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Peter Pan Author & the Llewelyn Davies Boys: ‘Sad End’ to Four-Decade Relationship

11 minutes read

Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie + Llewelyn Davies boys: Complex relationshipPeter Pan author J.M. Barrie. Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland ends on a sentimental note: Barrie (Johnny Depp) reminds the orphaned Peter (Freddie Highmore) that the power of imagination can be stronger than death. Real life, however, had a less inspirational finale for all involved.
  • Directed by Marc Forster and adapted by David Magee from Allan Knee’s play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, the Miramax-distributed 2004 period drama Finding Neverland romanticizes the complex, at times downright antagonistic, relationship between Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies boys.
  • Finding Neverland features a bittersweet – but hopeful – ending that did not in any way reflect the “sad end” to the Peter Pan author and “his boys.”

Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie & the Llewelyn Davies boys: Unusual ‘father figure’ & troubled ties

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

In Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp’s J.M. Barrie comes across as a boyishly avuncular chap – a contradiction in terms, maybe, but an apt description of Depp’s scrupulously PG-rated characterization of the Peter Pan author.

In fact, Depp, director Marc Forster, screenwriter David Magee, and producers Richard N. Gladstein and Nellie Bellflower – with, in all likelihood, the addition of Miramax honchos Bob and Harvey Weinstein (both listed as executive producers) – make it clear that no Finding Neverland audience member should as much as dare to contemplate the possibility of any less-than-pristine motivation for Barrie’s attachment to the Llewelyn Davies boys.

Allan Knee’s play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, which served as the basis for Finding Neverland, apparently took a similar approach. D.J.R. Bruckner’s New York Times review begins with the following: “In The Man Who Was Peter Pan … Knee has performed an extraordinary act of imagination: he has removed Freud from the world, and it is an astonishingly different place for that.”[2]

In the real world, however, no one should be at all astonished to learn that some have speculated that J.M. Barrie had more than a “fatherly interest” in the boys.

But is there any evidence pointing in that direction?

‘Lover of children … but not sexually’

J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan author Andrew Birkin, who read much of Barrie’s correspondence and who interviewed Nico Llewelyn Davies, thinks not. He believes that Barrie was “essentially asexual, clearly impotent. He was a lover of children, yes, but not sexually.”

Nico felt the same way. In the 1979 edition of Birkin’s book, he is quoted as saying, “Of all the men I have ever known, Barrie was the wittiest and the best company. He was also the least interested in sex.”

In a written reply to Birkin about the issue, Nico had added the following:

“I never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or pedophilia: had he had any of those leanings in however slight a symptom I would have been aware. He was an innocent – which is why he could write Peter Pan.”

Of course, much remains unknown about the inner workings of Barrie’s mind and of his relationship with Nico’s older brothers. For instance, the more than 2,000 letters exchanged between Barrie and his favorite Llewelyn Davies boy, Michael, were burned by Peter in 1952.

But as things stand, there is no evidence that Barrie was either gay or sexually attracted to young boys.

Llewelyn Davies boys + father Arthur: Peter Pan inspirationsThe Llewelyn Davies boys (George, Jack, Peter, Michael, the baby Nico) and their father, Arthur. Following Arthur Llewelyn Davies’ death in 1907, Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie became the de facto surrogate father of the five boys – a complex, at times troubled relationship.

Rebellious ‘sons’

In the aftermath of Sylvia Lewellyn Davies’ death at age 43 in 1910, J.M. Barrie, 50 years old at the time, became one of the legal guardians of her five sons.

Never as idyllic as what’s seen in Finding Neverland, his relationship with the brothers – the oldest, George, was already 17; the youngest, Nico, was only 6 – would become less congenial as, unlike Peter Pan, they kept growing older.

As discussed in Denis Mackail’s 1941 Barrie biography, The Story of J.M.B., Jack, for one, resented Barrie’s surrogate father role. The young Llewelyn Davies – 12 at the time of his father’s death and nearly 16 when his mother passed away – had “a deep-down notion that it was an interloper who was saving them all from ruin.”

Peter’s turn came during World War I, while serving as a signal officer in France. He rebelled when Barrie expressed strong disapproval of the 20-year-old’s involvement with illustrator Vera Willoughby (1870–1939) – 27 years his senior, the wife of writer/actor Lewis Willoughby, and the mother of a teenage daughter, Althea Willoughby, who would later follow in her mother’s artistic footsteps.

In spite of Barrie’s objections, Peter’s liaison with Vera would continue for another couple of years.

Yet the most complex relationship was undoubtedly the one between the Peter Pan author and his most significant Peter Pan muse.

Peter Pan author & his favorite Llewelyn Davies boy: ‘Morbid’ devotion

In The Story of J.M.B., Denis Mackail asserts that in the late 1910s J.M. Barrie “tried not to see” that his favorite Llewelyn Davies boy and most important Peter Pan inspiration, Michael, then in his late teens, was attempting to establish his independence from his benefactor.

When he did notice it, Barrie felt “wretched and miserable … He needed this boy’s love also, more than anything on earth, and had known for years that he had it. But now, though he still only wanted to help him, [Michael] seemed to be shying away. It was making him [Michael] wretched too.”

Mackail wasn’t alone in perceiving the strain in the connection between the Peter Pan author and the Peter Pan muse. In Andrew Birkin’s J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan, one of Michael’s contemporaries at Oxford, retired Conservative Party member Robert Boothby, a.k.a. Baron Boothby – whose alleged association with gangster Ronald Kray (young men, orgies, etc.) was exposed in a scandalous 1964 Sunday Mirror piece – described the Barrie-Michael affinity as “unhealthy,” explaining:

“I don’t mean homosexual, I mean in a mental sense. It was morbid, and it went beyond the bounds of ordinary affection. … Michael was very prone to melancholy, and when Barrie was in a dark mood, he tended to pull Michael down with him. … He was an unhealthy little man, Barrie; … I think Michael and his brothers would have been better off living in poverty than with that odd, morbid little genius.”

More on Michael Llewelyn Davies in the follow-up article. See link further below.

J.M. Barrie’s death & controversial will

J.M. Barrie died of pneumonia at age 77 on June 19, 1937, at a nursing home in London’s West End. Instead of leaving his estate to the three surviving Lewellyn Davies men (see follow-up post) – at the time in their 30s (Nico) and early 40s (Peter, Jack) – Barrie named his 49-year-old secretary, Lady Cynthia Asquith (née Charteris), as his principal heir.

Best known as an editor, notably of the 1927 supernatural anthology The Ghost Book, and as the wife of poet/attorney Herbert Asquith – brother of filmmaker Anthony Asquith (Pygmalion, The Browning Version) and son of U.K. Prime Minister H.H. Asquith (in office from 1908–1916) – Cynthia Asquith was also a diarist, author, (briefly) screenwriter[3], and busy socialite. Unsurprisingly, her two sons, quite a bit younger than the all-grown-up Llewelyn Davies “boys,” had also become close to Barrie.

The only significant chunk of Barrie’s estate that Asquith didn’t inherit were the rights to his Peter Pan-related works (the play and books), as those had been granted to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital back in 1929.

Peter Pan Jeremy Sumpter: Male portrayer for a changePeter Pan with Jeremy Sumpter. In P.J. Hogan’s big-budget 2003 fantasy, a male actor – for a change – got to play Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie’s “boy who wouldn’t grow up.” Also in the cast: Jason Isaacs, Olivia Williams, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Ludivine Sagnier, and veteran Lynn Redgrave.

Scheming Lady Cynthia?

But how could the Peter Pan author not have left the bulk of his estate to the three Llewelyn Davies men, for all purposes his foster sons and, to some extent or other, sources of inspiration for his most famous creation?

In a December 1975 letter to Andrew Birkin, Nico placed the blame on Cynthia Asquith:

“What Cynthia had been doing [whenever she visited J.M. Barrie] was crying her woes: talking of her oldest (dotty) son and her affect [sic] poverty etc etc etc, sucking all his sympathy from him. … He reached the point of drafting a new will, but never signed it – wouldn’t, in my belief, as in the cold light of remorseless reason he thought it would be wrong.

“When Uncle Jim got really ill and was not expected to last the night, Peter made the Greatest Mistake of his Life and telephoned [Cynthia Asquith] down in Devon or Cornwall. She hired a car and motored through the night. Meanwhile, Peter, I and [J.M. Barrie friend] General Freyberg went on watch … each of us expecting to see JMB die. Cynthia arrived towards the end of Bernard Freyberg’s watch … [She] got hold of surgeon Horder and solicitor Poole with the will … Horder gave [Barrie] an injection, and sufficient energy was pumped into Uncle Jim [who had been taking daily dosages of heroin] so that he could put his name to the will that Poole laid before him.

‘Sad end’ to Peter Pan author & ‘his boys’

In his letter, Nico adds that he and Peter “talked and thought and eventually went to consult a leading solicitor, Theodore Goddard,” who told them that they “couldn’t fail – in his opinion – to win the case” as long as they got Freyberg and Barrie’s manservant Frank Thurston to testify about Cynthia Asquith’s “repeated manoeuvres.”

Both Freyberg and Thurston agreed to serve as witnesses, “but then we each thought how horrid the whole thing was going to be, and we decided not to sue.”

Referencing Barrie’s dedicatory note in his 1906 novel Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Nico summed up the Peter Pan author’s death and its aftermath as “a sad end to ‘Arthur & Sylvia Llewellyn Davies and their boys – My Boys.’”

Peter Pan Author & the Llewelyn Davies Boys: ‘Sad End’ to Four-Decade Relationship” follow-up post:

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

Peter Pan Author’ notes

[1] The original post about Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family, and their portrayal in Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland was published in January 2005.

This revised and expanded three-part version was completed in July 2019.

Freud-free darkness

[2] Despite the absence of Freudianism, Allan Knee’s The Man Who Was Peter Pan, which is set at different periods in the lives of the Llewelyn Davies brothers, seems to have offered a darker take on the Peter Pan author and “his boys.”

While Finding Neverland features the boy Peter (Freddie Highmore) using the power of imagination to, however temporarily, vanquish death, The Man Who Was Peter Pan features the adult Peter (Tommy Walsh) revealing his sense of desolation.

In the words of New York Times reviewer D.J.R. Bruckner, his “loneliness cracks his reserve in a moment that is terrible for being so quiet.”

Lady Cynthia Asquith, screenwriter

[3] The year J.M. Barrie died, Cynthia Asquith had been working on the screenplay of Dreaming Lips, to star Elisabeth Bergner (Best Actress Academy Award nominee for Escape Me Never, 1935). Her contributions went uncredited.

Coincidentally, Bergner was also the title star of Barrie’s final play, The Boy David (1936).

Image of the Llewelyn Davies boys (George, Jack, Peter, Michael, and Nico) and their father, Arthur via Wikipedia.

Jeremy Sumpter Peter Pan image: Universal / Columbia.

Peter Pan Author & the Llewelyn Davies Boys: ‘Sad End’ to Four-Decade Relationship” last updated in February 2020.

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