Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Moorehead, Alan McCrae (1910–1983)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Alan McCrae Moorehead (1910–1983), journalist, war correspondent and historian, was born on 22 July 1910 at Canterbury, Melbourne, youngest of three children of Victorian-born parents Richard James Moorehead, journalist, and his wife Louisa, née Edgerton. Educated at Scotch College (1916-26), which he remembered with a ‘sense of loathing’, and the University of Melbourne (BA, 1933), where history and English were his enthusiasms, Alan joined the staff of the Melbourne Herald in 1933. Reporting taught him to write rapidly and arrestingly, on demand. Shortish, dark and handsome, he was anxious to escape what he believed to be Australia’s derivative and petit-bourgeois culture, and to make his mark in England; having saved £500, he sailed in 1936. Fortune and friendship favoured him. In 1937, working as a stringer for Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express in Gibraltar, he reported the Spanish Civil War and Mediterranean tensions. He was transferred to staff and sent in 1938 to Paris and then in 1939 to Rome, where he married English-born Martha Lucy Milner, women’s fashion editor at the Express. Lucy was to become his best critic, and a proficient editor, secretary and business manager. Their partnership produced three children and twenty-two books, and survived his serial infidelities.

Leaving Rome for Athens before Italy entered World War II, Moorehead befriended the Oxford-educated Englishman, Alex Clifford of the rival Daily Mail. Clifford became his mentor. They conspired to be sent to Cairo as accredited war correspondents covering the new Mediterranean front. This, his deepest friendship, was later celebrated in a memoir A Late Education (1970). His editor saw no signs of brilliance in Moorehead’s work until the war in North Africa galvanised his prose into a dramatic and poetic style combining a sharp, bird’s eye view of campaigns and battles with empathetic and detailed observation of fighting men and their commanders. He was twice mentioned in despatches for his courage under enemy fire and was soon widely acknowledged as the pre-eminent British war correspondent. Some Australian colleagues, envious of his success, felt that he had abandoned his Australian identity, along with his accent. For almost three years he followed the fortunes of the British Army in North Africa, working under enormous pressure to refashion his dispatches and diaries into volumes covering the war’s three phases: Mediterranean Front (1941), A Year of Battle (1943) and The End in Africa (1943). As The African Trilogy (1944), they were hailed as a classic of war writing.

In 1944-45 Moorehead followed the British Army’s assault on Italy and Germany from the Allied landings to the heart of darkness at Belsen. Whereas the gentlemen’s desert war had excited him, the war in Europe disgusted him. Eclipse (1945) was a moving account of the destruction of the fabric and spirit of European civilisation. In 1946 he was appointed OBE. By war’s end he was physically exhausted and convinced that journalism was stymying his creativity. He completed Montgomery (1946), his only serious attempt at biography, during a sentimental journey to Australia to see family and friends. The trip confirmed what he already knew; he had become a European. He resolved to leave journalism and to succeed as a freelance creative writer. Resisting Beaverbrook’s flattery, he resigned from the Express. From 1948, when he leased the Villa Diana, outside Florence, the Mooreheads lived in Italy and London, educated their children in England and Europe and returned to Australia only fleetingly. In 1960 he built a house with a garden of Australian eucalypts at Porto Ercole, a village on the Tuscan coast.

Taking a decade to find his new writing métier, Moorehead meantime contributed regularly to magazines, notably, from 1948, to the New Yorker. The Villa Diana (1951) was a collection of perceptive essays on postwar Italy. The Traitors (1952), a study of the atomic spies, argued that personal conscience could not excuse the betrayal of national secrets. His Australian travel book, Rum Jungle (1953), written after a 1952 visit funded by Sir Keith Murdoch, received mixed reviews in Australia.

Moorehead first made his name as a historian with a study of the 1915 Mediterranean campaign to force the Dardanelles and take the Gallipoli peninsula. This was an unlikely subject for him. Although two uncles had served at Gallipoli, the dreary solemnity of Anzac Day had been ‘a torture’ to him as a schoolboy. Yet he was stirred by the belated death of his war-injured uncle in 1929 and by a 1932 book about World War I cemeteries and the ‘bitter, hopeless grief’ behind Australia’s Anzac and Armistice days. Gallipoli, drafted in nine months on the Greek island of Spetses, was published on 25 April 1956. Reviewers praised the balance and clarity of his exposition, and the elegiac beauty of his writing. The book won the £1000 Sunday Times literary prize and gold medal as Book of the Year and the Duff Cooper Memorial prize. Only the second general history of the campaign by a non-combatant, Gallipoli has rarely been out of print and has been credited with sparking the revival of World War I studies. Moorehead considered Gallipoli his best book, the one that had reconnected him to his Australian roots.

Life commissioned his next work to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Conceived as part of the American right-wing’s Cold War armory against communism, The Russian Revolution (1958) was expected to transform the voluminous researches of a Georgetown academic into a readable single volume, discrediting Lenin and the Bolsheviks as German-financed hijackers of Russian reform. He found the task a nightmare. This was the last book commission that he accepted.

Moorehead now had the finance to complete his most ambitious project, a history of the European penetration of Africa and the clash between Christendom and Islam. In 1956 he had conducted fieldwork for a series of New Yorker articles on the fate of southern Africa’s wildlife at the hands of tourists hunting big game. He brought these together as the episodic and passionate No Room in the Ark (1957), which charmed reviewers and sold 30 000 copies in Britain within six months. Now he followed the River Nile from Lake Victoria, comparing the explorers’ accounts with his own observations, the thread upon which he strung the stories of Victorian derring-do and of religious warfare. Praised by the likes of J. H. Plumb, Anthony Powell and Harold Nicolson, The White Nile (1960) was a sensation, selling 60 000 hardback copies in its first year. A prequel, The Blue Nile (1962), taking the story back to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, was almost as successful. Moorehead’s virtual invention of the modern travel-adventure history book now placed him in the front rank of popular writers.

Australian exploration provided Moorehead’s next subject. At (Sir) Sidney Nolan’s suggestion he chose the Burke and Wills expedition of 1861 as his topic. He visited Australia in 1962 to begin his research. By now his techniques were well honed: visit the site, devour the printed sources, write a draft (four hours a day, seven days a week until complete) and submit it to expert scrutiny. He travelled much of the route, worked furiously at the State Library of Victoria, and presented his typescript for scholars to assess. Cooper’s Creek (1963), a tale of Victorian hubris, united British imperial and colonial themes. It was published simultaneously in England, Australia and the United States of America; advance orders made it a bestseller before it reached the bookshops. Cooper’s Creek won the Royal Society of Literature Prize for 1963, and sold 45 000 copies in its first edition. Some academic historians praised the book highly, but others thought it was insufficiently scholarly to warrant review. Geoffrey Serle considered Moorehead’s histories ‘not scholarly but reputable’.

By 1964 Moorehead felt himself one of a group of expatriates who had begun to resolve in their writing and painting their experience of Australian isolation and nostalgia for England. He had become a historian of British imperial expansion. Travelling with Nolan to Antarctica and through the central Pacific, he gathered material and impressions for The Fatal Impact (1966). This study of the baleful influence of the European invasion of the Pacific Islands on indigenous peoples and the fauna of Australasia and Antarctica pioneered notions of cultural and environmental destruction. The reception in Australia and New Zealand was less enthusiastic than in Britain and America. Responding to a negative review, Moorehead defended the place of books written for the general reader rather than the scholar and reiterated his central argument that ‘the original inhabitants of the Pacific had a perfectly valid existence before the white man did them great damage’.

After writing seven bestsellers in succession, Moorehead experienced frustration with failed or stalled ventures: a rejected libretto and several stillborn film and writing projects. Refreshed by a visit to Australia with his family in 1965, he welcomed an invitation in 1966 to join the history department at Monash University during his anticipated 1967 visit. However, a debilitating stroke in December 1966 left him unable to utter or write a complete sentence, even after intense rehabilitation. His wife edited his last two books: Darwin and the Beagle (1969), from his script for a documentary, and A Late Education (1970). He was appointed CBE (1968) and AO (1978).

In 1979 Moorehead survived a car accident that killed his wife. Survived by his daughter and two sons, he died on 29 September 1983 at his home in Camden, London, and was buried in Hampstead cemetery. His gravestone reads ‘Alan Moorehead writer’. Many journalists, The Times wrote, think that they are more fitted for literature than newspaper work, but ‘in both these crafts, he was pre-eminent’, his best books elevating a ‘strain of haunting lyrical beauty’ almost to a new style. Australian obituaries were perfunctory.

Some Australian colleagues never forgave Moorehead’s expatriation and success, but his Australian family and friends knew him as loyal and generous. A good journalist, he became a great war correspondent and an outstanding narrative historian, perhaps Australia’s finest. Certainly no Australian writer before him had commanded so large an international audience. The many translations and reprints of his books testify to his enduring popularity.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Davison et al (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History (1998)
  • T. Pocock, Alan Moorehead (1990)
  • A. Moyal, Alan Moorehead (2005)
  • C. James, Cultural Amnesia (2007)
  • Melbourne University Magazine, July 1932, p 55
  • New York Times Book Review, 16 Sept 1956, p 32
  • Australian Book Review, Mar 1966, p 86, May 1966, p 148
  • Times (London), 30 Sept 1983, p 14
  • New York Times, 1 Oct 1983, p 33
  • Quadrant, June 1995, p 23
  • H. de Berg, interview with A. Moorehead (typescript, 1964, National Library of Australia)
  • A. Moorehead papers (National Library of Australia)
  • J. Hetherington papers (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Lack, 'Moorehead, Alan McCrae (1910–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/moorehead-alan-mccrae-15004/text26193, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017