Phyllis Zane Bounds was born December 22, 1919 in Spokane, Washington, and died June 21, 1983 in a mansion in Pacific Heights in San Francisco, at the age of 63. She was the niece of Lillian, who was Walt Disney’s wife.
According to the always outstanding research on Disney’s fabled Nine Old Men, Disney historian John Canemaker was able to determine that Phyllis was well-known for being hard-drinking, chain-smoking, rough talking, hard working, artistic, stubborn, and opinionated.
She was not a woman to be trifled with in any way. Her entire life was entwined with Disney and animation in some way through her four marriages.While working in the Disney Ink and Paint Department, including on Dumbo (1941) where, according to historian Mindy Johnson, she also supplied some story art, she briefly married a studio gas station attendant.
Apparently she was divorced by 1941 when she began and affair with married glamor photographer George Hurrell while she was posing for him and moved in with him. After he divorced his wife, she later married him at age 24 in March 1943 and had three children. She was fourteen years younger than Hurrell. Their children included Victoria (b. 1945), Clancy (b. 1946) and Alexandria (b. 1948).
In 1950, she reconnected with her uncle, Walt Disney, who had expressed interest into getting into television. In December, George Hurrell, who had a background in doing television commercials, negotiated with Roy O. Disney (Walt’s older brother), Gunther Lessing (the Disney Studio lawyer) and Paul Pease to create Hurrell Productions.
It was officially established January 5, 1951. The agreement was that the television production company would function on the Disney Studio lot itself and be able to use the talent and resources of the studio. Because of his still existing advertising commitments, Hurrell himself remained in New York to finish up work putting Bounds in charge of the day-to-day activities.
One of Walt’s last secretaries, Tommie Wilck, told interviewer Richard Hubler that Walt’s wife Lillian was furious that Walt had hired Bounds in the first place. Lillian’s sister Hazel Sewell felt that Bounds was “too flighty” and had already been given too many chances and would prove unreliable and end up hurting Walt.
The fight over the matter was so bad that instead of going home, Walt stayed at the studio for three nights and never called Lillian during that time.
Hurrell decided he wanted to expand beyond commercials and produce a television series based on the character of Zorro, who had previously been popular in films. He negotiated a deal with Mitchell Gertz, who had acquired rights to the character from its creator, Johnston McCulley. Hurrell began negotiations with movie star Gilbert Roland to play the character.
Walt stepped in and put a stop to the project. Hurrell claimed Walt said, “He’s too old” about Roland, which infuriated the photographer who felt that Walt was infringing on his autonomy and creativity. Walt later negotiated a contract with Gertz for a television show with the character.
Hurrell began being increasingly argumentative with Walt and, on September 10, 1954, Hurrell and Phyllis separated. Walt supposedly offered to buy Hurrell Productions, but the angry Hurrell responded, “You can’t have my name. My name is mine.”
On November 24, Phyllis filed for divorce and part of the reason she explained was that “his [Hurrell’s] behavior is hurting the production company”. On May 18, 1955, Bounds was granted a divorce and was awarded $600 a month in child support, as well as a substantial property settlement. She continued to oversee the productions by Hurrell Productions on the Disney Studio lot.
Hurrell Productions was disbanded on May 8, 1959 for several reasons including the fact that Walt was unhappy with the use of classic Disney characters in commercials and the limited animation that, because of costs, had to be used in order to be competitive in the market as well as the demands of the sponsors who tried to override his decisions.
Bounds married animator David Detiege on January 25th, 1958, as the production studio was gearing down its work. He was a storyman at Disney and went on to be a writer and occasional director at UPA, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera as well as several independent animation companies.
He wrote and directed the animated feature film The Man From Button Willow (1965). Bounds is credited as the producer on the film and with writing the lyrics for the songs (as “Phil” Bounds) with composer George Bruns.
She also claimed she contributed to the writing, but is uncredited in that capacity in the final credits. They were divorced shortly after the film was released.
Noted Disney musicologist Greg Ehrbar kindly shared with me that she and Detiege also produced a 1959 record album, Fess Parker in Fancy Feathers (that included Jimmie Dodd, Gloria Wood, Paul Frees along with Fess Parker), on Fess Parker’s Cascade label.
Disney Legends Marc and Alice Davis introduced the 49-year-old Phyllis to the nearly 60-year-old Disney Legend Milt Kahl in 1967. They dated for about a year and married on February 14, 1968. They were married for about nine years and 10 months and got officially divorced on January 31st, 1978. Phyllis died roughly five years later.By this time, Bounds was financially well off and owned two buildings on the corner of Melrose Place. One was rented to the upscale Le Restaurant and the other was the Bounds Gallery which sold posters and graphics by modern artists like Picasso while there was living quarters for her in the back.
The newlyweds lived in a penthouse in Century City, which Bounds decorated with a $200,000 set of furniture from a French chateau. The other half of the penthouse floor was the residence of actor David Janssen and his girlfriend who played rock and roll music so loud that the Kahls were constantly screaming at them and pounding on the walls.
Bounds introduced Kahl to the art of Picasso, Chagall, and Henry Moore. She made him more conscious about his physical appearance, especially how he dressed and helped him pick out clothes. They traveled frequently to Europe.
However, Kahl had a cruel, fiery temper and was highly competitive. When Bounds took up tap dancing and piano, he took them up as well and worked hard to be better than she was. Bounds was a strong woman, but got tired of being his wife especially when he became critical of her drinking.
Animator and director Richard Williams recalled, “She talked like a producer and tucked the alcohol away.”
Kahl later claimed that his favorite character to animate was the villainous Madame Medusa in The Rescuers (1977) because he based much of her flamboyance and “aging sexpot attitude” on his ex-wife. He ended up doing almost all the animation for the character himself.
Animator Jane Baer, who knew Milt and Phyllis told historian John Canemaker, “Phyllis wore boots. Medusa wore the same boots. In that scene where (Medusa’s) pulling off the eyelashes, I said, ‘That’s Phyllis!’ You just knew.”