Decades before we had child stars on TV, a little boy named Christopher Robin Milne was thrust into the spotlight and became the most famous child of his lifetime. Even to this day, a version of him is still portrayed in the Winnie the Pooh cartoon, and movies are still being made about his life, including Goodbye Christopher Robin in 2017, and the upcoming 2018 film starring Ewan McGregor called Christopher Robin.
But just how accurate are these films, and are they anything like the true life of Christopher Robin? While the well-loved origin story of Winnie the Pooh begins as a journey into the innocence of childhood, the true story becomes quite dark, and everyone involved in the creation of the books eventually regretted it.
Alan Alexander Milne was Christopher Robin’s father, and the creator of Winnie the Pooh. Long before he wrote children’s stories, Milne was a comedy writer and editor at Punch magazine, as well as an acclaimed playwright. After serving in World War I, he found it difficult to continue writing comedy, and wanted to talk about the politics of war instead.
Milne lived with his wife, Daphne, and his son Christopher in London, but he decided that they needed a place to get away from the big city, so he purchase a summer home near Ashdown Forest in Sussex, which is also known as the Five Hundred Acre Wood. This, of course, served as inspiration for Pooh’s “Hundred Acre Wood.”
While he was taking time to write in the country, Milne came to the conclusion that after years of tragedy, people were ready to move on, and they were not ready to read about his thoughts on war. They desperately wanted to read happy stories, and comedy. He drew inspiration from his own source of happiness, which was his 6-year-old son, Christopher Robin.
The boy loved playing in the woods with his stuffed animal teddy bear, which he received as a baby. His mother named the bear “Edward,” but he decided to change its name to Winnie, after seeing a Canadian bear at the London zoo called Winnipeg. Over the years, Daphne continued to buy her son more stuffed animals from Harrods department store, including a donkey, kangaroo, tiger, and tiny piglet. As an only child, Christopher Robin often played by himself and with his nanny, and his mother helped to encourage him to play pretend with his collection of animal friends.
One day, Milne was inspired to write down a poem about Christopher Robin saying his prayers before going to bed. He titled it “Vespers,” and gave it to his wife as a gift. It was later published in Vanity Fair magazine. The public loved reading the sweet poem about the little boy, and they wanted more. Once word got out that this little character was actually the author’s son, suddenly every newspaper and radio show wanted an interview with Christopher Robin.
After working in the magazine industry for years, Milne knew that they needed to take advantage of this hype and sell more stories. He asked his friend and co-worker, E.H. Shephard, to draw the illustrations. So he set out working on writing about Christopher Robin. The stories were loosely based on his son’s imaginary adventures. He published a collection of poems called Now We Are Six, and he eventually switch from poetry to children’s fiction about Winnie the Pooh.
The public absolutely loved Christopher Robin. He received fan letters on a daily basis.. He was taken to public events, narrated stories, and performed in a play about Winnie the Pooh. Like most child stars, he actually loved the fame and attention he was getting. It made him feel special to know that everyone wanted to be his friend. Since he was enjoying it so much, his parents continued to push him into the spotlight, and enjoyed the benefits of being rich and famous.
Even if his parents were blinded by fame, his aunt and uncle did not approve, and they spoke up about how he was being robbed of a normal childhood. Once Milne realized this as well, he chose to stop publishing Winnie the Pooh stories. However, even though he stopped making new books, there was still a demand for reprints, and the hype never died down. Even when he tried to go back to writing for adults, critics would just compare Milne’s work to the children’s stories, claiming that his new characters in a play were just “Christopher Robin grown up.”
Milne wasn’t the only one whose work suffered after Pooh. The illustrator, E.H. Shepherd, was the political cartoonist for Punch Magazine. He saw his work with Milne as a side-gig, and a favor for a friend. After the books became so popular, it overshadowed the work he was doing with political cartoons. He was criticized for copying the styles of other illustrators, and the jokes were never good enough to stand the test of time. While Winnie the Pooh was arguably his best work, he resented that it was his legacy. Whenever anyone mentioned the books to him, he called Pooh “that silly old bear.”
In 1930, when Christopher Robin was 10-years-old, his parents decided that it was time to remove their son out of the public eye and try to give him an education. He was sent to boarding school, and his magical childhood came crashing down when all of the boys started to bully and tease him about Winnie the Pooh. Over time, he grew to hate the stories, and resented his father for exposing his real name and likeness all over the world.
He went to college at Cambridge, and he joined the army at the beginning of World War II. When he was discharged from the military, he started applying to jobs, but every single employer would recognize his name, and asked about Winnie the Pooh. Instead of hiring him based on his resume, everyone already felt that they knew him and judged him based on a fictional character. This made Christopher very angry, because he felt as though his father had robbed him of ever being known for his own accomplishments. Technically, the books made the family so rich Christopher Robin didn’t really have to work to earn a living, but he resented the legacy of Winnie the Pooh so much he refused to take any of the money that the books generated, and he wanted to work and support himself like a normal person.
When he was 27-years-old, Christopher Robin met his first cousin from his mother’s side, Lesley de Selincourt. They had never grown up together as children, because his mother, Daphne, was estranged from her family. They fell in love, and got married. We all know in modern times that that’s not a very good idea to marry your first cousin, and his mother strongly disapproved of their relationship. His father, on the other hand, just wanted him to be happy, and gave them his blessing.
After marrying Lesley, they opened up a bookstore together, and started a family. Unfortunately, their close familial DNA came back to bite them when Christopher and Lesley’s daughter Clare was born severely handicapped with cerebral palsy and kyphosis. She needed nurses to be with her 24 hours a day. This was the first time that Christopher reluctantly began accepting some money from the Pooh fortune, but he only took enough to give his daughter the best medical treatments possible. After his father died, Christopher Robin stopped visiting his mother, because their relationship was beyond repair. They never saw one another again. Even on her deathbed, she said that she did not want to see him.
Milne passed away in 1952, and Disney first bought the rights to use the Winnie the Pooh characters in the 1960s. They paid the Milne estate royalties twice each year. In 2001, they decided to make it official, and purchased the characters for a lump sum of $350 million. Since Christopher Robin refused to take any of the money for himself, all of it went to the Royal Literary Society, and The Garrick Club in London. Clare was given $44 million, which was used for her care in a treatment facility. While this sounds like a massive amount of money, Disney has made a huge return on investment. They make $2 billion every single year from Winnie the Pooh.
By the time he was in his 60s, Christopher Robin said that he could finally look at the Winnie the Pooh books without cringing. He began to make public appearances again, and donated his stuffed animals to the New York City Library, which is where they remain to this day. Christopher passed away in 1996.
There is a plaque in A.A. Milne’s honor in the Five Hundred Acre Wood, and children still travel there to see where the real Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin once played. While Winnie the Pooh may have caused some pain to the people who created him, the stories that were left behind have made children all over the world happy, and will continue to do so for generations to come.