My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross
And the Meaning of Truth
An Upcoming Musical About Our Family
Three years ago members of our family received a query from a theatre consortium about their desire to stage a musical based on the life of my sister Phyllis Pearsall. They wanted to know if we could provide further information about Phyllis and about our father Alexander Gross, Sr. The principal author is Diane Samuels, the composer of the music is Gwyneth Herbert. This musical is about to open this very February, and you can find out more about it and even order tickets by clicking here.
What follows is the reply we sent them at that time:
I'm afraid you will have to forgive both my familiarity and the length of this messagemy niece Mary informs me that you are planning to stage a musical about my father and my half-sister, which in a very real way makes you almost a member of the family. And as long as this message is, I suspect you will read every bit of it, since it will tell you far more than you currently know about either Phyllis or Papa.
Let me come to the point quite quickly. Youalong with the entire British publichave been tricked by Sarah Hartley's book and Phyllis's own two self-published volumes. Remarkably little of their contents is true, and Hartley herself came closest to admitting this on page ix of her Foreword when she wrote:
"The trickiest aspect of writing about someone who, by her own admission, would elaborate on the truth and indeed, came from a family who would do so liberally, was to record the truth."
(Let me leave to one sideat least for nowthe slur and/or slander on every member of the family expressed by Hartley's statement, that no member of our family can be trusted to speak the truthI truly wonder how that ever got past the editors.)
Alas, the real "truth" about my sister is considerably less charitable: Phyllis could beand a bit too often in fact actually becamea pathological liar [Note]. And enormous sections of both Hartley's and Phyllis' own works are far from anything resembling truth.
Given this indisputably "true truth," let me suggest that you might want to think at least twice before attempting a musical about the members of our family. And if you do decide to go ahead with the project, I hope you will make sure that it does not turn into the cheap cartoon depicted in those books, namely "Brave Feminist Hero Outwits Oppressive Male Father and Becomes Sole Creator of Glorious A-Z Atlas." I think you'll find that my niece and nephew are equally concerned that their parents and grandparents should not be presented as the caricatures Phyllis portrays, and which Hartley slavishly follows.
If any of this comes as a surprise, here is perhaps an even greater one: like yourself, I am also a writer and playwright, served the RSC as a dramaturg, and did a number of play translations for them, two of which they staged, while one of my own plays ended up being produced in several German cities. Since we're both intrigued by Jewish themes, you may find it of interest that I created the first English translation, at the request of Peter Brook, of Peter Weiss' epic Auschwitz play The Investigation. Back in the US I went on writing and translating plays, and most recently published my book about my experiences during the Sixties in the UK, the US, Germany, & Holland. I was active in the 60s underground press in all those countries and was a player in the founding of London's primary underground newspaper IT, aka International Times. You can find out a great deal about all this and much more on my two websites:
Since we're both writers, let me guess how you may respond to my assertion that the Pearsall story is largely untrue. "Yes, but it's a good story," or "Yes, but it has been widely repeated and is widely believed in England" or perhaps "Yes, but it is still important to the cause of feminism."
But the reply to all three of these claims is "Sorry, but it's still false." And its falsehood is likely to be widely revealed if a staged production of Phyllis' Fleet-Tite-Queer Streets were to take place without some major adjustments.
Diane, please believe me that this message has not been easy for me to write. Let this pass as the friendly portion of my message. What crops up after my signature is not unfriendly, but it is pretty hard & factual and will tell you a great deal more about what Phyllis and Papa were really like than what you have read so far in the Hartley & Pearsall volumes.
All the best!
Alexander Gross, Jr.
better known as:
and sometimes even as:
Okay, Diane, here's how I originally began this message:
I am deeply shocked by a message I have just received from my half-niece concerning a "musical" you intend to produce about my half-sister Phyllis Gross Pearsall and my father. As my niece suggested in her message, this is absolutely the last thing that I want to hear, since it reopens an enormous can of worms already breached once by Sarah Hartley's grotesquely over-written, under-researched, and under-edited 2001 book "Mrs. P's Journey," a disgracefully inaccurate work containing numerous errors of both fact and interpretation, itself largely based on Phyllis' own writing.
This book, which I first discovered in 2006, was so poorly researched that the author did not even bother to come into contact with the individuals or the material present in England that clearly contradict the major points it tries to make. Perhaps most disgracefully of all, the author never came within a light year's distance of contacting Phyllis' closest surviving blood relative who knew her intimately over several decades, namely myself.
When I last came to Europe I mentioned to my niece, nephew, and niece-in-law and their children that I intended to deal with the many mistakes in this book, but in my own time, since I myself am a writer, a playwright, and a translator of plays (as I have already told you) and am working on a number of projects that require more immediate attention.
Although the almost endless inaccuracies and outright falsehoods in both the Hartley and Pearsall books surely require detailed attention, it would be a tedious task for me to enumeratemuch less correctthem all (though I have made copious notes detailing all of them, should this become necessary), and I have simply not seen such a task as my first priority.
Phyllis and I were extremely close over a period of fifteen years and remained in contact for a dozen years thereafter. It started when she visited the US back at war's end in 1945, at that time I was 13 and she was 40. Our close friendship continued throughout that period, both in the US and the UK. This was also true when I visited her in London during the month I spent during 1953 with my half-brother Tony, his wife Daisy, and their children.
We spoke French and English together from the beginning, and I believe that for her I had become something like the child she never had, while for me Phyllis was like an exotic godmother from another domain at a time I truly needed to find a world beyond the US. We spent endless hours together walking the streets of New York and visiting the city's monuments and museums. We remained extremely close until Papa's death (the wrong date for this appears in the Hartley book), when my health and the terms of a will brought about a period of growing estrangement.
Here are just a few of the truly major errors in Hartley's book (and also in Phyllis's two self-published books, on which Hartley's work is mainly based). [If I provided all the smaller errors, this document would go on forever.]
* Phyllis absolutely did not publish the A-Z Atlas on her own. It was largely our father's work, based on one he had published years earlier, as Hartley could have determined if she had ever bothered to read the countless cables between them she reports finding, only to question on page 45 "Why they did not simply pick up the telephone..."
This was a simplistic query quite typical of Hartley's approach, totally ignoring the realities of long distance telephoning during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, when it could take hours just to reach an operator and even further hours for the operator to link you to a poor connection. That our Papa was also the true Papa of the A-Z was something Phyllis herself conceded over three decades by prominently printing on the cover "Produced under the Direction of Alexander Gross, F.R.G.S." (as shown even in one of the Hartley book's illustrations, and as appeared on all publications by both the US & UK companies). Mary can give you the names of English sources who will confirm that Papa was the primary author of A-Z.
* Phyllis never walked up and down all the streets of London to create the A-Z. Just think about itit was never necessary, many of the streets had been there for centuries, unlike the streets of New York's rapidly growing Long Island of the 50s, which Papa made me trudge up and down to create our map and gazetteer guide of Nassau County in order to provide correct house numbers at intersections. Yes, there were certainly changes and new developments to verify in London, but many of these could be determined by visits to Borough & Town Councils and some follow-up visits.
* Though her mother was a noted feminist earlier in the century, Phyllis herself never played such a role during the endless hours I spent with both her and Papa in New York and weekending in Atlantic City. During that time Phyllis was an extremely meek, cowering individual, inevitably caving in to Papa long before any disagreement could truly arise. She even tried to convince me to be equally submissive towards him, something I was often unable to do. Furthermore, she seemed perfectly at home with Papa's fantasy that I would eventually be playing a large role in both the US and UK companies, something I was by both health and temperament quite unsuited to do.
* Phyllis's level of feminism could perhaps be best characterized using a term coined by the American proto-feminist author and editor Helen Gurlie Brown: a "mouseburger," a pitifully frail and mousy little girl ready to be devoured by men, something Brown rightfully warned all women against becoming. Even worse, with her British veneer, Phyllis was even more docile, an "English mouseburger." Yes, she was certainly a member of the British "chattering classes," which I found delightful, but she was never one for confrontation. Whatever feminist airs Phyllis would later adopt or claim, they were nowhere to be seen while Papa was still with us.
* Papa was by no means the cardboard villain both Hartley and Phyllis portray, this was merely a stratagem Phyllis invented in her own slow-moving campaign to persuade the British public that she was the true founder of Geographers, Ltd. Yes, Papa was a very difficult father for all of us, as I had occasion to learn not only from Phyllis and Tony but from another half-sister Hartley never even discovered existed. Papa was a stern Mitteleuropaer, a rigorous taskmaster, and we all of us had our difficulties with him.
During his first 75 years he was never ill for a single day of his life, and he had no comprehension of what illness could mean for others. He considered himself a communist and even wrote fiery articles in New York's left-wing journals of the Thirties, though he never incorporated this creed into his own lifestyle. He was certainly not anyone's conventional idea of a compassionate father. But in his own way he struggled to do the right thing for us, and in the end he turned out to be fair and generous to all of us, including Phyllis herself. All of this Phyllis manages to deny in both her books, and Hartley simply follows her lead.
* Phyllis was not sexually ahead of her time, as the Hartley book would have it, if anything she was behind it. She did not have the love affairs with famous Parisians or fellow cruise passengers hinted at in Hartley's fantasy (and Hartley herself admits that the book is at least partly her own fantasy on Page x of her Foreword). During the time I knew her I always thought of Phyllis as asexual. The Phyllis I knew was as devoid of conventional sexuality as she was of feminist rhetoric, and the reason given for ending her only marriage was failure to consummate. During her later years (and perhaps earlier) she definitely preferred women to men.
As for Hartley's claim that Phyllis was Nabokov's Lolita, simply forget about it. Even one of Hartley's reviewers caught her out on the absurdity (on page 160) that Phyllis sat discussing existentialism in Paris during 1924, two decades before the philosophy came into existence.
As I say, I could go on and on listing the nearly endless errors in the Hartley book, along with the misleading statements in Phyllis' book often leading to them. It was originally my intention to write to Simon and Schuster asking them to withdraw the Hartley book from circulation and publicly admit to their poor editorial judgment in publishing something so close to a scandalous literary fraud in the first place. I may yet choose to do so, though I'm now 79 (written in 2011) and have more pressing projects I want to complete first.
Let me provide just one more glaring example of the inadequacies of Hartley's book (as I could also do with Phyllis' "Fleet-Tite-etc"). It is a paragraph 48 words long, but unfortunately not a single one of those 48 words is remotely correct. Yet its foolishness does not end theretwo of those words are so mistaken that they would immediately provoke uncontrollable laughter from 100 million Americans and cause another 100 million to question how any author could ever be so guilty of such sloppy research. Here's the paragraph from page 129, purporting to describe Papa. I wonder if you will be able to spot the error:
"At Staten Island, where he had first queued among the filthy masses, shuffling forward into the Land of the Brave, he recognized himself, twenty years earlier, in those with the trembling lips, as he watched face after desperate face stutter to officials with a few words of English."
I wonder if a more perfect example of English ignorance and insularity has ever been penned. The most grievous error, certain to provoke ridicule or disbelief in the US, is of course "Staten Island." Hartley must have watched a BBC travelogue on New York or at best taken a hazily remembered three-hour tour of the city. What Hartley meant was not Staten Island at all but of course Ellis Island, on the same level with Valley Forge and Gettysburg as a major monument of US history. Staten Island indeed exists, but it is simply one of New York's five major divisions or boroughs.
But the mistakes in this paragraph don't stop there at all. At the time Papa arrived in New York, he would have undoubtedly been carrying a British passport, which would have immediately exempted him from the rigors Hartley describes in her purple prose, "filthy masses," "trembling lips" and all. For many Britons the US exists mainly as an unreal domain whose principal purpose is to make them feel superior to supposedly less enlightened peoples. This is simply another example of British condescension towards Americans (and indeed all other peoples) which I noted so often during my eight years residing in London.
Even assuming the worst-case scenario, that for some reason he might not have had a British passport, Papa was an intensely clever person whose English did not stutter, and even at his lowest ebb he would certainly have been able to make himself stand out among others in a queue, assuming he was asked to wait in a queue in the first place.
In conclusion, the only person responsible for the canard that Phyllis was the sole author of A-Z was Phyllis herself. I believe this sprang not just from her personal pride but also from her personal hatred of our Jewishness, which she attempted to escape in so many ways: by taking and holding on to the name Pearsall, by her abject adoration of extreme Anglican and even Catholic doctrines, by her devotion to the work of the noted anti-semitic poet T.S. Elliot, and of course by her campaign to obliterate Papa's name from the history of A-Z. Yet another example: when our mysterious other half-sister, fully a Jew, finally traveled to London as an adult and tried to approach Phyllis to find out something more about our family, Phyllis simply refused to see her.
Not to mention my sister's connivance with Papa in trying to convince me that ours was a Christian family and that I myself was entirely Christian. This sprang from Papa's belief (based on his time in England, though pretty much the opposite is true of New York) that being a Jew is a bad thing, and his vain hope that I would one day come to England and redeem his name as a director of his company. I have seen other instances of such self-hatred among Jews in England, where despite claims of a new cosmopolitanism, old class and ethnic prejudices tend to hang on. I'm happy to say that my wife of 52 years is a Jew, and that I myself have no problems at all about my origins, even though like yourself, Diane, I may not totally support some actions by the Jewish state.
If you want further proof of Phyllis' hatred (and ignorance) of her Jewishness, just look at page 23 of "Fleet Street." where at a time when she was as yet unborn, Phyllis describes the arrival of Mama Nagy in London and cites her as saying the following:
"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...'"
I don't have to tell you that this is absolute nonsense, Diane, since you know that if Papa's mother had been Catholic, Papa would not have been a Jew.
Phyllis further reinforces this nonsense on page 306, where Papa is quoted as follows:
"Thanks to my Aryan mother, I suppose, nobody takes me for a Jew..."
What you see here is Phyllis's ability to take something she deeply hopes could be true and convert it into reality. And this is precisely what she did when she converted her desire to have been the sole creator of A-Z into her own personal reality. Though I've concentrated on the Hartley book in this message, I could provide many further examples of such dubious statements in Phyllis' own book, I would just need to go back to my notes and do a lot more work, but this message is already too long, and we are perhaps all growing a bit weary...
In some ways the Hartley book is just as important, without the Hartley book I suspect you would never have bothered to acquire the rights to "Fleet St., etc." And it is the Hartley book's wide circulation that must have persuaded you that a musical about our family could achieve success.
I suppose it might have comforted Phyllis somewhat if she had known that neither she nor Tony nor myself are full-blooded Jews, merely Jewish, since we all had shiksas for mothers. But Phyllis never went deeply enough into Judaism to discover this...
Ours is indeed a remarkable family, at last look composed of English, French, American, Hungarian, Swiss, German, Israeli, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish members, and there are several plays waiting to be found here. We are all as multicultural as we can cope with and are without exception at least bi- but often tri-, or even multi-lingual. It's a family of artists, writers, designers, cartographers, and publishers. Perhaps our most heroic member was Papa's first (& my second) cousin, the French-Hungarian-Jewish publisher Aiméry Somogy, who in 1937 brought out a book in Paris by a Hungarian friend exposing Hitler's Germany, which meant he spent the entire war underground as a member of the French Resistance. When I first visited Paris, Papa warned me against asking him anything about his wartime experiences.
If you do decide to go ahead with your musical, perhaps you can find some Pirandellesque device to present both sides of the story, Phyllis' imagination versus the underlying reality. While this might create some technical problems for you. it could also lead to a far more powerful production than a mere presentation of Phyllis' fantasies.
Hope this will do it for now, Diane, and that you will take a bit of time to reconsider your reasons for staging a musical about our family.
Once again, very best!
[Note] Mary and Peter do not fully agree with me that Phyllis was a "pathological liar." Mary writes:
"I would not say that Phyllis was solely a pathological liar, rather she was generally very economical with the truth, liked to exaggerate and to embellish the facts to amuse and make her account more amusing [she had Irish blood after all!]. Tony certainly mentioned very similar facts about their childhood also."
While Peter phrases it as follows:
"Phyllis, I believe, was not so much an outright pathological liar, as one who was out to blow her own trumpet, quite brazenly, and was therefore very cagey with the truth, especially with respect to the origins of A-Z. She did not hesitate to embellish the facts to that end and show herself off in the best light. And in the process, Papa comes out as the villain of the piece."
Ultimately I wonder if we are not all saying something fairly similar, if not precisely identical, Mary and Peter with British understatement, myself with American directness. [back to text]
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