Saving Mary Poppins
P.L. Travers always denied creating Mary Poppins, claiming the British nursemaid had sought her out: “She just brushed past me and said, ‘You take it down.’” As the film Saving Mr. Banks reveals, studio mogul Walt Disney met a formidable opponent when he began negotiating film rights with the children’s novelist, accomplished journalist, poet, onetime erotica writer and lifelong spiritual seeker. Travers was as no-nonsense yet as mystical and elusive as her magical nanny.
Explaining the origins of the heroine who first appeared in her 1934 novel Mary Poppins, Pamela Lyndon Travers claimed the character “just flew in, unbidden and fully formed, through the window.” Travers’s character is a mysterious, unpredictable figure, dubbed the Great Exception for having retained fluency in the languages of animals and the wind, an ability (a talking starling tells us) other humans lose after infancy.
Travers was on a continual quest for spiritual and creative fulfillment, and she followed the teachings of the popular Greek-Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff, sojourned among the Navajo and Hopi, studied Buddhism and contributed prolifically to Parabola, a scholarly magazine exploring world mythology and religion. Taken in the context of Travers’s mystical tendencies, the idea that Mary Poppins already existed is not so far-fetched. Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman takes the idea a step further in his short story “The Problem of Susan,” (2004) positioning Poppins as Jesus Christ’s former nanny, still remembered for keeping the Holy Ghost’s sheet “properly white.” Characteristically, she flummoxes her charge’s father—i.e., God. Echoing Travers, the Almighty insists, “I didn’t create her. She’s Mary Poppins.”
In 1944 Walt Disney approached P.L. Travers about adapting Mary Poppins and its sequels (then two) into a movie for Walt Disney Studios. He may have imagined he was dealing with a prim British lady, but Disney soon discovered that a line Travers wrote about the nanny could apply to its author just as well: “‘No,’ said Mary Poppins, who always said ‘No.’” Travers consistently refused to grant Disney the rights, but in 1961 he offered her unprecedented script approval privileges. Despite the resulting contract, Disney eventually managed to wrest control and produce a film Travers deplored; her reaction, a friend said, was “unprintable.” In a more tempered moment, Travers allowed that the film was “Disney through and through, spectacular, colorful, gorgeous, but all wrapped around mediocrity of thought, poor glimmerings of understanding.” Children’s author and librarian Frances Clarke Sayers concurred, claiming that the “acerbity of Mary Poppins, unpredictable, full of wonder and mystery, becomes, with Mr. Disney’s treatment, one great marshmallow-covered cream puff.” Travers refused all subsequent movie offers but agreed, in 1993, to a London stage adaptation, on the condition that it was “not like…the Disney film.”
Born Helen Lyndon Goff in Australia, P.L. Travers was seven when her beloved father, an alcoholic, died. Her mother became suicidal, and an aunt—a likely model for Mary Poppins—came to live with the family. In young adulthood, Travers changed her name (taking her father’s first name as her last), romanticized her biography, moved to the U.K. and presented herself to the much older W.B. Yeats and George Russell (pen name: Æ) as a fellow poet with Irish roots. Russell became a mentor (and possibly a lover) and sparked Travers’s interest in spiritualism, which led to her following the teachings of George Gurdjieff, a guru to the smart set, whose authenticity is still debated.
Travers’s son, Camillus, speculates that his mother spent her life seeking a father figure. Saving Mr. Banks (2013) sentimentalizes this longing when Tom Hanks’s Walt Disney, in a soft, paternal tone, coaxes, “It’s not the children [Mary Poppins] comes to save. It’s their father—it’s your father.” Camillus, whom Travers adopted and raised alone, no doubt understood her sense of loss. He believed his father was dead, and he didn’t find out he was adopted—and had a twin brother—until age 17.
“I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons,” P.L. Travers warns Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, fretting that he will portray Mary Poppins “cavorting and twinkling.” But Travers put the enchanted nursemaid up to far stranger gambols than Disney imposed. Her Mary Poppins flies, talks to animals and transports herself to the otherworld like a shaman, and dance emerges in the books as a spiritual practice, similar to the Sufi tradition of Whirling Dervishes. In the first novel, Mary Poppins (1934), the magical nanny and her charges, the Banks children, visit a zoo at night, where Ms. Poppins engages in a bizarre, swaying interspecies dance. While the children watch, Mary’s cousin, a serpent king called the Hamadryad, explains, “The same substance composes us—the tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star—we are all one, all moving to the same end.”
It’s not surprising that Travers’s prose and characterizations would undergo the sanitizing process known as Disneyfication. The head of the family-friendly Magic Kingdom surely didn’t want audiences raving, as Irish poet Francis McNamara did, that “Mary Poppins with her cool green core of sex has me enthralled forever.”
In 1967 P.L. Travers gave a lecture to the U.S. Library of Congress entitled “Only Connect,” a favorite phrase borrowed from E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End (1910). In its 1992 film adaptation, British actor Emma Thompson plays Margaret Schlegel, the story’s main proponent of interpersonal connection as the route to fulfillment. In Saving Mr. Banks Thompson portrays Travers. Compared with Margaret, the actor says, Travers was “far more chaotic and confused and morally various.”
Thompson also plays the title role and wrote the screenplays for Nanny McPhee and its 2010 sequel, both based on crime writer Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books from the 1960s and ’70s. Like Mary Poppins, McPhee visits the homes of troubled families, spruces them up and disappears. Thompson, who won an Academy Award for her 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, spent seven years on the McPhee story and has spoken of a writer’s sensitivity about her characters and others’ treatment of them. She’s a good fit for Travers, who buried herself, painful memories and all, in her work. “I sit down inside my abdomen and brood and brood,” Travers wrote of her process, “till I find out what I feel about it.”
In Saving Mr. Banks, movie mogul Walt Disney convinces the recalcitrant P.L. Travers that if she comes to Hollywood, his studio will implement her vision for Mary Poppins. But once Disney hooks Travers, he disappears, leaving her in the hands of screenwriter Don DaGradi and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman. The real-life Sherman brothers wrote the film’s blockbuster show tunes, including “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Chim Chim Cheree,” as well as the songs for The Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the theme park opus “It’s a Small World (After All).” Recordings of the script sessions reveal Travers as an enthusiastic participant, gamely rendering the characters’ voices and noting points that still needed work with prompts like “Just a little something in the script—I’ll help you with it later.” But a series of letters between Travers and the studio after she left California reveals her mounting frustration at Disney’s railroading of revisions to her stories. Travers inveigled an invitation to the premiere and was shocked and disappointed by the film. According to her biographer, Valerie Lawson, Travers believed that “Disney was without subtlety and emasculated any character he touched, replacing truth with false sentimentality.”