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True Stories About The Real Woman Behind 'Mary Poppins,' P.L. Travers

Updated August 5, 2019 215.5k views13 items

The writer of Mary Poppins lived an R-rated life. P.L. Travers is best known for creating the magical nanny who has captured the imagination of generations of children. Many people make the mistake of assuming that P.L. Travers biography was as rosy as the Disney adaptation of her books - but they couldn't be more wrong.

Born as Helen Goff in Australia in 1899, the woman who would write Mary Poppins pursued the arts around the world. She settled in England in the 1920s and published Mary Poppins in 1934. Over the next five decades, she would publish 7 more books that featured the no-nonsense nanny. In between the debut Mary Poppins novel and the final one in 1988, Travers lived life according to her own terms. She died in 1996.

In 1964, Disney released a musical film adaptation of the books, bringing Mary Poppins to a wider audience - and, according to Travers, sanitizing her beloved character beyond recognition. Indeed, the P.L. Travers Mary Poppins books barely resemble the Disney version. The 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks continues that tradition by creating a version of P.L. Travers that was off the mark. The movie claims to depict the true story of how Walt Disney convinced P.L. Travers to sell him the rights to her stories. But, as it had done with Mary Poppins, Disney again sanitized an unconventional story. In this case, it was Travers's own life.

Complete with dramatic love stories, unexpected pursuits, and alternative choices, P.L. Travers’s life was far more compelling than what Disney would have its audience believe.  

  • Photo: Mary Poppins / Disney

    Her Sympathies For Socialism Shaped Her Stories

    Walt Disney was many things, but a socialist was certainly not one of them. So it is ironic that his film was based on a book whose author harbored sympathies for socialism. Before she published Mary Poppins, Travers had traveled to Russia, and she eventually published an account of her trip as Moscow Excursion. When she visited Russia, much of the world was knee-deep in a devastating depression, and socialism was gathering many adherents. Though she never officially called herself a full-fledged socialist, Travers wrote Mary Poppins with sympathetic working-class characters that have a thing or two to teach the middle-class Banks children. Even the film adaptation advocates a social consciousness ("Feed the Birds") and a skepticism about capitalism ("Fidelity Fiduciary Bank").

  • She Fell In Love With Both Men And Women

    Throughout her life, PL Travers had passionate relationships with both men and women. One of the most influential relationships was with George Russell, a poet who published under the name AE. It was a romance of both the head and the heart. Though biographers still debate whether or not it was a physical relationship, it is true that Russell at least felt deeply for Travers, often referring to her as "my angel" in letters. She was passionately in love with Francis Macnamara, an Irish writer who was also a lothario. Though the man married many times, he would never marry Travers.

    Travers also probably had intimate relationships with three women: her roommate Madge, married woman Jessie Orage, and artist Gertrude Hermes. 

  • She Was A New Age Junkie

    One of the constants in Travers's life was her belief in myth and mysticism. She grew up hearing Irish folktales and fairy tales from her father. As an adult, Travers transferred her interest in fairy stories into a deep reverence for the mystical. Indeed, she became an ardent admirer of the mystic George Gurdjieff. She even attended meetings of a lesbian group called Rope that Gurdjieff had started. 

    In old age, she embraced the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti. She even wrote stories connected to Hinduism. Her interest in myths, mysticism, and symbols means that many scholars have concluded that Travers gave Mary Poppins some attributes and qualities consistent with mythology. 

  • Photo: Mary Poppins / Disney

    She Escaped Australia To Live A Bohemian Life In London

    Travers spent much of her early 20s touring around Australia and New Zealand as an actress and dancer. That changed in 1924 when she headed to London. She moved to Bloomsbury, which had deep literary connections. As an up-and-coming writer, Travers cultivated a number of literary friendships in the British Isles, especially with poets AE and William Butler Yeats.