The True Story Behind Peter Pan Is Crazy And A Little Creepy
By Mike Albo
Prepare yourself — we are about to enjoy (or endure, depending on your perspective) a Peter Pan renaissance.
This coming spring, Finding Neverland (the musical version of the 2005 film) comes to Broadway, starring Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer. And, next summer, Pan — a Peter Pan prequel, of sorts — hits movie theaters with Hugh Jackman as its villain, Blackbeard. But, this Thursday, NBC presents Peter Pan Live! with Allison Williams playing the legendary Boy Who Never Grew Up, along with Christopher Walken as Captain Hook.
Peter Pan was last performed live on TV in 1955 and again in 1956, starring Broadway icon Mary Martin, the originator of the theatrical role. A record 65 million viewers tuned in. Will this version break records, too? Is Allison Williams the millennial Martin? We shall see. At the very least, the show will be something the entire family can hate-watch, drink-watch, and simply just regular-watch, all at the same time.
Peter Pan has had many incarnations over the years, but the origins of the tale, as well as the fates of its author, J.M. Barrie, and the children who inspired it, turn out to be much, much more interesting. Ahead, we’ve put together a quick primer.
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Barrie & The Boys
J.M. Barrie was born in 1860, the son of Margaret and Alexander Barrie, in the Scottish town of Kirriemuir. He had an older brother, David, who was known to be one of those beautiful golden children who everyone adored. In the winter of 1867, David was hit by a fellow ice-skater. He fell, cracked his skull, and died. Barrie’s mother never recovered mentally, and was said to find small comfort in the fact that David would remain a boy forever. It was here that Barrie’s lifelong obsession with boys and the preservation of their innocence became anchored in his psyche.
Barrie moved to London, and, in 1894, married an actress named Mary Ansell. As a kind of wedding present, he gave her a St. Bernard dog. The couple never had children and Barrie, evidence suggests, never consummated their marriage. He just as much declared it in his story “Tommy and Grizel,” (1900) about a toxic marriage, which he wrote six years into his marriage with Ansell: “Grizel, I seem to be different from all other men; there seems to be some curse upon me…You are the only woman I ever wanted to love, but apparently I can’t.” The marriage between J.M. and Mary did not last, and they divorced in 1909.
In 1898, Barrie met a pair of boys in Kensington Gardens, an expanse adjacent to London’s Hyde Park. George and Jack Llewelyn Davies, aged 5 and 4, were walking with their nurse. Barrie began to see them there repeatedly, and he befriended them. Soon after, he met their parents, Sylvia and Arthur. Later, three more sons were born: Peter, Michael, and Nico. The Davies clan began to let Barrie into their lives, and gradually Barrie became “Uncle Jim.”
Peter Pan made his first appearance in The Little White Bird, Barrie’s thinly veiled novel about George Llewelyn Davies that, today, with our sensitivity to sexual predators, has a creepy tone. In the book, a boy named David is befriended by the narrator, who pretends to have a son of his own who died. He uses this lie to create empathy with David’s parents. The narrator is particularly excited that David’s mother, Mary, has been duped, which allows him to “take [David] utterly from her and make him mine.” Within the novel, the narrator invents a story about a magical boy named Peter Pan who never grows old, and who lives in Kensington Gardens.
In his biography J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, Andrew Birkin stresses that, despite it all, he doesn’t believe Barrie was a sexual predator of children. Barrie, he says, was “a lover of childhood, but was not in any sexual sense the pedophile that some claim him to have been.” It’s a similar defense many provide for Michael Jackson: that his obsession with boys, deep-seated and obsessive as it was, had no physical aspect to it.
But, Piers Dudgeon, in his more damning biography Neverland: J.M. Barrie, the Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of ‘Peter Pan’, thinks differently, digging up incriminating evidence that there was more to Barrie’s attachment to the Davies children than simple protective friendship. First, there are the letters he wrote to Michael Llewelyn Davies, who is often thought of as Barrie’s favorite Davies child. On the eve of Michael’s 8th birthday, in June 1908, Barrie wrote:
“I wish I could be with you and your candles. You can look on me as one of your candles, the one that burns badly — the greasy one that is bent in the middle. But still, hurray, I am Michael’s candle. I wish I could see you putting on the redskin’s clothes for the first time… Dear Michael, I am very fond of you, but don’t tell anybody.”
And, then there is the matter of Barrie becoming the boys’ guardian. Arthur Llewelyn Davies died from cancer of the jaw in 1907, and Sylvia died of lung cancer in 1910. Sylvia had left a handwritten document that said: “What I wd like wd be if Jenny wd come to Mary & that the two together wd be looking after the boys & the house.” (Mary was the boys’ nanny; Jenny was Mary’s sister.) Barrie transcribed the will himself and sent it to the boys’ maternal grandmother, altering Jenny to Jimmy, so it appeared that Sylvia wished for him to become the boys’ guardian. Intentional, or just a really convenient accident? Regardless, the children became his to care for. But, amid all these machinations, there is, as of yet, no hard evidence that Barrie ever physically abused his charges.
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The Fate Of The Davies
In 1915, George, the oldest of the Davies boys, was killed in the World War I, fighting with his regiment in Flanders. The death of his brother caused Michael and Barrie to grow even closer. Michael left home to attend Eton College and had a hard time adjusting. He was troubled and antisocial, but became very close with Rupert Buxton, the son of a decorated baronet. The two reportedly became inseparable, spending time both at the university and on holiday together. In May of 1921, Davies and Buxton drowned together in Sandford Pool, a body of water a few miles from Oxford. Some reports say that the bodies were found clinging to each other. Theories of how and why they died abound, but some believe that Buxton and Davies were lovers, and this was a suicide pact. In later interviews, Michael’s younger brothers Peter and Nico acknowledged suicide as a likely explanation.
Years later, Peter Llewelyn Davies became a successful publisher. Many of the letters between Michael and Barrie were destroyed by him, as he grew to dislike having his name associated with Peter Pan. (He is quoted calling Peter Pan ”that terrible masterpiece.”) Many, including his son Ruthven, imply that the unwanted fame drove Peter to become an alcoholic. In April 1960, Peter threw himself under a subway train in London.
Barrie died of pneumonia in 1937. He bequeathed the copyright to all of his Peter Pan work to the Great Ormond Street Hospital, a hospital for children, which still greatly benefits from owning the rights.
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Peter Pan & Boyology
No writer can predict the timing of their work and how it will resonate. But, Peter Pan, coinciding with a cultural obsession with boyhood at the time, struck a powerful chord with readers of the early 20th century. Amid the upper and middle classes, there was a growing paranoia that their boys were getting “soft” and losing their virile masculinity. This culminated in Henry William Gibson’s book Boyology, a pseudo-science tome that insisted parents and institutions must preserve and honor the “wildness” of boyhood. “When he starts out to be a boy, he is more a little beast,” writes Gibson, “He is, though, a man in the making.” A wave of efforts to protect and develop a kind of organic juvenile boyhood commenced. Robert Baden-Powell writes Scouting for Boys and sparks the Boy Scout movement (1908); Father O’Flanagan creates Boys Town in Nebraska (1917).
Yet Peter Pan’s placement amid this “boyology” movement is a bit more artful and slippery. “I see Barrie as being in conversation both with and against these boyologists,” says Brian Herrera, a Princeton professor who teaches a course in “Queer Boyhoods.” “He shares with the boyologists the idea that there is something precious and extraordinary about boyhood, but he doesn’t seem to see adult masculinity as the natural next step of boyhood wildness, but as a cruel step away from the magic of boys.”
Peter and the Lost Boys are the boys who, as the story goes, “fall out of their prams when the nurse is looking the other way and if they are not claimed in seven days, they are sent far away to the Never Land” where Peter Pan is their captain. To our contemporary eyes, this can be seen as a queer allegory. “Peter Pan’s defiance is read as an abdication of the responsibility of maturity and, like gays, an abdication of the responsibilities of patriarchal heterosexual masculinity,” observes Herrera. “That Peter finds a non-procreative, homosocial world to be ample enough for his everlasting happiness? That’s pretty darn queer.”
And, still, the story of Peter Pan endures. “…in Peter Pan, Barrie achieved the rarest alchemy of all, the one that no writer can plan or predict: he invented a myth,” wrote Anthony Lane in his 2004 essay about the author in The New Yorker. Peter Pan, even when reading or watching it as a child, has a rare sadness to it. It feels infused with a melancholic ache not often found in the protective, parent-friendly children’s literature of today. Perhaps, like all myth, it is because of the pain and tragedy woven into its creation that makes it so timeless. Under the layers of Disney fairy dust, summer blockbuster bravado, and, now, Allison Williams’s pixie-cut wig, is a deeper, more complicated story.