A spoonful of spite: New film set to reveal truth about Mary Poppins' creator… she was a vile woman and abusive mother
01:32 GMT, 12 April 2012
Bitter feud: Author Pamela Travers hated everything Disney had done despite the fortune and standing ovations
The 1964 world premiere of Mary Poppins at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was a glittering extravaganza even by Hollywood standards. Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Snow White mingled with throngs of screaming fans. Dancing chimney sweeps jigged up the red carpet to the strains of a 12-piece band dressed as pearly kings.
Car valets were kitted out as London policemen. Movie moguls arrived in sleek, black sedans. Starlets were dressed in satin ball gowns and draped in mink stoles and diamonds.
Walt Disney himself emerged from his stretch limousine to a mob of welcoming Disney characters and a cloud of balloons. And the 1,200-strong audience gave the film and its stars Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke a five-minute standing ovation.
All, that is, bar one guest — a
65-year-old woman in a silk dress and evening gloves, who sat in her
squishy velvet seat, fists balled in fury and weeping with rage.
PL (Pamela Lyndon) Travers was the
author who created Mary Poppins. She had been paid $100,000 for the film
rights, owned five per cent of the film’s gross profits and would
become fabulously rich as a result.
But despite the standing ovation, the
five Academy Awards the film won and the 200 million members of the
public who rushed out to see the film and adored it, Travers hated
everything Disney had done.
She loathed the animation. She
disapproved of children sliding up banisters and jumping in puddles. She
hated the songs and Mr Banks’ pyjamas, and she wanted tapioca to be
removed from Mary Poppins’ shopping list.
But, most of all, she despised the
fact that Walt Disney had turned her stern, vain and often rather scary
Poppins into a saccharine, singing star.
She vowed then never to forgive him,
or to let American producers get their hands on her prized creation
again. And she kept her word.
Dramatic: PL Travers, pictured, and her siblings were left destitute when her alcoholic father died, inspiring her to create Mary Poppins
So she would be spinning in her grave
to learn that her sour and self-absorbed life and extraordinary feud
with Walt Disney are to be dramatised in a new film starring Tom Hanks
and Emma Thompson to mark the 50th anniversary of the Disney classic.
For while her flying heroine
epitomised the magic of childhood, Travers was neither warm nor kindly.
She was an intellectual snob who wrote erotic prose, was a one-time
fascist sympathiser, occasional lesbian and appalling mother.
PL Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff
in Queensland, Australia, the eldest daughter of an alcoholic bank
manager who was later demoted to clerk and died when she was seven.
Her mother was pretty, feckless and
hopeless in a crisis, and three years after being widowed, tried
(unsuccessfully) to drown herself in a nearby creek.
Helen comforted her sisters with
made-up stories about flying horses. Quick-witted and keen to get on,
she didn’t hang around that desolate home for long.
Mary Poppins played by Julie Andrews.: Travers hated that Disney had turned the stern, often rather scary character into a singer star
Row: The 1964 movie is still loved all over the world but Travers never forgave Disney for what she thought was an appalling film
Anger: It was the animated scenes starring Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke that caused the author to cry throughout its premiere, which she had to sneak into
She wrote poems and articles (some
extremely risqu, inviting readers to imagine her taking off her
underwear: ‘the silky hush of intimate things, fragrant with my
fragrance, steal softly down …), did a bit of modelling, joined a
travelling Shakespeare company, changed her name to Pamela and, in 1924,
set sail for England.
On the way, she rewrote her past,
invented an idyllic childhood on a sugar plantation and recast her
father as a handsome Irishman.
Ambitious and flirty, she embraced
Fleet Street, an older married man and two long-term relationships with
women. It was in the winter of 1933, while living with one of them in a
thatched cottage in Sussex and recovering from pleurisy, that she
started writing Mary Poppins.
It is the story of Mr and Mrs Banks of
17 Cherry Tree Lane, their four children and a nanny who is blown in by
the East Wind armed with a bottomless carpetbag, a very stern
countenance, a very special umbrella and a set of (often rather black)
The book was an instant cult hit.
Seven sequels followed (the last in 1988), and Travers’ professional
success was secure. Yet happiness in her private life eluded her. She
never married but, aged 40 and desperate for a child, she first tried
(bizarrely and unsuccessfully) to adopt her 17-year-old cleaner, and
then travelled to Ireland to adopt a baby boy — one of twins.
Hit: PL Travers, right, with Walt Disney, centre, and Julie Andrews, left, but despite the huge success of the film the author disliked it greatly and refused to work with Disney again
The boys’ grandparents begged her to
take both babies but, on the advice of a clairvoyant, she refused. She
picked Camillus on the turn of a Tarot card, leaving his twin brother
Anthony to a life of poverty.
She was not a natural mother. Appalled
when her new son cried at night, she talked of sending him to a babies’
home in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
She then pretended to be his natural mother, claiming that his father had died in the tropics.
As her fortune grew, she lavished
expensive presents on him — but, as soon as he was old enough, packed
him off to boarding school so she could get back to her writing.
Things got worse. In 1955, Anthony
turned up unannounced to meet his twin. The shock for Camillus, then 17,
who thought he was an only child and was unaware he was adopted, was
debilitating and permanent.
As Anthony said in an interview in
2004: ‘When I found him, his whole world came crumbling down. We both
went a bit berserk, and he went a bit more berserk than I did.’
Success: Despite her tragic start in life Travers became an actress, pictured left in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and right in another play in her native Australia
Both brothers became alcoholics. Both are now dead.
Meanwhile, back to Mary Poppins. Walt
Disney, alerted to the book by his daughter Diane, got in touch with
Travers in the early 1940s, desperate to buy the film rights. Thus began
a 15-year courtship of flattery, fawning attention, telegrams and
visits. Eventually, Travers succumbed and sold out for $100,000, five
per cent of the gross earnings and — unprecedented at that time — script
The latter took a further two years.
Despite netting a fortune, Travers was a nightmare to deal with:
imperious, self-righteous and intransigent. Two years after she signed
off on the project, she was still sending Disney reams of corrections.
Bestseller: The author wrote eight books before she died aged 96, selling many copies across the world
Even when production began, her relentless input and observations about the script and songs drove Disney almost mad.
So much so that Travers wasn’t even
invited to the premiere. She forced her way in, embarrassing a studio
executive into putting her name on the guest-list. Which, doubtless,
given that she heckled Walt Disney at the after-party in a very loud
voice, the executive lived to regret.
Decades later, her fury at Disney
still burned. When producer Cameron Mackintosh asked for permission to
produce the stage musical, she agreed only on the condition that no
Americans and no one from the film production would be involved in the
She even had this stipulation set out in her last will and testament.
Success did not make Travers happier.
In a desperate bid to find contentment, she flirted with Buddhism in
Japan, lived with the Navajo Indians in New Mexico, and became obsessed
with mythology and the occult.
Like many lonely and self-absorbed
people, she became an easy target for quacks and mystics. When she died
in London aged 96 in 1996, she was all but friendless.
It is desperately sad that despite the
extraordinary joy that her books brought to so many millions of
children, Travers was never able to overcome the fallout from her own
She once claimed in an interview that ‘Mary Poppins is the story of my life’.
Thank goodness, for all of us who have enjoyed it, that this appears to be yet another piece of fiction.