Making of Mary Poppins - The Story of PL Travers
Fidelity Fiduciary Bank
Travers Robert Goff was an enterprising Irishman who was born in Deptford, South London. He went to make his fortune in Australia with his wife Margaret. He soon assumed the position of the bank manager in the Australian Joint Stock Bank in Queensland. The Goff family lived in a house attached to the bank itself and had their three daughters there.
The Eldest of the daughters was named Helen Lyndon Goff and was known to everyone simply as 'Lyndon'. A strong willed, passionate young thing she was close to her parents and her two little sisters. Travers Goff liked a drink. It wasn't a habit favored by his employers. That unfortunately didn't stop him from drinking more and more. He paid a heavy penalty when the bank demoted him from Manager to a bank clerk. This was a time of economic crisis and recession. Banks were foreclosing loans and making their employees redundant. The excesses of the old century gave way to the realities of the new. The Boom days were over.
What he used to do for fun, Travers started to drink out of self pity and fear of failure. in 1907 Travers, still only in his forties, died from a life unfulfilled from alcoholism, high fever and a broken heart as he feared a further demotion. Travers left his wife the three daughters destitute for at the same time, his wife's inheritance held in Queensland National Bank was also lost as the bank went insolvent.
The centuries maybe different but the background of this story is the all too familiar financial meltdown creating havoc in people lives. As it has done in the recent years.
Some time after her husband's death, poor Margaret, overcome with grief and depression ran out of the house one rainy day, threatening to drown herself in the nearby river. The children were petrified with fear. Only Helen, the eldest, wrapped her two little sisters in a quilt and told them a story of a magical flying horse and its adventures. The seeds for a future of telling stories were perhaps sown that ghastly night. The mother did eventually return to her children and the family got by on a wing and a prayer.
Their poverty remained until Helen was old enough to go to work. She started early, working as a secretary in a cashier's office. She soon left this as she had developed quite a talent for singing and dancing. Helen went to seek her fortune in showbiz.
She adopted the stage name of Pamela Lyndon Travers and worked with an Australian Touring company.
Step in Time
Helen, now Pamela Lyndon Travers, was already writing articles for the local magazines while performing in the troupe. She knew if she wanted to take her writing career further she'd need to move somewhere where writing and publishing flourished in that era. At the mere age of 25 ( in 1924) she sailed to London to make a living there.
A brave step for a young girl in a male dominated world. She was enterprising, hardworking and fearless. She wanted to get in touch with her Irish roots and on an impulse went to visit the poet WB Yeats, who received this bright young thing with positive notes of encouragement. She also submitted poems to the Irish Statesman which was edited by the poet George Russell ( known to the publishing world as AE) who became her mentor.
Pamela formed a close friendship with Madge Barnard, a daughter of one of AE's friends. The pair moved from a London flat to a cottage in Sussex where Pamela continued to write articles and poems. Pamela always wanted to write a book. Her inspiration was JM Barrie, whose Peter Pan was storming the London scene as a play and a book.
It was the winter of 1933, when she was recovering from a bout of pleurisy, that Pamela started writing the book that would introduce to the world the most famous nanny of them all.
The Mary Poppins BooksClick thumbnail to view full-size
PL Travers was very much influenced by JM Barrie's Peter Pan. The links doesn't stop there: May Poppins was published by Peter Davies who was JM Barrie's adopted son, and the inspiration for Peter Pan.
The Perfect Nanny
Pamela Lyndon Travers shortened her name to PL Travers as it was the vogue those days for female authors. It seems to be the same trend that made Publishers change Joanne Kathleen Rowling to JK Rowling - apparently boys don't tend to read books written by a women. Making the name gender neutral apparently helps according to the publishers! Could this still be true in this era?
Her childhood of poverty, the depression era banking collapse, her insecurity about her parents and the desire for a perfect family harmony birthed the nanny who taught life lessons and brought discipline into this disorderly world.
Mary Poppins was born.
The Mary Poppins of the book isn't the jolly, twinkly eyed creation we have come to enjoy as portrayed by Julie Andrews. She arrives when the wind changes as ' a shape.. a gathering darkness' and sets about wasting no time in demonstrating her magical powers. She is vain, imperious, bossy and suffers no fools. While she sets about to make the parents realize what truly matters in their children and restores their family harmony, her methods aren't always the nicest or the sweetest in the books.
In the Mary Poppins books, although the children's father Mr Banks is not an alcoholic and the mother wasn't an outright depressive, it is not hard to spot that the templates for the story were laid in that stormy night when she was a mere 8 year old left to fend for her sisters.
There is no denying the power of Mary Poppins. In the early 20th century, as old values were being eroded and new ones arrived, people clamored for some old fashioned discipline laced with the magical message of love and family unity : A spoonful of sugar does make the medicine go down.
PL Travers went on to pen eight Mary Poppins novels during her long life ( she lived till 96 years of age). She always said she didn't set out to plan the novels but often had to write them 'when she was summoned' by the magical nanny. This could explain the long periods between the books.
The Mary Poppins Books
Mary Poppins comes Back
Mary Poppins Opens the Door
Mary Poppins in the Park
Mary Poppins from A-Z
Mary Poppins in the Kitchen
Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane
Mary Poppins and the House Next Door
All the Mary Poppins books were illustrated by Mary Shephard. She is the daughter of EH Shephard, who drew Winnie the Pooh.
PL Travers suffered no fools, like Mary Poppins. She was fiercely independent and did not always reveal her biographical facts to interviewers. She didn't follow tradition. She never married, and despite rumours of a lesbian relationship continued to live with her companion Madge in that Sussex cottage for the rest of her life.
She adopted an orphaned boy and brought him up as her son. Sadly the story of her adopted son Camillus is not filled with tales of good parenting. Travers sent him to a boarding school while she concentrated on her career.
She also had a tendency to re-imagine her past, giving different versions of her upbringing (she once said she was a happy child who grew up in a plantation to loving parents). In this she was as elusive and as mysterious as the magical nanny. Just like her creator, there is something edgy about the nanny, despite her sweetness, maybe this why children and adults love her so much.
Travers had the courage and determination to take her talent where it will thrive. She came from humble beginnings to establish herself as an author in London and achieve success and untold riches that could've been laughed off as a pipe dream in her difficult formative years.
She was a true original. Like it often happens when two originals clash, sparks will fly.
This is what happened when Travers met Disney.
It was Walt Disney's two daughters who loved the books so much that they asked their Dad to make the film. Thus started a 14 year crusade by Walt to purchase the rights to the film from 1940 onwards.
A Man has Dreams
During World War II, PL Travers moved to Manhattan and was residing there when she was first contacted by Disney about the rights to her book. Walt Disney wanted to make a feature film based on the books. Travers was fiercely protective of her property and felt Disney would ruin her stories. She refused his advances for well over 14 years.
Walt was a persistent man who knew a good story. He also had a personal crusade as he had promised his two daughters who loved the books that he would make that film. He bombarded Pamela for 14 years with letter full of flattery. He made transcontinental visits and plied her with constant attention. The persistence paid off when she eventually relented and sold the rights to her first two books. She was given an astronomical sum of £100,000 dollars ( £2 million in today's value) as well as 5% of the film's profits.
PL Travers also had a clause that she will have some creative say in the script.
Disney will regret the day he agreed to that clause.
The story goes that Pamela Travers approached Walt Disney himself after the premiere, demanding him to re-edit the film and remove the animation sequences.
To which, Disney apparently replied 'That ship has sailed Pamela!'
Little did Walt know what he was letting himself in for. Depending on whose version you hear, PL Travers was a constant thorn in the production's side. She demanded rigid script control, refused any alterations to the theme and wanted to retain the darker shades of the original story. Walt Disney, was also a man who knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted a mass market appeal, animated song sequences and a pretty, all singing, all dancing Mary Poppins.
Travers hated the fact that the family seemed prosperous while in the books they are relatively poor. She loathed that Mrs Banks was turned into a suffragette thus justifying the need for a nanny. Disney felt US audiences may not buy the concept of a nanny if the mother was still at home.
The songwriters, the Sherman brothers were constantly summoned by Travers during her visits where she disapproved of every version of the songs which later became worldwide hits. She hated the animated sequence where Mary Poppins and Bert take the children to a magical place through the pictures on the sidewalk and wanted it edited out.
She didn't want Julie Andrews as she said she was 'too pretty to be Mary Poppins'. In later interviews she claimed Julie Andrews was perfectly cast but was just 'badly directed'.
The feud became so intolerable that the Walt Disney executives tried to stop her from attending the 1964 premiere.
Apparently she managed to sneak into the premiere and watched the film in floods of tears. The story goes that she then approached Walt himself after the premiere, demanding him to re-edit the film and remove the animation sequences.
To which, Disney had allegedly replied 'That ship has sailed Pamela!'
There is no denying however, that the film the subsequent success brought Pamela so much fame and fortune. Despite this, she resolutely refused to work with Disney ever again and declined the production of a sequel!
When Cameron Mackintosh approached her for the stage musical, she sought assurances that some of the elements of the book would be retained and that he wouldn't let 'them' ( Disney) spoil the story again!
It is clear however, the continuing global success of Mary Poppins was very much due to the popular film.
In a strange twist of fate, the story of the feud between Walt Disney and PL Travers and the making of Mary Poppins is now being produced by Disney Pictures as a forthcoming film.
The film, currently called 'Saving Mr Banks' centers around Travers's journey to California to negotiate selling the film rights, her turmoils and her reminiscences about her father while there. The premise written by Kelly Marcel ( it remained one of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood 'Blacklist' for a while) and directed by John Lee Hancock ( The Blind Side) will star Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as PL Travers.
It is set to be released late 2013 or early 2014 ( the 50th anniversary of the film, Mary Poppins) and should make interesting viewing.
The Life I Lead
PL Travers gave the world the immortal nanny whose name has become synonymous with excellence in childcare. Despite her dark beginnings, it is a testament to her courage and creativity that Travers went on to her successes.
She is no doubt a unique and strong willed character. Her creation has endured time and will continue to delight readers and viewers.
I have enjoyed reading her books. When I happened upon her life story and the circumstances around the making of the film, I was thoroughly intrigued and entertained by the creative disputes. The forthcoming film with its fantastic cast should bring to the world, the real Mary Poppins - the fascinating character of Pamela Lyndon Travers.
Note: ( In case you haven't noticed yet, all the section headings are titles of songs from the Film Musical, Mary Poppins)
2.Mary Poppins, she wrote: The Life of PL Travers by Valerie Lawson
Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2012
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© Mohan Kumar 2012