My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross 


And the Meaning of Truth


In my sister's two books there are many untruths, distortions, and flagrant omissions. I have attempted to provide at least a partial list of these here. The following untruths are common to Phyllis's autobiographical semi-fiction and to Hartley's book about her, though by her own admission Hartley added a number of further fictions she herself invented.

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 on her part 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 narrative 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 everything she learned 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 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 the A-Z—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 this book.

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

TITLE: Let's start with the book's title, which already tells us a great deal about my sister: Fleet Street Tite Street Queer Street. This is an almost impossibly English title and needs to be not merely translated but explained for the benefit of any American readers who might be attracted to this website by the spectacle of what may yet be regarded as a notable British literary fraud.

"Fleet Street" has the greatest resonance abroad and will be recognized at least by some as the site of many British newspapers. It was also where our father the map publisher Alexander Gross gained his greatest renown during the second decade of the Twentieth Century and located his own offices. "Tite Street" is most famous for the many artists and writers who lived there, including John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Oscar Wilde, and Radclyffe Hall. But Tite Street was particularly close to Phyllis for another reason—after her mother broke up with our father, she would wed the American artist Alfred Orr, who moved into Sargent's studio on that very street. "Queer Street" is not a street in London at all, nor in this context does it have any gay connotations, it refers instead to a state of financial embarrassment, sometimes expressed as "living" or "being on Queer Street."

So what Phyllis meant to express by this long, unpunctuated title was the passage of our family over the years from journalistic and artistic fame into relative poverty. It is partly intended as a form of shorthand to show off my sister's knowledge of British cultural history and topography and, just incidentally, to suggest her own exalted position within both realms. And as if this were not enough, we also finally learn on page 288 this was the title Phyllis' mother had intended for her own autobiography. In other words Phyllis sees herself as writing the book her mother would have written if only she could have done so. Anyway, if this explanation seems a bit obscure and convoluted, it is nothing compared to the rest of the book.


The first 60 pages of Phyllis' book (hereafter referred to as "3-Street") take us from a time six years before my sister's birth up until six years afterwards. In other words, Phyllis cannot possibly have been a witness to the events or have overheard the conversations during the first six years of this period, and her recollections of the following six years are likely to be either shaky or non-existent.

Under these circumstance Phyllis has depended on the only path she can use, author's license to reconstruct events and create verbal exchanges she could not possibly know for sure. In other words, like a stage magician or a filmmaker she has completely set the scene for us and has totally controlled what we are allowed to see and/or not see, hear and/or not hear. Which of course has left her entirely free to insert whatever sleight of hand or fool-the-eye pieces of trickery she chooses, secure in the belief (or at least so she assumed) that she will never be caught. Unfortunately she is mistaken—it is on page 23 that she introduces an untruth so brazen and so easily exposed that the entire structure and purpose of her book must be held open to thorough scrutiny.

I've already commented on this lie in my brief treatment, but here it is again, supposedly a brief fragment from comments made by Papa's mother while visiting London, at a time before Phyllis was born:

"Nor need he (Papa) have feared obloquy for having married a goy: `It's exactly what your father did! Didn't you know?...I was born and baptized a Catholic. One of my cousins is a bishop...'"

Unfortunately for Phyllis, this statement cannot possibly be true. Many gentiles have tried to determine precisely who is a Jew and who is not, the most infamous of these of course being Dr. Josef Goebbels. His rules, which reigned supreme on the continent during six long years of World War II, placed the dividing line at four generations. Unfortunately for Phyllis and other would-be arbiters of this question, Jews have their own rules, and they must necessarily stand as the only valid ones.

It couldn't be simpler. To be a Jew you must have a Jewish mother.

By fictionalizing our grandmother as being Catholic, Phyllis may have briefly dispelled her own unease at being half-Jewish but she has also unmasked her own deep ideological duplicity and brought her book crashing down around her in its earliest pages. She repeats this solecism later on, where on page 306 she quotes Papa as saying:

"Thanks to my Aryan mother, I suppose, nobody takes me for a Jew..."

Let's get this unmistakably clear from the start: Papa was a Jew. After two decades of lying to me on this point Phyllis herself finally admitted this simple truth after Papa's death while we were clearing out his apartment together, when she added "And you and I are precisely half-Jewish." And this came after fourteen long years when she had done her best to persuade me that she, Papa, and everyone in the family were all good Christians. Papa also sired a second daughter, my sister Prudence, by a Jewish mother in San Francisco, and she along with her children were raised as Jews. Some now live in Jerusalem.

Acts of denial and self-denial have been all too common among British Jews, as Anthony Julius makes amply clear in his Trials of the Diaspora. Perhaps the most dramatic American example was our former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, raised as a Catholic, who only late in life discovered that both her parents were Jews.

CHAPTERS 6, 7, & 8: My sister's belle-lettrist mannerisms do not redeem any of these chapters, probably because she was successively three, four, or six years old when the events she described took place. She has no indelible memories of these years, at best only jumbled impressions, and any writer with some knowledge of the period could have created equally credible accounts. I heard a few of the details myself in later years, both from Phyllis and Papa, and could concoct my own versions even today, throwing in my own travels through the Balkans for effect, but none of our narratives would be useful as history, my sister's most definitely included.

Just for starters, both Chapters 7 and 8 are necessarily close to complete fiction, Phyllis was simply not present at the conversations recorded, and even if she had been, she was far too young to have understood what was being said, much less to have recorded it. Phyllis indulges in comparable practices even in later chapters, though there her motive is to mask psychological and human realities rather than simply to concoct dialogue.

CHAPTER 12—BEGINNING THE "SAINTED MOTHER VERSUS OPPRESSIVE FATHER" MYTH. It is in this chapter that we clearly witness the first onset of my sister's main obsession. She was absolutely convinced that the breakup of her parents could be explained in simplistic terms. She has started to construct her "She Said" version of her parents' separation, and this chapter provides ample evidence that Phyllis' infatuation with her mother had begun.

Its pages describe the family's time of greatest success, their arrival at their country manor in Claygate, for Americans perhaps best described as something approaching Downton Abbey, complete with servants and rural vistas. Phyllis never totally recovered from this high point in her life and throughout later years did her best to assume it was a natural and normal manner of living. And on pages 83 to 87 she offers us her first vertiginous burst of pure purple prose about how splendid her mother truly was, a mood she will revert to frequently throughout the book.

    "This for me, at nine years old, was a timeless era of boundless happiness; of laughter; of seasons orchestrated by joy into one eternal season. A paean of haymaking: tall grasses in the lower fields scythed by a neighboring farmer..."

And on and on she goes for several pages. As on page 124:

    "Mama had entered.

    "Eagerly I turned around.

    "There she stood: for me, eternal, love illumined, grievously slim and fragile. Her face was chalk white, framed in black crêpe-de-chine hat, black Paquin frock—fringed and concertina pleated..."

These purple patches will recur throughout the book, and I will do the reader a service by not mentioning every one. Although my sister frequently warned me against ever falling into self-pity, this was the broad realm of self-pity where she herself dwelt during much of her life, continually devising pleasant fictions to distract her from her sense of loss.

On page 288 we learn how deeply her identification with her mother moved her—it is here we are told that her mother's never finished autobiography was meant to have the same title as the one Phyllis has written for us. In other words, Phyllis felt the need to write what her mother could not, to express her thoughts and feelings for her. It almost sounds as though Phyllis' Irish side has emerged: "Ah begor, and me poor sainted mither...!"

I believe that chapters six through eight (pp. 186 to 203) of Phyllis' Part 2 are complete fiction. This section encompasses a long journey in Papa's company from England to New York to Chicago and then back again via Canada to New York and England. In its course Phyllis encounters major Chicago mafiosi and arrives in that city just in time to witness the advent of jazz on its way up the Mississippi from New Orleans and Memphis.

First of all it all sounds too good to be true and is more likely based on novels or magazine articles she read about the US in the years leading up to 1983, when she first self-published this book. Phyllis did not really care that much about music, jazz or otherwise—any kind of music left her cold, except as a reason for dancing, which she truly did enjoy.

But secondly and more important, there is no way that Phyllis would have taken such a journey without telling me all about it during the years we spent together. And Papa would also certainly have also have mentioned it to me. As I made amply clear in my detailed webpage about Phyllis, my sister was a complete dud about the US, its history, its geography, and what she would have regarded as its low level of culture during all the years we spent together, ranging from 1945 to 1957. And she simply wasn't interested in finding out more about the US than what she already knew based on her preconceptions.

Her tale of having a love affair on a Great Lakes boat is also open to question, if only because the paramour in question is described as male. If such an encounter did occur, it was more likely to have been with a young lady, and Phyllis was simply following her idol Marcel Proust by gender-switching. Perhaps she felt her book might sell better if she included some hint of standard sexual mischief, which was also likely to have been Hartley's goal in romantic escapades she ascribes to Phyllis. But the real problem remains that this entire journey most probably never existed.

As for the purported love affair between Phyllis and the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, blown up by Hartley and supposedly the basis for the novel Lolita he published 31 years later, my sister makes no mention of any such adventure except to say on page 204 that Nabokov may have taken her to a movie in Paris. She would have been sixteen at the time, and Nabokov was twenty-three, a far cry from the twelve-year old nymphette and the middle-aged professor depicted in Lolita. As I mention in the webpage about Hartley's book, I have been unable to determine if Nabokov was even in Paris at this time.

We find Phyllis at her bravest and cleverest and most capable, at least according to her, in her description of the role she played during World War II. Even before the war began, as she tells us in Chapter 1 of Part 3, she had  outthought all the English and French generals by determining that the Germans would invade through Belgium, and she is able to give orders to design and print maps that will sell so well in the US that they will make Papa most of his fortune. During the worst of the Blitz she fearlessly acts as an air warden, and she berates Papa for even suggesting that she obtain some sort of exemption from fulltime war duty. She appears to be active everywhere, providing crucially needed assistance wherever it is needed. But as so often happens with my sister's narrative, she manages to leave out one crucial detail.

She will in fact draw on her contacts to spend a considerable part of the war busily chatting up and drawing British women and girls of all ages as they carry out their wartime duties. And she actually garners a published book from her efforts, though it will not come out until long after the war is over. The author of the foreword to her book describes that time as "quite a long period during the war." This may in fact have been her most significant wartime contribution, though for some reason she doesn't choose to mention a word about it in this very chapter about the war.

We find further proof that Phyllis was simply making up incidents and dialogue on page 212, where her mother's second husband the artist Alfred Orr is purportedly engaged in a match with his fencing master. The year is clearly 1924, since Phyllis has just begun her studies at the Sorbonne (though there is some dispute among family members about what and when she studied there). As she witnessed the thrusting and parrying back and forth, Phyllis's mother is purported to have cried out:

"Marvelous, Alfred! ... Errol Flynn's not in it..."

Errol Flynn was definitely not in it, as he was only fifteen years old at the time, and his earliest acting career in Australia would not begin until 1933.

This part of the book also contains a number of minor errors, such as Phyllis' reference to "Edgar Allen Po" (page 317), her calling the George Washington Bridge the "Washington Bridge" on page 277 (two so-named bridges exist in Manhattan), and Phyllis' mother taking an unlikely 30-mile walk from Greenwich Village to Westchester (page 287). None of these oversights are really that important, but also none of them is the sort of error one would expect from either a trained cartographer or author.

Some other major errors undoubtedly remain, and quite a few may never be fully uncovered. These include outright untruths, downright distortions, willful omissions, and an obsession with sounding clever at all costs, regardless of the consequences, though even this last part often falls flat. Taken all together they reflect a major disregard for anything resembling truth, an eagerness to insult some family members while they were still alive, and a cavalier disregard for other family members whose existence Phyllis simply refused to recognize.

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