To date, no Peter Pan killed himself in any fictional story yet published on any large scale. Tragedy, however, was an unfortunate and common visitor the Davies family, who inspired J.M. Barrie to pen the first stories on The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. More than once, suicide touched the family and their legacy. The most well-known suicide seemed most tragic of all.
Alongside his brothers George, Jack, Michael and Nico, Peter Llewellyn Davies was a key inspiration in J.M. Barrie’s tales about The Boy Who Would not Grow Up. Though identified by Barrie as the source for the Pan’s name, his brother Michael served as the greatest inspiration in the development of the boyish, titular character in his 1904 play “Peter Pan.” Facing years of alcoholism, PTSD and various degenerative diseases, Peter committed suicide by throwing himself before a commuter train.
The Origins of Peter Pan
As discussed here, J.M. Barrie first encountered George, Jack, Peter and their family nurse Mary Hodgson in 1897 during a walk in Kensington Gardens. The boys-at-play with each other and their dog, Porthos, became a primary inspiration to Barrie for his novel The Little White Bird as Lost Boys and Wendy’s brothers. They were later immortalized in his 1904 play The Boy Who Would Not Grow up and later in its 1911 novelization in Peter and Wendy.
Barrie grew close to the Davies family and even vacationed with them. When their father Arthur died of sarcoma and later their mother of lung cancer, Barrie financially supported the children through college with wealth earned from his plays and novels and remained close throughout their lives.
Davies Family Tragedies
The lives of the Davies family was plagued with tragedies, starting with the passing of their father from sarcoma in 1907 and their mother from lung cancer only three years later. Alongside their maternal grandmother and uncles from both sides of the family, Barrie became a trustee and guardian for the boys. The family nurse, Mary Hodgson, left the family after conflict with Barrie and his second wife while the boys were in their teens and twenties.
Three of the boys served in World War I. Jack was a member of the Royal Navy, while George and Peter served as officers in the British Army. George was killed in action in 1915 while Michael drowned alongside a close friend in 1921 while at Oxford University. Peter died in 1960 from suicide.
Peter Lllewellyn Davies’ Story
Third of the five boys, Peter struggled throughout his life with his association as the “original” Peter Pan, a work he often called “that terrible masterpiece.” An infant when Barrie first met the Davies family, he never lived outside the influence of Barrie’s work on Peter Pan.
Financed by Barrie, Peter attended Eton College before commissioning in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1914 where he served as a signal officer in French trenches. Peter was awarded a Military Cross for actions of bravery during battle but also suffered impetigo (a skin condition caused by Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes) and PTSD for years after the war.
He married and had three children, but struggled with the life-long association with Peter Pan, financial issues with the Pan intellectual property, alcoholism and emphysema, as well as the fact that his wife and children had inherited Huntingdon’s Disease, a neurodegenerative disease that remains incurable to this day.
On April 5, 1960, then-63-year-old Peter walked from a bar at the Royal Court Hotel to the Sloane Square Station and threw himself under a train pulling into the station.
Even in death, newspapers covering his passing still referred to him as “the original Peter Pan.”
His wife died shortly thereafter and none of his children decided to have children of their own to avoid passing on Huntingdon’s. The youngest, Peter Jr. committed suicide in 1990 at the age of 47.
The Tragedy of Infamy
Fame can plague people in difficult ways. In an age of Instagram and TikTok, people focused on the benefits of fame can often forget its costs, ranging from a struggle with personal identity, harassment by over-eager fans, and a lack of grounding in regular life. Many who become famous can predicate their personal value on how popular they remain, while those who gain unwanted fame are plagued by attention they never sought.
Peter Llewellyn Davies’s story illustrates a life that struggled with his infamy, in addition to a family that faced multiple tragedies. The life of a man and his muses about about a Boy Who Would Not Grow Up ironically faced decades of death and sorrow; the boys had no choice about becoming grownups — sometimes in quick and painful experiences.
Most children’s stories you read — especially those by the Grimms Brothers — bear or are inspired by much darker backstories than you’ll hear from Disney. Even childhood rhymes can bear rather nasty backgrounds.
The story of Peter Pan is no different, and will forever remain with the origin story of The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up.