My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross 

And the Meaning of Truth



My sister Phyllis did not found the Geographers' Map Company.

She did not create the first street atlas of London.

She did not create the A-Z Atlas of London.

She is likely to have lied about the naming of the A-Z, as I have explained in great detail here. I find it extremely unlikely that our father would ever have suggested naming this work 'The Okay Atlas,' as Phyllis claims, thus opening the door for her to come up with A-Z.

She certainly did not walk all of London's streets while the A-Z was being prepared.

She lied continually and in many different ways about her relationship with our father.

She lied about her paternal grandmother supposedly being a gentile.

She failed to mention half of her immediate family, including a half-brother, a half-sister, and quite a few other relatives.

She failed to mention anything about her Lesbianism. She did not have many relationships with men, perhaps none.

She failed to mention all the reasons why and how she managed to spend considerable time during World War Two, often regarded as England's most defining era, chatting up and drawing women and girls of all ages. In our present age when mature individuals respect all sexual unions equally, this would be of no importance, except that my sister has chosen to take our father to task for the sexual side of his nature.

She lied in her repeated claims that Papa's New York office was a harem for his women, possibly because she lusted after some of those women herself. In the office Papa enforced a strict business-only atmosphere.

She conveniently left out almost everything about her Jewish side. (And above and beyond these books she personally lied to me over almost two decades by insisting that she and I and Papa were all gentiles.)

But my sister's most serious untruth comes in the form of a recurrent distortion that crops up again and again in the course of both her books. Throughout her narratives, despite her occasional bursts of devotion towards Papa, Phyllis does everything she possibly can to denigrate our father and exalt her own role in the beginnings of our father's second English map company and the publication of the A to Z Atlas of London, both of which were mainly our father's work.

She continually devalues his status as a British subject, his educational & cultural stature (which was considerable), his command of the English language (also considerable), and his abilities as a businessman (which Phyllis was completely dependent on). And in a few places she actually tries to suggest that Papa was a heavy drinker, something I know from having spent countless convivial occasions with him was never the case.

As I made clear in my brief treatment, Phyllis was never the least bit heroic in confronting Papa while he was alive—rather she followed and obeyed him in every particular and urged me to do the same. She was in fact what Helen Gurlie Brown would have described as an English "mouseburger," ready and eager to be devoured by Papa. And this relationship, which I witnessed as the closest of observers between 1945 and 1957, was the true source of what she learned from him about business.

Phyllis also does her best to distort the events surrounding the breakup of the marriage between Papa and her mother, going to great lengths to paint Papa as an unmitigated villain, (indeed, as one critic called him, "a kind of devil incarnate") when in fact he was remarkably measured in his approach to life's problems, despite occasional sputterings, and in the long run exceedingly generous to every member of the family, and most generous of all to Phyllis.

As we all know, either from personal experience or from that of our friends (and as lawyers recognize for a certainty), whenever a marriage veers towards divorce, there are almost always two stories to be heard explaining how and why the breakup occurred, the famous "He Said, She Said" conflicting dialogue.

But what Phyllis presents us with—both in this book and in the one about family history—is only the "She Said" side of the tale. And it is this "She Said" narrative that Sarah Hartley slavishly follows in her own book, indeed she confesses "I have written the truth according to Phyllis. For I am convinced that every story, every memory and every encounter that she described, she believed to be true."

At one point in 3-Street (p. 288) Phyllis even confesses that she took her title for Fleet Street Tite Street Queer Street from the book her mother had intended to write. In other words she sees herself as writing the book her mother would have written if only she could have done so.

But there is most definitely another side to these events, there most definitely is a "He Said" version of what happened between our father and Phyllis' mother. While growing up I heard it repeatedly from Papa—I do not wish to present it here in any detail (and it would probably be boring if I tried), but it largely revolved around my father's disappointment at his wife's disloyalty and his repeated assertion that she had become to some extent mentally unhinged. My niece Mary tells me that our brother Tony also observed that their mother grew increasingly unstable after a fall from a horse, an incident described by Phyllis on page 116 of 3-Street.

Let this serve as introduction—what I shall try to do from this point onward is to present specific sections of her two books, point out precisely how and why they are distorted, and pinpoint outright falsehoods wherever they occur.

My sister Phyllis and I were so remarkably close over so many years that I almost feel a sense of shame in having to identify and correct the many certain and probable untruths, distortions, errors, and omissions contained in this book. I'm even aware of a fair degree of cruelty in performing this task, since spotting and exposing these errors is so remarkably easy for me. I truly don't enjoy aiming at such easy targets. But Phyllis knew perfectly well what she was doing when she wrote this book, errors, omissions, and all. She deeply admired the work of Stephen Potter and was using the ploys and precepts to be found in his book Lifemanship to claim knowledge and expertise she did not possess, she was attempting to influence and tilt the public record in her own favor by ignoring and maligning the work of our father and falsifying the history—or even totally omitting the existence—of other family members.

But let's leave premature judgment aside and get down to specific instances. There are remarkably many of them, so many it will not be possible to list them all.

We can start right away on page 11 where Phyllis has our father gratuitously described—and reduced in stature—as "that uncouth Csurog peasant." Yes, Papa was born in the Austro-Hungarian town of Csurog, later to be traded off to Yugoslavia and more recently to Serbia. But as an educated Jew who by that time spoke Hungarian, German, English, Yiddish, and some Serbian and had attended the University of Budapest, he was by no means any sort of peasant. In this early passage Phyllis is simply catering to the class prejudice and xenophobia so widespread in England to this very day. The claim is even made that the goal was to transform Papa into "an English gent," which is certainly how he would be seen by most Americans today if he could emerge among them.

But Phyllis is only getting started. On page 25 she begins the process of castrating Papa by hinting that even Papa's first map company, the one that flourished under George V, was partially founded by a woman, in fact his first wife Isabella. And she treats us to her mother's opinion of Papa:

"Working for that megalomaniac! He'll use you as a drudge and then destroy you! You'll end up a wreck like me! Competitive in everything he says and does. Envious of my popularity, wit, repartee, unpredictability! Men resent successful women, Phyllis. But that devil! ...That Hungarian father of yours! ... He's the worst of the lot!..."

As I believe I've made clear in my own account of Papa, he could be very demanding. But I never saw him do anything that could merit such a description.

On page 27 Phyllis hints that Papa did not truly care about accuracy and was mainly concerned with delivering his maps to the marketplace. This was never true in my experience, Papa was always deeply concerned that all our maps be as accurate as possible.

But it is on page 29 that Phyllis goes full speed ahead with her unlikely tale of how the A-Z Atlas was named. Here's how I have described this episode in my adjoining webpage about Papa:

"There was one realm where Papa was more than willing to be the learner and actually sought out my assistance, wherever American slang or pronunciation was concerned. He did not want to learn American slang, in fact he wanted to avoid it at all costs, but he nonetheless wanted to understand it when used by others. He had himself taught English to foreigners at one stage of his life, and despite the fact that he had by now been living in the US for several decades, he was always punctilious in teaching his students British English. I don't think I ever heard him use the expression "okay" in his life, and this alone makes quite unlikely Phyllis' tale in one of her books that he wanted to name the A to Z Atlas of London the 'Okay Atlas.'

"This may have simply been a sloppy invention on Phyllis' part, on a par with her assertion that Papa's mother was both a Catholic, related even to a bishop, and an "Aryan." The real problem was that Phyllis never came remotely close to understanding America and probably chose the word "okay" for the same reason that lazy British writers imagine they can portray Americans by simply putting the words "Wow" or "Gee whiz" in their mouths."

Despite his reversals in England, Papa sprang from several generations of southern and eastern Europeans who simply idolized everything British, its customs, its culture, its language, even its science. You'll find centuries of Milords and their children traipsing through the novels, plays and operas of Europe, sometimes teased for their odd manners but more often held up as models of dignity and respect.

Papa truly cared about England, and he most definitely cared about its language. He regarded America as mainly a place for making money, and he looked upon American English as little more than a minor dialect, something to be tolerated but avoided at all cost. Even today Europe turns out scholars and leaders whose various accents clearly mirror their own nations but also echo what they believe is the only correct way of speaking English, the British way. And Papa was most definitely one of their number.

Scattered throughout the book are also a number of relatively minor fibs related to building up the story or simplifying the exposition. They don't completely count as lies, though they do show that Phyllis was perfectly aware of the structure she was building and what she was aiming at. For instance, the tale of the index cards falling out the window may or may not have happened—it could just have been Phyllis' way of creating a dramatic incident to maintain reader interest. There are a number of such gratuitous high spots throughout the book. And Phyllis, though she was a tyro, was also by no means quite so ignorant of mapping and printing techniques as she tries to appear.

The practicalities of etching and large press printing are ultimately not completely dissimilar, and despite her claims to the contrary Phyllis approached the map trade with some useful experience that she learned from our brother Tony. Wherever a technical term comes up in the book, we hear Phyllis asking "What's that?" But more often than not this originates not from ignorance but as a technical tool of the writer's trade for explaining that term to the reader. In other words, despite her often confused prose Phyllis is fully aware at every turn of the tale of where she is taking the reader and why.

On both pages 36 and 44 of this 1990 book we find Phyllis boasting that her business judgment far exceeds Papa's, something she would never have dared to claim in his presence while he was still alive. In the first instance she boasts that she waited to perfect a publication when Papa insisted she must immediately publish it and start making money from it. In the second selection she congratulates herself on having far better taste than Papa in choosing colors for a cover. What a delightful combination of objectivity and modesty!

On page 47 we find one of Phyllis' few references to her Jewishness, as she manages while trying to sell the A-Z to get thrown down a flight of stairs by a British Mosleyite fascist. Certainly a good story, Phyllis was good at spotting these, and also one that might have happened. The problem is that given her many other factual extravagances, we will never know for sure. More certain is that in the brief space of this paragraph she manages to misspell both "Goebbels" and "anti-fascist." And on the very next page (p. 48) she would have us believe that the term "Wholesalers" is too technical for her.

At the very bottom of the same page a surly male buyer rejects the A-Z for printing inadequacies, but fortunately feminism (of a sort) saves the day:

"...and he, with a 'I haven't got all day!' called for his assistant, Nancy, to drop what she was doing and take over. An attractive, efficient twenty-six years old, she took pity on me: 'Get the next edition right, and we'll distribute for you. Either we business women stand together, or we don't stand a chance!'" I find it interesting that Phyllis found this young lady attractive, but I'm a bit confused: I thought it was only men who judged women by their physical appearance.

In the middle of page 50 we find the oft-repeated story of Phyllis making a sale and pushing a wheelbarrow full of A-Z's through traffic to the famous London stationer W.H. Smith. It's a great story, even if she herself calls it a "hand barrow." I have only one problem—Phyllis herself was barely five feet tall and even during her best years looked remarkably slight and frail.

Yes, I know, I've also described her devotion to playing Lacrosse at her fashionable girls' school. Yes, she was wiry and must have possessed a certain stamina, so perhaps she could have done handled that barrow. But I was a lot taller and heavier than Phyllis when I used to push wheelbarrows full of mushroom soil around our upstate garden. There was no London traffic blocking me, but it was still real work. Okay, I'll give my sister a pass on this one, but I'm still a bit skeptical.

Wait a second, maybe I'm being a bit too hasty. Isn't that a bit too amazing? Even if it weren't "at a trot." The order was for 2,050 A-Zs. Assuming each A-Z weighed 6 ounces, I come up with close to 750 pounds in that barrow. I wonder if even the Great Sandow could have handled that, plus which I doubt if Phyllis ever weighed more than 100 pounds. Of course you could argue that she only delivered part of the order, but that's not what she says. If she'd had to make multiple trips, that would make it even harder. But she doesn't say that. I see a strong possibility here that the whole tale is invented. And I haven't even begun to calculate the sheer physical 3-dimensional bulk of such a load, doubt if it would have fitted into a barrow...

There's lots of sound and fury to be found on pages 56-57. You've got Papa bashing Phyllis, Phyllis bashing Papa back, another battle over the name A-Z, an instigation to a fight between Phyllis and our brother Tony, even Phyllis threatening to resign once and for all from the company. Certainly lots of action to admire, and yet—though I can't put my finger on it—it all sounds forced and made up to me. In the midst of it all, Phyllis manages to pull off a splendid defence of her independence and also express her deep-down love for Papa, all the while making fun of his foreign accent:

"Totally independent of him—having fended for myself since fourteen—and my work not only bought, exhibited, published and acclaimed by critics and the cognoscenti, I kissed and hugged this "all sound and fury" droll Hungarian. His sing-song accent stronger than I recalled, I asked him why..."

It's at this point that Phyllis voices her threat to resign, but it doesn't come across as very serious. Nor was there any way it could have been. Contrary to my sister's boast, coming fresh from a divorce at thirty and discovering that she really couldn't make a living from her painting and writing, she had simply settled on the main chance of her life: our father, in whose knowledge of business lay her sole chance for solvency and salvation. But defiant to the end, even when surrendering to the inevitable, she goes down with the claim that she doesn't even know what the word "solvent" means.

The next bit of close to total nonsense comes on page 62, where Phyllis burdens Papa's tongue with a farrago of impossible claims even he could never have made. According to this rant, all of England is blessed with perfect laws and perfectly impartial bureaucrats to enforce them. As opposed to the deep murky corruption of America, where Papa, because of his middle European phobias, has no choice but to establish his business illegally.

But this could never have happened even during the relatively permissive Thirties, or at least not for very long. There were simply too many city, state, and national laws concerning taxes, incomes, and places of business to have ever permitted such a situation for a company of the size Papa's had already become. What we see here are simply Phyllis' preconceptions of the US as a land devoid of true law and order, at least as known in Britain, possibly based on her imagined experiences with the Mafia while she was minding the New York business for Papa.

Equally nonsensical is Phyllis' claim on page 67 that Papa was "entranced as ever by aristocrats." I never saw or heard any sign that Papa had any such feelings, he would have more likely drawn on his Marxist leanings at their very mention and predicted their inevitable downfall. This is certainly an odd statement from Phyllis of all people, who bent my ear over two decades about the importance of the stately homes of England as a breeding ground for innovative but genteel advances in the arts and social progress.

But it is on the next page (68) where we see how truly sloppy Phyllis could be in the one realm where she imagined she dwelt supreme, that of language. Here we find the following sentence attributed to Papa:

'Don't tell me...I meant, what have you done businesswise?'

To which Phyllis supposedly replies:

'Another lovely Americanism papa...'

There's a real problem here. I mentioned in my web page about Phyllis that she was close to a total failure understanding anything about America. And she certainly didn't want to know anything about  our form of the language.

The year when these sentences were supposedly uttered was 1938. But the use of "-wise" as an adverbial suffix did not come into either English or American usage until 1965-66. I can state this as a certainty, as I first began to see it in written English in 1965. And I first heard it used in England in 1966 while seated on the stage of the Aldwych Theatre, then the RSC's London home, while waiting for rehearsals of a play I had translated to begin, as I had also been invited to serve as its production dramaturg. While we were waiting, one of the actors there turned to another and asked "Have you heard about the American owl—he wasn't very wise wise-wise."

But here is Phyllis sporting it as spoken eighteen years earlier, though of course her book displaying this passage was published 25 years later in 1990, giving her plenty of time to catch up. But oh the scandal of it during the Sixties!—would the English language ever recover from such frightful barbarisms? Surely it ought to be obvious to everyone that this unwise -wise word was never meant to be used as a suffix!

But even here there's a problem for Phyllis' shade and all who think like her. "-Wise" used this way in English is simply a reflection of its perfectly normal and correct use as "-weise" in German, with almost the same sound and precisely the same meaning. And English is of course classified by linguists as among the Germanic languages.

On pages 78 and 81-82 I believe we find Phyllis trying to duplicate her father's record as a war prophet in 1913. Just as he had been able to use his knowledge of Mitteleuropa to predict some of that war's progress, we find Phyllis telling us that she also predicted Germany's invasion of France through Belgium, though in two different ways, once through predictions by one of the company's draftsmen, but also from her own research at the Bibliotheque Sainte Geneviève in Paris. And on page 85 she further seeks to emasculate our father by claiming that sales of war maps he profited from in the US were actually ones she had originated. She also permits one of her employees to vent further against the Americans when they finally joined the war in 1941 and would soon be coming over to aid the British:

"Come to our rescue, my eye! When we've done all the fighting, in come the Yanks like last time as if they'd won the war! You mark my words!"

On page 125 Phyllis makes one of her stabs at suggesting Papa had a drinking problem, which he definitely did not. But it's here on pp. 127-128 that we find Phyllis going after Papa's cullions again:

"Even then, aware of my own failings, I did not realize that jealousy lay at the heart of his tirade. Jealousy that a woman should have built a firm in England and understudied him successfully here."

But jealousy can work both ways, and this passage also reveals Phyllis' jealousy of her father. The operative word here is "understudied"—Phyllis carried out Papa's instructions sufficiently well to ensure success. It was Papa's instructions that led the way to that success.

On page 128, shades of Dr. Goebbels, we find one of several passages denigrating Hungarians and Eastern Europeans as lesser peoples compared to the English:

"It was difficult—ill and exhausted as I was—to remember that Hungarians revel in family quarrels: and that papa was only following his oft reiterated policy of 'DENY! DENY! DENY!'

And of course the English never engage in family quarrels at all, because they are so much more civilized than lesser peoples, a doctrine Phyllis firmly believed. If she were continually degrading and debasing her father and all those unfortunate enough to spring from lesser races, this must certainly be an illusion. And if she was often engaging in uncontrollable neo-Victorian high dudgeon as she did so, that was also merely an accident, for she along with her hero T.S. Eliot were charter members of the enlightened, civilized set with the right ideas and the right religion. This made her quite incapable of any form of bigotry.

On page 139 Phyllis introduces us to her physician Dr. Octavia Wilberforce, whom I met briefly while visiting Phyllis at her country rest home. Phyllis adds that her doctor is the "direct descendant of Slave Emancipator, William —" This is not technically a lie, though Phyllis did not know the entire truth about Wilberforce's efforts to end the slave trade. I have commented on this at some length in my webpage about Phyllis.

It's page 157 and around the year 1957 when Phyllis finally tells us she has found God, though I had never known her without her own personal road to salvation:

"Under Dr. Wilberforce's regimen, I had totally kicked the barbiturate habit; and, blessed by a Damascus Road conversion, totally kicked my humanist agnosticism. From naive belief of knowing how to live to good effect, to the 'I know nothing' of le milieu divin where grace and purpose abound."

In 3-Street (p. 359) she goes even further in describing this moment:

"—but in Damascus Road clarity, I experienced God as a living, all powerful eternal ubiquitous Presence.

"And a few days later, Christ."

On my main webpage devoted to Phyllis I describe her as someone ceaselessly questing for higher meaning with an almost Germanic intensity, and I hope I don't sound too cynical if I'm not at all surprised that she managed to find it. I'm also not going to make a big deal of her barbiturate habit—I know enough about medicine to realize that after her plane accident she was frequently in pain and should not be blamed for what was a common solution among UK and US women (and of course some men as well). My only problem with her discovery of the divine is that it frequently led her to judge and/or misjudge others who she felt did not share her blessing.

On pages 159 and 171 and throughout this section Phyllis continues her castration of Papa by claiming that he was ultimately not a good businessman, while her London business went from triumph to triumph. We're talking about the period from 1957, when Phyllis described the New York business as a "shambles" to around 1961, when it was sold to another firm. This was a time when I myself was most active with Geographia, and I probably know more about this period than most others.

It is not at all true that Geographia failed, or that Papa was in any way a failure in maintaining it. This was a time when business conditions for all newstand publishers changed abruptly. As Phyllis mentioned, American News Company, Papa's main US distributors switched from newsstands to bowling alleys as a more profitable milieu. There was also the intervention of a malevolent business force named Roy Cohn in a form I have never been able to fully ascertain. Cohn, virtually unkown to the British, played a major role in the McCarthy hearings and was memorialized in Tony Kushner's two-part play about gays and AIDS Angels in America. He was not a force most businessmen would have known how to deal with.

But it is definitely not true that Papa's American firm failed, it still exists today, publishing maps and guides for the Greater New York area, though no longer family-owned, as you can determine for yourselves by clicking here.

Both of Phyllis' books are quite thickly written and can make for tiresome reading, particularly if you are trying to determine a single event or extract a single nugget of information. 3-Street suffers from uneven belle-lettrist pretensions, while this one reeks of low Londonese leanings: everything from Cockney rhyming Steak & Kidney for Sidney to "a right Charlie" to "'Ave a try ducks" to "do your darndest old eggs however longey-oh it takes!" to nothing less than "Sweet Fanny Adams," (and yes, I've lived in London long enough, I know exactly what the initials spell out).

Even Phyllis gets confused a few times. She actually agrees with Hartley and claims that Papa passed away on the Queen Mary, even though in 3-Street she says it was the Queen Elizabeth. Trust me, QE is right, thanks to my niece Mary I have Papa's last photo taken on board by the ship's photographer, definitely stamped Queen Elizabeth. And for a cartographer and someone who lived through World War II she makes a truly remarkable mistake on page 157 when she refers to "Timoshenko, the Finnish hero against Russia," when Timoshenko (and almost anyone whose name ends in "-enko") is of course a Ukrainian.

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