Zibby is joined by the iconic star of the original The Parent Trap, Hayley Mills, to discuss her time acting with Disney and the stories that are recounted in her new memoir, Forever Young. Hayley tells Zibby about how her screenwriter son showed her how to shape the narrative arc of her formative years, her experience exploring Walt Disney’s archives and private possessions (which included her own hand-written letters), and the lessons she learned about her own family through reflecting on the past.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Hayley. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful new memoir. Congratulations. I’m so excited to talk to you about it.

Hayley Mills: It is a great pleasure for me to be here. Thank you very much. Yes, this is quite a departure for me to have done something like this. I did have my son in the background, who was very helpful, my son Crispian who is a screenwriter. He was very much my guide. He helped me enormously with the structure of the book. I attempted to write some sort of memoir so many, so many times. I can’t tell you. Invariably, I just wandered off into the labyrinth or the swamp of my life. To have somebody who was helping me keep on track and follow the narrative — I discovered that there was a narrative. I’d always maintained that our lives were so random, there wasn’t a narrative, but there actually is. To a certain extent, it’s kind of self-imposed. Once I got a sense of that, then it was much easier to stay on the straight and narrow. A beginning, a middle, and an end for every chapter, that was a revelation. I didn’t realize that that had to be .

Zibby: You couldn’t tell. It seemed to seamlessly work, which is great. You wrote in the beginning of the book that one of the impetuses for writing it was discovering this treasure trove that had been saved at Disney. Tell me about stumbling upon all of that.

Hayley: That was such a great moment, I can’t tell you, when I went to Disney Studios and I was taken to lunch by this lovely man, Howard Green, who’s in charge of a lot of different departments there. Afterwards, he said, “You must come and see Disney’s office that we have completely put back together again.” This is sixty years ago. When Walt Disney walked out of that office to go to the hospital and never came back, for a long time, they just left it as it was. Nothing was touched. Then it was all packed up. They photographed it minutely. It was packed in boxes and stored away for fifty-five, sixty years. Then this wonderful girl, Rebecca Klein, had the idea to reinstate it, as I say in the book — I never thought I would hear myself saying those words — as they did in the film Saving Mr. Banks, only this time, it was all his real things, his private possessions. To walk into that office, it was like a time warp. How much we often long to be able to go back in time and pick up that time and see those people and experience the world as it was when they were alive. That’s what I got walking into that office. It was exactly how he had been there, how it was when he was there, and even little scribbled notes on the notepad and little paperclips and things and ashtrays. He had a little, tiny kitchenette, which of course, while I was a child, I absolutely adored, the little stools and small cupboards behind. They had got, in the cupboards, 1960s food, cereals, Coca-Cola, all the things that you would expect to find in a kitchen in the 1960s. I’m actually getting goosepimples now thinking about it.

Then I was allowed to go into the archives and look through all the files and folders of things to do with my movies. I was astonished that every single thing had been kept, every little, tiny scrap of paper, the office memos, letters between myself and Walt, and Walt and my parents. Some of my letters had to be typed out because my writing was so awful that nobody could read it. I learned some things going through those files. I thought, my god. In a way, it’s wrong that I keep all this information myself. Obviously, I’d go home and I’d tell my family. I thought, it’s wrong, I really have got to write it down. I had no confidence in myself as a writer. Although, I’d always wanted to write. I’ve always written privately, journals and things like that, but not for anybody to look at. At lunch, there were some lovely people there, just a couple of people that I knew like Richard Sherman, who was one of the Sherman brothers, and his wife Elizabeth. Richard is now — then, he was in his late eighties. I believe he’s ninety now, and still playing the piano and still going strong. Michael Giaimo and Chris Buck, who are two of the creators of Frozen, two lovely men, at one point, Michael turned to me. He said, “So what was Walt Disney like?” It all went quiet at the table. I suddenly realized that the table was full of people who worked for Disney. Besides two other people, I was the only one who knew him, who had even met him. I knew him very, very well. I loved him. That’s when I thought, my, goodness, I can’t die, I can’t take all this with me. I’ve got to do it. I went home. I said, I’ve got to do this. My son said, “You’ve got to write it now.” I said, “But I can’t. I’m not a writer. I wouldn’t know how to start.” He said, “I will help you.” He did. He was my life raft as I was just about to float off into the sunset. He hauled me back in. I’m really glad I’ve done it. I think I’ve done it for myself, but I’ve done for myself and my grandchildren and also all the other children. What I realized — I’m afraid I suddenly seem to have verbal diarrhea.

Zibby: This is great. Keep going. It’s fine.

Hayley: You’re a very good listener. I realized when I was writing it that it’s really not so unusual. My childhood was rather weird. That was unusual. The things that I went through as an adolescent, everybody goes through to different degrees. Some of it was exacerbated because I was famous and all that business. I had to turn up at the studio and be photographed when I was fat and covered in spot, all that kind of thing. I felt, actually, more and more as I wrote it, that it was a very universal experience, which is really why I stopped it when I did, which is when my children were born. You’ve got four children. Is that right?

Zibby: I do. I have four children. It would be so neat, I was thinking as you were talking, for one of my sons or my daughter to collaborate on a book project with me when I was older. That must be such a neat experience for the two of you to have together as a shared project. That’s so nice.

Hayley: Yes, you’re absolutely right. Crispian, he’s in his forties. He’s married. He’s got two boys, two fantastic boys. To reconnect with him at this stage in his life and for the two of us to go back to my childhood, which of course, affects him too because what happened to me impacted him and my other son, Ace, that was really one of the best things about it, was spending this time. Sometimes it was just over the phone because we were locked down. That was definitely one of the best things, spending this time with Crispian and getting to know him again, really, on a whole other level. It was great.

Zibby: I actually couldn’t believe, when you got to the end of the book, close to the end, and you were like, at that point, I was twenty-eight years old. I was like, oh, my gosh, all this happened before she was twenty-eight? I couldn’t believe how much has happened to you starting — obviously, you started acting accidentally after you were playing outside and kind of got discovered because of your dad’s involvement. Just the wealth of experience packed into so many years, I’m glad that you did this. One of the things that I feel like was really strong in this book was how you created these scenes and sense of place, like the way you’re talking now about Walt Disney’s studio sort of frozen in time and even how you met him, and The Dorchester Penthouse. In the book, you’re like, you can google this. I was like, okay, I will. Of course, it’s gorgeous. I’m like, okay, I’ve got to find a way to stay here. This is amazing. I loved it.

Hayley: Get somebody else to pay the bill, though.

Zibby: Exactly. Expense it. I don’t know. In my podcast network or something. You create all these scenes so we can really see you in it. You take the reader right there. You, Crispian, or whoever, you did a really nice job of inserting us into these very unique moments, whether you’re dating George Harrison, or even school and your sister. It was all great. There’s this quote from the beginning that I just wanted to read because you really are a beautiful writer. You say, “To say I went through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole would be putting it mildly. At the age of twelve, my life was tipped on its head, and I was plunged, literally, into Wonderland often feeling very much like Lewis Carroll’s bewildered Alice. Perhaps that’s just how it is to grow up. One minute, you’re free and innocent, full of the joys of life, and then suddenly, you’re struggling to make sense of anything. I had some amazing luck and good fortune, but it all came at a price. The sole purpose of every young girl should be to become a happy, strong, and well-adjusted woman, but growing up is tough at the best of times, let alone when a multimillion-dollar career depends on you remaining a child. Writing about it sixty years on, I wonder whether this book is perhaps my first real chance to understand and take ownership of the strange and remarkable things that happened to me and to that young girl who went through the looking glass.” Bravo. That sounds great. Looking back, obviously, your childhood was shifted very dramatically when you were twelve, thirteen, fourteen. When you were then raising your sons, how did you approach that time of life knowing what you had gone through yourself?

Hayley: Of course, it was a very different world by the time they were in their teens. They were very different people. Unfortunately, they went to boarding school, as I did, but I was asked politely, or not so politely, to leave. Boys go through adolescence — it happens to them in a rather different way. Crispian was very independent right from the very beginning and wanted to go to boarding school. I didn’t want them to go to boarding school. I didn’t want either of them to go to boarding school. I remember he said to me one day — he was ten. He’d read too many Tom Brown’s School Days kind of books. He said, “I want to go to boarding school, Mommy.” I said, “But Darling –” He said, “It’ll be such fun with boys. There’s fun in the dorm,” and all that kind of thing. “You know, you don’t have that much freedom.” He said, “Mommy, I just want to go because it’s all out there.” He flung his arms wide. He was always very adventurous. He always wanted to climb every mountain. He wanted to go his own way. Your question was, how did I deal with it? I don’t know. I don’t know if I dealt with it well or not. Often, not.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Hayley: It’s such a trial and error, isn’t it, being a mother? This is one of the things about being a grandmother. I think I’m a much better grandmother than I was a mother. You sort of rediscover your children again through your grandchildren.

Zibby: I guess I’ll have that to look forward to if I ever these guys .

Hayley: How old are your children?

Zibby: I have fourteen-year-old twins, boy/girl, and then eight and six. Actually, my oldest son is at boarding school also. He begged to go. I was devasted, but it’s really great for him. I relate to what you were saying.

Hayley: Of course, being a twin, he wanted that identity. He wanted to be himself, not just one of a pair of twins. How did it affect his sister?

Zibby: Oh, she was thrilled.

Hayley: All right, so maybe that was really healthy for them to lead their own lives at that point.

Zibby: I think you’re right. By the way, they’re all huge fans of The Parent Trap, which I’ve watched like eighteen million times, original.

Hayley: I’m sorry about that.

Zibby: One of the things in your book that — I felt like you were trying to come to terms with your own mother and her unhappiness at different times and her dependence on alcohol at different times and looking back and thinking, wait, was she an alcoholic? This is what I just thought everybody did. They played tennis and drank and had cocktails every night. You touch on the many times throughout your career and your guys’ life together, her melancholy and how she was dealing with everything. How do you think about all of that now?

Hayley: I understand her a lot more as a result of writing this book. One of my motivations was to go back and have another look at it and try to understand more about her and more about my dad or about myself, my sister, my brother, why we made certain decisions. I hate to keep repeating myself, but I realized that my mother was struggling with the effect of her childhood all her life. Our childhood never really leaves us because it is the formative years. What do the Catholics say? They say, give me a child until the age of seven, and he’ll never go back to another life. I don’t know if that’s still true, but it certainly was at one point. It forms us. Our experiences when we’re growing up are tremendously formative. She was definitely struggling with the effect of being sent off to boarding school when her family were living in China. She was sent back to England. She didn’t see them for long, long periods of time. She was very intelligent and also extremely sensitive with this kind of melancholy, which was probably there anyway. I think it left her with a deep sense of insecurity.

Her ambitions had been somewhat thwarted. Initially, she desperately wanted to be an actress. She was a good actress. She began to get better and better roles until she went to New York with a British production. She was approached by Warner Bros. who wanted to put her onto contract. They said that for that to happen, she would have to agree to have her nose operated on. She didn’t want to do that. It was wartime. She’d already sailed across the Atlantic with a convoy of destroyers expecting to be torpedoed any minute. Then the play was a flop. She, to her surprise, was absolutely delighted. It meant that she could go home in convoy across the Atlantic. She realized what was important. What was important, my career, yes, I could go off to Hollywood and become an actress, maybe, who knows, or I can go back to be with the man I love. He was the love of her life. There’s no doubt about it. She totally and absolutely adored her father. Then when she met Daddy, she transferred all that to my dad. Then she had to see her father, who she hero-worshiped, who was a writer as well as being a soldier, experience failure and poverty and bankruptcy at the end of his life. He died ignominiously. He died with a sense of personal failure. That was unbearable for her.

She had that fear all of her life, that she was going to be a failure. She always felt deep down that she was a failure even though she had an incredibly successful marriage, a man who loved her with all his heart until the day he died at age ninety-seven. She had a number of very successful plays. She wrote a number of books, one of which was turned into a film which I did which became very successful, iconic film called Whistle Down the Wind. Still, she wasn’t convinced about her own success and desperately wanted — I think the theater really was her first love. She wanted to do another play and did write many plays for my dad but was never able to come up with a successful play as she had done in the beginning. Having security, that was an enormous motivating thing. That’s why she drank. When my father wasn’t there, when I was alone in Hollywood with her, she didn’t handle being on her own well. It’s an extraordinary thing. It wasn’t until I was an adult, and I mean in my thirties, that I realized how genuinely insecure and nervous she was. We were doing a television program called This is Your Life. She was brought on. It was for my sister. She was the victim of This is Your Life, the program. My mother was waiting in the wings. She was wringing her hands. I’d always thought my mother was chilled. She’d got it all together. All right, she drank, but I thought she was perfect and in charge. She wasn’t. She hid it. That’s a very, very long answer which you’re going to have to edit.

Zibby: No, it was great. I know, I wish we had so much more time. I had a thousand questions for you. If you could give advice to aspiring creatives, either people trying to write a book like you just did successfully or people aspiring to be actresses or another area in which you’ve excelled, what advice would you give them? How would you motivate them or dissuade them from doing the above?

Hayley: Or give them a sense of their own empowerment. The acting thing kind of fell into my lap. I didn’t pursue it. Then what was difficult for me was to maintain it. Eventually as I grew up and became self-conscious through adolescence, I questioned it. Then it became agony. It was very difficult to work when I was doubting myself all the time. That’s when I had to go and look at it from a different perspective. That’s when I went into the theater because I could learn. I think whatever it is you want to do, the more you can learn about it, the more that empowers you, the more you understand what it is you want to do. I’ve written this book, but I’ve been thinking about writing for years. I was always buying little books saying, how to write your memoir. I’d start. I’d do all the exercises and think, oh, god, no. The point is, I didn’t really know what I was going to write. I just loved writing. Then I had this marvelous woman who was a nutritionist. I went to talk to her about nutrition. It turned out that she was also a therapist. Nutrition and therapy, our diets and everything are all kind of one in the same, in a way. I started to talk to her about problems and things that I needed to understand about myself. She said, “You know what you ought to do? You ought to buy this wonderful book,” which I know you know, “called The Artist’s Way.”

Zibby: Yes, Julie Cameron?

Hayley: Julia Cameron. I started reading this book. It was like eating a feast. It was so wonderful. The best thing about it was this simple, simple trick of writing your morning pages every day. You write three pages. It doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t have to be well-written. You’re not going to show it to anybody or probably even read it yourself. You just write. I’ve done it for years. That encouraged me to write. When I was doing those morning pages, because I wasn’t self-conscious about choosing the right words, and that sentences looks — I was just getting it out. It opened a valve. It created the facility for getting my thoughts out on paper. The best experiences of writing that book was when my thoughts just came. I wasn’t assessing it all the time or judging it. Even if I didn’t use it or I changed it, I had a sense that this was authentic. That is tremendously important. As far as acting, god, there is so much luck involved. There are so many incredible actors out there that have never had the luck to get put together with the perfect part for them that they can flower and blossom into. Every single play or film or television show that I do, I’m always humbled by the talent. Some of them just go on. Some make it. Some don’t make it. The important thing is that you have to really love it very, very much because it’s a terribly hard, heartbreaking life in so many ways. Unless you’re terribly lucky, you’re not going to get rich, unless you’re top of the pile. Very few people up there. Very few people stay up there. You really, really have to love it and suffer for your art.

Zibby: Hayley, thank you so much. This has been so fun. I’ve really been a fan of yours. I truly enjoyed your book. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today.

Hayley: Thank you. I’ve really, really enjoyed it. Take care. Good luck with .

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Hayley: Bye.


FOREVER YOUNG by Hayley Mills

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