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5 December 1975

Extract from a letter from Nico Llewelyn Davies to Andrew Birkin, 5 December 1975.

[...] I think I'll tell you now the "truth about" Cynthia Asquith, though I realise it may be unwise to write it all down.

A. Michael and I didn't take her very seriously when she first came on the scene [in 1917]. Rather fun, but "let's go out" sort of thing.

B. When Michael was drowned, she was wonderful and I vividly remember writing her a long letter of gratitude and deep affection saying that if there were EVER a moment when I could help her in ANY way etc she had only to let me know.

C. In 1922 or 3 or 4 I was at some large weekend party (life and soul of the younger batch, of course!) and was sitting next to Lady Astor (whom I liked very much) and she started slanging Cynthia, saying how she was ruining JMB, turning him into a snob etc, and that she would get all his money, taking it from my brothers and me. Which I violently pooh-poohed and said some pretty offensive things - which she enjoyed ... she always liked being answered back. (She was dead right!)

D. After I left the flat to marry Mary in June 1926, I moved naturally to another world, but used to look in quite frequently. As often as not I'd ring the bell: Frank would open the door: "How's Uncle Jim?" "Well... Lady Cynthia's been in." I knew what this meant. I'd open the door to his wonderful study - overlooking 7 bridges across the Thames - and find Uncle Jim lying prostrate on the settee. I was the only person who could get him out of these states of despair. Silence for half an hour, while I sat at his desk either reading a paper or writing, then I'd say "I see Woolley made a marvellous 75 yesterday." There would be a stir on the settee ... and soon we'd be talking cricket, and soon again all would be well. What Cynthia had been doing was crying her woes: talking of her oldest (dotty) son and her affect poverty etc etc etc, sucking all his sympathy from him - and JMB was a fantastic mass of sympathy, people came from miles away for his comfort. He reached the point of drafting a new will, but never signed it - wouldn't, in my belief, as in the cold light of remorseless reason he thought it would be wrong.

E. When Uncle Jim got really ill, and was not expected to last the night, Peter made the Greatest Mistake of his Life and telephoned her down in Devon or Cornwall. She hired a car and motored through the night. Meanwhile Peter, I and General Freyberg went on watch - 8 to 12, 12 to 4, 4 to 8 am - each of us expecting to see JMB die. Cynthia arrived towards the end of Bernard Freyberg's watch ... still alive ... got hold of surgeon Horder and solicitor Poole with the will ... Horder gave an injection, and sufficient energy was pumped into Uncle Jim so that he could put his name to the will that Poole laid before him.

F. When Peter and I heard what had happened, and that we were cut out from the will, we talked and thought and eventually went to consult a leading solicitor, Theodore Goddard. What did he advise? If, he said, we would get 1. Freyberg to state in court how unconscious JMB was etc etc, and 2. Frank Thurston to agree with the repeated manoeuvres of Cynthia (which I mentioned in D above) then we couldn't fail - in his opinion - to win the case.

G. We did get Bernard and Frank to say they would back us up; but then we each thought how horrid the whole thing was going to be, and we decided not to sue.

H. I told the above one day to Janet Dunbar (when she was writing J M Barrie: The Man Behind the Image), who listened politely but told me later she hadn't believed me. Later she called on Simon Asquith and his wife. Simon apparently fairly sozzled and sprawling, his wife extra charming and delightful. Suddenly Simon lurched to his feet, went out of the room and returned with wads of written material which he more or less flung on Janet's lap - "Here you are, take it away." This was Cynthia's diary or diaries (her first such book was published after her death - a great mistake so far as any admirer of hers (myself included!) is concerned as Cynthia would have edited 75% out) - which could never be published as they were so full of libel etc. Janet took it away and THERE was all my story word for word EXCEPT that Cynthia added that I was in the room when Horder injected JMB - presumably thereby implying that I approved. I made/asked Janet to remove this line from her book (that I was there) and she did. The unattractive Simon had apparently turned against his mother: but he doesn't turn away from all the royalties!

Believe it or not, much as I would have relished the money, the two things that broke my heart were firstly that I had no say in the reproduction of his plays - how I would have loved to be consulted in the casting and management of this play and that, all of which I knew so well and had watched so closely as JMB told the various actors what was in his mind etc etc: secondly that the relatively small amounts that were going to my daughter and others of her generation were removed. All very sad.

I've told you all this at such appalling length to save time when we meet. You had to know, and will have plenty of other things to talk about or look at. Of course one can understand Cynthia's motives and more or less sympathise with them: a mother and her children, etc. But it was a sad end to "Arthur & Sylvia Llewellyn Davies and their boys - My Boys". Never mind: I've recently been reading Cynthia's Haply I Remember and found it very delightful. Enough! Too much! But keep on asking if something occurs to you and your eyesight hasn't gone. [...]