See previous post (link below) about Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, the Llewelyn Davies and du Maurier families, their portrayal in Marc Forster’s Miramax-distributed 2004 period drama Finding Neverland, plus the literary and theatrical origins of the boy who wouldn’t grow up and Barrie’s at times strained relationship with the Llewelyn Davies’ brothers – the inspiration for both Peter Pan and Neverland’s “Lost Boys.”
Part II focuses on the rapport between the Peter Pan author and his favorite “adopted son,” Michael, in addition to Barrie’s controversial will and the ultimate fate of the Llewelyn Davies’ boys: “J.M. Barrie & ‘Peter Pan’ Origins: ‘Finding Neverland’ Crowd-Pleasing Myths vs. Reality.”
In his 1941 tome The Story of J.M.B., J.M. Barrie biographer Denis Mackail asserts that in the late 1910s “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, the Peter Pan author 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, he seemed to be shying away. It was making him [Michael] wretched too.”
Mackail wasn’t alone in perceiving the Peter Pan author/Peter Pan muse connection as having been strained. 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 (young men, orgies, etc.) with gangster Ronald Kray 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.”
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 further below) – 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*, 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.
* The year J.M. Barrie died, Cynthia Asquith had been contributing to the screenplay of Dreaming Lips, to star Elisabeth Bergner (Best Actress Academy Award nominee for Escape Me Never, 1935) – coincidentally, Bergner was also the title star of Barrie’s final play, The Boy David (1936).
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 [Barrie] 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.
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.’”
The fate of the Llewelyn Davies brothers: George & Jack
Two of the Llewelyn Davies boys died long before J.M. Barrie: George and Michael.
After being shot through the head, Sylvia and Arthur Llewelyn Davies’ oldest son, George, died at age 21 in March 1915 in Flanders, one of the millions of World War I victims. 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 in January 1915.)
Michael’s death is discussed further below.
The only Llewelyn Davies brother without an Eton education, Jack 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.
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 assistance – 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, the only Llewelyn Davies child not seen in Finding Neverland, joined Peter’s publishing company in the mid-1930s.
Decades later, he would provide author Andrew Birkin with access to the Llewelyn Davies family archive.
Apparently the Llewelyn Davies brother with the most easygoing relationship with and fondest recollections of the Peter Pan author, Nico died at age 76 in 1980.
Michael Llewelyn Davies & Rupert Buxton: Double drowning tragedy
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: though 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.”
Notwithstanding the coroner’s report, some believed that the deaths had been the outcome of something other than an accident.
That suspicion 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.
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. 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. (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.”)
As per 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 Michael’s and Buxton’s intimacy 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 – to some extent – 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.”
To die or to live?
“Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life,” Peter Pan producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman in Finding Neverland) purportedly said before going down with the ocean liner Lusitania, which had been torpedoed off the Irish coast by a German U-Boat in 1915.
In Steven Spielberg’s poorly received 1991 fantasy Hook, starring Robin Williams as the adult Peter Pan, Peter’s line at the end of the film is changed to “To live … to live would be an awfully big adventure.”
Spoken by Peter Pan, the actual line in J.M. Barrie’s play at the end of Act III is “To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
 Curiously, 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.”
“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.
Two other noteworthy sources for “Peter Pan Author Peculiar Relationship with Michael Llewelyn Davies + ‘The Lost Boys’ Tragic Fate”: A. S. Byatt’s “A Child in Time” in The Guardian, and Anthony Lane’s “Lost Boys” in The New Yorker.
Robin Williams Hook image: Amblin Entertainment / TriStar Pictures.
“Peter Pan Author Peculiar Relationship with Michael Llewelyn Davies + ‘The Lost Boys’ Tragic Fate” last updated in July 2019.