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Pamela Lyndon Travers OBE (born Helen Lyndon Goff; 9 August 1899 – 23 April 1996) was an Australian-English writer who spent most of her career in England. She is best known for the Mary Poppins series of children's books, which feature the magical nanny Mary Poppins. Travers was also involved in a what appears to have been a lesbian love triangle and attended a lesbian group called Rope. In England, Travers lived with Madge Burnand. The women shared a flat in London, and later rented a cottage together in Sussex. It was while living with Burnand that Travers published Mary Poppins, the work that would give the author her greatest fame.
Her diary recounted her friendship (and possibly a relationship) with Jessie Orage, whose husband, Alfred Richard Orage, was a pupil of the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. Travers became a follower of Gurdjieff and, through him, became an occasional member of The Rope, a group that consisted mostly of lesbian writers, including Jane Heap, founding editor of Little Review, and Kathryn Hulme, author of The Nun's Story.
Goff was born in Maryborough, Queensland, and grew up in the Australian bush before being sent to boarding school in Sydney. Her writing was first published as a teenager, and she also worked briefly as a professional Shakespearean actress. Upon emigrating to England at the age of 25, she took the name "Pamela Lyndon Travers" and adopted the pen name "P. L. Travers" in 1933 while writing the first of eight Mary Poppins books.
Travers travelled to New York City during World War II while working for the British Ministry of Information. At that time, Walt Disney contacted her about selling to Walt Disney Productions the rights for a film adaptation of Mary Poppins. After years of contact, which included visits to Travers at her home in London, Walt Disney did obtain the rights and the Mary Poppins film premiered in 1964. In 2004, a stage musical adaptation of the books and the film opened in the West End; it premiered on Broadway in 2006. A film based on Disney's efforts to persuade Travers to sell him the Mary Poppins film rights was released in 2013, Saving Mr. Banks, in which Travers is portrayed by Emma Thompson. In a 2018 sequel to the original film, Mary Poppins Returns, Poppins, played by Emily Blunt, returns to help the Banks family once again.
Helen Lyndon Goff, known within her family as Lyndon, was born on 9 August 1899 in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia. Her mother, Margaret Agnes Morehead, was Australian and the niece of Boyd Dunlop Morehead, Premier of Queensland from 1888 to 1890. Her father, Travers Robert Goff, was born in Peckham, Surrey, England, in 1863 of parents who were both the children of Irish clergymen. He was unsuccessful as a bank manager owing to his alcoholism, and was eventually demoted to the position of bank clerk. The family lived in a large home with servants in Maryborough until Lyndon was five years old, when they relocated to Allora in 1905. Two years later, Travers Goff died at home at the age of 43.
Following her father's death, Goff, along with her mother and sisters, moved to Bowral, New South Wales, in 1907, living there until 1917. She boarded at the now-defunct Normanhurst School in Ashfield, a suburb of Sydney, during World War I.
Goff began publishing her poems while still a teenager. She wrote for The Bulletin and Triad and began gaining a reputation as an actress under the stage name "Pamela Lyndon Travers". She toured Australia and New Zealand with Allan Wilkie's Shakespearean Company, before leaving for England in 1924. There, she changed her name to "Pamela Travers", keeping "Lyndon" as her middle name, in order to act and dance on stage, a career move opposed by her family. In 1931, she moved with her friend Madge Burnand from their rented flat in London to a thatched cottage in Sussex. There, in the winter of 1933, she began to write Mary Poppins.
Travers greatly admired and emulated J. M. Barrie, author of the Peter Pan character. Her first publisher was Barrie's ward, Peter Davies, one of the five Llewelyn Davies boys who were the inspiration for Peter Pan.
While in Ireland in 1925, Travers met the poet George William Russell (who wrote under the name "Æ") who, as editor of the Irish Statesman, accepted some of her poems for publication. Through Russell, whose kindness towards younger writers was legendary, Travers met W. B. Yeats, Oliver St. John Gogarty and other Irish poets who fostered her interest in and knowledge of world mythology. She had studied the Fourth Way teachings of George Gurdjieff under Jane Heap and, in March 1936 with the help of Jessie Orage (widow of Alfred Richard Orage), she met Gurdjieff, who would have a great effect on her. She met several other literary figures as well.
At the invitation of her friend John Collier, the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Travers spent two summers living among the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo peoples, studying their mythology and folklore. After the war, she remained in the US and became writer-in-residence at Radcliffe College and Smith College.
Travers returned to England, making only one brief visit to Sydney, in 1960, while on her way to Japan to study Zen mysticism.
Travers's literary output other than Mary Poppins and its sequels included other novels, poetry collections, and works of nonfiction.
As early as 1926, Travers published a short story, "Mary Poppins and the Match Man", which introduced the nanny character of Mary Poppins and Bert the street artist. Published in London in 1934, Mary Poppins, the children's book, was Travers's first literary success. Seven sequels followed, the last in 1988, when Travers was 89.
While appearing as a guest on BBC Radio 4's radio programme Desert Island Discs in May 1977, Travers revealed that the name "M. Poppins" originated from childhood stories that she contrived for her sisters and that she was still in possession of a book from that era with this name inscribed within. Travers's great aunt, Helen Morehead, who lived in Woollahra, Sydney, and used to say "Spit spot, into bed", is a likely inspiration for the character.
The musical film adaptation Mary Poppins was released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1964. Primarily based on the original 1934 novel of the same name, it also lifted elements from the 1935 sequel Mary Poppins Comes Back. The novels were loved by Disney's daughters when they were children, and Disney had spent 20 years trying to purchase the film rights to Mary Poppins, which included visits to Travers at her home in London. In 1961, Travers arrived in Los Angeles on a flight from London, her first-class ticket having been paid for by Disney, and he finally succeeded in purchasing the rights. Travers was an adviser in the production, but she disapproved of the Poppins character in its Disney version, with harsher aspects diluted, she felt ambivalent about the music and she so hated the use of animation that she ruled out any further adaptations of the series. She received no invitation to the film's star-studded première until she "embarrassed a Disney executive into extending one". At the after-party, she said loudly “Well. The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.” Disney replied, "Pamela, the ship has sailed", and walked away.
Travers so disliked the Disney adaptation and the way she felt she had been treated during the production that when producer Cameron Mackintosh approached her years later about making the British stage musical, she acquiesced only on conditions that English-born writers alone and no one from the original film production were to be directly involved. That specifically excluded the Sherman Brothers from writing additional songs for the production. However, original songs and other aspects from the 1964 film were allowed to be incorporated into the production. Those points were even stipulated in her last will and testament.
In a 1977 interview on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs, Travers remarked about the film, "I've seen it once or twice, and I've learned to live with it. It's glamorous and it's a good film on its own level, but I don't think it is very like my books."
The 2013 motion picture Saving Mr. Banks is a dramatised retelling of both the working process during the planning of Mary Poppins and also that of Travers's early life, drawing parallels with Mary Poppins and that of the author's childhood. The movie stars Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.
In 2018, 54 years after the release of the original Mary Poppins film, a sequel was released titled Mary Poppins Returns, with Emily Blunt starring as Mary Poppins. The film is set 25 years after the events of the first film, in which Mary Poppins returns to help Jane and Michael one year after a family tragedy.
Though Travers had numerous fleeting relationships with men throughout her life, she lived for more than a decade with Madge Burnand. They shared a London flat from 1927 to 1934, then moved to Pound Cottage near Mayfield, East Sussex, where Travers published the first of the Mary Poppins books. Their friendship, in the words of one biographer, was "intense", but equally ambiguous.
At the age of 40, two years after moving out on her own, Travers adopted a baby boy from Ireland whom she named Camillus Travers. He was the grandchild of Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats' first biographer, who was raising his seven grandchildren with his wife. Camillus was unaware of his true parentage or the existence of any siblings until the age of 17, when Anthony Hone, his twin brother, came to London and knocked on the door of Travers's house at 50 Smith Street, Chelsea. He had been drinking and demanded to see his brother. Travers refused to allow it and threatened to call the police. Anthony left but, soon after, following an argument with Travers, Camillus went looking for his brother and found him in a pub on King's Road. Anthony had been fostered and raised by the family of the essayist Hubert Butler in Ireland.
Travers was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1977 New Year Honours. She died in London on 23 April 1996 at the age of 96. Camillus died in London in November 2011. He was over 70, but his life had nonetheless been cut short from the effects of alcoholic excess.
Although Travers never fully accepted the way the Disney film version of Mary Poppins had portrayed her nanny figure, the film did make her rich. The value of Travers' estate was probated in September 1996 at £2,044,708.
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