and found work as a Children's librarian. Her first position was as assistant Children’s librarian - Salary $115.00.

DG: When and how did she join Disney?

CS: In July 1, 1935, Helen Josephine hired on at Disney Studio. She was the first librarian and her ID card said "Dept-Story." She was 34 years old and very excited as she wrote on her calendar: "Start work at Walt Disney Studio at 8:00".
The loss of her father later that year left her as the 'head of the family.' Her responsibility included her young daughter, and widowed mother. The three of them would continue to live together even after her marriage to Hugh Hennesy.

DG: Was she hired as a Librarian right from the start?

CS: Yes. She was given complete authority to organize and establish the Walt Disney Library. When the Studio moved from Hyperion Street to the Burbank building, she was allowed to choose the draperies and colors for the new library which she physically set up.
Helen Josephine Ludwig was listed in the California Library Association - 1937- Walt Disney Studio, Hollywood.

DG: Did she ever tell you about her life and work at the Studio?

CS: Helen was very proud to have worked for Walt. She took her librarian work seriously and would send off many "notes" to those who did not either check the books out properly or return them in a timely manner. She would chase down all missing books no matter who had them.

One note came from Walt himself:

(dated 1936)

Interoffice note from Helen to Roy Williams asking him to return a book. He then sketched a caricature of himself on the note in reply.

Cartoon of Helen in a car inviting some school children to eat a sandwich. There is a sign that says, "Don't Eat Lunch Here" and in parenthesis someone had written "Beware of 'Jekyll-Hyde' Librarians."

DG: Did she ever tell you about meetings with Walt?

CS: Hugh died in 1954. Walt Disney attended Hugh’s funeral where he caught a bad cold and vowed never again to attend a studio mans funeral.

(Sympathy note from Walt)

March 16, 1954

"Dear Helen,

We were shocked and saddened this morning to learn of Hugh's passing, and all of us want to extend to you our heartfelt sympathy.The loss of Hugh will be keenly felt by the studio as well as the many loyal friends that he made during his long association with us. And while I know your personal adjustment will be difficult, you do have the sincere and good wishes of your many friends here."


Walt Disney (signed)

DG: Any funny or striking stories she might have shared with you about her work at the Studio?

CS: In 1938, Helen Josephine and Hugh attended the premier of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at The Carthay Circle Theatre on Tuesday, December 21, 1937.
She told me that the face in the mirror was actually a distorted portrait of Hugh,
that he had 'posed' for it.

After leaving Disney Studio she was responsible for organizing a post card mailer (March 1941) in support of: vote YES on Amendment #1 for the Los Angeles Public Library.

It pictured Donald Duck in an authorized manner telling Mickey Mouse


DG: Do you know who were her friends at the Studio?

CS: I think her work only put her in contact with:

Ward Kimball
Charlie Philipp
Art Riley

other familiar names were:

Joe Grant
Herb Ryman
Ted Sears
Norm Ferguson
and the mention of Tom Codrick because he married Hugh's ex wife, Betty.

DG: When and how did she meet your step-grandfather?

CS: Hugh had previously been married to Betty Price in 1924 and divorced in 1934. My guess is since both were single and the library was a place that Hugh frequented. He would tease her and send her funny little notes of caricatures of depicting a tall, skinny, bobbed hair librarian. She called him "Hoo" and they 'ran off ' to Yuma, Arizona on 2 Jan 1937 to get married.
They lived at 4545 Arcola, North Hollywood, California. This house was located in the Toluca Lake area. A few streets over was Bob Hopes house. She was 36 years old with one daughter, and Hugh was almost 47 years old with one son, Dale.

DG: When and why did she leave the Studio?

CS: I was always told that Disney had a 'policy' that married employees could not (should not?)
work together at the studio. Hence, she left in 1938 and returned to LA City Library.

DG: Any background you may also have on Hugh?

CS: Hugh Hennesy was born 12 January 1891 in New Lexington, Ohio and died suddenly Sunday March 14, 1954, while on a vacation in Death Valley National Park, California.
Hugh had one brother, Gerald Hennesy who was an electrical inventor and worked at General Electric at one time. Gerald died in 1941.

As a young man, Hugh served in WW1. He was a newspaper man from Washington DC., working at the Washington Times from 1926- 1931. and head of the art department of the Times Herald in Washington DC.
His drawings/sketches were used through out the newspaper; travel section, advertisements, and a column called “Do You Know”.
He joined Disney in 1932; hence he worked for Walt for about 22 years.

An article in the Disney company newspaper called The Bulletin from March 7, 1939:

Close- Ups
"Hugh Hennesy was born in New Lexington, Ohio in 1891. He spent his early years drawing on the backs of books and on the wall paper.
After high school, two years at Corcoran Art school, twenty years of newspaper art departments in Washington D.C., and one year in aviation
life began at forty one- with the advent on the screen of one "Steamboat Willie"
The enthusiasm for the future of animated cartoons brought him to the wild and wooly west, and now after seven years of layouts, is still boosting the unusual weather in Room 205. (Hugh said to print this only if the sun is shining.)
Two years ago Hugh married our Librarian, Helen Ludwig, who is now busy cataloguing all thirty-seven books at the Hennesy ranch in Hidden Valley."

Note: Helen never remarried, continued her life occupation as a librarian until forced retirement at the age of 75. She died in 1995. She was 95 years old, and both she and Hugh are buried Church of Our Savior, San Gabriel Cemetery, Pasadena, California.


Unknown said...

Absolutely stunning!

What an incredible glimpse into the history of the Studios.

Thanks you for sharing this with all of us.

David said...

Love these types of interviews - previously unknown info! Great job, as always, Didier!

Paula said...

Didier, this is wonderful. I've always felt a kinship with the Disney Studio library-- it's so great to know more about Helen as the first librarian.

gunnar said...

Great interview, Didier !
Still another bit to the big Disney Studio puzzle !
I really hope that you'll get a higher resolution version of the group photo with Hugh.