Roiling Beneath, The True Life of J.M. Barrie’s Story
Andrew Birkin’s research preserved an archive of correspondence and documentation from the lives of J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn-Davies family. For the literary scholar, or anyone curious to learn their dark and bittersweet story, Birkin has organized an online database, jmbarrie.co.uk Providing a deeply personal record of the tragedy and loss touching the lives of Barrie and his muses, the Llewelyn-Davies family: George, Jack, Peter, Michael and Nico: The Lost Boys. Gathered during the last half of the twentieth century before Nico’s death, the biographical work, “J.M Barrie and The Lost Boys,” (Yale University Press; 1979, 2003) inspired a BBC Miniseries and an Academy Award Winning Film. However, the database Andrew Birkin started online, shortly after the Millennium, lies eerily incomplete.
Respecting the family and wishes of J.M. Barrie, the physical archive remains with the Great Ormond Hospital for Children. All license and copyright for “Peter Pan,” was donated to the hospital by Barrie in 1929. Therefore, on his Introduction page, Andrew Birkin reminds the reader these materials are provided courtesy of the GOHC and it is his hope that he will be able to upload all the documentation in the archive.
Then, immediately following, he writes an anecdote — or should I say, caveat — to close the Introduction, chilling my spine:
“The not-so-good reason for handing everything over is that I feel somewhat felled by Barrie’s curse, quoted in my original introduction: “May God blast anyone who writes a biography about me.” My son Anno was born on my birthday in 1980, seven weeks after Nico died. As he and his brothers grew up, I came to experience first hand the joys that Barrie had so longed for – “my boys”. I secretly wished that one of them would be a Michael – the poet among the five Davies brothers – but as a boy, Anno seemed much more like George, with lashings of Nico’s humour. Then around his fifteenth birthday, a sort of miracle occurred, and Anno suddenly blossomed into a poet and musician of great originality. About this time I was asked to make a film based on this book. To condense the original Lost Boys seemed both pointless and impossible, but I was drawn to the idea of filming Barrie’s relationship with the adolescent Michael, who had drowned in 1921, one month short of his 21st birthday. I spoke with Anno about doing such a film, and he rightly felt that I should only do it if I had something new to say. But what?
In September 2001, Anno headed for Italy with his band to record their first album. On the day we said goodbye, I’d been to Hampstead to visit Yale University Press, the publishers of this latest edition. I had always meant to look for Michael’s gravestone, which I knew lay somewhere in Hampstead Cemetery, and later that day I found it, photographing it for this edition. When I saw Anno that night for the last time, I mentioned finding the grave. “Ah, but have you found something new to say?”
A month later I decided to pay a visit to Eilean Shona, where Barrie and Michael had spent their last summer together in 1920. Five glorious days were spent roaming the island, finally climbing the sole mountain to the spot where Michael wrote his last (surviving) poem, which ends: “Man arose to his master-height, shivered and turned away; but the mists were round him.” ….. When I returned home, the phone was ringing.
It was Anno in Italy. They’d just finished recording a rehearsal of their album, and he sounded as happy as I’d ever heard him. We talked and talked, and then he had to go. The next morning came the phone call. Anno had been killed in a car smash outside Milan with three of his friends. Like Michael, he was one month short of 21.
Could there be a curse? Why? We’ll explore that next….