My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross 

And the Meaning of Truth

My Niece and Nephew Add Their Voices...

I am particularly pleased that Mary West Gross and Jean-Pierre Gross, the children of Anthony Gross and also my niece and nephew, have chosen to contribute their views to this mini-website. The concerns we have all voiced—and will continue to voice—are scarcely limited to a single family member. Indeed, Sarah Hartley has quite clearly stated on the very first page of her book that all members of our family not only "would elaborate on the truth" but "would do so liberally," thus slurring all the rest of our family as well. We are here to state categorically that this has never been the case for anyone in the family other than Phyllis, though by her own candid admission it would also appear to be true of Sarah Hartley.

As you will see in the following letter from my niece and nephew to the producers of the upcoming musical about Phyllis and the A-Z, this matter is nearly closed. The producers have now sent all of us a pre-production summary of the musical, and we are happy to report that it shows every evidence of being sweet and touching and well worth attending. And so after the confusion surrounding Hartley's biofiction there may at last be a happy ending in music and song.

Dear Diane Samuels,

We have just learned that the proposed musical we discussed on your visit two years ago has come to fruition and is due to be staged at the Southwark Playhouse next February 2014, under the title The A - Z of Mrs P.

We had very much hoped and expected that you would make the script available to the family for perusal beforehand.  Directly concerned is Alex Gross, Phyllis Pearsall's half-brother who lives in New York and is preparing a family history aimed inter alia at putting the record straight about the origins of the A-Z.

Briefly, the central fact is that the London Atlas, with its index of 23,000 streets, was the brainchild of Phyllis's father, the mapmaker Alexander Gross FRGS, founder of Geographia in London, before his departure to New York in 1922. Together they later established Geographer's Map Co Ltd. and published the A-Z Atlas and Guide to London in 1938/9. She was not as she claimed the sole creator of the A - Z and it is unlikely she walked all those streets alone !  Peter Barber, the Curator of Maps at the British Library, has voiced his scepticism about such a claim.

You will recall our concern that the legend has tended to outstrip reality in the case of our aunt's activity as a mapmaker.  Although Phyllis herself was a remarkable business-woman, she tended in her autobiographies to elaborate on the truth and romanticise her achievements.

Likewise, Sarah Hartley in her biography Mrs  P's Journey, published by Simon & Schuster in 2001, notes how difficult a task it was to produce a truthful record of Phyllis's life, and admits embroidering, "interweaving elements of fiction into fact", thus adding to the legend.

We feel it would be regrettable for such half-truths to be reproduced on stage and contribute to the "amazing myth" of the A-Z, as described in the Southwark Playhouse announcement !  Unless of course they are clearly presented as being "fictional" or "semi-fictional".

Yours sincerely,

Mary West and Jean-Pierre Gross

And here is my niece Mary West's contribution to the site...

Alex, I have decided, with Jean-Pierre's agreement, to quote from part of our introduction to our book 'Anthony Gross' published by the Scolar Press in 1992, with a few minor changes.

"Although Anthony [Tony] Gross and Phyllis Gross were born as Londoners and grew up in a fashionable Edwardian suburb, their mixed parentage opened up unusual and exciting vistas.  Their principled but sensitive Hungarian-born father, Alexander Gross, was a successful map-maker, with a flair for publishing the right maps, of near and faraway places, at the right time. During the summer holidays, he would proudly convey his offspring by train to Vienna and Budapest, and across the sun-baked 'puszta' to the land of their Jewish ancestors, and thus exposed them as youngsters to the lure of  wide-open spaces and the thrill of mysterious origins. 

Their lively part Irish, part Anglo-Italian mother, Isabelle [Bella] Crowley, whose independent spirit and feminist convictions found expression in the theatre and with the suffragettes on the streets of London, and whose superstitious bent was offset by an infectious and irreverent sense of humour, had Tony baptised a Roman Catholic and taught both him and Phyllis to keep a look out for full moons, March hares and piebald horses.  Tony and his sister Phyllis, one year his junior, were both born and bred outward--looking, prepared for the unexpected, and endowed with a  healthy disregard for convention.  

When Phyllis went to Roedean, Tony spent four years as a boarder at Repton.  Here, his enlightened headmaster, Dr Fisher, later Archbishop of Canterbury, sweetened the public-school discipline by encouraging his pupil to develop his budding talents as a painter and etcher, helped nurse his vocation without stifling his taste for adventure.  Then, in 1922 at the age of 17 and Phyllis at the age of 16, they both had their freedom thrust upon them by force of circumstance : the breakdown of their parents' marriage and the ensuing  bankruptcy of their father's map-publishing business.

After eighteen precarious months, Tony as a roving student, first at the Slade and Central Schools, [while Phyllis was a  pupil-teacher at Fecamp in Normandy], then in Paris at the Academie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, next in Madrid at the Academia de San Fernando, [while Phyllis studied at the Sorbonne], his  paintings and etchings caught the eye of a London dealer and the contract he was offered secured his independence, allowing him to roam at will, discover the world and practise his art for all he was worth.  From 1923-1929 he travelled and worked mainly in France and Spain, but also further afield in Morocco with Phyllis,  Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy and Belgium.

This unexpected freedom at an early age influenced the rest of their lives.

Mary and Jean-Pierre Gross - quote from our book 'Anthony Gross' - 1992


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