Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Traversby Valerie Lawson
The remarkable life of P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins.
An arresting life…Lawson is superb at excavating the details. –Library Journal
The spellbinding stories of Mary Poppins, the quintessentially English and utterly magical nanny, have been loved by generations. She flew into the lives of the unsuspecting Banks family in a/i>
The remarkable life of P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins.
An arresting life…Lawson is superb at excavating the details. –Library Journal
The spellbinding stories of Mary Poppins, the quintessentially English and utterly magical nanny, have been loved by generations. She flew into the lives of the unsuspecting Banks family in a children’s book that was instantly hailed as a classic, then became a household name when Julie Andrews stepped into the title role in Walt Disney’s hugely successful and equally classic film. But the Mary Poppins in the stories was not the cheery film character. She was tart and sharp, plain and vain. She was a remarkable character.
The story of Mary Poppins’ creator, as this definitive biography reveals, is equally remarkable. The fabulous English nanny was actually conceived by an Australian, Pamela Lyndon Travers, who came to London in 1924 from Queensland as a journalist. She became involved with Theosophy, traveled in the literary circles of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, and became a disciple of the famed spiritual guru, Gurdjieff. She famously clashed with Walt Disney over the adaptation of the Mary Poppins books into film. Travers, whom Disney accused of vanity for “thinking you know more about Mary Poppins than I do,” was as tart and opinionated as Julie Andrews’s big-screen Mary Poppins was cheery. Yet it was a love of mysticism and magic that shaped Travers’s life as well as the character of Mary Poppins. The clipped, strict, and ultimately mysterious nanny who emerged from her pen was the creation of someone who remained inscrutable and enigmatic to the end of her ninety-six years.
Valerie Lawson’s illuminating biography provides the first full look whose personal journey is as intriguing as her beloved characters.
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Mary Poppins, She WroteThe Life of P. L. Travers
By Valerie Lawson
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2006 Valerie Lawson
All right reserved.
The Americanization of Mary
She called it "uneasy wedlock." Walt Disney and Pamela Travers danced around each other -- he the great convincer, she the reluctant bride -- then, after the slow courtship, came the quick consummation and a lingering cool down. The result of their five years locked in this awkward embrace was Disney's greatest film of the 1960s, a movie about American values and family reconciliation. Made in America in 1963, Walt Disney's Mary Poppins was released the following year, when Lyndon Baines Johnson promised to heal a fractured nation with his concept of the "Great Society."
Created by Disney, a fervent anticommunist and family man who stood four square for the American way, the movie Mary Poppins was only loosely based on Pamela's original books of Mary Poppins adventures. Disney seized upon the fantasy world of the books but eliminated their mystery. He made a film of no ambivalence, no depth, and very little sadness. But then his aim was not to mystify and challenge, but to show how peace was restored to a family in strife. His happy family and jolly songs helped cheer middle America.
Few in the movie audiences knew the name P. L. Travers, which appeared in small type in the opening credits. And certainly no one knew or cared how Mary Poppinsarose. Later, many interviewers quizzed this unknown P. L. Travers to try to discover what inspired the nanny. Only a few suspected that she was born from a need in Pamela, whose own childhood had been out of joint and whose own little family of two was now in disarray. While the film was in production, with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke prancing with penguins to "It's a Jolly Holiday with Mary" at Disney's Burbank studios, Pamela herself sat on a tatami mat in Kyoto and tried to meditate away her anxiety.
The film's great success, critical and financial, helped soothe the pain for the rest of her life. Walt Disney's Mary Poppins cost $5 million to make, grossed more than $75 million, launched Julie Andrews on a movie career, earned her an Academy Award, and produced a handful of hit songs which remain lodged in the subconscious of three generations. Thirty-five years after the movie was first released at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, grandmothers and mothers sit with their children in front of the Mary Poppins video or DVD knowing, as if learned by rote in a dusty schoolroom, "Chim Chim Cheree," "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." To those generations, Julie Andrews is Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins is Julie Andrews, an amalgam and culmination of all her successful roles from Eliza Dolittle to the singing nun, Maria, in The Sound of Music. Julie's Mary Poppins was not the sharp, plain nanny created by Pamela and Mary Shepard but a sparkling, reed slim, sugar-sweet soubrette, with rounded vowels and a voice Time magazine described as "polished crystal."
Disney had lusted after the Poppins stories for almost twenty years, ever since the evening just before Christmas 1944 when he walked by the room of his daughter, Diane. He heard his eleven-year-old laughing out loud. What was so funny? She held up a book -- Mary Poppins. The book had sat on her bedside table for most of her childhood. Her mother, Lilian, liked it too, often reading a chapter to her daughter before she fell asleep. For years, Lilian and Diane had both asked Walt if he would make the book into a movie. In 1945, when he heard that Miss P. L. Travers was in New York, Walt Disney sent his brother Roy to see her. Roy -- dull, diligent, without the charismatic manner of his younger brother -- could not convince her to sign over the rights.
Disney, a master of persistence, did not give up. He had survived the Depression years brilliantly with sweet Mickey Mouse and grouchy Donald Duck. In the decade to 1941, Disney had won thirteen Oscars, and, as America was getting ready to go to the war, could boast of three hugely popular movies: The Three Little Pigs, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Pinocchio. He was soon to release Dumbo, about a baby elephant who could fly, and was planning Bambi, the feel-good film about childhood. Disney had taken a gamble with Fantasia, a success with movie critics if not with the music world's intelligentsia. By now, his manipulation of the American consumer market was unsurpassed. But although the turnover of Disney-branded goods had reached about $100 million a year, Disney wanted more. Throughout the 1940s, Disney searched for new properties and continued to make what Pamela called "forays into the jungle" for the rights to Mary Poppins. She consistently refused.
But Disney was about to move from the pure slapstick of his earlier short cartoons into a new, more ambitious phase. In the 1950s, he began to adapt the best-loved fairy tales and classics of children's literature into full-length animated features. The shift in emphasis from Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse probably changed Pamela's mind about Disney and her distaste for what she called "the vulgar art" of moviemaking. In 1950, Disney released the charming and top-grossing feature Cinderella, with its catchy song "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo." This was followed by Alice in Wonderland in 1951, Peter Pan in 1953, The Lady and the Tramp in 1955, and The Sleeping Beauty, with music adapted from Tchaikovsky's ballet score, in 1959.
Early in 1959, Disney had made the fresh offer for Mary Poppins through Pamela's New York law firm, then sent his emissaries, Dover and Swan, with a precise offer to Goodman Derrick in London. This time she succumbed, telling her friends it was such a generous contract that it would not be right to refuse any longer, despite her view that Disney was without subtlety and emasculated any character he touched, replacing truth with false sentimentality. But Goodman was right. It would have been foolish to refuse $100,000 and a possible income for life at a time when sales of her four Mary Poppins books were languishing and she had no steady income except from her lodgers' weekly rent.
Disney was so determined now that he had already asked Bill Walsh, one of his most trusted writers, to prepare a story outline. Walsh had been an all-around organization man for Disney for a couple of decades but in the last few years had teamed up with the screenwriter Don Da Gradi, director Robert Stevenson and songwriters Robert B. Sherman and Richard R. Sherman to produce many hit Disney films. Walsh knew what an audience wanted and he knew how to gut a book. For his outline, he went to Pamela's first book of 1934, visualizing the nanny's arrival out of and departure into the clouds.
In the face of the seductive insistence of Disney's two outriders in London, Pamela stood her ground. Yes, she would agree, but she made sure the movie would not be an animated cartoon and insisted that she should have final script approval. Walt Disney Productions and Pamela's company, John Lyndon Ltd., signed a preliminary agreement in April 1960. Then, on June 3, they signed a "service agreement" that was to last six years. Under its terms, Pamela remained entitled to the copyright in any material she wrote before the agreement and was also entitled to the copyright in material she would write while she was employed by John Lyndon Ltd. The agreement was vague about any subsequent live stage rights for Mary Poppins, but Disney did insist on his right to impose a freeze on any radio and television productions.
Despite Goodman's reassurance that a treatment would be simple to prepare, Pamela recruited the TV scriptwriter Donald Bull to help. Disney had given Pamela just sixty days to come up with a treatment. She made the deadline, though the words came slowly.
All through the negotiations, Pamela had something far more pressing on her mind. Early in 1960, she had asked for help from one of her Gurdjieff friends, the Harley Street surgeon Kenneth Walker. The problem was urgent: how to deal with Camillus's drinking problem and increasingly odd behavior. During 1960, he had lost his driver's license but continued to drive and one night, on a Middlesex road, was stopped by the police for driving drunk and without a license. He was sentenced to six months in Stafford Prison, a maximum security jail, where he spent his twenty-first birthday in August 1960.
Pamela longed for a piece of good news. Disney had not responded to her script. Maybe he had dumped the whole project? On December 20, a Western Union telegram broke the drought with the news from Disney that enthusiasm was still high for Mary Poppins. He would set a date for presentation early in the new year. But no further word arrived until February 13, when Disney reassured her that the completed treatment was close. The more he thought about it though, the more he thought she should come to Los Angeles to spend at least a week at the studio, meeting everyone who would carry the picture through to completion. They would show her storyboards to indicate the nature of the visual presentation . . ."particularly with regard to the trick photography we want to incorporate to make the story properly come across on the screen."
Disney suggested she travel to the West Coast early in April. Naturally he would pay for the airfare and hotel. His letter ended with a slight warning. While Disney was "very respectful" of Pamela's wishes, there were certain things that would be best discussed at first hand. Late in March, she checked into the luxurious hacienda-style Beverly Hills Hotel. At the studios in South Buena Vista Street she met Walt Disney, then sixty, surrounded in his office by more than twenty-five Oscars, and riding high on the success of his recent Pollyanna and The Absent-Minded Professor. By the late 1950s, Disney knew what the American public most wanted to see -- a happy family. Now, once again, he had got just the right property to do so with Mary Poppins. He saw Mary, as he called her, as assertive but still sexy, cool yet hot, as pretty as the shapely dreamgirls Cinderella and Tinker Bell that his animators had drawn. This new angel would rid the Banks home of chaos, just as his Parent Trap of 1961 transformed a dysfunctional, divorced family into a happy home.
Pamela, middle-aged, a touch frumpish yet sharp, and Walt Disney, dapper, pencil-thin-mustached, were alike in some surprising ways. Both were driven to the point of physical exhaustion, both were burdened by the same work ethic, the same conservative values. Pamela, two years older than Disney, was a small-town girl at heart, though she liked to hide it, while he boasted of his small-town childhood in the midwest, wearing his Main Street origins like a cartoon costume. They both avoided talk of sex, claiming to be shocked by any obvious salaciousness in print or in art, and, oddly enough, both spent a lot of time worrying about defecation. Pamela was obsessed with her problem bowels while Disney joked often and loudly of turds.
Disney had been married for decades. He and Lilian lived comfortably and reclusively in Holmby Hills in Los Angeles, spending their weekends at their thousand-acre Smoke Tree Ranch near Palm Springs. He loved trains and built a model railway around his Holmby Hills property. But apart from his comfortable marriage, there was one big difference between Disney and Pamela. Disney's purpose in life was entertaining people . . . bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others rather than being concerned with expressing himself or "obscure creative impressions." Pamela specialized in obscure creative impressions.
Walt Disney was "the great convincer" in the words of his marketing director, Card Walker. He liked to exercise his famous eye-lock technique in which he caught his victim's gaze and held it tight. If he or she turned away, Disney would say "What's the matter, aren't you interested?" Still, Pamela was his match. She called him "Mr. Disney" (almost everyone called him "Walt") and did not turn away during their long talks in Burbank that April. She often talked later of one particular exchange: Disney had said to her "I think you're very vain!" She replied "Oh, am I?" "Yes," he went on, "you think you know more about Mary Poppins than I do." "Well, vain or not," she smiled, "I think that I do know more than you." Disney trumped, "No you don't!"
Pamela had scribbled all over the script written by Bill Walsh and Don Da Gradi. It certainly wasn't the one she and Bull had prepared so painstakingly in London. For a start, she had planned to use at least seventeen episodes from three of her books: "East Wind," "Mrs Corry," "Laughing Gas," "John and Barbara's Story" and "West Wind" from the first book; "Miss Andrew's Lark," "The New One," "The Kite," "Balloons and Balloons" and "Bad Wednesday," "The Evening Out" and "Merry Go Round" from the second book; and "The Marble Boy," "Mr. Twigley's Wishes," "The Cat That Looked at a King," "High Tide" and "Happy Ever After" from the third book.
Walsh and Da Gradi, though, had created completely new adventures for Mary Poppins, and had adapted just three stories of Pamela's -- "East Wind," "The Day Out" and "Laughing Gas," while incorporating a few details from "The Bird Woman," "John and Barbara's Story," "The Kite" and "West Wind."
Each day for ten days, Pamela went into the production studios. Line by line, she scoured the treatment prepared by Da Gradi and the Shermans. The Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, were more than musicians. As staff writers for Disney, they had written the songs for The Parent Trap and Summer Magic, and were to play a major part in developing the script of Mary Poppins.
On day one, the Sherman boys began at the beginning, reading from the script: "Autumn in 1910, London. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, the Banks household is in an uproar."
Pamela immediately cut in: "Hold it!"
In the first of her objections, interruptions and interjections, she took alarm at the possible look of Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Pamela promised to give them a photograph of 50 Smith Street so they could see the Banks house was quite like hers, except with more to the garden.
"The father comes home to find the children misbehaving. Mr. Banks talks of his wife's job."
"Just a minute. That's, that's, not job, ah, ah . . ."
"Well, we can't have job. Let's leave it for the moment."
"Sphere of influence?"
"Oh no no no no no. She just lived. That's far too, you know . . ."
In the archives of Disney and in the records Pamela kept of her encounter with Disney are transcripts of six audio tapes made during the ten days of conferences. The tone of the writers is deferential, the tone of Pamela is both anxious and dictatorial. She wanted to make one thing very clear to them. It was integral to the book and to the story in whatever form that Mary Poppins should never be impolite to anybody, and particularly not to Mr. or Mrs. Banks. The comedy came from this grave, quiet person through which magic happened.
As the days dragged on, it became clear that Pamela wanted signposts to her own family story scattered throughout the film. For a scene in which Poppins measures Jane and Michael Banks she urged the writers to use the kind of long, roll-up tape measure her mother had when she was a little girl. Later, she issued instructions that Mr. Banks must be in pajamas. She remembered her father in pajamas. And again, the children must tell Mary Poppins not to put tapioca on the shopping list. Pamela said she hated tapioca when she was a child, so she wanted this put on record. One of the writers remarked that Mr. Banks was not always tender with his wife. This reminded Pamela of her own parents. Mr. Banks was "only untender" in the way that "any husband was in the daily misses of life." In the manner of her own father in Allora, he was not even indifferent, but merely unable to express his love.
Pamela's efforts to explain that Poppins was on a private search of her own fell on uncomprehending ears. They wanted, she thought, "magic for magic's sake." But the biggest gap between Pamela's ideas and those of the writers revolved around the critical relationship between Mary Poppins and Mr. Banks, one which reflected her own idealized relationship with her father. In the movie, Mr. Banks is a disturbed and unhappy man until he is propelled into almost hysterical glee after being fired by his employer, the ancient chairman of the bank. In the books, George Banks is more grumpy than disturbed, more out of sorts and vague than he is a depressed curmudgeon.
The writers were frank with Pamela. Before they could establish a comprehensive and cohesive story, they wanted to interpret her Poppins books in one sentence: what did Mary do and why. They decided that Mary Poppins saw an unhappy family, arrived, then, through her presence, showed the family how to understand one another. When she succeeded, she left. Pamela smelled the odor of psychoanalysis. Yes, that was right in a way, but it was not so much an unhappy family as a worried one. Pamela thought any family would be upset when a nanny had left and they couldn't find another. After all, she had been in this predicament herself. She remembered when one maid was leaving and she had not been able to find another. The Banks family was only at odds with life, not with each other. She wouldn't like anything to creep into the script of "a psychological quirk" or any hint of "Freudian unhappiness." The Banks family was just -- at odds.
But just at odds did not make for a dramatic script. Nor did her gentle short stories, with their Victorian ambience, amount to a cohesive story with a beginning, climax and denouement. The writers needed a storyline of black-and- white sentiments within a brilliantly colored setting, which is one reason why Mr. Banks in the movie was, outwardly, tough and chilly. She fought them on that, Pamela told interviewers later. In fact, she said, "I could hardly bear it . . . I've always loved Mr Banks. I did ask in Hollywood why Mr. Banks had to be such a monster."
Why, she demanded, must they have Mr. Banks tear up an advertisement his children had written, setting out their needs for a new nanny? Not only that, he threw it in the fireplace. She asked the writers if they had children. Yes, they had. And did they write letters and make pictures? Yes, of course. And would they tear up their pictures? Certainly not. Then why, she asked, do you do it in a film for the children of the world to see, why be untruthful?
They smiled and asked her simple questions, apparently pandering to her superior knowledge. She chiseled away at them, tried to eliminate the worst of their Americanisms ("go fly a kite") and succeeded in cutting a scene in which Mary Poppins took the children to Timbuctoo where animals played in an orchestra. That scene was defended by one of the writers as a sort of stylized Disney touch.
The Shermans talked constantly of fantasy -- a word, Pamela noted, much used around the studio. But to her, fantasy was unreality. They told her earnestly they understood the meaning of Mary Poppins. It was the miracle that lay behind everyday life. No, she replied crossly, she didn't agree. There was no miracle behind everyday life. Everyday life was the miracle. The boys did not quite cotton on to the Gurdjieffian theory.
By now, the Disney machine was too far down the track for any retreat. Pamela signed further agreements, including her approval of a long list of merchandising. She did try to influence casting and boasted that it was one of her conditions on signing the contract that the whole film be played by English actors. (In the end, Bert and Uncle Albert were played by Americans.) The two conditions on which she would not budge were that the film be set in the Edwardian period, and that there be no love affair between Mary and Bert, the pavement artist. But, as she said afterward, while Disney agreed in principle, ultimately Mary Poppins and Bert were too close for her liking, mainly because Disney was not sure Julie Andrews could carry the whole movie herself.
One night at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Pamela wrote a nine-page letter to the writers, warning them against showing Mary Poppins as "a hoyden." If she was nothing but a hoyden or a tomboy servant girl, then what would happen to the magic?
It was Mary Poppins's plainness of person, her absolute rightness without being pert, her calm and serene behavior in the middle of the most unlikely adventures, that made the fun in the story. She wanted them to understand that if Mary Poppins's gravity was not maintained, the whole point would be lost. In their script, the nanny had become an impertinent person. Their luck would hold if they stayed close to the books. It would not do otherwise.
On April 14, with Pamela safely back in New York, the Shermans wrote her a formal, old-fashioned thank-you letter. Its contents show that she feared she had gone too far with the Shermans. They thanked her for traveling so far and for giving them so much. She was an invaluable inspiration and guide to them all. She had referred to her "temperament" but they would like to interpret her behavior as "an ardent desire" for them to fully comprehend Mary Poppins. In that way, they might be faithful to her. And Disney himself sent Pamela a telegram. The Mary Poppins project was so important, he said, that he would go along with her two suggestions if that would make her happy. She had reiterated: no love affair and an Edwardian setting.
Pamela fell back easily and happily into the rhythm of New York, into the arms of the Welches' group. She thought she had squared up to Disney and won. With the glow of victory about her, Pamela impressed one newcomer to the group as a woman at the height of her confidence and power, over sixty yet with elan, vibrant blue eyes, and bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. At last, Pamela felt she was back among intellectual equals. Away she went again, leading the group into circuitous spiritual journeys as she analyzed out loud fairy tales and obscure Persian tales.
Pamela was now brimming with ideas for three books to follow the publication of Mary Poppins from A to Z, a money-spinner for the gift market. They were Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane (a title not published for over twenty years) and an allegory about giving called The Fox at the Manger, plus a novel whose main character, Mallow, would share much with little Lyndon Goff of Queensland.
Pamela needed Mary Shepard once more, first to illustrate Mary Poppins from A to Z, an alliterative picture-to-a-page book. This time, Shepard was not as amenable as before, especially when she heard of the Disney deal. Shepard wrote to Harcourt Brace & World: "I understand from Miss Travers that a film is to be made by the Walt Disney Co. of the Mary Poppins books. If this is so, I should like to know whether my drawings are to be used in any way and if so, I think I ought to be informed." Furthermore, Shepard wrote to Pamela, she was not at all sure if she would agree to the new A to Z as she had so much to do.
Over the next few months, the two women corresponded in a tetchy, formal kind of way, Pamela from Mt. Kisco, where she was staying with an American friend, Vanessa Coward, and Shepard from her home at Hampstead. Both women complained of their illnesses. Pamela told Mary it was not an easy time for either of them. She had suffered four years of great anxiety with no end in sight. In fact, she was in such a bad state of health that she must do nothing but rest. It was not so much a serious illness as bad digestion and a queer kind of overtiredness. Pamela planned to take another cure, this time in France, then work in the autumn. There were so many new ideas for Mary Poppins, but she had no energy to write. She was, she told Shepard, in a state she defined as "between the acts."
In August 1961, Pamela wrote again to Shepard to tell her she had made a start on Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, although every good day was followed by a bad day. On the bad, she could not even think let alone write. At the end of September, she flew home to London. Shepard, who really was ill and needed an operation, was not mollified by Pamela's advice to take things calmly. Pamela advised Shepard to go peacefully to her operation. She had tried to do this herself but had not always succeeded. But, in the process, Pamela had seen glimpses of the meaning of life. "Such rare glimpses meant I would not not have had my burden for anything," she wrote to Shepard.
In February 1962, Shepard told Pamela she had hired an agent, a Mr. Knight, who wanted everything in writing. The whole relationship must be set out in a formal arrangement. This sent Pamela into a frenzy of letter writing. She hoped no agent would come between them, spoiling what had been a loving and appreciative friendship. Why, she had always maintained a "punctilious duty" toward her "dear illustrator."
Next month, she wrote Shepard the letter of a woman betrayed. Pamela had the feeling that she was being pressed into the role of a wicked giant whereas she saw herself as a goose who had laid five valuable eggs for them both. Did Shepard not realize that a spoken word was binding to her? She could not understand Mr. Knight's distinction between formal and informal agreements. After all, an IOU was the same, whether it was written on embossed notepaper or an old envelope. She assured Shepard that she would always be able to market her own original drawings (to which Shepard held copyright). Furthermore, she was paying her a fair fee for translations, and in any case, there would be no translation of A to Z. (This turned out to be a lie.)
As to the film, she had spoken to her lawyer who said there was no question of any arrangement with the artist. Disney was using the books in live action, not animation. Pamela told Shepard not to bother to reply unless there were points she had not taken up. But Shepard persisted and responded within the week that she needed more money for A to Z than the previous books because it required more work and effort from her than from Pamela herself. In autobiographical notes she wrote for her family, Shepard later said that "for the film, my drawings were not needed and my agent won me something for compensation."
Now that Disney funds had started to flow to Pamela, she decided to sell her Smith Street house. The rental money was superfluous and the three-story Georgian house seemed far too empty without Camillus, now out of prison and living in a flat. She put her books in storage and in the summer of 1962 rented a place nearby, in Cheyne Row, while she waited for her new house at 29 Shawfield Street to be renovated. Again, it was in a street running off the Kings Road, but the Regency house was smaller and narrower than Smith Street, only two stories, with room on top for a study.
It was true, Pamela knew, that nobody wanted anything from her but Mary Poppins, but W. W. Norton in the United States had agreed to publish (in November 1962) the new Christmas book, The Fox at the Manger. All her Christmas stories had been autobiographical and here was another: her memory of Camillus as an innocent child in 1945 when she had taken him with two of his friends to the carol service at St. Pauls, home of the Bird Woman. Each of the children in the congregation was to donate a toy to the poor. But her three little boys were unable to part with theirs: a lion whose beady eye hung by a thread, a toy bus whose paint had chipped, and a rubber mouse. "X, Y and Z," she called the three friends, as anonymous as the initials PLT.
She wished the manger held one of her favorite black sheep. She told X, Y and Z a legend about Christmas night, when a donkey, a cow, a sheep and a dove came to the Christ child in the crib with presents. The animals are given the power of speech. The child, X, asked if there were any wild animals at the crib and Pamela says yes, a fox who gives his gift of cunning to Christ. Pamela later explained to an interviewer: "I've always loved the fox, because he had a bad time at the hands of Aesop and la Fontaine and mankind generally. He's the untameable creature, that's why man dislikes him."
Years later, that Christmas of 1962, she couldn't help but think of the fate of X -- Camillus -- whom she once described as Romulus, the twin reared by a wild wolf. The dedication in The Fox at the Manger read: "For C. to remind him of X."
Walt Disney was besotted with his grand new movie. He slept at the studio, filled rooms with drawings of how Mary Poppins would look, stayed in the office after the animators had left, emptied their trash cans and next morning waved discarded roughs in their faces, urging them to "go back to this." Mary Poppins, the musical, was to be nothing less than revolutionary stuff. In one scene, he planned to mix live action with animation when Mary, Bert, Jane and Michael would pop into one of Bert's pavement pictures. There, within a painting of one bucolic scene, they would dance with cartoon penguins, turtles, a pig, horses, and a farmyard of Disney pets, all trilling "It's a Jolly Holiday with Mary."
Disney knew the casting of Mary Poppins herself was the real key to the success of the film. In the spring of 1962, he saw Julie Andrews as Queen Guinevere in a Broadway production of Camelot. When she sang "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" Disney knew he had his Mary. She could even whistle! He raced back to her dressing room after the show, lavished praise on her performance, and next day offered her the part. There was something so perfectly natural about Andrews, a beguiling candor, which belied a toughness bred into her from years on the road as a child prodigy. From the age of five, she had sung and danced in an English vaudeville team with her mother and stepfather, astounding audiences with her strong adult voice. In the 1950s, Andrews made her New York debut in the musical The Boyfriend, in which she played a sweet young thing -- without affectation and with great success. But the greatest of all her roles was the cockney flowergirl Eliza Dolittle in Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. Although Andrews was a faultless Eliza, she was rejected for the film version of My Fair Lady by the director Jack Warner in favor of Audrey Hepburn, who looked gorgeous but could not sing at all.
Andrews had been hurt, but the rebuff must have put doubt in her mind. She did not say yes to Disney's offer right away. There were reasons to reject a movie career right now. She was still young -- just twenty-six -- and expecting her first child with her husband, the set designer Tony Walton, who had recently enjoyed his own more modest Broadway success with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But Disney, the great convincer, offered him a job, too, as Mary Poppins's design consultant. He suggested they both visit his West Coast masterpiece, Disneyland. Disney planned to escort them around Disneyland in person. Once there, Andrews and Walton felt as if they were in the presence of a god. "See that tree?" he asked Andrews. "There are three million leaves on it and four million flowers." Then he paused and added, "They said only God could make a tree."
He played her the Shermans' songs. That was it, the deciding factor. She heard in them a slight flavor of vaudeville, and knew she could sing those songs. Andrews signed a contract for $150,000. There was just one potential problem: Pamela. Disney knew that a middle-aged Poppins would be a disaster. He thought perhaps that Pamela envisaged the nanny as her own age, maybe a bit younger, and nervously asked her, just how old is Poppins? When Pamela said, precisely, "twenty-four to twenty-seven," Disney knew he was home free.
Still, Pamela was desperate to see this Julie Andrews. On November 27, 1962, Andrews gave birth to Emma Kate. The next day, Pamela rang Andrews in hospital. "P. L. Travers here," she said. "Speak to me, I want to hear your voice." Andrews, still weak, told her she wanted to recover first. Pamela invited Andrews and Walton to lunch. When they met, the first thing she said to Andrews was, "Well, you've got the nose for it." In any case, Andrews adored her: "She was so honest and direct."
Pamela, too, was charmed at first sight. She told many interviewers she was completely won over. "I hadn't spoken to her for five minutes before I realized she had the inner integrity for the part." Andrews had confided, "I haven't read these books, I don't know anything about them and I've never been brought up on them. Tell me how to play Mary Poppins? Should I have an accent?" Pamela replied, "I won't tell you anything, you just play her as you truthfully think. Don't play it any way but yourself."
At Christmas, Pamela's publishers sent her author's copies of her latest books; in a mood of exuberance, Pamela asked her publishers to send a gift set, the Mary Poppins Library, to President Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline. Her social secretary, Letitia Baldridge, replied that the president's daughter, Caroline, was charmed with the Mary Poppins Library. She knew that within a few years John Jr. would also love the books.
Next, Pamela bundled up a copy of Mary Poppins A to Z for Walt Disney and mailed it in December with a letter, explaining that the book was for his grandchildren. She wanted him to know she had talked to Julie Andrews and found her, even in the first flush of motherhood, "very alert and intelligent." Although she had not seen Andrews act, Pamela thought she had the inner honesty and dependability necessary for Mary Poppins. Nor had she seen the actor Dick Van Dyke, who she heard was to play Bert. She hoped, in vain as it turned out, that he was English and could speak cockney. Pamela told Disney that Mary Poppins definitely did not speak cockney but had a most demure unaccented voice.
Then there was the matter of casting. She suggested Margaret Rutherford as the Bird Woman and Karen Dotrice as Jane. The children should be dressed in clothes similar to those she had marked in pages torn from Punch and the Illustrated London News. She was sure the Edwardian atmosphere would give an air of magic and fairy tale to the film. No taxis and cars, but hansom cabs, street cries and penny farthing bicycles. Disney would disappoint his audience if he did not include the Banks twins in the film, and she cautioned him that Mary Poppins was not referred to as Mary in the books except by her odd relatives. The Banks should refer to her by her full name, as if it was a title.
By now Pamela knew that Disney's writers had built up the role of Bert far beyond anything in the books. Disney's Bert was to be a one-man band, a chimney sweep and an artist who knows all about the magic of Mary Poppins and is clearly her equal in magic. Pamela wanted Disney to know that Bert must never appear as Mary's lover, but could only appreciate her from a distance. Shy, humble and loving, he would never hope that his love was reciprocated. She reminded Walt that she had never agreed to a planned love song for the two characters in the "Day Out" animated sequence and hoped he, too, had come to this conclusion. However, she did see Bert singing a song with no emotional overtones. . . something "jingling yet sincere," perhaps a melody like "Lily of Laguna."
Disney appears to have accepted her next idea that Bert should sing and dance soft shoe, while Mary looks on smiling, tapping her foot, looking prim and ladylike. Pamela also suggested Bert should seize the parrot umbrella and dance with that, telling the umbrella about Mary Poppins, then, at the end, shyly putting out a hand to Mary. The two would dance at arm's length, no words of love spoken. She reminded Walt Disney, the great sentimentalist, that if you keep things light, deep feelings can seep through.
Although Pamela was unmusical, she advised Disney on the score, suggesting that all the musical numbers should have the rhythms of Edwardian songs. In this way, old melodies would filter through the new ones, like ghosts, hints and reminders. "Lily of Laguna" could counterpoint Bert's song. "Ta ra ra boom de ay" could peep through a song sung by Admiral Boom, and "Brahms' Lullaby" could be heard through "Feed the Birds." The old songs, she reminded Walt, were not only wonderful, but back in fashion.
At this time, the film was still not cast and Disney was considering Stanley Holloway, a hit in My Fair Lady as Eliza Dolittle's father, for Admiral Boom. In the end, the Admiral was played by Reginald Owen and the role enlarged and broadened. (His habit of firing a gun at 8 A.M. and 6 P.M. became a running gag so simple and broad, it appealed only to children.)
Disney honored his promise to use mainly English actors with his best piece of casting: the partnership of Glynis Johns and David Tomlinson as Mrs. and Mr. Banks. He chose Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber as Jane and Michael Banks (they were both in his previous film, The Three Lives of Thomasina). Three talented English character actors appeared as the maid Ellen (Hermione Baddeley), the Banks's former nanny, Katie Nanna (Elsa Lanchester), and Constable Jones (Arthur Treacher). One of John Ford's character actors, Jane Darwell (who had played Ma Joad in Grapes of Wrath) was the Bird Woman, and Ed Wynn played himself in the guise of Uncle Albert, who couldn't stop laughing and floated up to the ceiling on a steady diet of "boom boom" music hall jokes.
To direct the array of English talent, Disney recruited another Englishman, Robert Stevenson, who had directed The Absent-Minded Professor in 1961. The Shermans, Bill Walsh and Don Da Gradi had also worked on that successful Disney film, which had starred Fred MacMurray with a flying Model T.
In February 1963, Disney sent Pamela the latest script and told her his casting plans. She sent back a fourteen-page letter, her longest and most detailed yet. She was very happy with progress, she said, and felt that his film would be a great success, for it was, she thought, "a tremendous box of tricks and adventure and merriment." Yes, it was a long way from the books, but she did see that the inspiration came from them. Most of all, she was happy that Mary Poppins retained her own unknowable integrity, no matter what happened. Bert, too, was now in the right relationship to her, and so was Mr. Banks. There was no love affair, and nothing too cruel. (In handwriting she wrote on a carbon copy of this letter that it turned out not to be right in the finished film.)
But after the praise came the warnings. Pamela was horrified that her gentle Mrs. Banks had been transformed into a suffragette. However, she could see that by his choice of Glynis Johns, who was a great favorite of hers, Disney intended that Mrs. Banks was the most flustered, feminine and inadequate suffragette ever. Just why Mrs. Banks had to be a suffragette is not clear, but she was clearly a feminist in name only, and one who deferred on all matters to her husband -- as did Lilian Disney. The portrayal of Mrs. Banks as a dippy dame carrying a Votes for Women banner could be seen as a sly adult joke against the new American feminists stirred by Betty Friedan's early 1960s book, The Feminine Mystique. This, however, did not concern Pamela, a woman born in the late nineteenth century who got her own way with men by flirting or bullying. Her understanding of feminism was so narrow that she told Disney in this letter that a silly suffragette such as the movie version of Mrs. Banks would always vote for the most handsome candidate. Indeed, Pamela added, so would she. Her main concern was that the feminism joke would be lost on children who would not even know what Votes For Women meant.
Then there was the problem of a new adventure written into the script, when the Banks children visit their father's bank which we take to be the Bank of England. Michael Banks inadvertently starts a run on the bank by demanding his twopence back from the chairman, Mr. Dawes. The customers overhear his demand and rush the tellers. (If Pamela saw the irony in this scene, invented by Walsh and Da Gradi, she did not tell Disney. It was the Bank of England that, in 1891, had precipitated a crisis with the Queensland National Bank, whose directors included Pamela's Uncle Boyd.) This banking scene remains one of the funniest in the movie, with the final credits revealing that Dick Van Dyke also plays the chairman who eventually dies laughing at one of Uncle Albert's gags. Pamela had told Walt the death was too gross a joke and suggested that he merely retired, then spent the rest of his days laughing.
She was worried, too, about the opulence of the Banks family home, which she had described in her books as "rather dilapidated." Nor did she think the scriptwriters understood where the Banks family stood in the social scale. Servants in England were not rough cockneys. In this script, she said, Mrs. Brill the housekeeper and Ellen were too common and vulgar for English servants for that or any period. An h dropped occasionally, a lively phrase, were fine, but these were people who thought of themselves as respectable and would never use phrases such as "old sow." Even Bert was far too much of a cockney. She remembered that the cockneys in Disney's 1961 film, A Hundred and One Dalmations, were very difficult for her to understand. The whole essence of cockney speech was its clarity and directness.
Page after close-typed page, she objected to each detail. Mary Poppins had been described in the script as an attractive young woman. This was more cause for concern. Poppins should not be pretty but must keep her Dutch doll appearance: black hair, turned-up nose. She begged Disney to give Mrs. Banks a more sympathetic and Edwardian name than Cynthia, which she hated. Somehow she felt the name was unlucky, cold and sexless. Why not Arabella, Victoria, Caroline, Julia, Gwendolyn, Araminta, Lavinia, Lydia, Alexandra, Olivia or Winifred? In the end, Disney chose Winifred.
Once again Pamela scoured the script for American figures of speech, objecting to "on schedule," "six-oh-one," and "outing." The last, she said, meant "a general gathering, like a Sunday school picnic, or the Elks going to Atlantic City." The British would say "going out." Nor would Mary say "larking about." She never used slang. "Freshen up" was a contemporary phrase, and would have been repugnant to an Edwardian. The writers must remember it should be "let's go and fly a kite." Still, she realized this was only a first draft. (It proved not to be, to her consternation.)
In the middle of 1963, Julie Andrews, Tony Walton and their baby settled into a rented house in Studio City in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. When shooting began, it became clear to Andrews that she was Pamela's only contact with the progress of the movie. She received long letters from Pamela in England with innumerable suggestions about how things should be done. Andrews tried to reassure the nice old lady in Chelsea.
After filming the "Jolly Holiday" and "Uncle Albert" scenes, Andrews wrote to Pamela that they were all working like fiends. She assured her that Ed Wynn was "delightful" as Uncle Albert and that Dick Van Dyke was "good" as Bert. His cockney was really not too bad. He would be an "individual" cockney instead of a "regular type" cockney. The children looked adorable, although the little boy who played Michael hated heights and there had been tears once or twice. The planned "Chimpanzoo" scene had been eliminated but her lullaby scene was back in. Pamela's letter had done the trick. Andrews urged her, "Please don't worry about anything."
Andrews was a little more forthcoming about the problems of filming the movie in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor; she explained that Matthew Garber did not like to fly on wires and for a long time could not be persuaded. Then someone offered him a dime if he would. After that, "he made a fortune." He was "an intelligent monster of a boy, a born charmer, a businessman in the making." For Andrews, flying was not much fun either. With wires attached at her hip level, she could rise up into the air easily enough but had a tendency to remain upright, whereas Mary Poppins had to fly on an angle. "This meant that the pull was all on my back."
With the filming over, and Disney working toward a 1964 release, Pamela felt a sense of relief. She decided to spend some of her advance money. Through her Gurdjieff friends, she had learned more, and wanted to know more, of Zen. Perhaps meditation would help her gut, and those waves of vague anxiety that came so often in the night. These were before the days of irritable bowel syndrome, and her doctor must have thought that the constant churning and feeling of urgency in her bowels was psychosomatic. She had been told already that her Poppins adventures were "full of Zen," an idea that intrigued her more than any other theory.
Pamela had been haunted for years by a picture of a ninth century statue of Buddha in the Koryu-ji Temple in Kyoto and now, with a financial safety net beneath her, was the time for a spiritual journey to Japan. She decided on a quick side trip first, to see her sisters. Pamela flew to Bangkok late in July, then down to Sydney, to find Biddy and Moya living like a couple of maiden aunts in the comfortable middle-class Sydney suburb of Mosman. It was Pamela's first visit back to the city she had abandoned at the age of twenty-four. And her last. She stayed just two weeks. Ever since Boyd Moriarty had died in World War II his widow Biddy had lived with Moya, who had never married. Pamela refused to give their names to a reporter from the Australian Women's Weekly, as "they wouldn't care for publicity."
Her Australian publishers, Collins, had organized a modest publicity campaign for the famed children's author and in the course of one day she did her interview duty, wearing a plain tweed suit and white embroidered blouse, and, incongruously, eight Navajo silver-and-turquoise bracelets on each wrist. The press photos showed she had been to the hairdresser, her copper hair sprayed tight into a curly bubble, but the glossy coating could not hide the signs of deep fatigue around her eyes.
For the Sydney reporters, Pamela trotted out the usual tales of how she liked to be known as Anon yet cautioned the Sun-Herald reporter that she had recently passed a note to an American TV journalist, ending an interview on the spot because he had not even heard of Mary Poppins. The reporters did not ask, "And how do you like Australia, Mrs. Travers?" but if they had, she might have answered, as she did a couple of years later, with a pat answer: "I found I loved Australia -- not that I want to go back there, because I don't think that's my place."
In the long summer months in Kyoto, Pamela studied Zen with Ruth Sasaki, an American married to a Japanese, whom she met through her friends the Gardiners, fellow Gurdjieffians. Pamela said Sasaki was the only American woman ever to become a Zen abbess. In Kyoto, Sasaki had her own zendo, a place for meditation.
Pamela studied the statues in the lecture hall and treasure house of the 622 A.D. Koryu-ji Temple, one of the oldest temples in Kyoto, and read R. H. Bly's Zen in English Literature, "the most marvelous book." She meditated in a stone garden, was handed a rake by a monk and tentatively combed wavy lines around the pebbles. She read haiku. Pamela liked the "gnomic quality" of all haiku. As she sat on a tatami mat, her life seemed to make more sense than before. She knew of a Zen koan (a problem or riddle with no solution, used in meditation) which said "not created but summoned." This, she thought, must refer to Mary Poppins. The nanny must have been summoned by some need in Pamela.
Yet for all her new insights, Pamela never relinquished a need to control. In February, when she returned to London, she began again to manipulate Mary Shepard, telling her that a Japanese publisher was to produce a big colored edition of the first two Mary Poppins books. The publishers had suggested an illustrator's fee of £10 but, luckily for Mary, she had managed to get this doubled. With the London release of the Disney movie planned for late 1964, Collins wanted new jackets for the first books, and had asked her to approach Shepard. On the other hand, a German firm soon to publish Mary Poppins from A to Z did not want Shepard, planning to use their own illustrator. At long last, she said, France had decided to translate the books but the publisher, Hachette, also planned to use its own illustrator. This was a great disappointment but, alas, Pamela had "no power of veto."
Pamela's thoughts now were fixed on the Hollywood premiere of the Disney movie. She was pitifully eager to attend, while Disney himself seemed just as keen that the irascible P. L. Travers did not. The big night was set for August 27, 1964, at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. In a precursor to the Disney merchandising frenzy of The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the Disney marketing department had signed agreements for forty-six Mary Poppins products, including girls' dresses, dolls, jewelry, and books labeled "Walt Disney's Mary Poppins." In these, the story was "adapted" by various writers and artists. (One version was written with so little care that the nanny blew in on a west wind.) Pamela's American publisher, Harcourt Brace & World, produced a new combined edition of Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back, but Disney versions outsold hers by five to one. The biggest of the Poppins promotions was the "A Spoonful of Sugar" campaign by the National Sugar Company.
Like a forgotten lover whose heart jumps at every ring of the phone, Pamela waited for an invitation from Walt Disney to attend the premiere. When none came, her lawyer, agent Diarmuid Russell, and her American publisher all asked and protested, to no avail. One morning she woke knowing what had to be done. She sent a telegram to Disney. He might like to know she was in the United States (staying again in Mt. Kisco), and that she was coming to Hollywood for the premiere anyway. She was sure somebody would find a seat for her. Would he let her know details, time and place? The whole embarrassing episode was essential, she told her English publisher, for the dignity of the books and for her relationship with Disney.
Disney's story editor, Bill Dover, responded quickly to tell her that Walt was sending an invitation. He offered to escort her to the premiere. Disney wrote too, wriggling out of a tight spot by telling Pamela he was counting on her presence at the London premiere of Mary Poppins but was happy to know she was able to attend the Los Angeles world premiere. They would, of course, hold a seat for her. Harcourt Brace & World paid for her to fly to Los Angeles on August 26 and stay for three days at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Harcourt executives told her they were shocked by the Disney books of the film, agreeing with Pamela's assessment -- "ghastly."
Walt Disney was too busy to spend much time with Pamela at the premiere. Oh, he posed with her for a couple of pictures, but there was Julie Andrews to attend to, not to mention the photo opportunities when the miniature train rolled down the boulevard accompanied by the Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf, Pluto, Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit, a skunk and four dancing penguins. The actors in costumes danced around Disney, ten thousand balloons were released from the train. A band in pearl-buttoned costumes played songs from the movie. From 1 P.M., more than three thousand fans had gathered to see the stars arrive for the eight thirty start. Disneyland girl guides walked guests to the doors; Disneyland staff were dressed as English bobbies. Ushers in Edwardian costumes escorted Disney executives (the men resplendent in white dinner jackets) to their seats.
The opening titles appeared as the camera panned over a luscious view of London at dawn: Big Ben, St. Paul's, the Thames, the sleepy houses of Chelsea and Kensington. Mary Poppins could be seen sitting on a cloud, powdering her nose, waiting to fly down to the Banks with her umbrella aloft. From the heavens and the city, the scene narrowed to Cherry Tree Lane with Bert, the one-man band, talking to the camera. Bert says he will take the audience on a tour of the lane (where Admiral Boom's fanlight doorway is identical to the one at Pamela's old home at 50 Smith Street).
Through the next two hours, the first-night audience enjoyed a blend of Pamela's magic with Disney's magic. His overrode hers. Yet for all its loud, vaudevillian, "aw shucks," pseudo-cockney humor, for all its whizzbang special effects, the film retained some part of the irony and subtlety in Pamela's characterization of Mary Poppins and George Banks. The Sherman brothers had produced fourteen original songs, some derivative but many unique, from "Spoonful of Sugar" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" to the anthemlike "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank." The audience loved the complex "Jolly Holiday" animation sequence with its merry-go-round horses galloping free, its dancing, kissing penguins and a barnyard of animals. The Disney studios had pulled out all its most expensive special effects (children flying up the chimney, toys putting themselves away), then mixed in delicate costumes, rich settings, and strong choreography in the style of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Yet while the movie looked like a fin de siècle bonbon, the tone was small-town, God-fearing, in support of nuclear family values. The lasting qualities in the film proved to be brilliant performances by Andrews and Tomlinson, good dancing in the loose-limbed Ray Bolger manner from Van Dyke, very catchy songs, many spoken like those of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, and the surrealistic, stylized bank scene, which retained its impact through the film's reissues. The film story is resolved when Mr. Banks is fired from the bank, then reconnects with his family. Mary Poppins is no longer needed. The final scene, when Mary talks to her parrot-headed umbrella and flies off into the clouds, remains true to the tone of the books, bittersweet rather than cloyingly sentimental.
During the premiere, Pamela cried, to the embarrassment of Disney and his staff. It was such a shock, that name on the screen, Mary Poppins. So sudden. It hardly mattered, then, that her name was in such small type, listed as a "consultant" at first, then in the line "Based on the stories by P. L. Travers." (Her name was even smaller in the press ads.) Afterward, Technicolor Corporation hosted a champagne party held in an English garden setting. Chimney-sweep dancers swirled guests to the music of the pearly band. Pamela, in a long white gown, felt regal, and tried to make it clear to whoever would stop for a minute that her books were still alive and would remain so, along with the film version. One woman rushed up to her and began commiserating in front of Disney. Pamela swept through the faux pas by announcing it was "a splendid film and very well cast."
On the morning after, she wired "Dear Walt" her congratulations. His confection was beautifully cast and acted, lovely to look at, and true to the spirit of Mary Poppins. She carefully kept a copy of the telegram, noting on the bottom that Disney "needed praising," that there was much she couldn't say at the time. He replied formally. Disney was happy to have her reactions and appreciated her taking the time before she left town. Such a pity that "the hectic activities before, during and after the premiere" meant they saw little of each other. Bill Dover had told him she enjoyed the festivities.
From Mt. Kisco the next day she wrote "THANK YOU" again and explained to Disney that she had gone to the premiere to prove to all that author and filmmaker were in harmony. His picture was "splendid, gay, generous and wonderfully pretty." The premiere was also wonderful. But, she felt she must say the real Mary Poppins remained within the covers of the books. Naturally, she hoped the movie would turn a new public toward them. And another thing. She wanted to let him know the picture fell into two halves. The scenes in the Banks home retained some contact with the books while the musical numbers were pure Disney. David Tomlinson, as Mr. Banks, held both halves together. He was absolutely right. Julie Andrews's performance was also beautifully understated.
Again, for posterity, she kept a copy of the letter and wrote on the end that it was a letter with much between the lines.46 Pamela told her London publisher that although the film received a rave reaction, it contained little of the essence of her books. The film was "Disney through and through, spectacular, colourful, gorgeous but all wrapped around mediocrity of thought, poor glimmerings of understanding," and over-simplification. In short, it was truly a Hollywood movie that would make a fortune. Although it was the best thing Disney had ever done, for her, the finished product was simply sad. Still, she had made peace with Disney by going to Hollywood, remained friends with the writers, and was glad to have a fattened bank balance. Underneath all her bluster, she told her publisher the truth: that in a certain sense she enjoyed the fame and attention but she knew that her life had turned a sharp corner.
After the film's release, it took about a decade for Pamela to return to the state of "Anon" from which she had sprung. She stayed on in New York for the premiere at Radio City Music Hall in September, gave interviews to build up book sales and, by night, read Yeats's "Reveries" on his childhood, recognizing something of her own family reflected in it.
Disney was aware that his competitor for awards and box office, My Fair Lady, was to open one month later than Mary Poppins. His publicity campaign took advantage of the head start. One of his press ads featured an open letter from Samuel Goldwyn. Dated September 11, 1964 and written to "Dear Walt," the letter gushed:
Once in a lifetime and only once, a picture comes along which cannot be compared to any other and to which no other can be compared. A picture which writes a new page in motion picture history. A picture which has such universal appeal that it is a pure delight to father, mother, children . . . you have made it MARY POPPINS. You have made a great many pictures, Walt, that have touched the hearts of the world . . . but you have never made one so wonderful, so magical, so joyous, so completely the fulfilment of everything a great motion picture should be as MARY POPPINS. I hope everyone in the world will see it -- that is the nicest thing I can possibly wish them.
Sincerely, Sam (Samuel Goldwyn)
On September 25, the first important review appeared in The New York Times. The critic, Bosley Crowther, who put Pamela's name in the first paragraph, called the movie "sparkling . . . a beautiful production" with some "deliciously animated sequences . . . a spinning musical score, the nicest entertainment that has opened at the Music Hall this year. This is the genuine Mary Poppins that comes sailing in on the East Wind . . . a most wonderful, cheering movie." Crowther pointed out similarities in the score and look of the film with My Fair Lady, and Judith Crist in the Herald Tribune described Andrews in Mary Poppins as "the fairest lady of them all. She is superb, only the grouches and nit pickers should stay at home."
The ads ran the rave lines from the reviews: "It glows and it gladdens," Archer Winsten in the New York Post; "Walt Disney has bestowed an eye popping family package," Cue magazine; "A delight, wonderfully imaginative, entrancing," William Peper, World Telegram and Sun. A critic bylined "JWL" at The New Yorker, though, grumbled "Why Mr. Disney has chosen to mingle two utterly dissimilar mediums [sic] is his secret. Miss Andrews and Mr. Van Dyke wisely make no effort to out act the talking pigs, laughing horses, and urbane turtles . . . Miss Andrews as Miss Poppins is less acerbic than the original and the wistful air with which she finally packs her magical bottomless carpetbag and abandons her little charges would seem to hint at a not too distant reunion."
The sharpest slap came from Francis Clarke Sayers, once the director of children's services for the New York Public Library, whose letter to the Los Angeles Times sparked follow-up interviews. Sayers said in her letter that "the acerbity of Mary Poppins, unpredictable, full of wonder and mystery, becomes, with Mr. Disney's treatment, one great marshmallow-covered cream puff."
Pamela yearned to speak out about her own, real, Mary Poppins but she was too frightened of Disney and too cautious about a possible sequel to do so. She told an interviewer that "there is provision for a sequel but on terms to be agreed." A Mary Poppins Comes Back was unlikely, however, as Disney was "against se quels on principle" and Julie Andrews didn't appear interested. She read that Andrews, who had gone on to make the movie The Americanization of Emily, and would soon star in The Sound of Music, now demanded $1 million or more for a picture. Pamela was so keen for a sequel that she was going to speak to Julie and "if he [Disney] wants her, she must be generous . . . He gave her her first chance. If he wants to do a sequel I'm on his side."
In 1965 two magazines asked her for articles about the making of the film, and she hoped, when the publicity died down, she might do this honestly. The only problem was a potential sequel. Pamela knew she must remain silent, not wanting to work with "a prickly porcupine." Disney, she knew, could be ferocious. Once, when she made a disparaging remark, he turned on her with anger. Why had she spoken against the film? He gave her bread and she had paid him back with a stone. Pamela wrote to a friend that she had tried to maintain a harmonious relationship with Disney but it always amounted to "uneasy wedlock." She thought Disney wished her dead; after all, until now, all his authors were dead and out of copyright. He was cross, she said, that she hadn't obliged him.
By 1966, all thoughts of a sequel were abandoned. In a message to stockholders in his company's annual report, Walt Disney said he was not going to make a sequel to Mary Poppins. By then he was near to death from lung cancer, and died a few months later, on December 15, 1966.
Gradually, timidly at first, Pamela spoke against the movie, in both letters and articles that she kept, copied and labeled for her files. The first was a letter to a student at Illinois State University. In this, she explained how much she minded seeing the words "Walt Disney's Mary Poppins" on billboards everywhere. Filmmakers should be humble enough to say "P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins, screened by Walt Disney."
Next, she told a contributor to The New York Times that the movie went against the grain of the books, that it was merely a colorful extravaganza, as far from true magic as it was possible to be. The introduction of Bert as a "co-magician" with Mary Poppins ruined the film and made nonsense of the character of Mary. But no, she told the journalist, she could not quote her in the Times.
Even before Disney died, Pamela confided in Janet Graham, writing for the Ladies' Home Journal, that she hated some parts of the movie, including the animated horse and pig. What's more, it was all quite shocking when Mary kicked up her Edwardian gown and showed her underwear. (Nevertheless she had to admit that children loved the film, which led them in great numbers to the books. Since the movie, sales had tripled.) By the time Roy Newquist quoted her in his book, Conversations, in 1967, Pamela inflated the impact of the movie to an emotional shock that left her deeply disturbed. It was all so externalized, so oversimplified, so generalized. Not vulgarized really: "The movie hasn't simplicity, it has simplification." By 1968, she "couldn't bear" the movie. "All that smiling, just like Iago. And it was so untrue -- all fantasy and no magic." Definitely, she did not want to be remembered for the movie.
In October 1964, when Pamela returned from New York to London, the press was full of "this unknown Englishwoman" who had inspired the hit movie. Collins brought out its new edition of the first Mary Poppins, wrapped in a pink-and-white candy-striped jacket with a picture of Julie Andrews on the back.
"Now," said Trade News reporter Ruth Martin, "people are asking, "who is P. L. Travers?" She is, in fact, a bright eyed, slim and lively woman of middle years with a bubble cut hairdo and a determination to remain as anonymous as possible in the present circumstances." Martin interviewed Pamela at 29 Shawfield Street, her "charming, newly done over Regency house in Chelsea with its white painted exterior and dove gray, elegantly fanlighted door, spanking new decor, gleaming modern kitchen, little patio garden where she grows spinach and has barbecue suppers, white-walled top floor studio, with its picture windows and tiny balcony." Pamela told Ruth she wasn't too happy about the line "Walt Disney's Mary Poppins": "It is Mary Poppins arranged for the screen by Walt Disney, just as it is J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, cartooned by Walt Disney -- that would seem to me the proper way of describing it."
The "Royal European" premiere of Mary Poppins was held at the Leicester Square Theatre on December 17, 1964. Inside the Walnut Lounge, above the foyer, Pamela curtsied deeply as she was presented to Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. She stood with Julie Andrews, David Tomlinson and Hermione Baddeley. Walt Disney didn't make it. He sent along a couple of directors of the company instead. (The next week, Collins's public relations department dutifully sent the Mary Poppins books to Princess Margaret, for her children.)
The reviews confirmed Pamela's fears. London was not as addicted to sugar as middle America. This was swinging London, the city of Pete and Dud, Carnaby Street in full psychedelic flower, and the Kinks in pink jackets and black silk stockings singing "You Really Got Me." Dilys Powell, London's senior critic, was disappointed by the flat, cartoonish tone of Disney's Mary Poppins. Powell had done her homework by rereading the original book -- "created by an Englishwoman" -- and found "I haven't liked a children's story as much since I was introduced to The Borrowers. The success of the book seems to me to lie in its fusion of magic and the everyday. But in the movie, the talented Dick Van Dyke has been persuaded to portray Miss Travers's pavement artist as the American cinema's idea of a cockney card, all smirk and bounce." And as for the magic adventures, "instead of being an imaginative extension of the everyday -- instead of coming from within -- the characters are nearly always piled on from the outside." Another critic, David Robinson of the Financial Times, sniffed at Mary Poppins's "lurching unevenness," and "rather dated and common flashiness."
The four months from Hollywood to Leicester Square amounted to both more, and less, than Pamela hoped. Who would really understand what she had been trying to say with her magical nanny? Her heroine had been hijacked. Who was left to tell? Not Frances, not Monsieur Bon Bon, not Madge, not AE. All dead. The media, hungry for a new celebrity to boost for a minute, had clattered around her, distracting her for a while, but by midwinter it was all over. Pamela took refuge in a bad bout of pneumonia. She planned to recuperate at Todtmoos-Rutte, in the Black Forest. Almost missing a deadline, she mailed a commissioned piece for the spring book review on children's books to Belle Rosenbaum, an editor of the New York Herald Tribune, who sympathized, "Pneumonia is a nasty business and I hope it has disappeared for keeps. The clear piney Schwarzwald [Black Forest] air should be a cure."
Pamela told Rosenbaum to return her original manuscript as "my papers have been asked for by a university." They hadn't, but she hoped she might sell them. After all, her name remained newsworthy in the United States. She had left for Germany with the news that Mary Poppins had won five Oscars: best actress, best editing, best song ("Chim Chim Cheree"), best original musical score and best sound. But in the end, it was to be My Fair Lady's night out. That musical won nine Oscars, including Best Picture, in competition with Becket, Dr. Strangelove, Zorba the Greek and Mary Poppins.
The more the awards, the higher the gross, but for Pamela, the better news came in a letter from Dr. Dennison Morey, a Californian rose grower. He had read in the magazine Saturday Review that her favorite flower was the rose, that the heroine in "Sleeping Beauty" was sometimes called Rose, and that she was working on a new book, About the Sleeping Beauty. He eventually bred three new roses: Pamela Travers, Mary Poppins and Sleeping Beauty. Pamela told Morey she "could hardly believe such an honor." To her, the rose was "the flower of all flowers." Furled, curled, it never gave anything away. A rose was to be envied, obviously, for its secretive nature.
Like Mary Poppins, and her favorite Buddha, Pamela was now an expert at not explaining. No one but her closest Gurdjieffian friends knew what she was really doing in Todtmoos. The piney air was not the reason she went to the Black Forest. The real attraction was the latest Mr. Banks in her life: the psychoanalyst Professor Karlfried von Dürckheim, a former German professor of psychiatry whose so-called initiation therapy combined Christianity with Zen Buddhism. Von Dürckheim had lived in Japan for eight years, until after the war, when he returned to Germany and, in 1948, established his Existential Psychological Training and Encounter Institute in Todtmoos. He wrote as much as he practiced psychiatry, and from 1950 began to publish books: Japan and the Culture of Silence, then Hara: the Vital Center of Man and Everyday Therapy. Von Dürckheim promised Pamela peace of mind if she practiced meditation and breathing exercises. He did not offer a complete physical cure to his patients suffering from acute physical problems, but told them his therapy would lead them to insights into themselves.
For Pamela, insight came slowly, despite the daily breathing exercises and long discussions with von Dürckheim about her life.
In her mid-sixties she was still a fractured woman, frazzled but still flirtatious, jittery, yet reveling in the limelight, as fascinated by herself as a lonely woman can be. Eventually these pieces coalesced into an eccentric whole as she adopted the role of a grand and wise old lady. The flirt in Pamela, all her playful instincts, were never to resurface. They had gone out for one great public farewell late in 1964.
That winter, when she was trying to sell more books in New York, she had given an interview to Haskel Frankel of the Saturday Review. He confided he had no interest in meeting P. L. Travers but found himself, the night before the interview, reading Mary Poppins in bed and scrunching up, with that sensation of digging deeper under the covers. Every time he straightened, he caught himself digging down again into a deeper scrunch. By dawn he was "hopelessly in love" with Pamela. Frankel found her the next day "in a darkish corner of a restaurant sipping something mild." At one stage in the interview he took out a sketchpad, noting her blue eyes, curly hair. Reddish brown, was it? She answered, "If you can imagine a blond mouse or perhaps a mousy blonde, I think you will have it." What was he doing? Nothing much. Just a sketch. Suddenly she said, "I wish you could see my feet. I'm very vain about my feet, but I don't suppose I can put those on the table for you?"
His soup arrived -- Italian spinach. She looked suspicious. He made her take a spoonful and she asked whether he liked women. He did. She smiled. "I knew it! Many men say they like women but what they really mean is that they like one woman. You can always tell men who really like women: they always want to share things from their plate." He looked at her. She asked, "Please don't make me an èminence grise. I'm really quite a lunatic, that's what saves me from being carted off."
She tried, then, to get him back on the narrow path of questioning she expected from interviewers. Why hadn't he asked her why she wrote for children? But Frankel wouldn't play, telling her he had hardly needed to ask her anything. She did so nicely by herself. Undeterred, Pamela sniffed, "Well I don't write for children." Then he came up with the standard line, why did she call herself P. L.? Because she did not want to have this label of sentimentality put on her, so "I signed by my initials, hoping people wouldn't bother to wonder if the books were written by a man, woman or kangaroo." She looked up at him: "Won't you ask me something different?" He thought. She looked hopeful. "You do," she drawled, "come from that nice, intelligent magazine. Do ask me something that others don't." "Okay," he said, "what are you doing on Saturday night?"
Pamela shrieked, clapped hands, hit the table. "Oh, put that in, that's different, do put that in." Then she turned coy again, confiding that her greatest joy would be to have a rose named after her. The daisy was a child's favorite flower. It was open. But the rose was never open, not until the last moment. Frankel saw her arms come up about her and somehow turn into petals as she whispered, "It's the folded rose, the secret rose . . . aahhhh."
This "secret rose," which, he suspected, "was more P. L. Travers than even Mary Poppins, folded herself into a sensible tan raincoat." She departed, gurulike and enigmatic. "Intimate life is the only life I can bear. I'm not interested in the passing scene because it passes." Then, "a smile, a wave, and P. L. Travers, world famous and happily unknown, slipped away into a gray New York day. On very pretty feet, may I add."
Pamela later told an interviewer that Frankel's piece was "charming." She just wanted to correct one point. She had written to Frankel to say "I never, ever wore a tan raincoat. It would be beyond me to wear a sensible tan raincoat. It was pale blue and French silk."
With that, the flirt seemed to fold herself back into a bud. That month, she complained in a press report that she had recently been rather dismayed by the American attitude toward grandmothers: "The object of many women's lives is to be a grandmother and looked to as the storyteller, the wise woman, the funny woman."
The French silk flirt was going to subsume now, into the wise woman and storyteller. In the summer of 1965, at Shawfield Street, she submitted to a long interview with a writer, Janet Graham, in which she said, "I think the whole purpose of a woman's life is to become a grandmother. I've said this again and again and again, nymph, mother, we have to become wise old crones, carrying the traditions we've learned. You see that should be our aim, to gather it all up at the end of our life." This was the role of women, of the "triple Goddess" -- which reminded her that AE had called Mary Poppins a goddess.
But behind the new persona of crone, Pamela seemed to be trying to stamp out all traces of the sad child within her. The transcript of the interview, which she kept, is a summation of her life at the age of sixty-five. She spoke of her mother and sisters, and how she spoke comfortingly at times to her dead father. When the article eventually appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, it carried the headline "The Cup of Sorrow in Every Woman's Life." Much of the interview had revolved around the way women return to an almost basic state of sorrow. To Pamela, sorrow was the opposite side of the joy she found in Blake and Mozart. It was how she felt, still, at sunset. That was always "terrible sorrow." She told Graham that the "cup of sorrow" was always full. This was a big theme of hers. That afternoon, Graham talked of the sorrow of unrequited love which could be "a kind of secret joy." At that, Pamela took fright: "Ah well, that I'm not going to put my opinion upon." She did make veiled references to Camillus, but never once said the words "my son."
Copyright 1999 by Valerie Lawson
Excerpted from Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson Copyright © 2006 by Valerie Lawson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Valerie Lawson is a feature writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. Her previous books are Connie Sweetheart and The Allens Affair. She lives in Sydney and London.
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This was interesting, but unfortunately it spoiled the "Mary Poppins" books for me! I had always loved them, but the biography's insights into the author's motivations rather put me off.
The author seems to be one of those people who can't bear to leave out any fact along the way - including every personal detail about anyone Travers ever met in her life/while sparing no criticism on the Disney movie for being "sacharine" the author is very coy regarding Travers' bisexuality
While I learned how interesting the life of P. L. Travers was and the amount of influences she had, it really wasn't well written. It seemed to be just a list of all the minute facts that Valerie Lawson found shoved into a book. There isn't much of a flow or a story. I rarely end up skimming through a book, but this one I had to. I agree with the others, it was quite boring.
Something is wrong with this book