Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.
Abigail Disney, 59, is an activist and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker. She is also the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder of The Walt Disney Company, making her an heiress to the Disney family fortune (she declines to say how much she inherited, but has given away over $70 million since she turned 21). Raised in North Hollywood, California, with three siblings, she has a doctorate from Columbia and currently lives in New York. Here, she talks about the paradoxes of growing up in tremendous wealth; she will also be featured on the Cut’s podcast, The Cut on Tuesdays, on April 9.
Growing up, did you know you were wealthy?
At least when I was young, my parents weren’t really showy people. The money didn’t really change them until later. Actually, they were really proud of being humble people — an oxymoron, I know. They wanted to raise us with the sense that we weren’t any better than anyone else.
That said, we lived in a big enough house that we would always get two doorbells on Halloween — people would ring the front and the back thinking it was two houses. But again, it wasn’t lavish. There weren’t private airplanes and things like that until I got older.
Do most people assume you’re rich when they meet you?
People do say to me, straight up, “Oh my God, you must be really rich.” In every interaction, you don’t get to make a first impression because they’re already thought about what they want to think about you before you even shake their hand.
What about situations where people don’t know you’re rich?
If I’m in a situation where people know my last name, they usually know it. But I’m not recognizable, so I can go through the world and restaurants and airports and interact with people like a normal person. That, I love. It’s great. There are very occasionally people for whom it never crosses their mind until later, and then they get freaked out.
This is the weird thing about my life: I am usually excited to meet someone in direct disproportion to how excited they are to meet me. I’m kind of a lefty, New York City, Manhattan, pointy-headed intellectual type. Those are the people who hate Disney and think it’s the worst thing on Earth, and that’s where I probably would be if I weren’t actually related to it.
When I meet people, I have an unfair advantage in being able to make them laugh because all I have to do is make a joke about Tinkerbell or Cinderella, and they love you for it. In some cases, all I have to do is not be a huge asshole. It’s like people think you’ll come in on a chariot or something. Within about an hour, invariably, they’ll say, “Oh my God, you’re so down to Earth.” I don’t know what people expect.
Did you have a moment in your life when things started getting lavish and you realized, “Oh, I’m super rich”?
When I went off to college, Michael Eisner came in and reinvigorated the company, and then the stock price, which was basically my family’s entire net worth, was ten times, 20 times, 50 times what it had been when I was growing up. So all of the sudden, we went from being comfortable, upper-middle-class people to suddenly my dad had a private jet. That’s when I feel that my dad really lost his way in life. And that’s why I feel hyperconscious about what wealth does to people. I lived in one family as a child, and then I didn’t even recognize the family as I got older.
In what ways did your dad change, other than having a jet?
Actually, having a jet is a really big deal. If I were queen of the world, I would pass a law against private jets, because they enable you to get around a certain reality. You don’t have to go through an airport terminal, you don’t have to interact, you don’t have to be patient, you don’t have to be uncomfortable. These are the things that remind us we’re human.
My dad’s plane was a 737, and it was insane to have a 737 as a private airplane. It had a queen-sized bed with one big long seatbelt across it, and a shower, and it was ridiculous. We would use the plane occasionally because I have four kids, so it was much easier, obviously, to ride on my dad’s plane with them. Then, at a certain point, I just said, “No, I think this is really bad for everybody.”
How did the jet change your dad?
It wasn’t just the plane, but it’s not a small thing when you don’t have to be patient or be around other people. It creates this notion that you’re a little bit better than they are. And for the past 40 years, everything in American culture has been reinforcing that belief. We say, “Job creators, entrepreneurs, these are the people who make America great.” So there are people walking around with substantial wealth who think that they have it because they’re better. It’s fundamental to remember that you’re just a member of the human race, like everybody else, and there’s nothing about your money that makes you better than anyone else. If you don’t know that and you have money, it’s the road to hell, no matter how much stuff you have around you.
When did you stop riding the private jet?
The moment for me, when I decided I couldn’t fly in the plane anymore, was about 20 years ago. I had to fly out to California for a meeting but I had to get back to New York by the next morning for a conference. And the guy who ran our family’s company put me on the 737 alone. I flew across the country overnight, by myself on that giant plane, and I was sitting there thinking about the carbon footprint and the number of flight attendants and the other pilot on-call and what it was costing, and I just wanted to be sick. By the way, my parents always made fun of the fact that I thought it was terrible and awful because they were very comfortable with what they were doing.
What lessons did your parents teach you about money?
My mom was somebody who really liked having nice things, like Chanel suits. She would spend money on things that she really, really loved. But she also dressed like a slob, and she would be more delighted by a deal on toilet paper at the supermarket than any Chanel suit.
This is often true of rich people, isn’t it?
Yes. A lot of people go back and forth between these identities. My parents’ financial life changed in the ’80s, and I was an adult by then and I watched them kind of relax into it. I think of it as slouching into money. They were in their 50s and they liked the shortcuts that wealth gave them. It’s very hard to say no to things like that. But what ends up happening is you end up being surrounded by people who don’t tell “no,” ever. And as my father’s drinking problem grew, he was surrounded by people who wouldn’t say, “You have a terrible drinking problem. You need to go get some help.”
Are you cautious with money?
You know, I’m not. I’m 59, and now that I’ve been living in the world on my own and managing my own money for a while, I have developed the opposite view of almost everything that my parents did. I started giving money away in my 20s, and my parents thought that was crazy. But it was mine to give. Luckily, my grandfather gave us money directly, which was great because I never had to go to my parents and ask for anything. I was totally independent at 21. So I started giving money away. Within a couple of years I was giving away more money than my parents, who had much more money that I had, which they told me was embarrassing to them.
You don’t have to answer this, but I’m trying figure out how much you inherited, or a ballpark if you’re not comfortable talking about it.
Well, and the number has changed over the years. I’ll tell you this: I could be a billionaire if I wanted to be a billionaire, and I’m not because I don’t want to be a billionaire. That’s an insane amount of money. But it’s the easiest thing in the world to make money if you start with money. And then people give themselves credit for being that smart when they’re not.
About how much money have you given away?
I’ve given away in the range of $70 million in the last 30 years. I’m proud of that. I’m in a position to continue giving a lot of money away until the day I die. I really considered giving it all away at a certain point in my 20s, and I know people who did that. And I wish I could tell you that it was courage that kept me from doing that, but it was mortal fear. I didn’t think I would be able to survive. I was afraid I was a hothouse flower. I didn’t know if I could live on my own.
Now I’m glad I didn’t give it all away, because my money has grown. Now I’ve given away so much more than I inherited. And I’m so much smarter now. What I would’ve done in my 20s would have been great and nice, but I’m so much more effective now.
What do you enjoy spending money on?
I live in a constant state of tension about that. I really love a very good meal at very good restaurants and a very good bottle of wine. I really love a beautiful pair of shoes, and I’ll spend way too much money on that, or a purse. Luckily, I’m not a real-estate girl; I don’t need a ranch and a ski resort and whatever else. And I don’t want a private jet because it hollows you out from the inside. So I’m lucky that the things I love are really not expensive, considering. But to most normal people, what I spend on a really good dinner at a really good restaurant, that would be horrifying. They couldn’t even imagine spending that. So I wouldn’t pass muster with a lot of lefties, I have to say.
Has the way you spend money changed?
I think that people who grow up in this kind of life go one of two ways. They either go the Kim Kardashian route, which is spending, spending, spending, completely absorbing the idea that, “Yes, you are that special,” and wanting everyone to look at you. Or, and I know a lot of people who’ve gone this way — especially my women friends — you do the opposite. I wore shitty clothes around. I didn’t want anyone to know what I had but money is morally neutral. It does not, in and of itself, make you a bad person. It also does not, in and of itself, makes you a good person. You are who you are and the least important thing about you is what you have. That was not, “You haven’t earned it,” you know. So my philosophy is you try to earn it in reverse.
What’s that dynamic like? Do you see other wealthy people and think, “Oh, you earned your money, whereas I was given it”?
I certainly have an inferiority complex around people who have actually earned their money. I did grow up with this doubt about myself. Like, did Yale really say yes because I was that good, or did Yale say yes because of my last name? I’ll never know. I’ve spent a lot of time earning things like post graduate degrees that make me feel legitimate. And those feelings have started to go away. But that’s outsourcing your sense of self. That is handing your self-esteem to the world to tell you whether or not you’re allowed to have any. And that’s a dangerous game.
I’m curious if you have any friends that aren’t wealthy, and how you found them.
Oh yeah. That’s actually a hard thing to find. The way I did start to form really strong relationships was when I went on the board of the New York Women’s Foundation in 1992. They described themselves as a cross-class alliance of women helping women across New York City, which sounds very canned, but honestly it’s exactly that. And that’s where I began to form relationships with people who were very different to me.
I remember this wonderful Korean lady came over for a meeting at my house, and the next day she called me and she said, “You didn’t offer me a glass of water.” And that never crossed my mind, but I have to be conscious of the fact that people who come into my home are coming into a place that feels daunting and intimidating, and I need to go to the extra mile to make them feel welcome. And I didn’t know about that until someone just came out and said it to me. Just like I watched my father increasingly surround himself with yes men, I started to deliberately surround myself with no ladies. And so they would, a lot of the time, really jerk my chain, and that was important.
Is it hard to trust that someone is interested in you for you, if there’s an inequality there?
That is the worst. And I have gotten a really good radar about that. There are people where you can practically see dollar bills in their eyeballs when they’re talking to you. And they are not bad people. How you feel about money is greatly related to how you were raised, so I don’t hold that against you, but I will keep you at arm’s length. I can’t be an idiot, but I would rather be duped from time to time — and pay that price — than become a person who lives in mistrust. When I get duped, I just chalk it up to the rent I’m paying for not living on Planet Suspicious.
They did a study at the Chronicle of Philanthropy years ago where they asked people who inherited money, “What amount of money would you need to feel totally secure?” And every single one of them, no matter what they had, named a number that was roughly twice what they inherited. So that’s what you need to know about money, right? If that is your primary measure of success or value in life, then good luck with that, because it will never feel good.