- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006


Who was P.L. Travers? The easy answer is that she was the author of the Mary Poppins books that resulted in a beloved Disney movie and a Broadway musical.

However, Miss Travers played other roles during her 97 years. She was an actress in Australia. She was a writer for newspapers and magazines in Australia, England and Ireland. She was a poet who became an intimate of the great Irish poets.

Oh yes, she also wrote propaganda for the United States during World War II.

Miss Travers’ remarkable life gets full-scale treatment in a biography, “Mary Poppins, She Wrote,” by Valerie Lawson.

“In the 1980s, someone had told me, ‘Did you know that the author of “Mary Poppins” was born in Australia?’ I filed that in the back of my mind, and I did a little work on it. One day I realized I really had to tell this woman’s story,” Miss Lawson says in an interview from her home in Sydney, Australia.

Miss Lawson, a writer for the Sydney Herald, began her four-year pursuit of the elusive Miss Travers in New Mexico, where Miss Travers lived in Taos and Santa Fe. Then it was on to the District, where Miss Travers met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the war and worked for the U.S. propaganda office.

Next came New York, where Miss Travers and her young adopted son lived during the war, followed by Massachusetts, where she had been a writer in residence at Smith and Radcliffe colleges. Miss Lawson also did intensive research in England and Ireland.

Miss Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff on Aug. 9, 1899, in Maryborough, Australia. Her Irish father was a bank employee and a drinker. Lyndon, as she was called, left school in her teens to go on the stage, a move that shocked her staid Scottish mother. The girl rose from walk-ons to leading roles, changing her name to the more theatrical Pamela Lyndon Travers, the latter her father’s first name.

As her stage career was flourishing, Miss Travers suddenly quit to become a writer.

“She knew what her father had taught her — that she came from a family of great Irish literary people,” Miss Lawson says. “He had drummed that into her, even though he died when she was 7. She felt that was where she belonged: as a writer.”

After contributing to Australian newspapers, Miss Travers decided that her future was in England and Ireland. She became involved in the literary scene in both countries — intellectually and romantically. She never married.

“I think she fell in love with the wrong people,” Miss Lawson says. “There was a mad Irish poet, Francis MacNamara, a womanizer and alcoholic. Then there was AE (pseudonym for the Irish poet George William Russell), but he was married and much older. Although she was strongly involved with women for a period in her life, I found no proof that she was actually a lesbian.”

Miss Travers wrote 18 books, signing them P.L. Travers, “hoping people wouldn’t bother to wonder if the books were written by a man, a woman or a kangaroo.” In 1934, the first of six Mary Poppins books was published. Ten years later, the stories came to the attention of Walt Disney.

Mr. Disney had found the book on the bedside table of his daughter, Diane. She told him that it was about an English nanny who could fly. Disney read the book and sent his brother, Roy Disney, to make a deal with the author in New York, where Miss Travers and her son had escaped the London bombings.

She dodged questions about selling film rights but finally acquiesced in 1960. Walt Disney had become so frustrated by the long negotiations that he gave Miss Travers the extraordinary power of approval of the screen treatment — a mistake. The author came to the studio twice and was totally opposed to the Disney approach to the Poppins stories.

Richard and Robert Sherman, who composed the “Mary Poppins” songs, worked intensely with Miss Travers, on orders from the boss. Richard Sherman recalled Mr. Disney telling him and his brother: “You handle her; I can’t stand all that negativism.”

“It was Walt’s dream to have a musical based on the Poppins characters. But if you researched through all of the books, you wouldn’t find a plot,” Mr. Sherman told Associated Press.

Mr. Disney aimed to portray a mother fighting for a cause (women’s suffrage) and a father so busy at the bank that he had no time for his children. Enter Mary Poppins.

“That was our curve, our arc,” Mr. Sherman says. “Travers didn’t know what we were talking about. She claimed we were butchering her story. She would listen to the songs but had nothing nice to say about them. ‘I like “Greensleeves,”’ she said. But I did get her to sing ‘Feed the Birds’ with me on a tape.”

Mr. Disney liked to tell the story of how Miss Travers approached him at the “Poppins” premiere and said the movie was “quite nice.” She approved of Julie Andrews as Poppins but considered Dick Van Dyke “all wrong” and objected to mixing animated characters with live actors.

“When do we start cutting it?” she inquired.

Mr. Disney smiled indulgently and reminded her that the contract stipulated that when the picture was finished it became the studio’s property. “We aren’t going to change a thing,” he told her.

Miss Lawson said that in later years, Miss Travers “talked in private about how terrible Walt Disney was, but in public she was more cautious.” Perhaps that was because the immensely popular movie and the long-lasting book sales — the six Poppins books are still in print — made her a millionaire.

The Travers trust likely will become further enriched with the Disney stage musical of “Mary Poppins,” which already has been well-received in London. Previews began last night at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York, with an opening set for Nov. 16.

Pamela Lyndon Travers died on April 23, 1996. Her estate was valued at $3.7 million, most of it the result of Mary Poppins.

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