Known by her stage name of P.L. Travers, the actress, journalist and novelist was born Helen Lyndon Goff on August 9, 1899 in Queensland, Australia to Margaret Agnes Morehead and Travers Goff. Her father, an unsuccessful bank manager and heavy drinker, passed away when Travers was seven years old, prompting her mother to move Travers and her siblings to New South Wales to be closer to their maternal family.
Nicknamed Lyndon in her childhood, Travers was an imaginative child with an affinity for fantasy and fairy tales. She loved animals and often pretended she was a brooding hen in her younger years. As Travers grew older, she would often refer to this same practice as her writing process, due to the long, excessive amounts of time she’d spend pondering or “brooding” over her ideas.
Travers also enjoyed studying mythology across various cultures, with a special interest in Irish mythology, specifically -- stemming, perhaps, from an interest in her late father’s embellished stories from her childhood. Her father’s propensity for half-fiction, half-truths greatly influenced Travers’ own stories later in life. Travers started developing her writing talents during her teenage years, penning and publishing her poems in various Australian magazines and periodicals.
It was during this time she also became an actress and dancer, giving herself the stage name of “Pamela Lyndon Travers,” reportedly taking on her father’s first name because she found it softer, more romantic-sounding. Travers traveled throughout Australia and New Zealand with a Shakespearean touring company, a lifestyle that her mother’s wealthy relatives did not approve of. Seeking a literary life, she left for England in 1924, where she started writing under the pen name of P.L. Travers.
She spent the next decade traveling extensively, learning from various literary figures, editors, publishers, poets and mystics alike, including spending two summers living on a Navajo reservation to study their folklore and mythology. Drawing from her extensive traveling and writing experience, Travers published her very first book in 1934 titled Moscow Excursion. That same year, while recovering from a lung ailment in the country, she created and published a series of adventures involving a nanny with magical powers. That nanny later became known the world over as Mary Poppins, earning Travers her first literary success.
It became so successful, in fact, that Walt Disney approached Travers to create a musical adaptation, which was finally released in 1964. The project took about 20 years to complete due to creative differences and Travers’ initial reluctance to give up the rights to Mary Poppins. Travers was reportedly very protective of her novel, whose characters were likely inspired by her own family members, such as her aunt and father, and she did not approve of Disney’s artistic visions nor musical decisions.
The abrasive relationship between Travers and Disney was recently featured in the 2013 film, Saving Mr. Banks, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. Many claim that the movie took dramatic liberties to villainize Travers. For as notoriously complex and mysteriously guarded as she was, Travers was also a loyal friend and mother, sharing her life with her lifelong companion, Madge Burnand, and adopting a baby boy from Ireland, whom she named Camillus.
In 1977, Travers was inducted as an officer of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to literature. She died in London due to declining health, at the age of 96.
By Kim Tran