Chris and Denny might as well have been brothers. They had so much in common — particularly their conflict with their fathers — that it almost looks as if they had the same father. Lots of people blame their parents when things go wrong, but for Chris and Denny, they probably had some legitimate concerns about the men they each called “Dad.”
Chris was born in 1920. He was an only child, whose mother doted on him, even insisting on dressing him in girlish clothing and keeping his hair much longer than that of other boys his age. Unfortunately, Arthur, his father, was gone much of the time. He said it was because of the demands of his work, but as Chris would later observe, Arthur was “not good with children.”
Arthur was a writer. He had some modest success as a screenwriter and novelist. When he published his novel, Red House Mystery, it seemed he had found the success he wanted. The book was quite popular and drew high praise from one of the leading critics of the day, calling it “one of the three best mystery stories of all time.” Despite the promising success of this novel, Chris’ father would write no more mystery stories.
You could say that Chris is the one ultimately responsible for Arthur’s success. Ironically, that is the very source of the rift that developed between them. Chris came to believe that his father “had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.”
The boy’s concerns came from a character Arthur created in Chris’ honor. His dad wrote a book of poems that featured Chris and some of his toys. That collection of poems was much more successful than Red House Mystery. More than 50,000 copies leapt off the shelves in the first eight weeks. Its success virtually guaranteed the sequels that would follow.
The first book was published shortly after Chris celebrated his 4th birthday. The fourth and final book featuring Chris and his toys came out when the boy was eight years old. His dad sent him off to boarding school the next year. That’s when Chris learned that his father’s success and Chris’s unsought name recognition meant he would quickly become the target of every bully at the school. Chris ultimately had to take boxing lessons so he could defend himself from his cruel classmates.
According to Chris, he had, by this point, developed a full-fledged “love-hate relationship with my fictional namesake” that would continue to haunt him well into adulthood. He also came to despise the once-beloved toys that were also featured in his father’s books.
As the antagonism toward his father grew, it also created a rift between Chris and his mother. In his Arthur’s final years Chris visited him occasionally. As for his mother, Chris saw her only once in the 15 years she lived past her husband’s death. Even on her deathbed, she refused to see Chris, blaming him for being ungrateful for the fame his father had brought him.
As for Denny, his life bore a striking resemblance to that of Chris. Born more than 25 years after Chris, Denny was also raised by a father who was a writer who had difficulty around children.
As was the case with Chris, Denny was four years old when he inspired his father, Hank, to base a character on him. Where Chris’ character maintained a childlike innocence and goodness, the one that bore Denny’s’ name was decidedly unflattering. Hank insisted that the character was entirely fictional, but given how he treated Denny, you can’t help but wonder how he viewed his son.
Hank sent young Denny off to a boarding school and seemingly forgot about him. In fact, while Denny’s mother was on her deathbed, Denny knew nothing about her illness. He would not be told about it or her death until after the funeral. This was devastating to the 12-year-old boy.
The marriage was, alas, doomed to failure. The couple divorced, but it wasn’t long before Hank found a third woman to marry. This marriage produced two children. When Denny saw the way his father was there for these new children in a way Denny never experienced, that seemed to cement the hostility that had been steadily building for years.
Denny’s life followed one trauma after another. He served in Vietnam, but the experience left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He returned to the United States and essentially cut off all contact with his father and step-family. When asked about Denny, Hank said, “He’s living in the East somewhere doing his own thing. That’s just a chapter that was a short one that closed, which unfortunately happens in some families.”
Although the character inspired by Denny became rather famous and brought his father success, Denny resented his connection with the character. “I wish Dad could have used something other than my childhood for his ideas,” he said.
Too late to do anything to fix the broken relationship, Denny’s father finally acknowledged that his son had a legitimate reason for being upset. “These things happen, but this was even worse because his name was used,” said Hank. “He was brought in unwillingly and unknowingly, and it confused him.” When Hank died in 2001, it brought an end to any possibility of a reconciliation between the father and the son.
And so it was that two boys experienced remarkably similar lives. You may not remember Chris Milne and Denny Ketcham, but you almost certainly know the characters who were inspired by them.
Chris’ character ended up being somewhat eclipsed by one of his toys: a stuffed bear that was named after a real bear he had seen in the London Zoo. That bear was named after the Canadian city, Winnipeg. His name was shortened to Winnie. Winnie and his animal friends graced the pages of A.A. Milne’s stories about the friends’ adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood. The first book, When We Were Very Young, introduced the world to Winnie the Pooh and his friend, a boy who was given Chris’s first and middle name: Christopher Robin.
As for Denny, the character that bore his name was inspired by an incident when four-year-old Denny demolished his bedroom. His mother, Alice, reported the incident to her husband, saying, “Your son is a menace.” Out of that incident, Hank Ketcham sketched out and wrote about a little boy who was always getting into trouble. His name was Dennis the Menace.
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Categories: Art, Careers, Entertainment, Literature, Toys
I’m from Winnipeg and had never heard that story before. Good read, although makes me think twice about my favourite childhood stories.
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that was a great read – thanks!
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