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Llewelyn Davies Brothers’ Tragic Fate & Michael’s Mysterious Death + To Die or to Live?

Michael Llewelyn Davies dressed up as Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie’s favorite Llewelyn Davies boy, Michael was the most important source of inspiration for Peter Pan, “the boy who wouldn’t grow up.” The play came out when he was 4; the novel Peter and Wendy when he was 11.
  • What happened to the five Llewelyn Davies brothers who, to some extent or other, served as inspirations for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan character?
  • The double drowning of Michael Llewelyn Davies and fellow Christ Church, Oxford, student Rupert Buxton. What did actually happen?
  • What are the best-known Peter Pan quotes?

The fate of the Llewelyn Davies brothers

Unlike the J.M. Barrie character they had inspired, the five Llewelyn Davies brothers – George, Jack, Peter, Michael, and Nico – went on growing up.

Two of them, however, were unable to grow older, dying in their early 20s, and long before J.M. Barrie’s passing in 1937.

Below, in brief, is their story. Michael Llewelyn Davies’ still not fully explained death is discussed in more detail further down.

George

Sylvia and Arthur Llewelyn Davies’ eldest son, George (Nick Roud in Finding Neverland) was an important inspiration for the early versions of Peter Pan – he was 10 when the play came out – and Neverland’s assorted Lost Boys.

With Barrie’s financial assistance, George attended Eton and later Trinity College, Cambridge, where he joined the Amateur Dramatic Club, England’s oldest university dramatic society.

During World War I, he served with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in the trenches in Flanders. In March 1915, he died at age 21 after being shot through the head. His death came days after that of his uncle and fellow WWI casualty, Guy du Maurier.

Sylvia and Guy’s mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie in Finding Neverland), had died two months earlier at age 73.

Jack

Never as close to Barrie as his siblings, Jack (Joe Prospero in Finding Neverland) would become the only Llewelyn Davies brother without an Eton education. Instead, he attended the Royal Naval College and later served with the Royal Navy during World War I.

He died from lung disease at age 65 in 1959, the year before his brother Peter.

Peter

Played by Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland, Peter Llewelyn Davies hated having his name associated with “that terrible masterpiece.” Some years after his World War I military service, he became a book publisher, launching – with Barrie’s financial help – Peter Davies Ltd. in 1926. His editions of, among others, Sappho Revocata and Pride and Prejudice, featured illustrations by former lover Vera Willoughby.

Some time after Barrie’s death, Peter developed a severe alcohol problem. There would also be serious health issues affecting both himself and his family, as his wife and possibly his three sons had inherited the neurodegenerative Huntington’s disease.

In the years after World War II, he devoted his time to compiling – at times to destroying – the Llewelyn Davies family’s correspondence and other documents, a project he referred to as “the Morgue.”

On April 5, 1960 – five days after Cynthia Asquith’s death – Peter, at age 63, threw himself under a subway train arriving at London’s Sloane Square station. A couple of newspaper headlines read, “Peter Pan’s Death Leap” and “The Boy Who Never Grew Up Is Dead.”

One of his sons, Ruthven, by then already suffering from the debilitating effects of Huntington’s disease, would tell the Sunday Times in January 1995:

“My father didn’t really like Barrie. He resented the fact that he wasn’t well off and that Barrie had to support him. But, when he was cut out of the will, he was absolutely livid and tremendously disappointed.

“That anger was with him for the rest of his life. He started drinking heavily. He was virtually a down-and-out by the time he died. I think the final thing that drove him to suicide was that he had drunk all his money. His life had been ruined.”

Nico

Nico, the only Llewelyn Davies child not seen in Finding Neverland, joined Peter’s publishing company in the mid-1930s.

Decades later, he would provide J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan author Andrew Birkin with access to the Llewelyn Davies family archive.

Possibly the Llewelyn Davies brother who enjoyed the most easygoing relationship with the Peter Pan author, Nico died at age 76 in 1980.

Michael Llewelyn Davies ca. 1920: Nightmare-prone teenager and Peter Pan inspiration was J.M. Barrie’s favorite. Were the deaths of Michael Llewelyn Davies and his close friend Rupert Buxton the result of a tragic accident or a suicide pact? Nearly a century later, the answer remains unclear.

Michael Llewelyn Davies & Rupert Buxton: Double-drowning puzzle

“Michael was the most remarkable person I ever met,” former Conservative Party member Robert Boothby would tell J.M. Barrie biographer Andrew Birkin, “and the only one of my generation to be touched by genius. He was very sensitive and emotional, but he concealed both to a large extent. He had a profound effect on virtually everyone who came into contact with him.”

Barrie would likely agree. After all, the nightmare-prone, poetry-writing Michael (Luke Spill in Finding Neverland) was his favorite Llewelyn Davies “boy.”

On May 19, 1921, while attending Christ Church (constituent college), Oxford, Michael, age 20, drowned with his college mate and close companion Rupert Buxton, a 21-year-old poet and aspiring actor described in the newspaper of his former school, Harrow (London), as “a simple[-]hearted person of gigantic physical strength.”

Michael was unable to swim, and the deaths, which occurred in the River Thames’ infamously treacherous Sandford Pool rapids (just south of Oxford) were officially ruled an accident. Although the waters were “fairly still” that day and “unusually low” for that time of year, the young men drowned as Buxton, who had turned 21 nine days earlier, was trying to rescue Michael.

Barrie, whose murder play Shall We Join the Ladies?, written for Michael, was to debut at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts on May 27, learned of the drowning from a journalist standing outside the door of his London residence.

In December of that year, Barrie would write to his friend Elizabeth Lucas, “All the world is different to me now. Michael was pretty much my world.”

Suicide pact?

Notwithstanding the coroner’s report, some believed that the deaths had been the outcome of something other than an accident.

These suspicions may have been born out of a couple of depositions at the inquest. As quoted in The Oxford Chronicle, a key eyewitness affirmed that, before going rapidly down, Michael’s and Buxton’s “heads were close together”; the two looked as if they were “sort of standing in the water and not struggling.”

Besides, the man in charge of the effort for the recovery of the bodies testified that something he saw fall off when the first body (Buxton’s) was removed from the water “must have been one body dropping from the other.” He added that it was his “impression” that Michael and Buxton had been clasped together. Michael’s body was found one hour later, in the same spot.

‘Feeling of doom’

Robert Boothby, also attending Oxford at the time of the double drowning, was “convinced” that the deaths had been the result of a suicide pact.[1]

In a taped 1976 interview with Andrew Birkin, Boothby said that he had tried to discourage Michael’s and Buxton’s relationship because he had “a feeling of doom” about the latter.

In all fairness, jealousy likely played a role in Boothby’s assessment of Buxton’s personality, as he goes on to say that “my friendship with Michael and [fellow Oxford student and future Secker & Warburg publisher Roger] Senhouse was almost perfection. … [B]ut when Buxton came along, that gaiety left.”

According to Birkin, Barrie himself would discuss with Josephine Mitchell-Innes, George Llewelyn Davies’ girlfriend in the mid-1910s, the possibility that Michael’s death had been a suicide.

Decades later, in his notes for “the Morgue,” Peter wrote about the rumored suicide pact: “Perfectly possible, but entirely unproven.”

‘Long fits of depression’ & ‘homosexual phase’

The extent of the intimacy between Michael and Buxton remains unclear, though they were quite possibly lovers. Whether they saw themselves as such is another matter. Either way, no correspondence between them or images of the two men together appear to exist.

Boothby recalled that before becoming close to Buxton, Michael may have also been “fleetingly” involved in a “homosexual” relationship with Roger Senhouse, who years later would become the last – notoriously sadomasochistic – lover of Bloomsbury Group founding member/author Lytton Strachey.

Nico – at least in part – agreed with Boothby’s views in regard to both Michael’s sexual orientation and the possibility of a suicide pact, telling Andrew Birkin:

“I’ve always had something of a hunch that Michael’s death was suicide. He was in a way the ‘type’ – exceptionally clever, subject to long fits of depression. I’m apt to think – stressing think – that he was going through something of a homosexual phase and maybe let this get a bigger hold on his thinking than it need: I have no knowledge of Rupert’s leanings in this direction, but I would guess they preferred each other’s company to anyone else’s.”

J.M. Barrie and Michael Llewelyn Davies: Happier times. The Peter Pan author is pictured above with his most important Peter Pan inspiration, Michael, who was to have been the model for the Peter Pan statue in London’s Kensington Gardens.

To die or to live?

Notable Peter Pan quotes include “the moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it” and the trauma-inducing “… every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”[2]

But perhaps the most famous Peter Pan line – supposed to have been inspired by a George Llewelyn Davies exclamation – is spoken by the youthful antihero at the end of Act III of J.M. Barrie’s play: “To die would be an awfully big adventure.”

A variation – “Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life” – was purportedly uttered by Peter Pan producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman in Finding Neverland) before going down with the ocean liner Lusitania, which had been torpedoed off the Irish coast by a German U-Boat in 1915.

And at the end of Steven Spielberg’s poorly received 1991 fantasy Hook – starring Robin Williams as workaholic corporate lawyer Peter Banning/Peter Pan, Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, and Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell – the adult Peter gives the line a different spin, asserting “To live … to live would be an awfully big adventure.”


‘Llewelyn Davies Brothers’ Tragic Fate’ notes

Robert Boothby vs. ‘horrible rumors’

[1] In Robert Rhodes James’ Robert Boothby: A Portrait of Churchill’s Ally, Boothby complains that “horrible rumors float about that Rupert was unhinged & tried to drown himself, & that M. tried to stop him, in vain: what is the use of such speculation? We can never know. I am sorry for Barrie: he fainted 3 times when told.”

Fake Peter Pan quote

[2] Ironically, one of the best-known Peter Pan quotes, “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting,” seems to have been a creation of someone other than J.M. Barrie.


Recommended articles

Check out:


“That terrible masterpiece” via Andrew Birkin’s December 1979 New York Times article “’Peter Pan’ and How He Grew.”

Quotes about the double drowning of Michael Llewelyn Davies and Rupert Buxton via the J.M. Barrie Society website.

Charles Frohman quote via the article “The Ultimate Adventure,” found in the August 1915 edition of the Pennsylvania School Journal.

Unless otherwise noted, other quotes found in this post via Andrew Birkin’s J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan. As an aside, the author is the brother of actress/singer Jane Birkin (Blow-Up, Daddy Nostalgia).

Two other noteworthy sources for this three-part article about Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family: A.S. Byatt’s “A Child in Time” in The Guardian, and Anthony Lane’s “Lost Boys” in The New Yorker.

“Llewelyn Davies Brothers’ Tragic Fate & Michael’s Mysterious Death + To Die or to Live?” last updated in February 2020.

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