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Peter's suicide: a case to answer
London, 1960. Tuesday, 5 April: 9 a.m. In the restaurant of the Royal Court Hotel, Sloane Square, a melancholy man in his early sixties takes breakfast alone. Some time later he walks out of the hotel, telling no one where he is going. He is not seen again until a little before 5 p.m., when he crosses the square and enters the Underground station. He buys a ticket, moves past the little sentry box with its attendant, and turns sharp right down the steps to the platform, where, absorbed in his thoughts, he trudges up and down, up and down, staring at the ground, as if not part of this world. A train arrives, leaves, then another, but the man gives no sign that he is either about to depart or is expecting to meet someone. Then comes the rattle in the darkness and the echo of sound in the tunnel of the train he chooses. Suddenly, and with immaculate timing, he points his body towards it and hurls himself forward, just as it emerges into the light.
The death of Peter Llewelyn Davies, 63-year-old chairman of respected book publisher Peter Davies Ltd, provoked wide press coverage and speculation, perhaps because some reporters remembered that he had been one of the 'lost boys' of Peter Pan, and noted that the tragedy more or less coincided with the centenary of the birth of J. M. Barrie.
There was no question that the death was suicide. An inquest opened on Friday, 8 April 1960, and concluded the following Tuesday that Peter Llewelyn Davies had taken his own life while the balance of his mind was disturbed. Cause of death was certified on Wednesday the 13th as 'multiple injuries (legs and skull). Threw himself in front of an Underground train. Killed himself.'
Peter's brother Nicholas (known as Nico) accepted the inquest's verdict: 'Peter's death – I shan't forget while I have any faculties left – it was indeed suicide,' he wrote to Andrew Birkin. 'After hours, days? of walking up and down the platform of Sloane Square Underground station he jumped in front of the train. Terrible for the driver – terrible from most points of view.'
Geraldine (Gerrie), Peter's sister-in-law, commented: 'Peter went out after breakfast, and as far as I know, nobody knew what he did all day until five in the evening, when he jumped in front of this train. So where he spent the whole day, God alone knows ... They'd moved out of the flat they were in then. They had stored their furniture and they had gone to the Royal Court Hotel and Peter was ill and P wasn't the right kind of wife, she couldn't cope ... hopeless ... He realised he was going to get worse and apparently he thought of sleeping pills and then he thought of how dreadful it would be if they pulled him round. That was apparently his reasoning, I have been told. What it really was I don't know, but I can't think of a more grim way.'
'P' was Peter's wife Peggy, the Hon. Margaret Leslie Hore-Ruthven, one of four daughters of the 9th Baron Ruthven (pronounced 'Riven'). She and her twin sister Alison often dressed alike and came to be known in London society as 'A and P'. Peggy and Peter had been living on the opposite side of Sloane Square to the Underground station, at 20 Cadogan Court, before packing up their furniture and moving to the Royal Court Hotel, en route to Gibraltar and retirement.
Peter's childhood has been so sentimentalised as to turn it into a myth almost as famous as that of Peter Pan.
The story goes that in 1892 beautiful and enigmatic Sylvia du Maurier, the daughter of famous Punch magazine illustrator and bestselling author George du Maurier, married handsome young barrister Arthur Llewelyn Davies, son of a chaplain to Queen Victoria. She was 26, he 29. They settled at number 18 Craven Terrace, Lancaster Gate, on the north side of Kensington Gardens, and between 1893 and 1903 produced five sons: George, Jack, Peter, Michael and Nico.
In 1897, the year Peter was born, he was out in his pram in Kensington Gardens with his nanny, Mary Hodgson, and his elder brothers George (4) and Jack (3), when they met toast-of-the-town playwright and novelist J. M. Barrie, with his St Bernard dog.
Mr Barrie, who lived with his pretty actress wife Mary Ansell on the south side of the Gardens, at 133 Gloucester Road, was well known in the park for his antics with this dog. Once let off its leash, the huge animal would be up on its hind legs wrestling his master. Barrie stood five feet three and a half inches (the half was terribly important to him), but seemed to grow strong in the unlikely contest, which children loved to watch. When the show came to an end he would start talking to his young audience, take one or two of them aside and captivate them with stories of fairies and make-believe woods, or do sleight-of-hand magic tricks, or pretend to hypnotise them with his eyebrows, for he had an unusual ability to elevate and lower his eyebrows separately, while gazing intently with his large, morose, staring eyes, set in a peculiarly large head, out of scale with his boyish body.
A child, who knew him then, said:
He was a tiny man, he had a pale face and large eyes and shadows round them ... He looked fragile, but he was strong when he wrestled with Porthos, his St Bernard dog. Mr Barrie talked a great deal about cricket, but the next moment he was telling us about fairies, as though he knew all about them. He was made of silences, but we did not find these strange, they were so much part of him ... his silences spoke loudly.
For the three Davies boys, meeting Barrie in the park became a regular event, the cheeky but imaginative George building a particular rapport with him. In Barrie's company the Gardens took on their own geography and mythology: the Figs, the Broad Walk, the Hump, the Baby Walk, St Govor's Well, the cricket pitches, the Round Pond and Serpentine were all discovered, explored, mapped, and made their secret domain, each district 'freighted' with its own stories to be recalled in bed at night, and later to be made part of a book called The Little White Bird in which Peter Pan made his first appearance. Peter Pan was supposed to have flown out of the window of his nursery to join the fairies and birds in Kensington Gardens and live with old Solomon Caw on Birds' Island on the Serpentine, a lake well known to the boys, but never the same again after Mr Barrie spoke of it:
The Serpentine ... is a lovely lake, and there is a drowned forest at the bottom of it. If you peer over the edge you can see the trees all growing upside down, and they say at night there are also drowned stars in it. If so, Peter Pan sees them when he is sailing across the lake in the Thrush's Nest. A small part only of the Serpentine is in the Gardens, for soon it passes beneath a bridge too far away where the island is on which all the birds are born that become baby boys and girls. No one who is human, except Peter Pan (and he is only half human) can land on the island, but you may write what you want (boy or girl, dark or fair) on a piece of paper, and then twist it into the shape of a boat and slip it into the water, and it reaches Peter Pan's island after dark.
On New Year's Eve, the last day of 1897, J. M. Barrie met the parents of the three boys at a dinner party given by society hosts Sir George and Lady Lewis, after which Sylvia and Arthur Llewelyn Davies began to see a great deal of James and Mary Barrie.
Barrie and his wife would walk the boys home from the park almost every day, Mary befriending Sylvia while Barrie continued his fun and games with the boys upstairs in the nursery. So close did the two families become that in 1899 Barrie and his wife thought nothing of showing up uninvited when the boys were on holiday with their parents in Rustington-on-Sea, which had been the Davieses' south coast holiday retreat for some five years. The boys had been thrilled to see Mr Barrie, as they called him then – it was some time before they called him 'Uncle Jim' (George would do it first). Barrie turned out to be quite the little photographer, taking pictures which had a dreamy fairy-like quality about them.
Then, in 1900, the Barries bought Black Lake Cottage, a simple house in a pretty garden across the road from a lake set in a pine forest in the shadow of the twelfth-century ruins of Waverley Abbey, at Tilford in Surrey. For the next three summers the Llewelyn Davies family joined them there.
The boys were off with Barrie every day. In the magical company of their friend, the black lake that gave the cottage its name became a South Seas lagoon, the pine wood a tropical forest where all kinds of danger lurked. With complete abandon Mr Barrie presided over games of derring-do and redskins and desert islands, heroic adventures in which he played the pirate Captain Swarthy and the boys survived his attentions and once even strung Swarthy up, while the St Bernard, Porthos, played the pirate's dog or a tiger in a papier-mâché mask.
Nothing could have been more fun or more natural. 'That strange and terrible summer', Barrie took scores of photographs, thirty-five of which were turned into a book, professionally bound. Two copies were made and entitled The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, Being a record of the terrible adventures of the brothers Davies in the summer of 1901. Peter, though only four, was named on the front cover as its author.
Many of the scenes enacted over the years at Black Lake Cottage were incorporated into Peter Pan, which was first staged in 1904. 'The play of Peter,' wrote Barrie in the Dedication to the first published edition, 'is streaky with you still, though none may see this save ourselves ... As for myself, I suppose I always knew that I made Peter Pan by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame.'
But in 1906, tragedy struck. The boys' father, Arthur, contracted cancer of the face and the following year, aged 44, he died a horrible death.
Barrie, by then a very rich man – within two years Peter Pan had grossed over half a million pounds, a fabulous amount in those days – offered to help Sylvia and the boys, and they were housed at 23 Campden Hill Square, with Barrie a frequent visitor.
Then, in 1910, tragedy struck again. Sylvia died, also from cancer, again aged only 44. And Barrie made the boys his own.
But the deaths continued. In 1915, the eldest brother, George, was killed in the First World War in France, and in 1921 Michael drowned – many believed in a suicide pact with another boy. Almost forty years later, Peter committed suicide. Jack endured depression and ill health and died shortly before Peter. By 1960 Nico, the youngest, was the only surviving brother.
When Nico first heard of Peter's death, he felt comforted that at long last Peter's 'cares were over', for he had been in a terrible state for some time. Nico wrote to Nanny Hodgson the very next day, on 6 April: 'His health – mental even more than physical I would say – had deteriorated so that he was a real melancholic: he would have lived with hardly a smile.' He suggested that 'the 1914 War ditched Peter, really.' Peter had joined up at 17 in 1914, poised between Eton and Cambridge. Barrie's official biographer, Denis Mackail, wrote that on Peter's demobilisation in February 1919, 'what was left of him was for a long time little more than a ghost'.
But even in letters to Barrie from the Front, Peter comes across as unemotional, stable, composed, intelligent. According to Nico he was the 'least athletic' of the brothers, and in Nanny's eyes, 'the delicate one', but he was bright, the only scholar among the Davies boys. He emerged from the war a gentleman, reserved certainly but standing tall, with an independent streak and a very attractive self-possession, something of a loner, but quite the urbane Londoner, with plenty of friends; and, as Nico conceded, he was 'a superbly witty and funny talker – few days now go by without either Mary [Nico's wife] or I remembering some wonderfully funny remark of Peter's.'
In 1917, while back in England on leave, Peter had fallen in love with a woman much older than himself, Vera Willoughby. After the war he and Vera lived together, a unit independent of Barrie, who disapproved. Defying Uncle Jim was not the action of a man unable to cope with his own life.
Six years later, the affair over, Peter was tempted back into the fold by a plan to set him up as a publisher. Barrie organised and paid for Peter's training, first with Walter Blaikie in Edinburgh and then in London with his publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, before setting him up with an imprint of his own, Peter Davies Ltd.
Thereafter, over a period of three decades, largely through his own personality and acumen, as well as the efforts of employees including Nico, who worked for the firm as an editor, Peter made it a success, respected throughout the industry. In fact, Peter Davies Ltd still existed in the 1970s as part of Sir Sidney Bernstein's Granada Publishing Group. Does this sound like the career of a man who was 'ditched by the War'?
Another line of enquiry into the suicide is triggered by a remark made by Peter's secretary at the Queen Street, Mayfair, offices of Peter Davies Ltd. She said: 'He didn't care for the suggestion that he was Peter Pan.'
Peter was seven in 1904 when Peter Pan first opened at the Duke of York's Theatre in London's West End. Fairies were all the rage, thanks to actor/writer Seymour Hicks's huge Christmas hit, Bluebell in Fairyland, in which Hicks and his actress wife, Ellaline (Ella) Terriss, starred, and which ran at the Vaudeville for some 300 performances from 1901.
Bluebell in Fairyland took London's children by storm, and the Davies boys were no exception. Barrie took them to see it and re-enacted bits of it with them in the nursery at home, taking the role of the terrifying 'Sleepy King' to overwhelming effect. It was always their number one favourite play, even after Peter Pan came out. When it was revived in December 1905, Barrie wrote to Ella Terriss: 'I was talking about Peter [Pan] to the little boys the other day & in the middle of my remarks one of them said "Is it true that Bluebell is coming back?" You will see us all there.'
Hicks and his wife were huge celebrities to thousands of children at that time. They had long been friends of Barrie. Hicks had played opposite Barrie's wife Mary Ansell in Barrie's first play, Walker, London, ten years earlier, and he had been earmarked for Captain Hook in Peter Pan, and Ella for Wendy, but they had pulled out when Ella became pregnant.
These celebrities were a significant part of the boys' lives. In October 1903, when Ella had to call off a date with them to watch a performance of Barrie's hit play Quality Street, George, Jack and Peter were so fed up that Barrie had to occupy them in the theatre by paying them twopence every time the audience laughed. The play passed them by. 'They were mostly occupied in counting the laughs,' he lamented.
Living such a life, with one foot behind stage as it were, the boys were no doubt the envy of their friends at school. And one can easily imagine that Peter was ragged for having the same name as Peter Pan, and that his embarrassment deepened when it became known that the play was based on adventures he and his brothers had had with J. M. Barrie.
But why did it rankle for so long? It was in the late 1940s that Peter wrote:
What's in a name! My God what isn't? If that perennially juvenile lead, if that boy so fatally committed to an arrestation of his development, had only been dubbed George, or Jack, or Michael, or Nicholas, what miseries would have been spared me!
Peter's eldest son Ruthven (known as Rivvy and in his twenty-seventh year at Peter's death) believed he had the answer:
From the moment I was old enough I was aware that my father had been exploited by Barrie and was very bitter ... He didn't really like him. 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 livid and tremendously disappointed ... and he started drinking heavily. My first memory of my father was with a gin bottle tipped up at his mouth. He was virtually a down-and-out by the time he died ... My father hoped to inherit Barrie's money but at the last minute he changed his will. Our lifestyle was reasonable until then.
Excerpted from Neverland by Piers Dudgeon. Copyright © 2009 Piers Dudgeon. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 27, 2013
While the previous review was not helpful for this book, the Witch & Wizard by Patterson and Charbonnet is a very fun and twisty sci fi futuristic novel. I agree with that reviewer, try it. My rating is for that novel actually!
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Posted September 20, 2012
Just post your description, magical powers, etc. The N.O. has risen against all magical beings, even worse then before. Pearce was not killed in the Shadowland, and he is more powerful than ever. A generation has passed. I am the daughter of Wisteria Allgood and Byron Swain. If anyone hopes to survive, they'd join me in the new resistance. DESCRIPTION: I have wild long red hair, a shade darker than my mothers. My eyes are icy blue and I am fourteen. I am pale and tall, but skinny and not very strong in terms of muscle, I am sort of dainty looking but I have a feisty attitude when it comes to kicking butt.
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