By Ken Zurski
In 1906, at the age of 21, Pauline Chase was asked to portray Peter Pan on stage, a play about “the boy who wouldn’t grow up,” and a title role that had been played by only two people before her – and both female. Chase continued that trend and in the process became the face of the role too. Even today based on the number of performances – nearly an estimated 1400 – Chase is arguably the most popular actress ever to play the boy Peter. And you probably have never heard of her.
But in the early 20th century thanks to her continuing success in the play, Chase became an instant celebrity. Not for the innocence of the character she portrayed, in fact, quite the opposite. Chase was a bit of a jezebel in real life. “She certainly knew what she wanted from a man, and it wasn’t a good heart or worthy talent,” wrote author Gavin Mortimer in his book Chasing Icarus about the early aviators (more on that in moment). And men, well, they couldn’t resist her either. Their pursuance, however, came with stipulations. “I’ve no time to waste on duffers with no position or money,” Chase once told a reporter, firmly setting down the ground rules. Even her performances were sarcastically criticized by one glaring – more like obvious – diversion. Her strikingly good looks. “Distractingly pretty.” is how the Chicago Tribune put it.
Enter Charles Frohman. The world renowned theater producer recognized Chase’s talents early on when she was just a teenager. He promoted his new find and kept a close watch on her like a daughter. It was Frohman who suggested to James M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, or The Boy who wouldn’t Grow Up, that Chase take over the title role after another actress Cecelia Loftus got sick. Barrie already knew Chase, who was one of the Lost Boys in the London production. But playing the high-flying main character was a different matter.
“Barrie and I are coming down to see you act,” Frohman wrote Chase before the show,”and if we like you well enough, I will send you back a sheet with a cross mark on it.” After the performance, Chase received a piece of paper. It had a cross mark on it.
Frohman was devoted to Chase, his star in the making, and although rumored, their relationship was never sexual. Soon after his untimely death in 1915 along with more than a thousand other unfortunate souls aboard the ill-fated RMS Lusitania, it was discovered that Frohman had a longtime live-in companion, Charles Dillingham, another theater producer.
Robert Falcon Scott, the debonair British naval officer and explorer was another who reportedly had a close friendship with the magnetic Chase. The connection was influenced by Scott’s association with Barrie. “I never could show you how much your friendship meant to me,” Scott wrote to his author friend, “for you had much to give and I nothing.” Perhaps that gift was Chase. Scott reportedly went to see a production of Peter Pan in 1906 the year Chase took over the role. Was it just flirtation or something more? No one knows for sure. Scott’s affections toward Chase apparently ended in 1909 when he married the cosmopolitan and socialite Kathleen Bruce. Barrie reportedly penned a letter to Chase breaking the news. “Capt. Scott wrote to me that he is to be married to Miss Bruce soon. So there!”
In 1912, Scott perished along with his crew in Antarctica.
Claude Grahame-White was another interest of Chase’s. Perhaps the most desired bachelor in all of England at the time, Grahame-White made the ladies swoon over his athletic six-foot frame and naturally good looks. As one of the early aviation pilots, Grahame-White became instantly famous. Handsome, dashing and adventurous, Grahame-White mixed all of these traits to great advantage.
How Chase and Grahame-White met is unknown, but they were reportedly friendly for many years before becoming lovers. Grahame-White attended multiple performances of Peter Pan and would invite the pretty actress aboard his Farman biplane for joy rides.
Chase was charmed by her latest admirer. Grahame-White had all the attributes she was looking for: money and status. Their courtship, engagement and eventual marriage in 1910 was the stuff tabloid’s are made of. But it didn’t last. The next year Chase and Grahame-White drifted apart. The industrious flyer had spent all his assets on expensive business ventures and earnings from his flying career was waning. Sparked by a sudden fear of dying in a plane crash – something that was happening quite frequently on the show circuit – Grahame-White decided to quit flying altogether and forgo the riches that came with it. Chase was typically frank when she told a reporter, “Mr. Grahame-White could not compensate me from my retirement from the stage.” They separated and divorced.
Chase ended her seven year reign as Peter Pan in 1913 and never appeared on stage again. Her sexual exploits, true or not, continued to make headlines, especially the extensive string of male suitors. In addition to Capt. Scott and Grahame-White, the list also included a nameless American millionaire, an English auto manufacturer, and even James M. Barrie, the author who created the character that changed her life. Chase eventually married into a wealthy British family, had three children, and died at the age of 76.
“The boy who wouldn’t grow up” was her most famous and final role.