Mary Poppins star David Tomlinson’s secret heartache after death of family (Image:

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As George Banks in Mary Poppins, David Tomlinson unbuttoned his collar and skipped to the park singing Let’s Go Fly a Kite with his wife and kids, a picture of joy that could never hint at the tragedy the actor suffered in his own family life.

For David had lost his first wife in the most shocking circumstances.

In 1943, in the Second World War, David, an RAF flying instructor, married war widow, Mary Hiddingh, who had two young sons, in New York. He had met Mary at the British Ministry of War Transportation office where she worked.

When David was called back to Britain soon after their honeymoon, red tape prevented 34-year-old Mary and her boys from going with him.

David and his co-star Julie Andrew would often have Sunday lunch together, his son recalls
(Image: Getty Images)

Unbeknown, to David, she had suffered mental health issues all her life.

And three months later, alone and despairing that they would ever be reunited, she checked into the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York, and jumped from the window of her 15th floor room with her sons. They all died.

David, who died in 2000, aged 83, remarried in 1953, and had four sons with wife Audrey, an actress, now 89.

Their second son James, 64, says he and his brothers were in their 20s before they learned of their father’s first wife.

And he reveals his father had never “felt able” to visit Mary’s grave.

Tomlinson delighted millions of children as the father in musical classic Mary Poppins
(Image: Press Association)

David starring in Three Men In A Boat alongside Laurence Harvey and Jimmy Edwards
(Image: Mirrorpix)

Speaking after the publication of Disney’s British Gentleman – The Life and Career of David Tomlinson, by Nathan Morley, James says: “The only time he spoke to me about his first marriage is when I married my first wife, who already had two children.

“That made him very nervous. He said it brought back very bad memories of what had happened to him.

“He would say human beings are good at recovering from things, there is an inbuilt thing you will recover to some extent.

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“I think he was devastated, but it was wartime, his brother was a prisoner of war, people were dying.”

Remembering happier times, James tells how his father struck up a friendship with movie mogul Walt Disney during filming of the 1964 hit Mary Poppins.

After filming ended, Disney flew David’s wife and four young sons out to California and let the actor pilot them to his Palm Springs holiday home in his plane.

David Tomlinson pictured playing cowboys with his son James
(Image: Collect)

English actor David Tomlinson passed away in 2000
(Image: Getty Images)

James says: “We went in to see Walt and we were standing in front of his desk, and he said to my mum, ‘Have you been to Palm Springs? You must go’.

“He said to his secretary, ‘Get them out, you’ll be flown in my aeroplane’. I looked at his desk and there was an aeroplane and I said, ‘Is that your aeroplane?’ He said, ‘Yes’, and I said, ‘Magic it bigger.’ He looked at me and said, ‘The room’s too small’.”

Remembering the actual aircraft, James says: “Dad flew it, he was a RAF World War Two flying instructor.

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“I sat in Disney’s seat at the back, which had an intercom to the flight deck, and I said, ‘When Walt magics the aeroplane back, make sure you’re not in it.’ This was Walt Disney – he did magic.”

It seems David was less convinced about Walt Disney’s magic touch.

James says: “When he saw the rushes for Poppins – he watched them with Walt Disney – he thought it was the most sentimental rubbish he had ever seen. He thought it was going to be a disaster. It’s good he wasn’t a producer.”

David Tomlinson pictured with his wife Audrey Adams with their new born son, William
(Image: Press Association)

David pictured at his home in 1950
(Image: Popperfoto via Getty Images)

David’s road to Hollywood success had been a struggle. Growing up with his bullying father Clarence, a solicitor, David developed a stammer.

Clarence tried to force him into an office job and mocked him when he insisted on leaving to pursue his dream of becoming an actor.

All the time, Clarence was keeping a mistress and seven children in London, living with them during the week and returning to his legitimate family in Folkestone, Kent, at weekends.

David's son James recently spoke about his father's legacy
(Image: Popperfoto via Getty Images)

David’s mother, Florence, knew, but said nothing, clinging to the respectability of marriage rather than divorce.

She had found out when Clarence accidentally sent a letter intended for his mistress to Florence when he was away fighting in France during the First World War.

James says his father was deeply affected by Clarence’s behaviour.

He says: “He was very protective of his boys and my mum. Terribly protective of us, probably too much so.”

Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson pictured in Bedknobs and Broomsticks
(Image: FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

By the time Mary Poppins came out, David was a veteran actor in his forties, who had worked solidly in theatre in the 1930s and 1940s, before moving into film during the war and in the 1950s.

He met Walt Disney in 1958 when the Hollywood giant saw him in a play, The Ring of Truth, in London, and invited him for dinner. He did not hear from Disney again until he landed the Poppins role.

David once recalled the warm welcome he got at the Disney studios in Burbank, California, writing: “When I got to Hollywood, Americans gave the impression that you are the only person they have ever wanted to meet. It was an exhilarating, joyful experience.”

He got on with Julie Andrews, a fellow homesick Brit, and they would have Sunday lunch at her house. James says: “She’d cook and they played puzzles.”

David was even asked by Disney to tutor Dick Van Dyke with his Cockney accent, but arrived a little late, as he had already begun filming as Bert the sweep.

Although Walt Disney told David: “It doesn’t matter too much if his Cockney isn’t too good, because I am not making the film just for East London.”

David played George Banks in Mary Poppins
(Image: Getty Images)

James says: “Dad thought Dick was marvellous, but if he had arrived there earlier he could have helped him a lot!”

  • Disney’s British Gentleman: The Life and Career of David Tomlinson, by Nathan Morley, The History Press.

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