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Mary Poppins, She Wrote tells the magical and mysterious truth about MP

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A spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down.
Nothing is needed when it comes P.L. Travers’ spellbinding stories of the magical nanny Mary Poppins. Even better: The film was inspired by events explored in Valerie Lawson’s Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers (Simon & Schuster, $16). Originally published in October 2006, the first and definitive biography of Travers has been re-released to coincide with the flick Saving Mr. Banks, which stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as the willful and unforgettable Travers.
“Who is Mary Poppins?” asks Lawson in her book. “In our mind’s eye we see Julie Andrews in a pastel Edwardian dress, smiling as cheerily as the star of a toothpaste commercial, as saccharine as the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down, as jolly as a holiday with Bert, as cheery as ‘Chim Chim, Cheree.’ Such is the power of Walt Disney. The original Mary Poppins was not cheery at all. She was tart and sharp, plain and vain. That was her charm; that—and her mystery.”
And a grand literary mystery the Mary Poppins books—and their creator—have been. “Out of the sky she came,” wrote Travers in 1935 of her beloved heroine, the quintessential British nanny; “back to the sky she had gone.” So it was that a young Australian born Lyndon Goff in 1899 in Maryborough, Queensland, dreaming of flight, set out for England with theatrical and writerly aspirations. Unwilling to be “one more silly woman writing silly books,” she chose the pen name, P. L. (for Pamela Lyndon) Travers, because “I didn’t want to feel that there was a woman or man behind it, but a human being.” Travers always insisted that she didn’t create Mary Poppins, but that she “just arrived” full-fledged into Travers’s fantastic fictional world.
Marked at age seven by the loss of her beloved father, Travers Goff (whom Lawson identifies as the model for Mary Poppins’ fretful employer Mr. Banks), Pamela embarked on a lifelong search for spiritual solace. The Irish writer and editor George William Russell, known as AE, was a significant influence on the young Travers, introducing her to his literary contemporaries and countrymen W. B. Yeats, Sean O’Faolain, and Oliver St. John Gogarty, and publishing her poetry. Travers embraced Ireland’s mystical qualities and the group’s love of
the occult, as expressed in the doctrine of theosophy. Later, she would become a disciple of the famed spiritual guru Gurdjieff, study Zen Buddhism, and spend time with other like-minded artists in New Mexico.
By the 1960s, Walt Disney had—for two decades—his sights set on the film rights to Mary Poppins. The negotiations had been notoriously fraught. “No you don’t,” Disney famously replied when Pamela suggested she knew more about Mary Poppins than he. Though limited in her input, she was able to insist on a largely British cast and that the movie remain faithful to the books’ English setting. In the end, however, Travers was unable to reconcile that Disney’s commercial success had dearly cost her creative vision.
Though Mary Poppins would prove to be a lifelong companion—Travers penned the final two books in the series in her eighties—Travers spent the end of her life in relative obscurity, ever wary of those who approached her regarding her creation. In Mary Poppins, She Wrote, Lawson reveals in riveting fashion—by way of Travers’ private papers—the inner workings of one of the most original literary minds of the twentieth century.

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