The woman weeping at the 1964 premiere of Mary Poppins? None other than the classic children’s book author P.L. Travers. But these were not tears of joy or gratitude. Travers hated the movie. The Disney adaptation’s success at the box office was a blessing and a curse, saving her from bankruptcy but robbing Mary Poppins of the subversive edge Travers had so carefully crafted. She never forgave Walt Disney.
As recounted in the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks, starring genial Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and a glorious tight-curled Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers, both were strong-willed and affected by difficult childhoods, but in starkly different ways. He became a relentlessly hopeful optimist; she hewed to a more darkly pragmatic realism.
Papa Walt became familiar with Mary Poppins the way many fathers did—through his daughter’s enthusiasm. He grandly and perhaps unwisely assured his child he’d make a film of her favorite bed-time story, never dreaming someone would disagree with his intentions. He had not yet met P. L. Travers.
In fact, it took Disney nearly 20 years to secure the rights, and she finally agreed only because she was on the brink of bankruptcy. Disney paid her $100,000 and 5 percent of gross earnings, and agreed to a live-action film and script approval—this last a decision Disney would regret.
Since she wrote about a nanny bringing a family back together, Disney probably assumed Travers shared his same conventional, traditional nuclear-family leanings.
But P. L. Travers was a self-styled iconoclast. She was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Australia in 1899, the eldest of three. Her father, an Irish farmer and banker prone to excessive drinking, died when she was 7. Her mother seemed ill-equipped to cope, at one point leaving the children in the care of Helen, telling them she was going to a creek to drown. Helen made up stories to soothe her terrified siblings, planting the early seeds of future Mary Poppins books. Their mother came back, but the threats understandably scarred her eldest daughter. They moved in with Helen’s kind but brusque great-aunt, who inspired the famous nanny, saying, “Spit spot, into bed.”
In her teen years, Helen began writing for newspapers and magazines and acting in a traveling Shakespeare troupe, taking her father’s name for her stage name of P. L. (or Pamela Lyndon) Travers.
In her early 20s, Pamela Travers decided to strike out for greater cultural stakes in London. She became the rare female reporter on Fleet Street. Her submissions to an Irish poetry journal won her an audience with its editor, the poet known as A. E., who in turn introduced her to W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and another like-minded young single woman named Madge Burnand, whom Travers moved in with, in 1931. One winter, Travers fell ill, and bored in bed while recovering, she began to write her most famous stories.
Travers tapped into a rosy revisit of her childhood—the aptly named Mr. Banks is a banker (though not a drunk), the mother is flighty (but not suicidal), and Mary Poppins, like Travers’s great-aunt, is the Banks children’s caring if unsentimental ballad, “tart and sharp.” Ever controlling, Travers chose her own illustrator, typeface, and dust jacket. Published in 1934, Mary Poppins was an immediate critical and commercial success.
By 1961, the Disney team had sketched the broad outlines of the Mary Poppins film and sent drafts to Travers, who responded with her own screen adaptations. Perhaps sensing her resistance, Disney invited Travers to California, where he intended to dazzle her with a private tour of Disneyland, a glamorous hotel suite, and a limo to usher her to screenings.
Travers remained unimpressed. And so Disney ran off to Palm Springs, leaving her to the scriptwriter and songwriters so they could persuade her to sign off. Astonishingly, at Travers’s insistence, these meetings were recorded and exist to this day. (At the end of Saving Mr. Banks, you can hear the real Travers barking, “No, no, no, no!”)
“She didn’t care about our feelings, how she chopped us apart,” songwriter Richard Sherman told the New York Times in 2013, shuddering at the memory. The songwriter was caught between a rock and a hard place, as Disney would brook no negativity. “He’d kill you if you said you didn’t like something,” Sherman said. “He’d say, ‘If you can’t think of something to improve it, then keep your mouth shut.’ ”
But Travers never stopped criticizing Disney’s production, sending multi-page memos that the fed-up filmmaker ignored. She didn’t like Dick Van Dyke (she had wanted Laurence Olivier); she thought Julie Andrews was too pretty, sweet, and saccharine. She hated the music. She was so disenchanted with the whole experience that when she was approached about a stage adaptation in the 1990s she stipulated that no Americans work on the project.
Disney didn’t invite Travers to the movie’s premiere; Travers had to wangle an invitation out of an assistant. She wept in frustration, and cornered Disney after the screening to inform him she had many changes, starting with the dreadful animation scene. To which Disney replied, “Pamela, that ship has sailed.”
Mary Poppins was Disney’s greatest live-action success. It won five Oscars in 1965, including a Best Actress for Julie Andrews, Best Music, and Best Song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”
Walt Disney died in 1966. P. L. Travers lived in England to the age of 96, granting interviews during which she would answer no questions, intractable to the end.