No warts? Mary Poppins, the New Yorker‘s letters page and the question of sources

Will The Real PL Travers Writer Please Stand Up, Please Stand Up, Please Stand Up.jpgMy first reaction to seeing an item about “Mary Poppins” was naturally one of joy at the opportunity to drop references to spoonfuls of sugar, kite-flying, bird-feeding, and a word that, if you say it loud enough, always sounds precocious.* (We will leave, dear reader, the question of scolding and domination for another day.)

But Mary Poppins writer P.L. Travers didn’t herself have the cheeriest story, and, as it turns out, the story of her story (and possibly that story’s story) is similarly chequered. Today CJR has the the backstory to a letter printed in the current New Yorker from Valerie Lawson, author of Travers biography Out of the Sky She Came: The Life of P.L. Travers and, as it turns out, one of many sources with whom New Yorker writer Caitlin Flanagan consulted for her December 19 article on Travers, “Becoming Mary Poppins.” Lawson took issue with Flanagan’s article, and the sourcing (or lack thereof) within, as pertained to her earlier work. The resulting email exchange is a tussle over semantics, proof, and attribution, as well as just what can happen to a letter on the way to the New Yorker letters page.

Beware, it’s long – but worth a read. A highlight includes the New Yorker’s response to Lawson’s original, lengthy letter: providing their own rewritten, shortened version for her sign-off (Lawson writes: “It is certainly an innovation in journalism as far as I know: The New Yorker provided me with a letter in response to a complaint, but the letter written on my behalf does not complain. In fact, it expresses my gratitude”).

Worth a read – as you will see, the finished product is quite a bit different than what Ms. Lawson first sent.

*Yes, that one.

The Secret Life of a Letter to the Editor [CJR]
Becoming Mary Poppins [The New Yorker]