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The 2004 film Finding Neverland stars Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. How much of the movie was true and how much was changed? Let’s find out…

About the movie Finding Neverland

From March 4th to the 28th in 1998, the 42nd Street WorkShop theater ran Allan Knee’s play called The Man Who Was Peter Pan. The dialog-driven play told the story of the Scottish author, James Michael Barrie, and the character we all know — Peter Pan.

After the short run by his play, Allan soon began work on a major motion picture. Filming began in the summer of 2002, just a few years after his play ran. Boasting an all-star cast with Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, and Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland would go on to be nominated for seven Oscars, with one win for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score.

Interestingly enough, the movie would go on to inspire a play of its own. Also called Finding Neverland, the musical also drew inspiration from Allan’s play and wowed audiences when it made its world premiere at the Curve Theatre in Leicester in 2012.

So, we have a play based on a movie that’s based on a play and somewhere in there is the truth. Let’s see what we can do to find it.

Learn the true story behind Finding Neverland

There’s a red curtain on screen. The sounds of an orchestra warming up make a pleasing drone in the background. If you listen closely you can hear someone say, “Your five-minute call!” and “Places!”

The camera transports us outside now as we see someone riding in a carriage. The credits start to show up on screen, and we can hear Dustin Hoffman’s character, Charles Frohman, welcoming the patrons as they arrive.

As the opening sequence continues, we’re given more clues to set up our scene. It’s a theater. Charles replies to a patron’s question asking if it’s one of Mr. Barrie’s finest with something to the effect of, “…that genius Scotsman has done it again!” and how, “I love opening nights!”

So, we can gather it must be opening night for a play written by a Scottish playwright named Barrie. Then we can see Johnny Depp’s version of Barrie — J. M. Barrie, to be more specific. Or, even more specifically, James Michael Barrie.

If you pause the movie at just the right moment, you can see the sign out front says the opening night is for a play named Little Mary.

Only after this do we get a time and place. London in the year 1903.

We’re also given some text on screen telling us the movie is based on the play called The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, and that this story is inspired by true events.

To wrap up this opening sequence, we see the result of James Barrie’s new play. And, to put it mildly, it’s a disaster. After the play, James and his wife, Mary, are greeted by an elderly couple named Mr. and Mrs. Snow. They’re friendly enough, but when Mr. Snow asks James what he thought of the play, James simply replies, “I think I can do better.”

Of course, there’s quite a bit of creative license in there, but that opening night for J. M. Barrie’s play called Little Mary, An Uncomfortable Play did happen. The premiere took place on September 24th, 1903 at Wyndham’s Theatre in London.

However, it wasn’t the immediate disaster the movie makes it seem.

According to one reviewer titled their report, “Little Mary, Produced in London Last Night, a Charming Trifle — Excellently Received.” They went on to say that, “Rare indeed in the theatre, says The Times, is the kind of pleasure one gets from ‘Little Mary.’”

Another review was titled, “Little Mary Big Success” and called the play, “very brightly written and admirably acted,” reporting that producer Charles Frohman, “scored an unequivocal success.”

Or, there’s this review that’s short enough to give us the gist of how most reviews were after opening night:

Barrie’s New Comedy Good

John Hare and Nina Boucicault Successful in “Little Mary,” the Novelist’s Latest Bit of Play Building.

London, Sept. 25.—J.M. Barrie’s “Little Mary” was produced at Wyndham’s Theatre to-night. It is a piece of chaff on “society,” the moral being that society eats too much. The title does not refer to any character in the play, but is explained at the very end, with apologies for mentioning the word stomach.

The comedy is a great success, especially for Nina Boucicault and John Hare.

So, not really the dismal reaction from the crowd that we saw in the movie. Little Mary would go on to run for over 200 more performances and, as a quick little peek into some of the historical accuracy — it also contained some inspiration from the Davies children.

It doesn’t seem likely that the housekeepers would need to cut out the newspaper reviews like we saw happen in the movie. That’s what we see next in the film, as Johnny Depp’s version of J. M. Barrie looks through the hole cut out in the newspaper while he’s sitting in the park.

Oh, and as a little side note, for the sake of this episode I’ll call him James, since that’s what his friends called him, instead of the more formal J. M. Barrie.

James is reading the paper in the park when he hears a voice below him. It’s a child lying on his back underneath the bench James is sitting on.

As James talks with the boy, who says his name is Michael, James finds out that Michael is imprisoned under the bench by his brother, King George. It’s King George who has issued the decree that simply because Michael is his younger brother, that he should be sentenced to the time in the dungeon under the bench.

King George arrives and verifies the story. James asks what Michael has done to receive his punishment. George quickly replies, well, he’s my younger brother … and then goes on to introduce James to the heir to the throne, Jack.

No further explanation needed.

It’s here that we also meet Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, who is played by Kate Winslet. She’s the mother of the four boys. One of them, Peter, isn’t playing with the rest.

Clearly this is all in the imagination of children at play, but the point here set up is to introduce James to Sylvia and her children — George, Jack, Peter, and Michael.

This is sort of true, but it’s a very simplified version of what really happened. Let’s dig into this, because as we’ll learn there’s quite a few key differences between the movie’s depiction of James meeting Sylvia and her children.

By that, what I mean is that James met the four boys at the park sort of like what we saw. But Sylvia wasn’t there.

For one, the timeline is way off in the movie. Remember in the beginning of the movie when we learn it’s 1903? Well, it’d seem that Sylvia’s children met James on one of his routine strolls around Kensington Gardens in 1897.

Kensington was just a short walk from James’ home, so he’d often go there with his great big St Bernard named Porthos to get some fresh air and take the dog for a walk.

But there’s something else of importance that the movie doesn’t mention. James Barrie and Mary Ansell were married at a simple ceremony on July 9th, 1894. Porthos was James’ present to Mary.

Even though we don’t see their marriage in the movie, we get the sense throughout that James and Mary don’t have a happy marriage. And that’s true. Some historians have suggested perhaps it was never even consummated.

Of course, that’s hard to prove or disprove either way.

What we do know, though, is that James and Mary never had any children.

Not for the lack of wanting them, though. Mary really wanted kids. James wanted them, too. But there was this unhappy and, perhaps, loveless marriage. Mary resorted to treating their puppy, Porthos, as her child. James, on the other hand, enjoyed taking Porthos to Kensington and delighting children in the park there.

As a side note, I know how creepy this may sound. And to be honest, I did find some people who have brought this up and suggested perhaps James was some sort of a pedophile. This is something else we’ve never been able to prove. The children themselves have said there was never anything that was considered inappropriate.

Many years later, the youngest of the Davies children, Nico, was quoted as saying, “I don’t believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call ‘a stirring in the undergrowth’ for anyone — man, woman, or child. He was an innocent — which is why he could write Peter Pan.”

But, James loved children. Perhaps it was as innocent as Nico believed, and because he shared their imagination.

So, when James saw two children playing happily in Kensington Garden in 1897 day after day, he started to take notice. This was George and Jack, whose real name was John, and sometimes they were joined by Peter. Michael wasn’t there, because he wasn’t born until 1900.

Their mother, Sylvia, wasn’t there, either. The boys came to the park with their nurse.

It didn’t take long for James to become fast friends with the children, in particular the oldest — George.

It wasn’t until December 31st, 1897 that Sylvia met James. It happened at a dinner party hosted by their mutual friend, Sir George Lewis. The interesting part about this is that Sylvia was married at the time. She wasn’t a widow at the time of meeting James, like we saw in the movie.

Although, it is true that Sylvia would become a widow soon after their meeting. Her husband, Arthur, would eventually become the inspiration for Mr. Darling in the stories of Peter Pan.

The movie has Sylvia being a widow when she meets James in 1903, but in truth Arthur died on April 19th, 1907. That’s quite a difference from what the movie shows because it means that Arthur was alive for most of the events we see in the movie.

We see what happens between James and Mary when James spends so much time with Sylvia and her boys, but we never see what happens on Sylvia’s side because the movie makes it seem like Arthur was already gone. But, he was right there.

Back in the movie, after the failure of James’ play, Little Mary, we see Dustin Hoffman’s version of Charles Frohman talking to James as we see people carrying things away. Charles says he took an extended lease on the theater, and with the failure of the last play there’s some pressure on James to create a hit.

Well, we already learned Little Mary wasn’t quite the failure the movie makes it seem like, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t pressure on James to create a new, hit play. After all, that’s sort of the life of a writer. You finish one story, and it’s on to the next. That pressure was just played up a bit for the film.

The next major plot point in the movie happens when we see James come up with the idea for Peter Pan. It happens across multiple scenes as we see James playing with George, Jack, Peter, and Michael.

They pretend to be Lost Boys, Indians, and we see James imagine Sylvia’s mother, Emma du Maurier, as if she’s Captain Hook as she talks about how she’ll lock the boys up to do chores and they’ll not be let out. And at one-point James imagines the boys flying out of the window as they’re bouncing on their beds.

These are all the type of scenes that get fictionalized in a movie because what really happened probably would’ve taken too much time. But, even though those specific scenes may not have been how they happened, it is true that the adventurous exploits of James and the Davies children were the inspiration for many of the things we’re familiar with in the Peter Pan stories.

Probably the biggest inaccurate thing in the movie here is something we’ve already talked about a bit — the timeline. The movie implies this all happens after 1903. But, as we learned, they met in 1897. The character of Peter Pan made his very first appearance in a chapter called Peter Pan in Kensington Garden in J. M. Barrie’s book called The Little White Bird. That was published in November of 1902.

That means Peter Pan was already a character that James had written about before the timeline of the movie even took place.

Although, to be fair, it’s not like Peter Pan became much of a hit thanks to his brief appearance in The Little White Bird. That didn’t come until a bit later.

And we learn about that in the movie when we see Johnny Depp’s version of James talking to Dustin Hoffman’s character, Charles, about the idea he has for his next play. He describes Tinker Bell, the fairy who is portrayed by just a light floating around the stage and tells Charles the story of the clock inside the crocodile.

According to the movie, Charles is hesitant about James’ new idea.

And there’s some truth to that.

As we touched on a bit earlier, James’ last play, Little Mary, drew some inspiration from the Davies boys. Mostly in the form of lines he’d heard the children say.

This time, James drew even more inspiration from the children.

He started writing his new play on November 23rd, 1903. The very next day, something happened that was yet another difference between what we see in the movie and what happened in history.

In the movie, we see four Davies boys. But Arthur and Sylvia Davies had another baby boy. We’ve already heard his name. It’s Nicholas, or Nico as he was called, was born on November 24th.

Immediately, James drew inspiration from the Davies’ family for his brand-new play. In fact, that opening scene with Wendy in her bedroom in the first version of the play was inspired by the doctors waiting to help deliver Nico while in Sylvia’s room.

The Davies family was growing, and their home was starting to feel a little small. At least, for Arthur Davies.

Somewhere around here, he started considering moving his family away from the Kensington Garden area. We don’t see any of this in the movie, of course, because the movie suggests that Arthur was already out of the picture in 1904.

Another factor going into Arthur wanting to move his family very well could’ve been James, too. It’s hard to prove Arthur’s motivations, but it’d make sense for a father to be wary of another man hovering around his wife and children.

The house Arthur had picked out for his family was a bit outside London’s city limits and about 25 miles, or 40 kilometers, away from their home near Kensington.

Back in the movie, there’s a scene where we see Ian Hart’s character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, sitting together with James at a cricket match. Arthur tells James that people are watching. His relationship, or whatever it is, with Sylvia is catching people’s eye.

It seems improper for a married man to hang around with a widow so much.

That’s made up. At least that particular conversation was. As we already learned, Sylvia wasn’t a widower in 1903 when James began work on his new play.

But it is true that James Barrie was friends with the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, in the 1890s, James himself wrote three of his own stories starring the genius detective created by his friend Arthur. James wasn’t the only one who wrote pastiches about Sherlock, but they’re the ones relevant to our story today.

It was in early 1904, on March 1st, actually, when James finished the first draft of his new play tentatively titled Peter & Wendy.

As a little side note, a lot of people think that J. M. Barrie was responsible for creating the name Wendy, and that it never appeared before the introduction of Peter Pan. That’s not true.

The etymology of the name Wendy dates back to names like Guinevere and Gwendolyn, but there’s documentation of people — often boys — named Wendy in the 1700s. So, even though James didn’t invent the name, the popularity of his play certainly made it a more popular name than it had ever been before.

As for how he came up with the name, James got that name from another child not in the Davies household. It was a little girl named Margaret Henley. But, she’d befriended James. Like sometimes happens, the young Margaret had a hard time pronouncing some letters.

In particular, Rs gave her a hard time. So, she called James her, “friendy.” Except, she couldn’t pronounce R, so it came out as “my fwendy.” Sometimes, she’d call James “fwendy-wendy” — and that’s how James came up with the name Wendy. It was, as most of the play was, yet another bit of inspiration from one of his friends who happened to be children.

Unfortunately, in this case, his late friend. Sadly, she died in 1895, many years before James even started on his Peter Pan play. She was only six years old when she passed.

Oh, and little Margaret loved her cloak — another inspiration for Wendy’s cloak in the play.

We don’t really know how much James told Charles Frohman about his new play as he was writing it. We also don’t really know exactly how those discussions went. The movie seems to suggest that Charles was very hesitant about the storyline, as we touched on earlier.

And if we put ourselves in the shoes of a theater producer, it’d make sense. After all, James’ new play was calling for over fifty actors to portray all sorts of animals and wildlife, there were a number of flying tricks that involved some complex stage work, not to mention some very lavish sets that would’ve cost a pretty penny.

Meanwhile, the storyline of the play was something that those who heard it were afraid might be something only James and perhaps the Davies family would get.

The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but James was so unsure about how his play would be received by Charles Frohman that he actually wrote a second play.

In April of 1904, he pitched both plays to Charles by saying that Peter & Wendy was his passion. He doubted it’d be commercially successful, but he loved the play so much, that if Charles agreed to put it on stage, James would give him the second play, called Alice Sit-by-the-Fire.

Well, I think you know which of those two plays became a commercial success.

Hopping back into the movie’s timeline, there’s a moment where we see James visiting the Davies family at their country cottage. Peter and his brothers put on a play when Kate Winslet’s version of Sylvia starts coughing.

The play continues, but Sylvia’s coughing grows. She can’t stop. Rushing her inside, a doctor is called. Peter is upset. He doesn’t want to play make believe when he knows there’s something seriously wrong with his mother. And this is something we’ve seen since the onset of the movie — remember there’s an earlier scene where we see Peter in the park with James, but Sylvia isn’t there because of what Peter calls, “a chest cold.”

But, Peter knows this isn’t a chest cold. It’s something worse.

While it is true that Sylvia ended up getting cancer, the movie seems to speed this up a bit because as far as my research indicates, there’s nothing to suggest Sylvia knew about any serious illness as early as 1903 or 1904 like the movie makes it seem.

However, it’s worth pointing out that James did have a horrible cough. The movie never shows this, probably because it’d get confusing with the plotline of Sylvia’s cough and illness, but James contracted pneumonia and pleurisy on a trip to tell his mother the good news about his engagement to Mary way back in 1894.

From that moment on, James would have a bad cough for the rest of his life, something that often made the public wonder about his health.

Speaking of James and Mary, if we head back into the movie, after Sylvia is looked after by doctors, James returns home to find Mary with another man. It’s someone named Gilbert Cannan, and he’s played by Oliver Fox in the movie.

Gilbert says something about him being there to talk to James. He, being Gilbert, is on a committee to fight government censorship, and he wanted to talk to James about it. But this is nothing more than an awkward encounter and Gilbert, realizing this, leaves.

Afterward, James gets into a bit of a tiff with Mary. What was she doing so late with Gilbert? But, as James points out, Mary could ask the same thing since he was just to see Sylvia. Johnny Depp’s version of James says he doesn’t want to have the conversation and heads off to bed.

At this point in the movie, as viewers we’re left wondering — are Gilbert and Mary having an affair? Not to get too far ahead of our story, but we see a bit of this plot unfurl later when we find out that, yes, they were having an affair.

And that’s something that … well, this scene where we see James walk off without having the conversation is quite an apt description of it all.

In truth, everyone knew Mary and Gilbert were friends. Good friends. Some might’ve even believed, too good of friends. But, for his part, James never seemed to address the situation. Not for the lack of being asked.

As the Davies children grew older, at one point a 13-year-old Jack asked James why Mr. Cannan is always hanging around with Mrs. Barrie. We don’t have any documented proof of how James answered that question.

Some historians have suggested that James simply didn’t want to see what was right in front of his face. Surely, he had to have known there was something going on.

In the great biography by Andrew Birkin called J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, there’s a photograph of George riding on a toboggan with Gilbert. But, at some point James painted over Gilbert’s face on the negative leaving a faceless person in the final image.

Back in the movie, it’s time for the opening night for the new play. This time if you pause the movie, you can read the sign out front that says, “Duke of York’s Theatre. Charles Frohman Presents Peter Pan. Opening Night.”

There’s no indication of the date this happened in the movie, but we know from history that this took place on Tuesday, December 27th, 1904. At 8:30 PM, local time, to be more specific.

It was supposed to be the 21st — before Christmas — but one of the lifts on set collapsed, forcing the play to be postponed until after the holiday.

That had to have added plenty of stress to an already stressful situation.

Since the first draft, Charles Frohman had invested a ton of money and time into seeing the play become a reality. In that time, it’d become somewhat of a passion for him, as well. There were plans in place to take the play to America if the opening night in London went well.

In the movie, we see a bit of last-minute inspiration to try to get the crowd to enjoy the play. This comes in the form of 25 children from a nearby orphanage that James gives seats to scattered throughout the theater. As they laugh and enjoy the play, the laughter is contagious and, before long, everyone is loving the play.

I couldn’t find anything to show this happened, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any changes at the last moment. We already learned about where Wendy Darling got her name, and John Darling was named after John Davies. But in the final month leading up to opening night, the youngest Darling had his name change in the script from Alexander to Michael. Named after Michael Davies, of course.

Another change was something James did to help ensure the final line of the play didn’t end with absolute silence. I’m referring, of course, to the line where Peter Pan looks at the crowd and tells them that if you believe in fairies, to clap your hands!

How horrible it’d be if the crowd was utterly silent. So, James decided to tell the orchestra that if the crowd didn’t start clapping that they should start clapping — as if that had been the intention all along.

But, they didn’t have to. The crowd erupted into applause.

Oh, and someone else the movie incorrectly shows as being in the theater at the time was Dustin Hoffman’s character, Charles Frohman. He was actually at home in White Plains, New York, when the play in London opened. So, he waited nervously for news from across the pond.

He even passed the time with his children by acting out the play at home.

News didn’t travel quite as fast back then. When the play opened at 8:30 PM in London, that would make it 3:30 PM in New York. Charles’ phone didn’t ring until midnight. They’d received a cable from London, and the voice on the other end relayed what it said: Peter Pan all right. Looks like a big success.

Those sounds a bit contradictory, and the latter was truer than the former. The play known as Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was a huge hit. It continued to play every afternoon at 2:30 and every evening at 8:30, and the audiences loved it.

Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered why the lead character of Peter Pan is usually played by a woman, that boils down to a decision by Charles Frohman. You see, he’d worked with an actress named Maude Adams that he was convinced should play the lead role in the play in America. So, for consistency that meant a girl would have to play Peter Pan in the London version as well.

That’s why Nina Boucicault was cast as the very first Peter Pan when the play opened in London.

Back in the movie, things come to a very sad, but somehow happy ending when we see Sylvia’s illness start to get the better of her. She’s sick, so she can’t see Peter Pan’s successful opening. Instead, she sends Peter and tells him to report back on the play.

And if you’re like me, for a moment there I thought Sylvia was going to pass away before Peter could get back and tell her about the play.

But, she doesn’t.

There’s no indication of timing, but we see James decide to bring the play to her. A weak Sylvia gets help walking downstairs where we see the costumed dog, Nana, walk into their parlor, and the play begins.

We see Kelly Macdonald’s portrayal of Peter Pan saying that last line, “Do you believe in fairies? If you believe, clap your hands.”

Sylvia’s mother, Emma, is the first to start clapping. She’s changed her opinion on James, obviously. Then, everyone else claps. All of a sudden, the wall is lifted and behind it a world of imagination. Actors dressed as fairies are playing in what looks like the Davies’ back yard, but then we see Kelly Macdonald’s version of Peter Pan fly into the back yard. So, is this supposed to be real? Or imagination? Or is the movie trying to blur the lines between those two?

Tears are in everyone’s eyes, including yours and mine as moviegoers, as James whispers into Sylvia’s ear, “That … is Neverland.”

Then, Sylvia walks down to Neverland alone and the lights fade around her.

The next scene we see is the boys, Emma, and James, along with some other background characters. They’re surrounding a freshly-dug grave, and the message is clear. Sylvia is in Neverland forever now.

As great of an ending to the film as this may be, that’s not really what happened.

We already learned that Sylvia was married throughout the events in the movie, and that continues to be true through the opening day for Peter Pan.

If you recall, that opening day was December 27th, 1904. Well, as we touched on before, Arthur was planning on moving his family out of London. He did that the same year, 1904, moving them to a mansion called Egerton House in Hertfordshire that was built during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Remember that part in the movie where we hear Peter tell James about when his father passed away? According to the movie, they were supposed to go fishing in a week. But they didn’t, because his dad died the next morning.

Well, I don’t know if Arthur promised his son a fishing trip before he passed, but if he did it certainly wasn’t the surprise passing that the movie makes it seem like.

In 1906, two years after moving out of London, Arthur discovered a growth on his cheek that turned out to be cancerous. He had multiple operations to have much of his jaw, cheekbone, and palate removed. Because of the operations, he couldn’t talk anymore. He was in an incredible amount of pain, and to make matters worse it didn’t remove all the cancer.

Despite what many historians have considered to have been some animosity between Arthur and James, still others suggest perhaps there wasn’t any animosity wasn’t there at all. We don’t really know for sure, but we do know that James — now extremely wealthy off the success of Peter Pan — paid for all of Arthur’s medical bills.

On April 19th, 1907, Arthur Davies passed away. He was only 44 years old.

As for James and Mary, the way the movie ends things with them is on opening night for the play. We see James arrive at the theater and confront Mary about her affair with Gilbert. She doesn’t deny it, and as moviegoers we’re left to assume what happens when Mary kisses James on the cheek with a soft, “Goodbye.”

Well, as you can probably guess, none of that happened at opening night for Peter Pan. In fact, most historians believe the affair didn’t really start until 1908 — four years after Peter Pan’s opening night.

But it is true that James confronted Mary about her affair.

That happened in July of 1909, and James told Mary to stop seeing Gilbert. She refused. He didn’t want to divorce her, mostly because it would be a scandal for a celebrity with his status, so he suggested a legal separation. Practically they’d be divorced, but technically they’d still be married so James still insisted that Mary stop seeing Gilbert. Again, she refused.

So, in October of 1909, James and Mary were divorced.

Mary went on to marry Gilbert and despite no apparent legal requirement to do so, James continued to give Mary financial support through a set amount given once a year when the two enjoyed a private dinner together on their wedding anniversary.

James never remarried, but he did stay close to the now-widowed Sylvia and her boys. In fact, James claimed to have been engaged to Sylvia, but the boys didn’t really believe him.

We’ll never know for sure, but even had he been engaged to her, perhaps one of the reasons why James never remarried was because of what happened just less than a year after James and Mary were divorced.

That’d be the death of Sylvia who, like the movie shows, did contract cancer in her chest. She passed on August 27th, 1910 at only 43 years old.

Even though the movie changed the timeline for some things, it is correct in showing that James became legal guardians of the children after Sylvia’s passing. Although, she didn’t name only her mother, Emma, and James as the two guardians. In truth, she named Emma, James, her brother Guy and Arthur’s brother Crompton as the guardians for the boys.

Sadly, this wouldn’t be an end to the tragedy for James and the Davies family.

Just five years after Sylvia’s death, the first of the five boys died. It was George, the oldest, who was serving in World War I as a second lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. He died at only 21 years of age from a gunshot wound he received while in the trenches at Flanders.

Then, just six years later, Michael was the second of the Davies family to die way too young. He was swimming with a friend when he drowned on May 19th, 1921, just one month before his 21st birthday.

There’s been some speculation about the cause of his death, because Michael was bathing in the pool with a friend who many thought was his lover, Rupert Buxton. Some think perhaps it was a pact the two had made thanks to a couple of witnesses who saw the two swimming without making much of a struggle. Their bodies were recovered clasped around each other, and the official explanation was that Michael was drowning and Rupert drowned while trying to save Michael.

It’s worth pointing out that Michael was terrified of water, but he still tried to swim. Rupert, on the other hand, was a very good swimmer. So, the official explanation is possible.

Regardless of why it happened, it was a complete shock to anyone who knew him. When he heard the news, James didn’t sleep from the time he heard the news until Michael was buried two days later.

Those around James noted how much of an impact Michael’s death had on him, saying that it cast a dark shadow over him for the rest of his life. We get a peek at how much it weighed on his mind when the following year, on May 3rd, 1922, James addressed the students at St. Andrews University. Although James never used Michael’s name, it isn’t too hard to know who he’s talking about when we hear a portion of that speech:

As I see him, life is so beautiful to him that its proportions are monstrous. Perhaps his childhood may have been overfull of gladness; they don’t like that. If the seekers were kind he is the one for whom the flags of his college would fly one day. But the seeker I am thinking of is unfriendly, and so our student is “the lad that will never be old.”

He often gaily forgets, and thinks he has slain his foe by daring him, like him who, dreading water, was always the first to leap into it.

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