My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross 

And the Meaning of Truth


The Bright and the Dark Phyllis

Phyllis in 1940

Looking back in hindsight on the decades when Phyllis and I were as close as any two siblings can ever be, I can now see quite clearly that there was both a Bright Phyllis and a Dark Phyllis, a distinction that escaped me at the time and only became clear in later years. I knew the Bright Phyllis mainly between the years 1945, when she first arrived in New York after VE Day, and over a period that extended until 1958, when Papa died, and finally ending in 1960, when my health began to create problems for all of us.

She and I were still reasonably close by 1970, when my wife and I dealt with her on several occasions, though by then a more somber aspect had become only too evident. Yet looking back in later days and reflecting on the first era of the Bright Phyllis, I can discern the slow emergence of my sister's darker side even during our earlier and more truly loving time together.

But make no mistake—those first remarkable years were delightfully bright for both of us. Imagine myself if you will as a young teenager desperately dissatisfied with what passed for American life and culture at the time, totally primed to believe that a better world must exist in other lands—most probably meaning Europe—and add to this mindset a yearning for affection beyond what either my mother or father could offer.

And now imagine a small, fragile, well-traveled British lady of 40, one whom conventional love had largely passed by, yet someone certain that she had achieved major insights into art, literature, and the meaning of life, an incurably chatty lady of the British variety, eager to pass on her insights to a worthy young man capable of receiving them, especially if he happened to be her brother. And there you have it: a sure-fire recipe for mutual compassion, affection, even love.

And this was only the beginning, as Phyllis herself might have put it, "On We Go..."

The war in Europe was scarcely over on May 8, 1945, when Papa summoned Phyllis to America. As always he was teeming with projects for expanding the family business, especially since peace had finally arrived, and he needed to make sure Phyllis understood his plans as completely as possible. The only solution was for Phyllis to come to New York.  There were of course still no direct commercial cruises or flights between the continents, but in early July Phyllis found a freighter bound for Montreal, where she boarded the train for what was then a long, bumpy ride through Vermont and upstate New York to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

Only a few days later Papa brought Phyllis to visit us in our Inwood flat. He had regaled us with tales of both Phyllis and my brother Tony for years before, and indeed Tony's engravings had lined the walls of our apartment for more than a decade. During the Thirties I had received postcards addressed to "Master Alex Gross," signed by both Tony and Phyllis, pledging their deep undying love for me, but I was still too young to make any real sense of them. I had heard nothing but praise for both of them from Papa, which led me over time, as I grew older, to take them quite seriously, even though they
were absent from my daily life. 

As I've mentioned elsewhere, from the Thirties onward Papa had been continually claiming that everything in England, indeed everything in Europe, was far superior to life in America, and it was across the ocean where he assured me a brighter future awaited me. Being a map publisher, he had seen to it that I did not lack for maps of all the world's countries, and he had furthermore encouraged me to collect stamps and supplied me with almost all the foreign envelopes that came to his offices. He had also gone out of his way to explain to me the differences between the various European nations, and he even hinted that he might soon be taking me to Europe for a visit.

My mother treated all this with some skepticism, especially after the autumn of 1939, when it turned out that all those remarkable European nations had launched a war of unparalleled savagery against one another, which meant that travel to Europe for the next six years became impossible except for members of the armed forces.

But now here was Phyllis, a very real, small, and (as it seemed at the time) thoroughly English Phyllis, sitting in our own slightly cramped living room on a warm summer day and telling us all about a very real England and a very real war, and we were naturally quite curious to hear her story. Both she and Papa made it quite clear that I was to spend as much time with her as could be arranged during her visit, and my mother reluctantly agreed.

This was the beginning of the countless hours I spent with Phyllis during her many visits to New York both then and over succeeding years. They are now all bundled together in my memory, but over those many years they included visits to virtually all the city's major and minor museums, which I had already begun to frequent before her arrival, trips on ferry boats to Staten Island and Rockaway and New Jersey, and endless long walks through the streets and parks of Manhattan. We also watched many films together, most of them English, sometimes with Papa along, though often just the two of us. And all three of us frequently dined together and even spent two long weekends in Atlantic City in each other's company.

During my time with Phyllis we discussed art, literature, philosophy, everything under the sun.  For me it was a feast of learning on a higher level than I had known existed until then. There was a total sharing and confidence between the two of us, and more than once she swore eternal devotion to me. She became particularly emotional on one occasion around 1947 when I was rowing her on the lake in Central Park and began to tell me of the wonders of Venice and Toledo and how she yearned to take me to each of these cities one day.

We shared a truly intense family experience on that lake, perhaps it was the deep emotion these two cities awoke in her, but for whatever reason Phyllis chose that time to express her deep desire to help and protect me. She confessed to me how hard it was for her to get along with Papa, but that I should follow her example & always give into him, no matter how unreasonable he became.  She also promised me her lifelong love & care, and that I would always be able to call on her when in need, that I could absolutely depend on her. In the end I was not always able to give into Papa, nor did she prove able to live up to her promises.

As we walked through the park afterward, Phyllis offered  me an insight that has helped me guide my life ever since. She told me in great detail about her exam in Paris to receive her degree of licenciée ès lettres in Byzantine Art and the rigors of her défense du thèse, when any or all of her professors could question her and demand that she answer their criticisms. She also told me of a fellow student she much admired, a young man whom she described as intensely creative and alive, certain to attain  brilliant achievements in his field. Then she told me about meeting him some fifteen years later and discovering that he had totally lost his spark of life, that the rigors of working a dull job had worn him down.

She told me she saw the same spark in me and asked me—indeed, begged me—never to let the same fate befall me, that I must nurse and coddle and feed that spark all my life long. And throughout the years and decades since then I have done everything in my power to follow her advice. To my regret I would have to add that I do not believe Phyllis herself was able to follow her own principle, that over the years she also became deeply weighted by the burdens of life and let her spark run down.

I had begun to speak some French, and partly through Phyllis' time in New York and partly through my endless visits to theatres showing French films, my own linguistic skills began to blossom. I modeled my accent on a mélange of Fernandel, Raimu, and Arletty, and it has served me fairly well to this day. When she became aware that I was actually reading French novels and even making a stab at Sartre, she brought me books from Paris that she thought might expand my horizons, Camus, Rémy de Gourmont, and others. I can still remember the thrill of cutting their pages, as remained necessary well into the Fifties, and during my youth I probably imagined the act of cutting them was a necessary part of true cultural achievement.

What I did not know and only discovered later on was that Phyllis had made a crucial contribution to my well-being months before she had landed in New York. Despite Papa's favorable impression of American education, he still remained convinced that English schooling was far superior—or perhaps he saw such a background as crucial to my one day succeeding in London. Whatever the reason, in December of 1944 when it became possible to predict that Germany would be defeated, Papa had written to Phyllis asking her to handle the details of enrolling me in one of England's well-known "public" schools for the autumn of 1945.

By that time more than a few authors had published accounts of the fagging, bullying, and buggery inflicted on students at these schools, prompting Phyllis to write back and warn Papa against his plan, especially since as an American I was likely to be singled out for rough treatment. I had already been forced by Papa to watch the film Tom Brown's School Days more than once, and I was less than impressed by what I saw, but of course I was not consulted in the slightest. In any case Phyllis' view prevailed, and to this day I am grateful to her that I was spared such an ordeal.

Let me say something about Phyllis' appearance in 1945 and post a photograph of her when she was a few years  younger. Even during that summer, a few months before her airplane accident, there wasn't much of her. She looked somewhat more robust than afterwards, but not spectacularly so. She had inherited Papa's short, swarthy look, and although she was not balding like him, her hair was still rather stringy. Both Tony and I had gained taller and more conventionally attractive genes from our respective mothers, and we towered over Phyllis. In any case Phyllis scarcely qualified as a beauty. Even at 13 I had a fair idea of what beautiful women looked like, with Gene Tierney and Rita Hayworth as my models.

Phyllis did not fit this description at all. As I mentioned in my brief version, I did not find her attractive at any time during my adolescence, while over the many years that followed I fear I would need to use the word "dumpy" to describe her. She was called "PIG" by the other students at Rodean, her fancy English girls school, this epithet supposedly based on the initials for her name "Phyllis Isabel Gross," though I wouldn't be surprised if it was intended to describe her appearance as well.

But such matters never truly mattered when Phyllis and I found ourselves together, nor was our difference in age of any true importance. Our minds were attracted to each other, and from the very beginning it was our minds that locked together and melded us as almost a single being. In retrospect it's easy to explain why—during those years we were both desperately searching for something meaningful and important in our lives. My sister's quest was for a set of absolute spiritual values she was certain must exist, almost Germanic in its intensity, while my goal was aimed simply at an escape from my own physical weakness and the prosaic limitations imposed by my life so far. Based on what Papa had told me, I was given to understand that English and European values must by far excel American ones, and Phyllis was only too happy to encourage me in this belief.

With no athletic skills to speak of, I felt myself at a disadvantage with other students, and I needed to seek out those domains where I could at least imagine I excelled. For me Phyllis provided a pathway to deeper cultural awareness, which at that time many New Yorkers imagined could reside only in Europe. For Phyllis I expect I represented not only the companionship of a younger brother but a painless and practical guide into a realm she found almost as mysterious as I found Europe, the purpose and meaning of America.

Phyllis surprised me on one occasion when I was complaining of my lack of enthusiasm for athletics and happened to ask her what sports she had engaged in at school and whether she had enjoyed them. I had expected her to come up with prim English ladies' games such as quoit tossing or garden croquet, but instead she told me she had simply adored lacrosse.

"Lacrosse, isn't that where you have a stick and a net and you catch the other team's ball?"

"Yes, and their noses and ears and heads," she replied with some enthusiasm. She went on about what good fun it was to bash the other girls with sticks, and I was confused to discover a side of Phyllis I had not yet recognized. I was even more surprised to find a Native American game, at that time played more in Canada than the US, ensconced in a fashionable English girls' school. Phyllis obviously took delight in a body contact sport like lacrosse, though she was neither strong nor sturdy in build. 

She obviously possessed a kind of wiry stamina I had not suspected, at least up to the time of her plane accident. Decades later I can now recognize in her love for lacrosse something like the passion for girls' high school wrestling that has grown up today in American sports. It was the first indication I had that Phyllis enjoyed physical interaction with other girls.

Phyllis had the good luck of arriving in New York just two months after the war in Europe had ended, hence she was one of the few Britons in town capable of describing what life in England had been like during the war. She took to this role like a seasoned trouper, a non-musical version of Beatrice Lillie. This made her quite popular, and it wasn't long before Papa alerted me to be sure to listen to two radio programs featuring Phyllis as she told her audience all about England.

Naturally I tuned in and heard her discussing various English artists and writers, with our brother Tony very much at the forefront. I was of course impressed by her natural fluency and resolved to develop the same verbal skills for myself as I grew older. But even then I was American and media-savvy enough to notice that she was scheduled nowhere near prime time but only during morning hours and not on any of the major networks but assigned to lesser radio stations like WMCA and WJZ. But I was still enormously happy to know that I had private access to such an impressive fount of cultural knowledge.

Since our conversations usually assumed that she was the teacher and I the student, we got along perfectly together. But as much as she knew about Europe, I soon discovered she was a virtual dud where the US was concerned. Here at least she allowed me to play the role of instructor and even begged me to do so. I tried to oblige her, but it didn't really help much.

Phyllis was not so much almost totally ignorant of America (though she was that as well), but like many Britons of that era she simply did not want to know. Or perhaps she just wanted to go on believing what she thought she already knew. Despite her multi-cultural Hungarian-Italian-Irish-Jewish background and despite the French and German tutors she had enjoyed as a young girl, Phyllis remained remarkably—almost stubbornly—English (to the extent that she was English in the first place).

I remember a few awkward moments when she asked me point blank what the point of the United States was. I was still only fourteen and replied as best as I could, but I could see that she was not satisfied by my answer. She also asked me in so many words what the point of the American Revolution had been, and she cannot have been too happy with the rote defense of that war I came up with. She also wanted to know if the wartime collaboration between the US and England (I don't believe the term "United Kingdom" was yet born) was likely to bring about an end to what she termed the "silly differences" between our two nations, so the US could finally return to Great Britain where we really belonged.

This was an idée fixe Phyllis simply could not do without, and on several occasions both during our first summer together and in later years as well she asked me if I believed Americans still felt loyal to the British crown. This came up in several ways, whenever a British film or novel was discussed or whenever any member of the English monarchy was mentioned in the news, and she cannot have been happy when I told her I saw no basis for such an assumption.

Maps of course helped us to consolidate our deep companionship. But even with maps spread before us Phyllis had a few problems accepting the country where she was now spending time. On one occasion I remember we were poring over a map of the US together, and I was explaining the differences between the states as I then understood them. But her heart wasn't really in it, and at one point she pointed to several states as I spoke their names and cried out, "Oh, God, no, I should never be able to pronounce those names!" The states were Iowa, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. And she never was.

Also during that summer she chose to ask me for the first time—but certainly not the last—where the stately homes of America were located. I hadn't the faintest idea what she was talking about and told her so. She clearly found this quite upsetting, and it was a query she would return to frequently over succeeding years almost any time we were together. By around 1955 she had honed this lack of American stately homes (even though I tried offering up Dutch family mansions along the Hudson as a peace offering) into evidence that America did not have—and probably never could have—the basis for true culture or civilization (properly spelled with an "s" of course).

It certainly cannot have helped matters that during the late Forties American journalism and scholarship had identified two enemies Phyllis certainly considered the closest of friends. English and European reporters have often insisted that the major menace targeted by Americans during that era can only have been Communism. But this only became true with the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early Fifties. During the five years before then the two major forces often singled out in the press and public opinion as the greatest threats to America were the British Empire and Catholicism. The Hearst press and Time Magazine had zeroed in on the first, and Paul Blanshard's respectable books about the second were discussed everywhere. 

None of this was the least bit argumentative between the two of us, it always came up as innocent queries amid a free sort of mutual banter.  Phyllis simply loved to talk, to chat, to natter on, and it was only a few decades later that I would hear the phrase "chattering classes," which so clearly defined my sister. In retrospect her questions may sound gauche in the extreme, at least to Americans, but in her defense Phyllis had just emerged from six of the worst years in English history and was pumped up with all the catchwords and values the British needed to strengthen their own sense of being. Once she started on one of her hobby horses, there was no stopping her—she was almost in a Victorian state of "high dudgeon."

But such attitudes definitely marked Phyllis as almost archetypically British during that summer, indeed for her entire stay in the US over a number of years. During that first year she did not seem to understand that while the war was largely over for England, it was still bitterly raging in the Pacific that July between the US and Japan (and even for some British troops in Burma). No one knew of the atom bomb, and it was still assumed that an American invasion of Japan would be necessary in October at the earliest, with final Japanese surrender coming perhaps as late as mid-1946.

It was two years later that Phyllis began to complain to me about American newspaper editorials she had found that criticized England or doubted the wisdom of English foreign policy. And she also began to express doubts as to whether Americans could ever use the English language effectively. For her Evelyn Waugh was the fountainhead of English wit and style, and she saw no signs of his achievements ever being matched by American authors. She also greatly admired Virginia Woolf, whose works were just becoming known in the US. Phyllis herself was an author, and I set to work trying to find the qualities she so admired in her own work.

There was a book about Spain called Castilian Ochre, co-written with her former husband, and I tried reading it twice, once years before I had lived in Spain myself, and once a year afterwards. On neither occasion did it really tell me very much useful or interesting about Spain. Around 1949 Phyllis also landed a story in the New Yorker, and this too I read with some puzzlement. As I recall, its main point was that people should be kind to each other, an insight that left me less than enlightened. It was only after I had spent a number of years in England myself that I discovered that the English use the word "kind" (along with its opposite "rude") to convey a remarkably different meaning than Americans do. I have explained this in some detail in my piece How 'Correct' Is British English? which you can read by clicking here.

But politics was scarcely our main concern. Phyllis was especially concerned to guide my taste in art and literature, and it is in some of the lessons she tried to teach me that I would later discern clues to her own thought patterns. When I was fifteen we went to the Museum of Modern Art together (I had already visited it alone many times), and she asked me to show her what works I particularly admired.  I took her to the bright but somber canvases of Georges Rouault, which she contemplated for a while before divulging her opinion.  She told me she found them somewhat cruel and crude, that she hated the dark bars he had placed separating faces from their backgrounds.

I tried to explain I thought Rouault was simply imitating similar bars separating the panels of stained glass portraits, but Phyllis would have none of it. She promptly took me to the room where the Impressionists were exhibited. There weren't too many of them at the Modern, and she later also escorted me through the Impressionist wing at the Met while she informed me in no uncertain terms that Impressionism was the highest and most glorious expression of the arts in recent memory. Phyllis definitely wanted things to be pretty, without the slightest trace of darkness or unpleasantness.

We went to see a play together, Giraudoux's The Mad Woman of Chaillot, starring Martita Hunt.  We discussed it exhaustively afterwards and found we agreed perfectly about its meaning, that it was far better to be considered deviant, even mad, than to blindly accept all the so-called improvements commercial progress was trying to foist on us. And this during a time when we were in complete agreement with Papa that we would all soon be working together towards the success of a commercial map company.

I don't think it ever occurred to either of us that we were in any kind of competition—if anything, Phyllis welcomed the notion that I would one day be able to take over part of the work, leaving her more time  to write and paint.  As for Papa, he was mainly concerned that his good name should be restored in Britain. Perhaps he saw Phyllis as a Plan A to achieve this, with me as Plan B, or perhaps it was vice versa—I doubt if Papa himself could have said which was the case.

Everything between us seemed so organic and natural. Once while we were walking down Fifth Avenue alongside Central Park, she told me she was good friends with Martita Hunt, who lived just around the corner, and that we must both go and visit her one afternoon before her performance. I have no idea how well she actually knew Martita, but the visit she described never took place. It was only after a few years with Phyllis that it struck me that no matter what British actor, writer, or artist I might mention, Phyllis always replied that she knew them personally.

I want to tell you about two books that were extremely important to Phyllis, as I believe they go a long way towards explaining her later behavior and the claims she made about family members and the family firm in her own self-published books. Phyllis could not sufficiently praise the first of these books, Lifemanship by Stephen Potter. It was first published in 1950, which fixes the date of our lengthy conversations about this book at around that time.

Potter's work, which attracted enormous attention both here and in the UK, had as its central idea that you really did not have to know that much about virtually any subject in order to pass yourself off as an expert on it. The book provided a series of simple strategies and tactics for posing as an authority, regardless of the subject or one's actual knowledge of it. These tricks, known as "ploys," included a form of wit, making others feel inferior, cleverly distorting the facts, and skillfully changing the subject.

Phyllis was absolutely ecstatic about this book, she read excerpts to me aloud, and recommended it to me as a model for my own approach to life. I certainly appreciated Potter's witty approach to learning, but I had by then started college and had begun to absorb at least the rudiments of responsible scholarship. And as an American I had a respect for the technical side of human knowledge that Phyllis definitely did not share.

Yes, as Potter claimed, it was important to be witty and even a bit outrageous in describing the world around us, but it was also crucial to understand what a subject was about, including its technical side. Otherwise, you ran the danger, however clever you might seem, of talking nonsense. And as I grew older, I came to accept this point of view with ever greater certainty. I'm not sure Phyllis ever did.

Potter's later spin-offs on this idea, OneUpManship and Supermanship, were less well received, but Lifemanship is still in print and makes rather dreary reading nowadays. But the main thrust of this idea is still very much alive in today's England—during the Seventies David Frost gave it new life in a series of books entitled The Bluffer's Guide to...  with fresh titles on a vast array of topics published down to this very day.

I believe this attitude to human knowledge is deeply ingrained in the British mentality, though to its detriment. Some young Americans are also influenced by this approach, and many more are deeply impressed by their English counterparts, who seem to know everything about everything.  But it remains an open question as to how much of their supposed expertise springs from true knowledge of a subject and how much merely from "Lifemanship."

I watched how profound an influence this book had on Phyllis, leading her to assume it really didn't matter what you wrote or said as long as you sounded witty and authoritative. Phyllis and I never openly disagreed about this book, perhaps because by that time I had myself become slightly too anglicized to argue about anything. Essentially both Potter and Frost were promoting the notion that dishonesty, it if were witty & clever enough, was preferable to honesty, and while I certainly saw their point, I also had a few doubts about it.

My initial impression was that Potter's Lifemanship and the psychology it promoted were the main forces behind Phyllis' tendency to engage in half-truths, shifting truths, and sometimes total falsehoods. But while researching this matter further and rereading her books I became aware of yet another deeply rooted cause leading her to treat the truth with some indifference, especially where men were concerned, even if those men were her own father and brother.

Americans have become so accustomed to assuming that the British have always been more measured and less inclined to violence than ourselves. They will therefore be somewhat surprised to learn that this was not at all the case with the campaign for women's suffrage in both nations during the first two decades of the last century. While the American suffragists' campaign certainly did not lack vigor and perseverence, it was in fact positively  peace-loving compared to what took place in Britain.

Let me make it absolutely clear that I regard their cause as totally justified and correct, and that I hold the right of women to vote as entirely central to any real democracy. I am merely pointing out that the English suffragettes (as they were called) employed almost unlimited civil disobedience to gain their ends, including arson, destroying property, hurling stones through windows, attacking political leaders (Lloyd George, Asquith, and Winston Churchill among them), pouring viscous fluids into mail boxes, and other acts of vandalism. A thousand lady activists were arrested and subjected to forced feeding when they resorted to hunger strikes.  Those who want to know more about this period can click here.

One of the suffragettes died attempting to place a banner around the neck of the King's horse running in the 1913 Derby, and Phyllis mentions this incident in her book about our family history. Her mother wrote a play passionately advocating women's voting rights, and our father (accused by Phyllis and her would-be biographer of brutal sexist behavior) footed the bill for its production. I believe that this period may have also played a role in Phyllis' later development, her attitude towards men, and the unfavorable treatment she would later aim at our father, though she was totally worshipful and submissive to him during his lifetime.

Let me say a few more words about my own involvement in women's causes during the Sixties, so there is no misunderstanding. My wife and I were primary members and organizers of the New York women artists' group WAR (Women Artists in Revolution), and I helped them to draft their first set of demands. In England I wrote articles pioneering women's concerns for the underground press newspaper IT (International Times). My niece Mary expressed to me her view that the suffragettes were justified in their feelings, that women were (and to some extent remain) subjected to men professionally, socially, and sexually.

I fully agree with her on this, and in my book The Untold Sixties I specifically observed that the miniskirt could only have been invented in England as a means of focusing men's attention on women's physical desires and away from dogs, darts, and cricket or football scores. My wife and I have consistently over several decades been non-combatants in the so-called battle of the sexes and will not let ourselves be pulled back into that conflict over a silly book. You can see one of the articles I wrote during that time by clicking herethe newspaper that printed it was considered so daring that it had to be printed in Amsterdam and smuggled into England on channel boats.

As I say, Phyllis and I tended to agree on most things. We did not even have an argument about music, though here at least my level of taste had already begun to surpass hers. I recall sometime around 1949 going on to her about Mozart, but the most I could elicit from her was that she enjoyed his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Genuine Mozartians will understand why even during my youth this struck me as something of a sacrilege. In general Phyllis had a tin ear for music.

Concerning the other author whom Phyllis loved to praise we had no disagreement at all, at least about his identity. Between the Fifties and the Eighties his name came quickly to almost everyone's lips as a major—even a great—poet, playwright, essayist, authority on the meaning of culture. Just as today that name has grown  increasingly unfashionable, almost to the point of becoming a dirty word. Anyone who was alive then knows precisely who I am talking about, it can only be T.S. Eliot.

Yes, Phyllis and I agreed perfectly, as did virtually all our culturally conscious contemporaries, that Eliot was a figure of enormous significance. We had just one problem—as we soon discovered, we were talking about two different Eliots. My Eliot was the post-1918 skeptic and pessimist, the author of The Wasteland who saw little hope for the future of mankind, the satirist who had ridiculed American cultural pretensions in Prufrock. But Phyllis' Eliot was the latter-day sugary optimist who had discovered "God" and even turned to Anglicanism, quite convenient for a Missourian then living in England and making a living as an author and publisher. So here too, despite our apparent agreement, Phyllis and I differed.

And as we shall see, there is also a sinister aspect to Phyllis' uncritical  praise for this poet. Not only did Eliot embrace Anglicanism, he also found it perfectly permissible to engage in overt anti-Semitism. We all read what he wrote at the time, and we all tacitly accepted lines like the following:

          The rats are underneath the piles.
     The jew is underneath the lot.
          Money in furs.

We all knew on a common-sense basis exactly what those (and many other) lines meant. We had accepted Ezra Pound's anti-Semitism—as a great non-conformist poet he was permitted all kinds of insane aberations in politics and economics. But Eliot was a civilian poet and a successful editor at Faber and Faber. He was also highly regarded as a theoretician on the supposed meaning of culture. And it was in this area that Eliot had the most pervasive effect on Phyllis' ideas and mindset.

Like many others before and since Phyllis was absolutely convinced that she lived at the center of all perfect cultural and religious truth. She enjoyed believing in a hierarchy of ideas culminating in the perfection of a blended form of Catholicism and Anglicanism, which like Eliot she saw as the ultimate unifying faith. Naturally all other religions and belief systems could only be inferior, unworthy, simply mistaken. These included Chinese, Indian, and other oriental outlooks, not to mention Islamic, African or Native American systems.

Of course she was able to tolerate some of these on a literary plane, she was fond of a poor translation of Journey to the West as Monkey and also claimed to find deep meaning in Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism, a book that almost totally bypasses how mysticism actually functions. But she tended to look down on those who actually set foot on any of those pathways: the actual mechanisms of mysticism—chanting, trance-dances, self-mortification—were probably too un-English for Phyllis to contemplate.

Most of all she looked down on Judaism, probably the by-product of the taunts she must have endured as a student at a fashionable English girls' school. She was of course brought up as a Catholic and was never able to bridge the gap that separates the two faiths, even though they depend on the same holy books. But I would not be surprised if Phyllis was largely unaware of her one most fervent faith, of simply being English, as little claim as she actually had on it.

But despite her certainty that she lived at the summit of cultural perfection, she was also sure that she was completely unprejudiced about other peoples and races. Papa had already expressed to me his view that racial prejudice, so much a part of American life, was positively unknown in England. But one day, when the three of us were together in Atlantic City, they both went a great deal further. They thoroughly upbraided me about the subject, how wrong racial prejudice was and how totally absent it was from English society. They actually scolded me for being part of such a nation and demanded that I personally apologize for America's racism and promise to do everything in my power to eradicate it. Since I was no stranger to liberal ideas, I saw no reason to dispute them at the time.

There was one quotation from Eliot that Phyllis particularly admired and which I believe goes a long way towards portraying her. It comes from his play Murder in the Cathedral and goes as follows:

"Human kind cannot bear very much reality."

Oh yes, I almost forgot about Proust. After Eliot and Potter he was the third author Phyllis would go on praising almost endlessly. This must have begun when I was only fifteen and could barely make it through a single one of his never-ending sentences in either English or French. By the time I was seventeen she had issued me nothing less than an ultimatum that I absolutely must read every single book of his seven-part novel while I was still young, even if I found it hard to understand, simply for the joy of reading it again when I turned sixty or seventy, as I would then at last be in a sufficiently enhanced and enlightened condition to fully understand the subtleties of his insights.

I'm not quite sure what Phyllis based this advice on, since she had certainly not read Proust when she was seventeen, and she was only in her forties when she insisted that I had to get started. But I dutifully obeyed her and at least ploughed my way through most of the first volume, Du Côté de Chez Swann, translated into English as Swann's Way. I recall looking into one or two of the other volumes, but I don't think I made it much further. Phyllis really hectored me that I must  keep going, but I had a few other concerns facing me around then, making it through prep school for one & getting into college for another.

I'll admit, I did see—and still see today— at least part of Phyllis' point. Proust's style was majestically long-winding and poetic, and at times Phyllis would read passages aloud to me in French while I looked on with either the original or the translation in hand. She went on at great length about how superior the French was to the English, and together we dissected the multiple flaws in Scott Moncrieff's mistranslation of the title À la Recherche du Temps Perdu as the Shakepearean trope Remembrance of Things Past. About two years after we had begun, she let slip the crucial clue that Proust was gay (though of course we didn't use that word then) and that the heroine Albertine was really a chauffeur named Albert or Alfred. I didn't quite know what being gay meant back then, but I remember wishing she had let me know earlier.

I have to confess that I did enjoy as much of Proust as I was able to finish, both in French and English. I'm still certain Phyllis was entirely correct in her judgment, but for one reason or another I did not choose to reread Proust during my sixties or seventies and have no intention of doing so now during my eighties. I still find far too many other things I'd rather do. And I have to admit to laughing out loud when in one episode a Monty Python character pronounced the great author's name to rhyme with the English word "loused."

It was also in Atlantic City that I was presented with the starkest possible presentation by Papa and Phyllis of the superiority of British culture over what passed for it in America. We were eating out together at a shore-side restaurant, and I was presented at the age of 13 and for the first time in my life with an entire lobster on my plate. I had seen such a creature only in films (and perhaps only in nature films at that) and had not the slightest idea how to eat it nor any desire to do so. I confessed my lack of enthusiasm to Papa and Phyllis, launching them into the most extreme of all their lectures about all the changes I had no choice but to make in my ways. 

They informed me in no uncertain terms that I would one day be going to England, where the knowledge and passion to eat a lobster was shared by absolutely everyone. Eating a lobster was the sheer pinnacle of human experience, they told me, and I needed to understand that the English were the most knowledgeable and experienced people on the face of the earth. They had traveled everywhere and experienced everything, and for this reason alone they were certain to have the best and most perfect opinion on absolutely any subject. I simply needed to understand this basic truth in order to be prepared for the privilege of one day living in England.

But for them British superiority did not stop there by any means. There was also the matter of table manners. And with no further pause they launched into the description of correct table manners, as then understood by the British. There was one correct way—and one correct way only—of managing one's knife and fork if one were to pass as civilized while residing in England. And they went on to explain this correct usage and demonstrate it with passion and in considerable detail.

I won't bore the reader any further with this—anyone who wants to find out more can do so by going to this site:.


To this day I find this whole notion of correct table manners too silly to even consider, much less that it could have any bearing on one's overall level of culture. I would simply note that the Chinese use chopsticks (which I can also handle quite skillfully), Arabs eat with their fingers, Indians with their right hand only, Greeks and Romans used to recline on couches, and there are no doubt many further systems of table manners to be found in other nations, some of which the English ought to have discovered during their authoritative exploration of the world's peoples. Indeed many peoples do not even sit at tables when they eat.

Even today I see no reason why the English system should be regarded as the best or even as a major contender. I truly respected Papa and Phyllis for their attempts to civilize me, and I respect them even today.  But I wouldn't be surprised if from that day on their exaggerated praise for a single nation's culture slowly began to move me in a different direction.

Phyllis returned to the subject of racism in even more forceful terms when I spent a night with her at her nursing home in Backsettown during my 1953 visit to England. She introduced me to her doctor, an actual descendant of William Wilberforce, credited with ending slavery throughout England and the British Empire. This provided the starting point for a long lecture from Phyllis about how perfectly enlightened the English had been in ending slavery in a completely peaceful manner, while Americans were so uncivilized that they had no choice but to fight a bloody civil war for four long years, though still without ending interracial tensions.

For Phyllis this was entirely a matter of (no pun intended) black and white. The English were cultured and civilized, Americans were nothing but barbarians. And this immensely over-simplified analysis is still to be found in Britain today.  It was not the only one—Phyllis also demanded to know why Americans were so violent and had so many murders, while Britain was so blissfully peaceful and law-abiding. She never went deeply enough into this topic to reach more trenchant issues of Europe's recurring wars and how they affected murder rates or whether accurate statistics were being sought.  She knew in advance what the answer must be—the British were civilized  and Americans were not.  It must have been partly her attittude that drove me to write the piece Violence in Britain published by IT (International Times) in 1969. I doubt if Phyllis ever read it, though you can find it here.

The problem of course was that Wilberforce did not succeed in ending slavery, whether in England, the Empire, or anywhere else. There were in fact no Blacks to speak of living in England itself in Wilberforce's time (and certainly none to compare with the numbers in the US), nor was slavery ended in the very areas of the Empire claimed by Wilberforce zealots. In fact those very areas of Africa, India, and Pakistan controlled by England for nearly two centuries are still infested by the slave trade today, much as they were in 1800. Estimates of slaves throughout the world today run from 27 million to as many as 200 million. Most recently an American TV network, CNN, has launched its own campaign aimed at ending slavery today, their so-called Freedom Project. Their objectives are certainly praiseworthy, and it remains to be seen if they will be successful where Wilberforce and so many others have failed.

Of course Phyllis and I never had an argument about this at the time, I was only 21 during my visit to Backsettown, and even if I had wanted to argue, I simply did not know enough to do so. Besides which, Phyllis and I were far too close for such an argument ever to take place. I mention this occurence simply to provide an example of her way of thinking and how English she had become despite her Italian-Irish-Jewish roots. We were simply friends, and friends did not truly argue.

One truly friendly gift Phyllis bestowed on me while I was in England that year was enough cash to take a train trip to Edinburgh, remain a few days, and then return via Liverpool, where I boarded a boat for a week in Dublin. We were after all a family of map makers, and she no doubt wanted me to have at least a rough idea of how the British Isles lined up together, with Ireland thrown in for good measure.

My brother Tony also came to New York for an exhibit of his paintings around this time, and he too ran afoul of American customs to some extent. He got along well enough at first but then took a trip down south for a few months. When he returned he simply could not stop telling New Yorkers how much more likable he found southerners than northerners, He had not the slightest notion how many wounds left over from the Civil War he was opening.

While I was visiting Phyllis in Backsettown, she also questioned me again—indeed almost grilled me—about America's missing stately homes. Following Eliot's lead she had persuaded herself that no nation could ever develop a true culture unless they had an established religion—naturally her own personal blend of Anglicanism and Catholicism—along with an enlightened gentry who maintained their vast mansions as playgrounds for persons of style, wit, and breeding.

If only I had understood more about what was truly happening in England during 1953, I might have pointed out to Phyllis that many of these mansions were already being sold, dismantled, or abandoned. I might have even suggested that true culture could spring even from more humble beginnings, as would indeed happen only a decade  later when the Beatles erupted on the scene. Or when I myself was at last in London again and began to write for London's underground press, something Phyllis never fully understood or forgave.

Phyllis had one other bomb shell for me at Backsettown. She spoke in some detail of her time spent in New York during 1948 when Papa had been delayed in Europe by passport problems, and she had no choice but to travel to New York to take care of the American business for almost a year. I saw a lot of her that year, and I recall  this time as being quite hard on Phyllis, as she wasn't prepared for the rigors of running a business in New York.  One especially disturbing factor was her discovery that all our company's newsstand publications were being distributed by the Mafia. Towards the end of her stay she had slowly become aware that a small but significant percentage of delivery costs had no justification and was somehow being skimmed off the top.

This was of course true for all newsstand publications, including the New York Times and even our so-called underground newspapers during the Sixties. No one bothered to complain for the obvious reason that no one wanted to risk offending this group. But when Phyllis finally figured out what was happening, she reacted in quasi-Victorian fury.

At Backsettown she proudly boasted to me how she had stood up against the sheer criminality and lawlessness of our barbarous nation and had refused to pay the Mafia their cut. What's more, she followed the only reasonable course an English lady of her generation could have taken, she bravely played the role of Britannia waving the rules and went to the British Consulate in New York to lodge a complaint against the Mafia and the entire American system of government. She was genuinely shocked when the Consulate informed her there was nothing they could do.

But the results of her action were quite immediate: no threats were made, no hit men with tommy guns appeared, in fact not a word was spoken. But boxes and boxes and boxes of our maps, meant to be making money out on the newsstands, were suddenly brought back to us on all sides, flooding our offices and making work almost impossible. Fortunately Papa came back from Europe just in time to resolve the matter.

It was explained that Phyllis was a foreigner and did not understand our customs. She was even persuaded to apologize to a clean-cut fellow with an Italian name and not a trace of a mustache. Her fury was still unabated at Backsettown, and I did my best to calm her down. I even vaguely remembered the boxes of maps piled up in front of the office one evening when I dropped by to pick her up for dinner, though she did not tell me what was happening at the time.

What still stands out to me from that period was Phyllis' certainty that the authority of Her Majesty's Government could prevail not only against the Mafia but the entire American political system. I may turn out to be mistaken, and someone may yet compose a new verse of Rule Brittania in Phyllis' honor for prommers to belt out at the Royal Albert Hall, but this may be the silliest instance of British patriotism on record.

There are times today when I only wish it were possible for Phyllis and me to sit together in a room and have a fresh look at these events. The web had not yet matured when Phyllis left us, but I would have loved to have sent  her to the following website dealing with the English gang world:


and ask her what she made of it. I would like to ask her point blank if she still believes that Wilberforce ended slavery throughout the British Empire. And I would also like to query her as delicately as possible about our shared Jewishness. It would be wonderful if I could also show her a recent TV documentary entitled The Mafia  versus the Ku Klux Klan, since it makes the valid point that the Mafia, for all its transgressions, was a liberating and democratizing force in America against the whites-only stance of the KKK. But of course none of this can ever happen.

It was also during 1953 that Phyllis took me along Shaftesbury Avenue to see a film she regarded as absolutely central to my understanding of England. This was The Conquest of Everest by Hillary and Tensing, which had just taken place the previous year. Although Tensing and his fellow Sherpas were given equal billing with Hillary in the film, the British press had already decided all the credit for this feat belonged to England, despite the fact that Hillary and others involved in the expedition were technically New Zealanders.

Phyllis felt much the same way and told me in no uncertain terms that this Himalayan triumph was proof that England was once again in the ascendant and would soon be celebrating its dominance in world affairs again, as it had in the past.  She pointed to the newly constructed Royal Festival Hall as a sign of this and made me promise I would visit it during my stay.

In Phyllis' defense it should be recalled that 1953 was a year of great ups and downs for Britain, and the nation was truly searching for positive emotions. 1953 was the year of the last great killer smog in London and also the year when rationing finally ended, but it was also the  year when the coronation of Queen Elizabeth took place.

A group of Russian ballet dancers made a one-night appearance at the Royal Festival Hall, built just two years earlier, and I used this as an excuse to follow  Phyllis' advice and pay a visit. In order to reach the building that night I had to pass over a precipitous walkway bridging the still unreconstructed ruins on the South Bank. What awaited me was almost as much political propaganda as ballet, since the troupe members and their British hosts felt obliged to indulge in lengthy pro-Russian and anti-American speechifying. Ruins were everywhere to be found during Europe's postwar years—I also saw ruins in Italy, Germany, Austria, and Greece during the Fifties, and this sort of propagandizing could not be escaped in street signs, on TV and radio, and in films.

I also remember a few incidents that occurred while Phyllis and I were strolling around Manhattan. It must have been 1947 as we were walking through an area around Park Avenue—I believe it was in the Fifties—that we encountered an enormous demonstration centered on a single building. Large demonstrations were not usual at that time, so naturally we wanted to find out what was happening. We soon discovered that the building in question was the British Consulate in New York, and that the demonstrators were almost all New York Jews protesting against English policy on Israel as carried out by then Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin.

I watched in amazement as Phyllis suddenly lept into the throng, as though she were personally responsible for all British foreign policy. She gathered a circle of demo leaders around her and began to ask them about their grievances. She told them she had personal contacts with many members of the British government and would certainly communicate the demonstrators' concerns at a high level. But she also chastised them slightly—she felt it her duty to remind them that there were two sides to every question, making it quite likely that the British government was in fact acting justly.

"You see, they only know one side of it," she assured me as we left the scene together.  I was quite confused by this incident and have grown only more confused over the passage of time.  What Phyllis failed to mention (and what indeed she never saw fit to mention to me until after Papa's death) was that Papa was a Jew and that both she and I were half-Jewish. She and Papa were in fact in league together to persuade me that I was entirely a Protestant gentile, as I had been raised by my mother. Their goal was to send me to England as a successor to our father, who according to the Great Gross Family Disaster tradition had been swindled out of his first business at least partly because he was a Jew. But this could not happen to me, at least according Papa and Phyllis, because I was a gentile.

And over time Phyllis would finally succeed in hypnotizing herself that she was also some kind of gentile, indeed a fervent mystical Anglican like T.S. Eliot with distinct Catholic leanings. But of course Phyllis said nothing about any of this as we left the site of the demonstration. As strange as this may sound, this is fairly typical behavior for English Jews, as Anthony Julius relates in his massive tome Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England.

On another occasion we were walking south from Papa's apartment hotel on First Avenue and came upon Bellevue Hospital. Phyllis immediately launched into a story of having visited her mother there when she was hospitalized for a combination of mental illness and alcoholism. And presto, out tumbled another version of the whole story of Papa's first tumultuous breakup with Phyllis' mother (I had heard a different one many times from Papa). The tale went on and on, and although Phyllis reassured me she was fully recovered, I realized that she was still living inside its aura.

The same story came out again one day when we were walking under the El on Third Avenue, and she described how she had some years earlier gone searching from one bar to another on this very street trying to find where her mother and her second husband were drinking together. We were on our way to meet Papa at a Third Avenue theater specializing in English films, and once again Phyllis assured me she had overcome the trauma these memories evoked.  

I was also confused by this incident, since it was obvious to me that Phyllis had never been in New York before, yet these two stories suggested that she had been. In a book she self-published in 1983 Phyllis also includes a tale of a long trip she took with Papa eastward from Chicago during the Twenties, but Papa never mentioned any such trip to me, though I'm sure he would have, nor did Phyllis ever tell me about it during our time together, as I'm sure she would have. In this tale she even places herself strategically located in Chicago to witness the advent of jazz in that city. But the Phyllis I knew had little use for jazz or music of any kind, though she did enjoy dancing In retrospect I find myself wondering how much of what Phyllis then told me—(or would later relate in her writings)—truly took place and how much of it sprang entirely from her imagination.

Around that time Phyllis also developed a habit of telling me the same story in two different ways, a day or two apart but with slightly different details. At first I thought she was trying to test my memory, but then I realized that she wasn't entirely aware she was doing this. Papa noticed this too, but when we asked her which of two versions she actually meant, she would act as though it really didn't matter or as if she were being clever in a way we couldn't understand. Usually the differences weren't that crucial but just slightly upsetting, even silly. After a while we would simply overlook this sort of thing, since there was nothing we could do about it.

Since I've mentioned Phyllis' pro-active stance on what at that time we still called Palestine, I'd like to explain as best as I can where Phyllis stood in the English political spectrum. This wasn't too easy for me to figure out, though I finally got something of a fix on it. Despite her occasionally right-wing and England-first leanings, Phyllis was definitely not a conservative. And despite all the dull grey films of Welsh coal miners we watched together, she wasn't altogether pro-Labour either. Phyllis was a child of an earlier era, when the Liberal Party of Gladstone and Lloyd George held sway over Britain.

This became more than certain when an old family friend Sir Andrew McFadyean, the titular head of the English Liberal Party, visited my father in New York around 1949, and we had dinner together, as I describe in the webpage about Papa. McFadyean was a remarkable man and represented an England that had been bypassed, though both Papa and Phyllis still saw him as part of the present. I should add that my own politics had already begun its steady leftward swerve, as I had begun to read New York's unique newspaper of that time, Marshall Field's PM, with its distinctly socialist articles by Max Lerner and I.F. Stone.

If I were forced to sum up Phyllis in a paragraph or two, it would probably sound something like what follows. Yes, of course, Phyllis had a truly charming side, as everyone who saw her on British telly already knows. And yes, it is certainly true, my sister had a truly bright and delightful manner, and I cannot think of anyone I would rather have known as a multi-cultural mentor during my adolescence. But this was only part of the story—despite her background (or because of it) she was also reacting in a monocultural way to limit herself to a single set of cultural and religious laws as the only permissible ones, creating an odd and ironic parallel to what Dr. Goebbels had set up in Germany as his racial laws.

She often warned me and others against ever becoming prey to self-pity, which she regarded as the lowest of emotions. But Phyllis herself suffered from a strong streak of self-pity over the real and imagined glory of her life before Papa's business failure, as becomes amply clear in her own writings. She was also intensely jealous of our brother Tony's achievements as an artist, and she is almost totally unbelievable concerning the A-Z and much of what she has written about the several companies founded and directed by Papa.

And I wish I didn't have to say this, but it is also true that that Phyllis was a prig, a hypocrite, a closet Lesbian who could not talk freely about her desires, and a closet self-hating Jew who wanted to ignore an entire side of her identity. Such Jews, half-Jews, and fractional Jews have been extremely common in Britain throughout its history, as Anthony Julius makes abundantly clear in his book.

As other pages on this site make more than clear, an attempt has been made since Phyllis' passing to turn her into something she most definitely was not. She has been portrayed as a Chick Lit heroine, almost a character from Sex and the City, successfully defying all the odds, constantly outdoing male rivals including her father and taking men to bed almost on a whim. None of this is remotely true. As I patiently explained in my brief account, Phyllis learned everything she knew about business from our father. She was totally subservient to him during his life time, and she urged me to follow her example. And her love life was centered around women.

The Dark Phyllis Emerges

I want to begin this section by apologizing to all my British and European friends at this point for any seemingly unfair treatment of either Britain or Europe in what follows. Those who take the trouble to visit my websites will discover that I have devoted even less respect to the US than I have to Britain or Europe. But it is certainly true that throughout my early years both my father and Phyllis were continually conducting in my presence an almost jingoistic campaign favoring England and Europe over America. In their view they were simply echoing the views of other Europeans residing in the US at the time, even after an era when both Britain and Europe had largely depended on the US for their survival.

In defense of both Europe and Britain I need to point out the obvious: that the years between 1939 and 1945 were scarcely an exemplary period for the continent. The death, destruction, and suffering that took place, though not without historical antecedents, were unprecedented compared with anything that had happened in Europe until then. And the need to find people to blame for that suffering, as in any age, was uppermost in the minds of many Europeans, co-existent with whatever gratitude they may have felt to the US for ending the war and helping them to rebuild.

And so it is not altogether surprising that to one extent or another Americans became scapegoats for many Europeans for the entire disaster of World War II. To some extent this attitude is still quite prevalent in Britain and Europe today, as I hope to consider on another web page.

Here is where the dark Phyllis emerges. I don't want to write a great deal about this part, since I still feel genuine pain about what took place. Towards the end of my webpage about Papa, I relate how two years after his death I finally discovered the medical reason for the health problems that had plagued me all my life. I wrote to Phyllis and Tony about this discovery, expecting from them a compassionate reply. I received quite the opposite.

They both replied in no uncertain terms that I could not possibly be ill, indeed I must be making it all up. When I sent them a copy of a doctor's letter confirming my illness, my brother wrote both me and our family executors claiming that I had forged the letter. When the executors examined the matter and wrote back that this was definitely not the case, there was no reply from either Phyllis or Tony. And neither one of them ever bothered to apologize to me for this false accusation.

Matters grew even more tense, other letters went back and forth between the continents, until there was finally a begrudging admission that perhaps I might have a few health problems. I can no longer fully remember the details myself (or perhaps do not want to), but the upshot was that my monthly stipend of $100 a month was increased to $140.

Actually I was quite grateful for this at the time, as it made it possible for me to return to Europe, this time with Ilene, since in the economics of that era $140 a month was enough to live in a number of European nations. One of Papa's executors expressed surprise and asked me what kind of family this possibly could be that would treat me in this manner. He simply could not understand their attitude, and I certainly shared his feelings. Precisely what had happened to provoke such hostility from Phyllis and Tony?

In fact the answer was quite simple—the specter of the "The Great Gross Family Disaster of 1922." First of all Papa was no longer there as a force to constrain their feelings. But far more importantly they both still felt cheated by his default forty years earlier and had assumed that his will would at last make up for his past failures. When it failed to do so, their fury knew no bounds and they took it out on me for being able to live the sort of wandering life they themselves had known during the Twenties. My stipend ran for only fifteen years, so in 1970 I had no choice but to negotiate its continuation in person with Phyllis. Our meeting was correct but deeply strained, as was a subsequent meeting with her and her London solicitor.

There were also serious linguistic and cultural problems involved in these events. Though only twenty-five years older than me, Phyllis and Tony not only belonged to a different generation but a different culture. They had grown up in the Edwardian and early Georgian times of the Empire and in some ways still lived in a quasi-Victorian world. They had no real understanding of science or medicine, and to some extent their vocabulary for judging human behavior had more in common with Dickens or Tom Brown's School Days than with contemporary values. They believed that a man (or a woman) was either straightforward and honest, or else he was a...

Or else he was a...and here there was a large vocabulary of alternatives, some of them still used in England today, all of them distinctly dated and English in tone to an American ear. Here are a few of them:

Scoundrel, Cad, Rotter,
Bounder, Blighter, Rogue, 
Blackguard, Wastrel, Varlet, 
Bugbear, Chancer, Remittance man

And I'm quite sure this is how both Phyllis and my brother regarded me after Papa's death, they had no real choice, these were the only possibilities their vocabulary of values permitted them.

And that is as much as I want to say about the Dark Phyllis.

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by Alexander Gross. It may be
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