Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Adventure classics -- An errant nanny’s long, sad journey

Mary Poppins

by P.L. Travers


It’s my favorite part of P. L. Travers’ 1933 children’s classic, Mary Poppins. The two older Banks children, Jane and Michael, have gone to a party, leaving infant twins John and Barbara alone in the nursery with Mary Poppins, conversing with each other, with sunbeams and birds.

“I don’t believe I’ll ever understand Grown-Ups,” John says. “Why, only last Monday I heard Jane remark that she wished she knew what language the Wind spoke.”

Twin Barbara adds, “And Michael always insists¾ haven’t you heard him?¾ that the Starling says ‘Wee-Twe¾ ee¾ ee!’ He seems not to know that the Starling says nothing of the kind, but speaks exactly the same language as we do.”

The answer to this astonishing state of affairs, Mary Poppins informs them, is that people forget this special language as they grow older.

“I won’t be like the others. I tell you I won’t,” John says. “I’ll never forget, never!”

But Mary Poppins smiles her “secret, I-know-better-than-you sort of smile.,” knowing that she is the only Grown-Up in the world who still remembers the language of birds and sunbeams and babies.

So how did the Travers who could write so movingly about that special language, forget it so shockingly when faced with a pair of real-life twins? If the original Mary Poppins written by Helen Lyndon Goff (aka Pamela Lyndon Travers aka P.L. Travers) is a shock
compared to the sugary Disney movie version (now fifty years young), it’s an even more decided shock to learn how Travers treated the real child in her life, the adopted son she ruthlessly separated from his own twin brother.

Following the release late last year of Saving Mr. Banks, the “based on a true story” movie about the contentious relations between Travers and Walt Disney in adapting Mary Poppins for the screen, some writers decried the exclusion of any reference to Travers’ relationship with her son, Camillus. The truth was, that Travers and her son had been estranged for years before the 1964 release of Disney’s Mary Poppins.

Fearing Camillus would drink away the money she made from the film in spite of doing everything in her power to sabotage it, Travers set up a trust limiting him to a modest allowance during his lifetime. She died, according to her grandchildren and Mr. Banks screenwriter Kelly Marcel, “not loving anyone and nobody loving her.”

It was the last, saddest chapter of a life in which “sorrow lies like a heartbeat behind everything I have written,” Travers said.

Born and raised in Australia, she idolized her alcoholic father, Travers Goff, who died when the daughter who would later take his first name as her own was only seven. After a failed acting career in which she adopted the stage name Pamela Lyndon Travers and sailed for England, achieving fame with the story of a nanny who blows magically into the life of the Banks family on her umbrella one stormy day.

And although Mary Poppins was content to leave her charges when “the wind changed,” Travers longed for a child of her own. An editor introduced her to a family willing to put its youngest children, twins Camillus and Anthony, up for adoption. But although the family begged Travers not to separate the boys, she chose only Camillus. He didn’t learn about his biological family until twin Anthony tracked him down at age 17.

The brothers celebrated their reunion with a drinking binge, an early shadow of the alcoholism that was to blight both their lives.

Neither lived to see Saving Mr. Banks. Camillus’ widow was invited to the movie’s premiere. She was reportedly relieved that it made no mention of their family.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics concludes a November of fantasy with Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale.”)

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