When 17-year-old John Culhane and three friends motored west from Rockford, Ill., in 1951, it was for much the same reason as legions before them: Someone had a friend who had a friend who knew someone big — someone really big — in Hollywood.
In this case, the friend of a friend was Diane Disney, daughter of Culhane's idol, Walt Disney.
To Culhane's amazement, the connection worked. For six hours on an August Sunday, young Culhane rambled the grounds of the Disney estate with Walt himself, who advised the fledgling writer to "work for your hometown newspaper, write for your neighbors — and just keep widening your circle."
Culhane did just that,...