In December of 1908, a clever young actress compiled a group of letters written to her by members of her audiences at the Duke of York’s Theatre, which were published in a book by Ballentine & Co., Limited. The book was Peter Pan’s Post Bag and the actress was Pauline Chase, who for many years, enjoyed an unprecedented title for playing Peter Pan the longest. From 1906, when she covered for Cecilia Loftus on tour, to the next season when she was rewarded the lead role of Peter Pan, through the spring of 1914, the names Peter Pan and Pauline Chase were synonymous. She was also J. M. Barrie’s favorite in the role.
Of course, it was always probable that Chase was not the first actress to receive letters from children who had been to the Duke of York’s Theatre since it first opened during the Christmas season of 1904. Nina Boucicault received glowing notices although from the descriptions written about her performances, hers was a more elusive and mystical boy. The following year, Cecilia, or as she was better know, Cissie Loftus presented a portrayal that was, perhaps, more accessible but very little is written about her version of Peter. When Pauline Chase took over in 1906, hers was an athletic and wholesome performance in what would have been recognised as a “principal boy” role usually played by an actress in pantomimes. It also did not hurt that Chase was extremely beautiful while Loftus was attractive in a quirky sort of fashion. Loftus went on the act in vaudeville, the Broadway stage, films, and even her own act of impersonations for which she was most popular. Therefore, I was delightfully surprised when I discovered that Cissie Loftus had published a group of letters written to her over a year before the Chase book.
“The Letters of Peter Pan” were compiled for The Tatler for its number 244, February 28, 1906 edition. The children wrote that the “play was lovely”; “the little mermaids were pretty”; and that Captain Hook was cruel. They also invited Peter to tea but mostly, they wrote of Peter’s ability to fly with hopes that they could do the same.
The contents of the letters to Pauline Chase were similar although now presented in a lovely bound book. One of these letters is quite special as it was written by Michael Llewelyn Davies, one of the boys who inspired J. M. Barrie to write the play, Peter Pan, or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. In his letter, Michael writes about Nicholas or “Nico” his brother, whose name he misspells as “Nik-o.”
Pauline Chase received permission to have her book sold in the lobby of the Duke of York’s Theatre during its seasonal runs where she autographed copies with Peter’s most line, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” The frontispiece seen here is from a rather beaten up copy of the first edition while the jacket cover and page with Michael’s letter is from the second impression, also from December, 1908. I guess that no one, the publishers nor Pauline Chase, expected such success with the small imprint. Today, it is one of the most rare books on the subject of Peter Pan.
While doing research in London in 1991, I looked desperately for a copy of Chase’s book in rare book stores but to no avail. (I would later buy a copy of the second impression from a book dealer in the states and the first I found on Ebay from a seller in England!) However, I did discover a sweet little book, Dear Peter Pan, by Catherine Haill, a theatre curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The book is a beautiful compilation of letters to Eva Embury, who played Peter on tour in 1916-17 and 1917-18. The actress died in 1981 but had carefully preserved the letters as well as photographs or over sixty years. The ephemera was presented to the Theatre Museum by Embury’s friend, Olive Davies as requested by Eva before her death.
“Eva embodied the Peter Pan spirit all her life, being full of zest and excitement in everything she did,” said Miss Davies. “She would have been thrilled to know that this book was to be published.”
Two of my favorite letters come not from children but rather the wife of a soldier whose husband was fighting in France during WW I. A mother of two, Mary Alexander, wrote to Eva pleading for tickets for her children to see the play. She could not afford the cost for the gallery or the car fare. At the end of her letter, she wrote:
“P.S. I have never asked anything in my life before and I have lived in this house for nearly 12 years. My landlord can speak for my respectability. -M. A.”
Even better is the other letter Mary Alexander wrote to Eva thanking her:
“I never expected you to treat me too and you left a pound too much but I bought cake for the children with it. I will never do such a thing again as I worried myself so much when I posted the letter…I would willingly of taken it back again as I thought it was a most forward thing to do. but (sic) Oh! what (sic) a torment my mind was till I got your kind letter and if it makes the giver any happier than the receiver, you should be very happy. for (sic) the children think you are a kind Fairy to them.”
I enjoy this book each time I pick it up. If you collect Peter Pan books and ephemera, you must add Catherine Haill’s book to your collection. The letters are as special as Peter himself!