Obit of the Day (Historical): P.L. Travers (1996)
Helen Goff first began storytelling to calm her younger sibling when her mother told her one evening that she was going to leave and drown herself. Helen was ten. Although her mother returned, having failed to kill herself, young Helen would begin to distance herself from her mother. Her father, Travers Goff died at the age of 43. His cause of death was listed as an “epileptic seizure delirium” but his daughter recognized that her banker father was a heavy drinker.
Ms. Goff made a complete break when she changed her name to Pamela Lyndon Travers to join a traveling Shakespearean theater company. When she was 25 she took a White Star ship from her home country of Australia to England. (She would only return home once, in 1960.)
Ms. Travers transitioned from actor to poet having some of her early work published in the Irish Statesman. She would also write essays that were featured in the New English Weekly. (Later on she would work with T.S. Eliot as a member of the Weekly's board.)
In 1933, home sick with pleurisy that Ms. Travers began to write a novel about a nanny helping out a Depression-era family whose father was a banker and mother was nearly absent from child-rearing. Titled Mary Poppins, the novel was a commercial and critical success.
Random note: The British world of children’s literature was a small one. The illustrator for all the Mary Poppins books - eight between 1934 and 1988 - was Mary Shepard. Ms. Shepard’s father was Ernest Shepard who was A.A. Milne’s illustrator for Winnie-the-Pooh. Her second and third Mary Poppins books were published by Peter Davies - the adopted son of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie
Walt Disney would hear about the mysterious nanny who ruled over the Banks’ family with a mix of magic and imperiousness from his daughter, Diane. He would spend the next fifteen years trying to persuade Ms. Travers to sign over the rights to his studio.
She finally agreed and was given $100,000 (approximately $2 million in 2013), a 5% share of the film’s profits, and script approval. She received the first two. The relationship between Ms. Travers and Mr. Disney quickly spoiled as the studio completely re-wrote the story even after repeated attempts by Ms. Travers to control the script.
When the film premiered in August 1964 Ms. Travers had to ask permission to attend and after seeing the film went up to Mr. Disney and demanded that the animation sequences be removed. He replied as he walked away, “Pamela, that ship has sailed.”
Although the film won five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Ms. Travers vowed to never let Disney make another one of her Mary Poppins novels into a film. (In fact she would never let any of the other books reach the screen.) When she was approached in 1994 to make a musical version of her novel she had it written that no American and no one from the Disney film was allowed to work on the show.
Random note: The show, which opened in 2004, was actually a hybrid of Ms. Travers’ original story and the Disney film. It was produced by David Mackintosh (Cats, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera) and included many of the songs written by Richard and Robert Sherman. Songs which Ms. Travers despised.
Over her career, Ms. Travers wrote 14 books outside of the Mary Poppins series including three non-fiction works. Her work in children’s fiction also earned her positions as writer-in-residence at Radcliffe College and Smith College.
P.L. Travers, who had a deep interest in Zen Buddhism and later Sufi mysticism, once said "I have never written for children, for who knows where childhood ends and adulthood begins?"
Ms. Travers died on April 23, 1996 at the age of 96.
(Image of first edition cover of Mary Poppins, published in 1934, with illustration by Mary Shepard is courtesy of screever.org)