Back in the day, growing up, devouring books and dreaming of writing one of my own someday, authors didn’t do school visits or post on social media. Certainly none lived next door to me. How could they be anything as mundane as a “neighbor”? As far as I knew, all authors were either A) dead or B) living amazing lives in a mysterious somewhere else. They certainly weren’t living in Wenatchee, Washington. No, they were wiser, funnier, more interesting and just all around more wonderful than other humans.
A couple months ago I went to California for my 50th college reunion and was reminded of the first time I met a real live author. Not only an author, but one of the more exalted among them for me–namely PL Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books I’d loved as a child. I was so excited to learn that she would be visiting my dorm and having dinner with the students. Scripps was small, only about 400 students, and each dorm had sit-down dinners in small dining halls. I’m not sure how it came about but of the seven students at the table, I was seated right next to Ms. Travers.
I couldn’t believe my luck and the second I sat down I turned to her and began to gush about how much I loved her books. I had a million questions that I was sure Travers would be eager to discuss with me. Sadly, she was not eager at all. In fact, she could barely muster a response. She was clearly not interested in discussing anything with any of the young women seated at the table. She ate beside us in rather forbidding silence and left as soon as she finished her meal.
I was crushed and rapidly revising my idea of how wonderful authors were. My one small consolation from that evening? As I finished my dinner, much more subdued than when I’d started it, I began to help the student server with clearing the table. And that’s when I realized that the heavy glass salt and pepper shakers was missing. No one could find them.
Had Ms. Travers taken it? Was it a magical sign of some sort, like the tokens the Banks children would discover after every Mary Poppins adventure, even as Poppins would deny they’d had any such escapade? Or (perhaps even more exciting to my then 21-year-old imagination) was the famous PL Travers a secret klepto?
The vanished salt shaker somehow redeemed the evening for me. But it wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me to do a little research on Ms. Travers.
Born Helen Lyndon Goff in Australia, she changed her name Pamela Lyndon Travers later in life. Travers was her father’s first name and for some reason her friends called her Pamela. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times she used initials in her pen name because “so often very sentimental books are written by women, supposedly for children, and I didn’t want to be lumped together with those.”
Her frosty behavior to me was totally in keeping with her character (and, of course, the character of Mary Poppins). But it was substantially less child-friendly in real life. Never married, Travers was involved in various relationships including a liaison at 25 with a 57-year-old Irish playwright and various other affairs with both men and women. On her own at age 40 she decided to adopt a child and was offered twin baby boys, but she couldn’t decide between them. The children’s grandfather suggested that she take both: “They are only small.” But Travers took just one; never told the boy that he was adopted or had a twin brother. At 17, her son discovered the truth and according to various accounts Travers’ lie put an intense strain on their relationship. Both boys ended up alcoholics, as was Travers’ father—a failed banker (unlike the responsible, successful banker, Mr.Banks in the Poppins books.)
She had a mystical streak, studying Zen Buddhism, mythology and fairy tales. According to an article by Joseph Hone, the older brother of the boy Travers adopted and who later got to know Travers, “after she adopted Camillus, she occupied herself with her increasingly difficult ‘son’ while looking for answers to both their problems by immersing herself in arcane philosophies, fairytales, myths, legends, dodgy health cures and Jungian panaceas. She was encouraged by an assortment of usually charlatan gurus and sages, most notably the caviar-guzzling, Armagnac-tippling Russian mystic Gurdjieff, whom she consulted in his exotic Paris flat. He told her that she should have a daily enema and charged for the advice.”
Her last book, “What the Bee Knows” is a collection of essays included her reflections on astrology, crop circles, reincarnation and journalists who ask “stupid” questions. She might have added students and aspiring authors to that list.
These days Scripps is making more of the brief time Travers was there in 1970. After I told the Scripps librarian about my meeting with Travers, she shared the letter Travers wrote to the college president after her visit. I have to say she sounded a lot more pleasant than she was in real life (you can see how cantankerous she could be in this New York Times article).
I thought you’d enjoy seeing her letter, small typos and all. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)
Maybe it has to do with shared thorniness, but I also learned that Travers adored roses and one of her great wishes was to have a rose named after herself or Mary Poppins.
She asked only that her rose be “pink, fragrant, healthy, vigorous, enthusiastic, happy, pleasant, easy to live with, adaptable, always in bloom, readily and willingly cut for the home, long lasting in the vase, prolific, long seasoned, bright, cheerful, and if possible, gentle, wise, and completely honest.”
A California rose breeder, Dr. Dennison Morey, granted her wish. And the three rose breeds that resulted, are planted in the Scripps rose garden. However, so much time has passed since they were planted, the college is still trying to identify which ones they are.
If you’d be interested in learning more about PL Travers herself and how these roses came about check out these posts by Lina Slavova (clearly a huge Mary Poppin fan) from the Mary Poppins Effect blog: here and here.