Author Helen Aberson never recovered from losing her much-loved story for such a measly sum, according to her son. She died heartbroken in 1999, aged 91, after failing to gain recognition for her creation

Author of Dumbo book died ‘heartbroken’ aged 91 after never getting the recognition she deserved 

UK News

With its state-of-the-art special effects and all-star cast, Tim Burton’s remake of Dumbo has already enthralled thousands of families since its release on Friday.

Disney’s 1941 classic movie, the tale of a baby elephant with enormous ears, has been reimagined for a modern audience and features a host of Hollywood luminaries including Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito.

Yet behind the touching Dumbo story is a real-life tale which is equally as emotive.

Author Helen Aberson never recovered from losing her much-loved story for such a measly sum, according to her son. She died heartbroken in 1999, aged 91, after failing to gain recognition for her creation

For despite the huge success the cartoon brought to Disney – apparently saving it from closure – the studio paid the author of the book on which the film was based just $1,000.

Author Helen Aberson was 30 when she wrote a children’s story featuring the little elephant in 1938. She based her idea on her experience of growing up in poverty and facing discrimination as the daughter of Jewish immigrants to America from Russia.

She sold the rights to a publisher, which in turn sold them to Disney for $400. However, when the film became a hit, she tried to negotiate a better deal but was unable to get more.

Her son has revealed she never recovered from losing her much-loved story for such a measly sum.

Journalist Andrew Mayer, 72, told The Mail on Sunday that his mother died heartbroken in 1999, aged 91, after failing to gain recognition for her creation. 

Burton’s live-action remake is set to be this Easter’s smash-hit family movie, despite mixed reviews. One critic described it as a ‘clunker’ which loses the ‘charm and heartbreak’ of the original

Burton’s live-action remake is set to be this Easter’s smash-hit family movie, despite mixed reviews. One critic described it as a ‘clunker’ which loses the ‘charm and heartbreak’ of the original

He added that the experience ‘haunted’ her and thinking back to the original deal made her feel ‘humiliated’.

‘She felt that she had been left out,’ he said.

‘It left her feeling depressed, especially when year after year Dumbo would turn up as a character on TV and in books.

‘It was her baby, but it really wasn’t her baby any more. She never believed she got her just dues in terms of the way things played out.

‘Sometimes she’d get emotional, but she didn’t like to discuss it.’

Andrew said that when the copyright came up for renewal in 1968, his mother could not bear revisiting the painful episode and let it lapse without telling anyone.

As a result, Disney has not been obliged to mention her name in the credits to any films or books produced since then – and has refused to pay her any more money. 

Even the remake will not bring royalties, despite it expecting to bring in £38 million in its first week alone.

It has left a bitter taste knowing that the family’s lives could have been very different. ‘Later on I wondered whether I should have tried to write something about it,’ Mr Mayer said. 

Despite the huge success the cartoon brought to Disney – apparently saving it from closure – the studio paid the author of the book on which the film was based just $1,000

Despite the huge success the cartoon brought to Disney – apparently saving it from closure – the studio paid the author of the book on which the film was based just $1,000

‘Then again, when Walt Disney was alive you had to be careful because they might have sued you for libel. You’re going up against Goliath.’

Burton’s live-action remake is set to be this Easter’s smash-hit family movie, despite mixed reviews. One critic described it as a ‘clunker’ which loses the ‘charm and heartbreak’ of the original.

It would, no doubt, have further frustrated his mother, Mr Mayer said. Speaking from his home in Staten Island, New York, Mr Mayer described how even the first film was a huge departure from her original idea.

Disney’s movie tells the tale of an elephant, Jumbo Jnr, born inside a circus troupe with comically large ears. Teased by a group of children and cruelly nicknamed Dumbo, his mother flies into a rage in his defence and is locked up by the circus masters. 

Three further Dumbo books were released, and a puppet-based TV series, Dumbo’s Circus, ran during the 1980s. Dumbo The Flying Elephant features as a popular ride across Disney’s theme parks, pictured above

Three further Dumbo books were released, and a puppet-based TV series, Dumbo’s Circus, ran during the 1980s. Dumbo The Flying Elephant features as a popular ride across Disney’s theme parks, pictured above

Dumbo’s humiliation ends when he discovers his ears allow him to fly – turning him into one of the circus’s greatest assets. This poignant theme of resurrection was inspired by Helen’s own life.

The working-class Aberson family had come from what is now Odessa in Ukraine but settled in Syracuse, New York, in the late 1890s. At one point, Helen lived in Manhattan, selling apples on the streets to make ends meet.

But in 1932, aged 24, she became a radio talk show host, a pioneering role for a woman at the time.

Dumbo, written several years later, was illustrated by her first husband, Hal Pearl, and together they sold the rights to Syracuse-based publisher Everett Whitmyre. They took it to Walt Disney Productions, which had recently released Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

Helen later found herself being flown out to California as a consultant on the film – without pay – but became disillusioned after major parts of the storyline were changed. 

In her original story, Dumbo’s mother was Mother Ella instead of Mrs Jumbo, and Dumbo’s helper was a robin called Red instead of a mouse called Timothy.

Mr Mayer said: ‘She was so unhappy with the changes and how the movie was displayed.’

The $1,000 fee Helen received marked both the beginning and end of her career in the movies, and she resumed her life working as a clerk in the War Department.

The family struggled and their lives were far from extravagant.

Although Helen did carry on writing children’s books – including one called Otto The Otter – they did not capture the attention of publishers. 

It has left a bitter taste knowing that the family’s lives could have been very different. Mr Mayer said: ‘Then again, when Walt Disney was alive you had to be careful because they might have sued you for libel. You’re going up against Goliath'

It has left a bitter taste knowing that the family’s lives could have been very different. Mr Mayer said: ‘Then again, when Walt Disney was alive you had to be careful because they might have sued you for libel. You’re going up against Goliath’

Disney’s fortunes, meanwhile, were transformed by the success of Dumbo, making up for the heavy losses suffered from its previous film, Fantasia.

It left the studio able to embark on hits such as Bambi, Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. Last year, the company recorded revenues of £45.4 billion.

Three further Dumbo books were released, and a puppet-based TV series, Dumbo’s Circus, ran during the 1980s. Dumbo The Flying Elephant features as a popular ride across Disney’s theme parks.

Helen’s family twice attempted to recoup royalties but, because there was no copyright, Disney insisted it owed them nothing.

Mr Mayer said: ‘We wanted them to recognise my mother made a mistake. The answer was always no.’

Last night Disney failed to respond to requests for comment.

According to Mr Mayer, whenever Dumbo was shown, Helen felt a ‘sense of pride’ but it was tempered with sadness. She was particularly careful to check her name featured on the credits.

Today, however, Mr Mayer is not even sure he will see the updated movie out of respect for his mother, whose emotions he knows would be hugely conflicted. He said wryly: ‘We’re not going to cry tears if it doesn’t make multi millions.’


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