For the Disney artists of the 1930s and early 40s, a huge credit of their exponential growth is owed to the in-studio art classes. And while teachers like Don Graham and Eugene Fleury deserve their due, this post is to honor the unsung heroes: the models — particularly because many did indeed have different relationships with a certain Disney animator named Art Babbitt.
Babbitt went through two other models before finally connecting with Doris Harmon, who ran the agency that would provide the Disney artists with their art models for years.  Harmon was once a model herself who started the Southern California Models Club, a network of more than 500 artists models of all ages and body types. She hired out her models to schools and private sessions, but for Disney she either went herself or passed the gig to a chosen few. 
Babbitt and she became friendly acquaintances. He was impressed by stories of Harmon’s mother, a Kansas City lady who apparently got in trouble with the law for shouting the Bill of Rights in public places. He filmed Harmon half-nude doing an African-style dance; though Babbitt often shot film for reference, this footage looks more like an art piece in its own right.
One way or another, Babbitt built himself a reputation throughout Harmon’s Models Club for being a Lothario – until he became romantically involved with a brunette named Sandra Stark.
Pronouncing her name “Sondra,” Sandra was an eager camping companion, which went far to earn Babbitt’s affection, and they dated for quite a while. Later in life, as a married woman, she would histrionically refer to Babbitt as the only man she had ever loved. Their breakup happened to coincide with the beginning of Babbitt’s courtship with the teenager named Marge Belcher who started appearing on the Studio lot.
It was Stark who, in 1936, told her friend and fellow model Adrienne le Clerc about a “wild Russian” animator that she had to meet.
Twenty-two-year-old Adrienne was able to land a coveted Disney modeling job on a Friday, when the lead animators were in attendance, and there she finally met Bill Tytla at his drawing pad. Bill and Adrienne began a passionate romance, which irritated Babbitt. Bill and he shared a home together, and Adrienne’s constant visitations and Bill’s divided attention made Babbitt the odd man out. Bill and Adrienne married in April 1938, but even after they moved into their own home, Babbitt never warmed up to her until after Bill’s death in December 1968.
Why was Babbitt so cold to Adrienne for so long? Perhaps the Tytlas’ fiery romance reminded him of his own struggles for love. He dated many women, but never settled down for more than a few years until he married Dina in 1948. He had wanted a family with Marge, but she opted to be a performer instead of a homemaker. He lived a decadent lifestyle with disposable income, and was a creative iconoclast who showed others the way. But for much of his adult life, he just couldn’t get the hang of couplehood, which, when you’re in your twenties, is a good way to build a reputation at a model’s club.
- Audio letter from Babbitt to John Canemaker, 1979
- Disney’s Giant and the Artist’s Model, by Adrienne Tytla, 2004
- Conversation between Barbara Babbitt and the writer, 2011
Interesting history as always. Fascinating biographical detail you’re unearthing about the ‘Golden Age’ animators-
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