Caitlin Flanagan - Becoming Mary Poppins
The 1964 world première of “Mary Poppins” was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and it was the kind of spectacle for which the Disney organization had become famous. Throngs of screaming fans were greeted by Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Snow White and the dwarfs, as well as by entertainers who gestured toward the movie’s Edwardian setting: a twelve-piece pearly band, chimney-sweep dancers, valets dressed as bobbies, and a bevy of pretty Disneyland hostesses, whose traditional uniforms (kilts and black velvet riding helmets) suggested a general Englishness. Hollywood luminaries arrived in chauffeured automobiles, the women in ball gowns and mink stoles (Angie Dickinson, Maureen O’Hara, Suzanne Pleshette), the men wearing dinner jackets (Edward G. Robinson, Cesar Romero, Buddy Ebsen). The arrival of the movie’s principals aroused muted excitement: Julie Andrews, who played Mary Poppins, had never appeared in a movie before, and Dick Van Dyke—the chimney sweep Bert—became much better known after the film’s release. Then Walt Disney himself arrived, stepping out of a stretch limousine and gallantly reaching a hand into the car to help his wife, Lillian, onto the pavement. Disney was by then immensely famous, appearing on his own television show every Sunday night. He had carefully engineered his entrance: when his car pulled up, the Disney characters mobbed it, and soon afterward clouds of balloons were released into the air.
Inside the packed twelve-hundred-seat theatre, the members of the audience responded to the movie with enthusiasm: they gave it a five-minute standing ovation. In the midst of the celebrating crowd, it would have been easy to overlook the sixty-five-year-old woman sitting there, weeping. Anyone who recognized her as P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, could have been forgiven for assuming that her tears were the product either of artistic delight or of financial ecstasy (she owned five per cent of the gross; the movie made her rich). Neither was the case. The picture, she thought, had done a strange kind of violence to her work. She would turn the personally disastrous première into a hilarious dining-out story, with Disney as the butt of her jokes. But she had a premonition that the movie she hated was about to change everything for her. Writing to a friend, she remarked that her life would never be the same.
Travers’s dreams of becoming a famous writer were realized because of Disney’s movie, but its scope eclipsed everything else that she had or would achieve. She spent the rest of her long life (she died in 1996, at the age of ninety-six) linked artistically and personally to Mary Poppins. It was a persona—spinsterish children’s author, creator of a spinsterish character—that overshadowed the more complicated identity she had devoted her life to creating. The movie also left a deep impression on the generations of children who saw it during its three theatrical releases, in 1964, 1973, and 1980. These were children who grew up in an America in which nannies were as unfamiliar to middle-class neighborhoods as Jaguars and Martians. But they would become adults in an America that had invented a new nanny culture. To an astonishing extent, the way they came to think and talk about their employees was shaped by the movie they had seen so many years earlier.
Nannies have become a force in American life because of the three-decade-long influx of middle-class mothers to the workforce, and the more recent wave of cheap female immigrant labor. “She’s the Guatemalan Mary Poppins!” a working mother will happily announce of her new employee—or the Colombian or the Caribbean one. It’s hard to find a book or an article about hiring a nanny that doesn’t make mention of the old girl. And even though the culture and experience of a Third World child-care provider are as removed from those of an Edwardian nanny as it is possible to be, we understand what the reference means: the nanny is good, she’s kind, and her ability to transform a chaotic household into a place of order and contentment verges on the supernatural. What people remember about the movie is that the family finds happiness and the nanny is magical. What they misremember is that it’s a film with a surprising moral: fire the nanny. In a sense, “Mary Poppins” is an anti-nanny propaganda film, the “Reefer Madness” of the working-mother set.
The script for “Mary Poppins” was written by a group of men in Burbank in the early sixties, and it is set in London in 1910, in the household of a martinet banker (Mr. Banks), a suffragette (Mrs. Banks), and their two young children, Jane and Michael. But the Bankses’ story opens with an entirely contemporary predicament: a mother with tons of work being blindsided by a crisis more terrifying to the maternal soul than infidelity or financial reversal—nanny trouble. When first we meet Mrs. Banks, she is dancing along the pavement outside her house, triumphant in her day’s accomplishments. “We had the most glorious meeting,” she tells her servants, after she bursts through the front door, singing. “Mrs. Whitbourne-Allen chained herself to the wheel of the Prime Minister’s carriage. You should have been there! And Mrs. Ainslie—she was carried off to prison, singing and scattering pamphlets all the way!” The servants, however, have news of their own: the reason that Katie Nanna, the children’s nursemaid, is wearing her gabardine travelling outfit is that she is about to quit. They finally manage to tell Mrs. Banks, and it is as though they’d stuck a pin in her; we watch her crumple before our eyes. She snatches off her “Votes for Women” sash—“You know how the cause infuriates Mr. Banks”—and then does what any clear-thinking, intelligent woman in her situation would do: she begs. “Katie Nanna—I beseech you. Please reconsider. Think of the children. Think of Mr. Banks.” Speak of the devil—he marches through the door, and becomes apoplectic when he learns of the upheaval. In six minutes of film time, Mrs. Banks is changed from a balls-out feminist—“No more the meek and mild subservients, we!”—to a surrendered wife. “I’m sorry, dear,” she says. “I’ll try to do better next time.”
What follows is the entirety of what most people remember of the film: Mary Poppins alights calmly from the sky, using her umbrella as a parachute, and begins to set things straight. Her main objective is to transform Mr. Banks from a prig to a loving mid-century American-style dad, with a hankering for kiddie fun and family time. But she’s got half an eye on the missus. By the movie’s end, Mrs. Banks has abandoned the whole crazy suffrage scheme, and proves it by using her “Votes for Women” sash as a tail for the children’s kite. As Mary Poppins slips away, Mrs. Banks goes to the park with her family, embracing her proper role in the household. The story’s happy ending depends on a signal fact: the Banks children will no longer be brought up by servants. Henceforth, their own mother—corralled homeward through the beneficent intercessions of Mary Poppins—will do the job herself.
“Mary Poppins” advocates the kind of family life that Walt Disney had spent his career both chronicling and helping to foster on a national level: father at work, mother at home, children flourishing. It is tempting to imagine that in Travers he found a like-minded person, someone who embodied the virtues of conformity and traditionalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Travers was a woman who never married, wore trousers when she felt like it, had a transformative and emotionally charged relationship with an older married man, and entered into a long-term live-in relationship with another woman. As she approached forty, she decided that she wanted a child. After a bizarre incident in which she attempted to adopt the seventeen-year-old girl who cleaned her house, she travelled to Ireland and adopted an infant, one of a pair of twins, and raised him as a single mother. Her reverence for the delights of family life was perhaps as intense as Disney’s, but her opinion about the shape such a life might assume was far more nuanced.
Children’s authors are not known for their happy childhoods, and Helen Goff—the little girl who at twenty-one changed her name to Pamela Travers and never looked back—endured one that was almost archetypal in its sadness and its privations. She was born in Australia in 1899, the eldest daughter in a household of girls. Her father, Travers Goff, was a bank manager and a drinker, and he died when she was seven. Valerie Lawson, the author of the only comprehensive biography of Pamela Travers, notes that “epileptic seizure delirium” was given as the cause of death, but says Pamela Travers “always believed the underlying cause was sustained, heavy drinking.” Her mother, Margaret, who was pretty and feckless, soldiered on for a few years, and then, when Helen was ten, she did what a mother is never supposed to do. She gave up.
One night, in the middle of a thunderstorm, Margaret left Helen in charge of the two younger children, telling her that she was going to drown herself in a nearby creek. As an old woman, Travers wrote about the terrifying experience: “Large-eyed, the little ones looked at me—she and I called them the little ones, both of us aware that an eldest child, no matter how young, can never experience the heart’s ease that little ones enjoy.” Helen stirred the fire and then they all lay down on the hearth rug and she told them a story about a magical flying horse, with the small ones asking excited questions (“Could he carry us to the shiny land, all three on his back?”). As she tried to distract her siblings, she worried about the future. She later wrote, “What happens to children who have lost both parents? Do they go into Children’s Homes and wear embroidered dressing-gowns, embroidery that is really darning?” That predicament—the fate of children whose parents can’t take care of them—haunted her for the rest of her life.
Margaret came back that night, having been unsuccessful in her suicide attempt, but Helen’s mind was made up. She no longer cleaved to her unreliable, dithering mother but, rather, to a formidable maiden great-aunt, Helen Morehead. Aunt Ellie, as she was called, bossed everyone around, but her fierceness disguised a kindness she would have been embarrassed to admit.
If it was possible to be a rebellious teen-ager in the girls’ schools of Sydney in the nineteen-tens, then Travers was one. She studied elocution and eventually joined a travelling Shakespeare company, playing the role of Lorenzo in “The Merchant of Venice.” She wrote for the Christchurch Sun, and for the literary magazine The Triad, where she was the author of a saucy column called “A Woman Hits Back” and often published her erotic ruminations. (Travers, inviting her readers to imagine her taking off her underwear: “The silky hush of intimate things, fragrant with my fragrance, steal softly down, so loth to rob me of my last dear concealment.”) She was loose-limbed and boyish—no beauty—but her phenomenal self-regard and quick, vicious wit drew attention. By 1924, she had decided that she had outgrown the antipodes, and bought a ticket on a passenger ship of the White Star Line bound for Southampton, hoping to make her fame and fortune as a writer in London.
Once there, Travers found work as a journalist, filing stories for the Sun and eventually writing theatre reviews. Fleet Street was a man’s world, and she was a man’s girl. Flirtatious, charming, smart, unmarried, and a welcome addition to the convivial pub scene, she had the bounder’s willingness to press her work on anyone who might help her, and when her submission of poems to the Irish Statesman was met with a promising letter from its editor, the poet George Russell—known as A.E.—she went to Dublin to see him. A.E., a married man of fifty-six, was a reckless encourager of young people. His literary connections extended from the house next door—the Dublin home of Yeats—to New York and the Continent, and he offered them all to Travers. A theosophist, he urged her to take up the study of mysticism, which became a lifelong preoccupation. They began a relationship that was filial, intellectual, and marked by romantic gestures. It lasted until his death, ten years later.
The most important of A.E.’s introductions, however, was not professional. He had a hunch that Travers would take a liking to another single girl living in London, Madge Burnand, the daughter of one of his friends, the former editor of Punch. The two women hit it off immediately. In 1931, they set up housekeeping in a cottage in Sussex. Madge did the cooking, while Pamela wrote poems for the Irish Statesman, and essays for the New English Weekly, where she later served on the board with T. S. Eliot. It was there, in the winter of 1933, that she succumbed to a bout of pleurisy, took to her bed, and began to write.
Travers chose as her subject one of the great English preoccupations: nursery life. More to the point, within that subject she located a rich and relatively untapped vein of experience—the relationship between a nanny and her charges. Travers was writing at the end of a groundbreaking epoch of children’s literature that included the works of Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, J. M. Barrie, and A. A. Milne, each of them annexing vast territories of children’s experience. Several years earlier, Travers had published a newspaper short about a comical nanny named Mary Poppins. More recently, A.E.—whose advice usually succeeded only in making her bad poetry worse—had given her an inspired suggestion: he thought that she should write a story about a witch. Now the idea struck her: why not make Mary Poppins into a shape-shifter?
We tend to think of the British nanny—formally trained, bred to the job, imperious, unflappable, and immaculately turned out—as one of England’s oldest traditions. She was actually a relatively short-lived institution. Born in the early days of Victoria’s reign, when industrialization and a population explosion among both the poor and the middle class brought the two groups together in a highly regimented and hierarchical servant culture, she had all but disappeared by the end of the Second World War. The middle-class house that was populated with specialized servants became a thing of the past, and nannies evolved into an accoutrement strictly of upper-class life, associated with the aristocracy.
Travers’s story, which unfolded over the course of an eventual eight books, is set in Depression-era London, and describes a world in decline. The Banks family, though solidly middle class, is racked with financial anxieties, and possessed of “the smallest house in the Lane,” which is “rather dilapidated and needs a coat of paint.” Nonetheless, they have a retinue of servants: “Mrs. Brill to cook for them, and Ellen to lay the tables, and Robertson Ay to cut the lawn and clean the knives and polish the shoes and, as Mr. Banks always said, ‘to waste his time and my money,’ ” as well as a nurse, Katie Nanna, for their four children. Mrs. Banks keeps busy running the household, going to tea, and, when she can, putting her feet up. Mr. Banks works at a bank.
Obviously, Travers did not write her books to commemorate a happy childhood, but she did seem interested in rewriting her bad one. The Banks family is a reformed version of the Goffs, their charming features magnified and their failures burnished away. Father is a banker, although not a drunk; mother is a flibbertigibbet, although not a suicidal one. And Mary Poppins, like Aunt Ellie, is the great deflater, the enemy of any attempt at whimsy or sentiment. (“ ‘I smell snow,’ said Jane as they got out of the Bus. ‘I smell Christmas trees,’ said Michael. ‘I smell fried fish,’ said Mary Poppins.”) But she is also an everyday enchantress, a woman who will scold a child for wearing a coat in a warm room but also one who will take her charges to a midnight congress of animals at the zoo, and on an afternoon trip around the world.
The literary Mary Poppins is by no means an untroubling character. Indeed, at the end of the first chapter of the first book—in which she arrives as a shape hurled against the front door in the midst of a gale, assumes the form of a woman, bullies Mrs. Banks into hiring her, snaps at the children, and doses them with a mysterious potion after she gets them alone in the nursery—she earns only a qualified endorsement: “And although they sometimes found themselves wishing for the quieter, more ordinary days when Katie Nanna ruled the household, everybody, on the whole, was glad of Mary Poppins’s arrival.” She is, in fact, very often “angry,” “threatening,” “scornful,” and “frightening.” She calls the children cannibals, jostles them down the stairs, and makes them eat so quickly that they fear they will choke. She has a habit of saving the children from horrifying supernatural experiences, it’s true, but this would seem more of a boon if she herself hadn’t brought them on in revenge for naughtiness. Often, she seems like someone who doesn’t like children much.
Still, they love her. It is Mary Poppins who puts the children to bed and unbuttons their overcoats and bathes them; Mary Poppins who, familiar to the children simply by her scent—toast and Sunlight soap—comes to their bedsides and comforts them with warm milk and quiet words. It is Mary Poppins who earns the deepest love a child has to offer: that which is bound in his trusting dependence on the person who provides his physical care. “Mary Poppins,” Michael cries in anguish the first night she has come to care for them. “You’ll never leave us, will you?” It’s the great question of childhood, the question upon which all the Mary Poppins books turn: is the person on whom a child relies for the foundation of his existence—food and warmth and love at its most elemental—about to disappear?
“I’ll stay till the wind changes,” she tells him honestly, and at the first book’s end she leaves abruptly. Mrs. Banks is furious; the children are heartbroken. “Mary Poppins is the only person I want in the world,” Michael shrieks, throwing himself on the floor. His outburst would be doubly wounding to the modern mother: her child would be suffering and she would be reminded of the love she had forfeited to an employee. But Mrs. Banks is untroubled by either fact. Her concerns are for the disruption of her household. She and Mr. Banks have a dinner party to attend, and it’s the maid’s day off.
The “Mary Poppins” books are transfixing and original, trading sharp drawing-room comedy with fantastical adventures and carefully rendered scenes of servant life. Travers wrote the first volume quickly, patching together the episodes of Mary Poppins and the children with those of Mary’s excursions—to her own “Fairyland,” on a private jaunt with Bert. It was likely Madge who sent the manuscript to a London publisher, Gerald Howe. He accepted it immediately, and then Travers chose an illustrator, a young woman named Mary Shepard, whose father, Ernest Shepard, had illustrated the “Winnie-the-Pooh” books. It was the beginning of a long, fruitful, and often unhappy relationship. Shepard illustrated all of the “Mary Poppins” books, though often with some bitterness: Travers allowed her almost no license in how she composed images. Travers was intimately involved in all aspects of the physical production of her books, including the color of the dust jackets and the typeface.
Travers sent the book to press with some trepidation, fearing that a children’s book might undermine her hard-won literary cachet. She considered releasing the book anonymously, but her publisher wouldn’t hear of it. In the end, she need not have worried. The book, which came out in 1934, was not only popular with children but well received by the audience whose opinion she valued most. T. S. Eliot, who was then an editor at Faber and Faber, expressed interest; Ted Hughes later wrote to tell her that Sylvia Plath had loved “Mary Poppins.” Princess Margaret and Caroline Kennedy were both admirers. Over the course of the “Mary Poppins” run—the last book was published in 1988—the series was increasingly influenced by Travers’s study of spiritualism, myth, and the occult. But domestic scenes were always her strength. A review of the second book in the series, “Mary Poppins Comes Back,” which appeared in this magazine in 1935, observed of the main character: “To our taste, she and her little charges are at their best when they are fixed firmly on the ground, snapping tartly at each other in the very human and cluttery nursery of the Banks family.”
It was through Diane Disney, Walt’s young daughter, that he first became aware of the “Mary Poppins” books, sometime in the early nineteen-forties. He saw their potential. The story was not in the public domain, however, and its prickly author was known to have rebuffed many Hollywood suitors, including Samuel Goldwyn. Disney, who later put his stamp on many of the classic characters from English children’s stories—Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan—turned his attention to persuading Travers, who by this time was again living in London and was in and out of a tempestuous relationship with Jessie Orage, the widow of the New English Weekly’s founder, Alfred Orage. Of Disney’s courtship, Travers later recalled, “It was as if he were dangling a watch, hypnotically, before the eyes of a child.” Disney’s was a fifteen-year campaign of attention, flattery, and transcontinental telegrams and visits. At long last, Travers succumbed to a deal that gave her a hundred thousand dollars, a cut of the gross, and—unheard of at the Disney studios—script approval. She also demanded that the movie not be a cartoon, and Disney acquiesced; a 1941 strike against the studio by his animators had left him eager to explore other ways of making movies.
The story of “Mary Poppins” depended on the premise that it was normal for a middle-class family to employ a staff, including a servant to raise the children. But to a large segment of Disney’s intended audience this idea would be bewildering or, at least, cold and unpalatable. To solve this problem, he summoned Richard and Robert Sherman to a meeting in his large, corner office on the Disney lot in Burbank. The Sherman brothers were songwriters in their early thirties who had worked on several Disney movies and television shows and had recently written the Annette Funicello hit “Tall Paul.” They had impressed Disney with the way they “thought story” when they wrote songs. He asked the brothers a question that is now a part of the lore that surrounds the making of “Mary Poppins”: “Do you boys know what a nanny is?”
“Yeah,” Richard joked. “It’s a goat.”
Disney realized that translating the story for an American audience would require an explanation of the role of a nanny, as well as a plot that would reward Mr. and Mrs. Banks for choosing to bring up their children themselves.
“We had to come up with a need for Mary Poppins to come to the Banks family,” Richard Sherman told me recently. “We had to make her a necessary person.” Their first thought was to get rid of Mr. Banks. “We were going to set the thing during the Boer War and have his regiment called up,” he said. “Then you could have had a real happy ending, when he came home.” And then, Sherman said, they had an inspiration: “You could make the father emotionally absent.”
Mr. Banks’s journey would provide the narrative arc of the film. The mother would be a matron who had lost sight of her most important calling: raising her children. She, too, would be transformed into a good mother (of the kind recognizable to an American audience in the early nineteen-sixties) through the offices of Mary Poppins, who would leave, never to return, once her work with the parents had been completed. “We made it a story about a dysfunctional family,” Sherman said. “And in comes Mary Poppins—this necessary person—to heal them.”
By the beginning of 1961, a plot had been outlined, there were drafts for several of the songs, and a studio artist named Don DaGradi had created hundreds of sketches on dozens of storyboards to convey the look and action of the film. But Travers still needed to give the plans her blessing—a contractual obligation that suddenly seemed more daunting, because as the Disney team was finishing its work Travers’s own treatment arrived in the mail. “The more I think about it,” Walt Disney wrote her diplomatically, “the more I am inclined to feel that it would be highly advantageous for all concerned if you could come to Los Angeles and spend at least a week with us here in the studio, getting acquainted with the people who will carry the picture through to completion, and giving us the benefit of your reactions to our presentation.” He promised her a lovely trip, with opportunities to tour Disneyland in the company of a hostess and attend a private screening of “The Parent Trap.” She would, in short, undergo the final phase of hypnosis, swimming in chlorinated water beside movie stars at the hotel pool, visiting Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and—almost as an afterthought—approving the Disney script instead of her own.
But after Disney’s years of fawning attention, Travers arrived in California expecting to be deferred to completely. Moreover, she was not as awed by Disney’s achievements as others were. Young Richard Sherman may have considered Walt Disney “the greatest storyteller—maybe the greatest man of the twentieth century,” but Pamela Travers had discussed her poetry with William Butler Yeats and shared a masthead with T. S. Eliot. She thought that “Steamboat Willie” was a fine entertainment for youngsters, but she considered most of the Disney oeuvre manipulative and false. In her mind, he traded in sentimentality and cynicism, two qualities she despised.
Disney’s artistic impulses may be open to interpretation, but he was shrewd. “We had no idea she was coming to town,” Richard Sherman recalled, chuckling. “Walt told us two days before she came—and then he went to the ranch in Palm Springs. He said he had to read some scripts.” DaGradi and the young songwriters were left to deal with her. They could listen to Travers’s ideas, and present their own, but they had no power to agree to anything that she wanted.
The story meeting was punishing. It lasted more than a week, and consisted of the Sherman brothers trying to sell the Disney version, while Travers, whose youthful self-confidence had gathered over the years into an oppressive self-righteousness, interrupted, corrected, bullied, and shamed them. Like countless novelists in Hollywood, Travers sought to salvage every last detail from her original. The sessions were tape-recorded, and on the tapes you can hear Travers’s booming, imperious voice in terrifying counterpoint to the Sherman brothers’ chipper young voices. “But how is that arranged?” she asks of a sequence in which the principal characters jump into the world of a sidewalk chalk drawing. “Walt Disney magic!” one of the young men replies with touching excitement.
At last the meeting ended, and Travers headed back to London, but not before rolling nine sheets of pink stationery from the Beverly Hills Hotel into her typewriter and recounting a slew of anachronisms and unconscionable deviations from the text not sufficiently covered in the story conferences. Back home, she bombarded Disney with a second long assessment of what he was doing wrong. In the end, Travers reluctantly approved a version of the script, and production began. She continued to lodge objections, however, and, two years after signing off on the project, sent Disney another long set of notes, her intention seemingly to belittle the effort and to distance herself from it—an insurance policy against going down with the ship if the picture was a stinker. In the nineteen-eighties, she laid out her objections most pointedly to her young friend and devotee Brian Sibley. “What wand was waved to turn Mr. Banks from a bank clerk into a minor president, from an anxious, ever-loving father into a man who could cheerfully tear into pieces a poem that his children had written?” she wrote. “How could dear, demented Mrs. Banks, fussy, feminine and loving, become a suffragette? Why was Mary Poppins, already beloved for what she was—plain, vain and incorruptible—transmogrified into a soubrette?”
The première was the first Travers had seen of the movie—she did not initially receive an invitation, but had embarrassed a Disney executive into extending one—and it was a shock. Afterward, as Richard Sherman recalled, she tracked down Disney at the after-party, which was held in a giant white tent in the parking lot adjoining the Chinese Theatre. “Well,” she said loudly. “The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.” Disney looked at her coolly. “Pamela,” he replied, “the ship has sailed.” And then he strode past her, toward a throng of well-wishers, and left her alone, an aging woman in a satin gown and evening gloves, who had travelled more than five thousand miles to attend a party where she was not wanted.
“Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins” won five Academy Awards. After the movie’s release, P. L. Travers became a cottage industry, something she loved and chafed against in equal measure. By then, children’s literature had become a legitimate academic field in America, particularly popular at women’s colleges, and Smith and Radcliffe invited her to be a writer in residence. It was a mixed blessing. She relished university life and the opportunities for pontificating that it provided, but she found that the kind of young women who studied children’s books were nothing at all like the girl who had escaped from Australia half a lifetime ago. She took to hosting louche at-homes in her dormitory apartment, sprawling on the couch barefoot, clad in a loosely belted kimono and coming to life only if a male student or professor wandered into the session.
Richard Sherman believes that Travers’s opinion of the movie changed depending on her audience. In private letters, including some to journalists, she mercilessly criticized Disney’s lack of subtlety and what she called his emasculation of characters, but she habitually attached a nervous caveat that her remarks were not for publication. (Disney, she claimed, had once reprimanded her for being ungrateful.) To this day, her estate watchfully guards this correspondence.
As much as Travers seethed about her experience in Hollywood, she couldn’t resist the thought of a return. According to Sibley, she spent her eighties working on a treatment for a movie sequel. In 1989, she decided to sell her meticulously preserved and organized papers, including a file of annotated carbons of letters she had written to Walt Disney. She had hoped to place the archive with a major American collection, where the curious could, at last, learn her genuine response to the film. But the papers didn’t find a buyer, and the offering was eventually repackaged as a collection belonging to “the best-known and best-selling Australian author” and sold to the Mitchell Library, part of the State Library of New South Wales, in Sydney. They are stored there in twenty-eight manuscript boxes, not eighty miles from the house where Margaret Goff tried to kill herself.
In 1994, two years before Travers’s death, she made a final attempt to control her legacy, selling the theatrical rights to “Mary Poppins” to the producer Cameron Mackintosh. (His “big four” are “Cats,” “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” and “Miss Saigon.”) As Mackintosh said, “She realized I was her best chance.” Last December, after Mackintosh and Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney’s theatrical division—his team produced the stage version of “The Lion King”—negotiated a co-producing deal, “Mary Poppins” opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End. (It will come to Broadway next fall.) The musical, with a book by Julian Fellowes, is a strange and beautiful thing, containing an astonishing variety of moods and distinguished by a faithful rendering of the books’ brisk and sophisticated comic sensibility. It ends with a crowd-pleaser: Mary Poppins departs the Banks family by soaring up and into the rafters, borne aloft by her umbrella and by the forgiving enthusiasm of the audience, which often includes ample representation from the under-ten set. She has been more punitive and frightening than Julie Andrews ever was, but she has nonetheless managed to evoke the powerful emotions—in particular, children’s deep fear of abandonment—that have always been at the story’s core. On one occasion, when the beloved nanny was making her getaway, a middle-aged man was heard to cry out in anguish, “Mary Poppins, don’t leave!”
Originally posted at: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/051219fa_fact1