With the new Disney blockbuster movie “Saving Mr. Banks” premiered during the Christmas holidays, I could not think of a better subject to write about than the creator of the magical nanny that was the crux of the film, Mary Poppins. But to the uninitiated, Saving Mr. Banks was not centered on the film or the character of Mary Poppins, but as director John Lee ultimately arrived with the idea for the picture to be seen through the eyes of P.L. Travers. This was an interesting time in Disney history. As many know, the majority of Walt’s classic cinematic successes, both animated and live-action were taken from other tales, stories and fairy tales. The studio had not had to deal with the writer or writers, as they were mainly long deceased, and the rights acquired from estates or family members; well they trusted Walt to wield his magic to complete the tale. But in this case, the Disney studios were working with an author on the evolution of her story from book to movie.
But with the story of Mary Poppins, her author was alive, and was not willing at first to lend her creation to the big screen. This is a tale centering on creative design and genius, and how two creative geniuses, Walt Disney and P.L. Travers bandied about how the film should be treated. Both were strong-willed and used to getting their own way, and the film explores how Walt and Mrs. Travers came to terms. P.L. Travers was a very private and according to many, cantankerous. In addition, she had a bit of a troubled childhood.
P.L. Travers was born (Nee… Helen Lyndon Goff) on August 9, 1899, in Queensland, Australia. Her mother was of Scottish ancestry and her father of Irish descent. Her childhood was a mixture of happiness and sadness. She idolized her father, Travers Goff who was a bank manager (And likely the inspiration of George Banks employment in the movie) of often spoke of him in fanciful terms. She would say he was a man immersed in the poetry of history of his Irish culture. She added, he was the youngest son of Irish nobility, born in County Wexford and made his fortune as a sugar planter in Australia. But in reality he was born in South London and after a stint working on a tea plantation in Ceylon, he moved to Australia and became a bank manager. But her father had a dependence on alcohol, which in turn did not help his job status, being demoted and causing the family to move around. In the town of Allora in 1906, her father Travers was to address an audience for his employer, the local bank, but he was drunk and things just got out of hand. It was these memories that caused friction with Walt and his story team, as they tried to come to terms with Mrs. Travers on the Mary Poppins script. The scene where the bankers are acting out the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” number in the movie and her father’s performance in Allora made a deep impression on P.L. Travers.
Three years after her father’s death, her mother had threatened to commit suicide, which would leave Pamela and her two sisters with an uncertain future. Though she never followed through, the event had left scars on the future writer for the rest of her life. But the nuclei for the story of Mary Poppins came from her childhood. She had a great Aunt Ellie who helped raise Pamela and her sisters. She had many of the characteristics of the future Mary Poppins and their domestic servant owned an umbrella with a handle in the shape of a parrots head.
Travers loved fantasy and animals and was an avid reader. She started writing poems and stories as a teenager. She also gained a reputation as a dancer and Shakespearean actress. It was during this time she took the stage name of Pamela (Because she said it sounded “Actressy”), added her second name of Lyndon and her father’s first name, Travers. As her writing flourished, she took the name of P. L. Travers as not to be labeled as a woman writer. In 1924 she moved to Ireland and then on to Great Britain, working as a journalist. In 1931, she moved out of a rented flat in London that she shared with her friend Madge Burnand, and into a thatched cottage in Sussex. It was here, in the winter of 1933, that she began to write Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins was published in London in 1934 and was Travers first literary success. Five more Poppins books followed, the last one in 1989. Her first book contained drawings by Mary Shepard, the daughter of E.H. Shepard who illustrated the Winnie the Pooh books.
Walt Disney first encountered Mary Poppins’ story when his wife Lillian was reading the story at bedtime to his daughters Diane and Sharon and saw how they loved the tale. Walt immediately recognized the movie potential. Many others discussed the possibility of stage and screen adaptations of Mary Poppins, but were staunchly refused by Travers. During WWII, Travers worked in America for the British Office of War Information. It was in 1944 that Roy Disney met with Travers to discuss filming rights. Roy stated she seemed glad to see him, but was adamant about her nanny not being a “Cartoon” character. Another rub was that Travers appeared to loath Disney movies, musicals and especially, “Walt’s silly Cartoons” There were other Hollywood moguls who showed an interest in Mary Poppins, such as Sam Goldwyn, Vincente Minnelli and the CBS network. These and other suggested projects can to nothing. Walt renewed negotiations, and despite Travers being a “Most determined woman”, in April of 1960, Walt Disney and P.L. Travers’ publisher John Lyndon Ltd. signed a preliminary agreement and a six-year “service agreement” in June of that same year before she visited the Disney studios. As per the agreement, she would receive an advance of $100,000 against five percent of gross receipts; have consultations rights on the film’s casting and artistic interpretations and script approval. After trying to convince Travers to agree to his story treatment, Walt let his story team of Don DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers songwriting duo work with her. Some of her major objections were the toning down of Mary Poppins harsher attitude and thought that the Father, Mr. Banks tearing up of his children’s advertisement for the perfect nanny was cruel. She was also against any animation in the film and did not care for the music, favoring English folk tunes.
P.L. Travers was a complex individual. Many things affected her throughout her life, notable the death of her father, Travers who she idolized. His death haunted her till her death, and spends the remainder of her life seeking out a father figure. Travers never married, but her longtime roommate Madge Burnand was speculated to be her lover. In addition, Travers had liaisons with both men and women. Travers also yearned for a child. But not just any baby, it would be a baby with Irish blood and a strong literary lineage. In 1940, friends of hers, grandparents who are caring for 4 children, cannot cope anymore, arrange for one of twin brothers, aged six months to be adopted by Travers. She only adopts the one, Camillus Hone. His twin, Anthony is left behind. Camillus is raised in wealth and privilege, while his brother endured a much poorer lifestyle. However, at age 17, Camillus learned he had a twin brother in England, and eventually both reunited. But Camillus, never forgive his mother for lying to him (she had told him he was her natural son and that his late father had been a wealthy sugar magnate).
Travers continued to lend to the literary world after Mary Poppins with other novels, poetry collections and works of non-fiction. Disney’s Mary Poppins made Travers enormously wealthy, but she struggled with the fact her Mary Poppins was now a Disney Character. She reportedly wept at its premiere on August 27, 1964. Travers lived to 96 years old when she died in London in 1996. She was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1977. According to her grandchildren, “Travers died not loving anyone and nobody loving her” Despite her lifestyle, she will always be remembered as the author of one of the most cherished children’s books and helped make Disney’s ‘Mary Poppins” the crown jewel in his storied career.