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Pearl, Cyril Altson (1904–1987)

by Patrick Buckridge

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

Cyril Pearl, by William Pidgeon, c.1945

Cyril Pearl, by William Pidgeon, c.1945

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an7497130

Cyril Altson Pearl (1904-1987), journalist, social historian, biographer and wit, was born on 11 April 1904 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, second child of Jewish parents Joseph Pearl, gem-dealer, and his wife Goldy, née Altson, both born in England.  Cyril later described them as 'tolerant, liberal-minded and prepared to let their children grow up the way they wanted to'.  He was educated at state and Catholic primary schools at Carlton, at Scotch College, Melbourne and, when the family moved to Western Australia, at Perth High School.  Returning to Victoria, he may have worked in the Melbourne Public Library; from 1931 he attended the University of Melbourne, where he studied Russian and philosophy, and attended Frederic Wood Jones’s lectures in neurology.  He left without taking a degree.

Midway through his first year at university Pearl became co-editor of Farrago, the student newspaper.  His opening editorial vowed to continue his predecessors’ determination to create a 'state of ferment':  it was Farrago’s aim, he quipped, 'to sell yeast rather than bread'.  He took his political bearings, however, less from the hard left (though he contributed some militant literary articles to Proletariat), than from what he called the 'English tradition' of tolerance, scepticism and empiricism that he identified with thinkers such as Francis Bacon, David Hume, John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell.  His university friends included Alan Moorehead, Chester Wilmot and Ross Campbell and Alwyn Lee, later a contributing editor at Time.

In 1931 Pearl started Stream, an avant-garde literary monthly designed to be 'a medium of international art expression'.  It flared brightly but briefly, lasting only three issues.  On 1 June 1934 in Melbourne he married an artist, Irma Janetzki, a kindred spirit with whom he had already set up Transition Press, a small publishing imprint, where they had designed and printed a tiny edition of their friend Clive Turnbull’s poems.  In 1933 Pearl had begun a full-time job with the Argus’s new evening newspaper, the Star.  It folded in less than three years—long enough for him to hone his skills as a writer, reporter and sub-editor to legendary standards, and to enhance his reputation for journalistic audacity by placing a call to Adolf Hitler in January 1935 to quiz him about his intentions.  Hitler was unavailable, but (according to Richard Hughes) the chief of his foreign press department conveyed the Führer’s desire 'to live in peace with the world and especially with Australia—and The Star'.

Pearl was part of the 1936 exodus of Star journalists—Hughes, Massey Stanley, Roland Pullen, Godfrey Blunden and others—to Sydney, where they all joined the staff of (Sir) Frank Packer’s revamped Daily Telegraph.  Pearl was soon features editor.  His relationship with Packer was guarded but workable and in 1939 Packer, who admired his curious learning and tolerated his politics, made him editor of the Sunday Telegraph, probably on the understanding that the paper could be a shade more liberal, at least on social issues, than its daily stablemate, edited after 1941 by Brian Penton.  Like Penton, Pearl imprinted his paper with his personality as well as his politics, sometimes quite literally, with his own handwritten signatures and 'Memos from the Editor', often differentiating '[his] own views about things and people' from those he expressed in the leaders.  Personal relations between the two editors were never close, but they stood shoulder to shoulder with Packer and the other Sydney proprietors against the Federal government’s wartime attempt to muzzle the newspapers’ attacks on political censorship; the eloquently blank columns printed and distributed in open defiance of the Commonwealth censor appeared in Pearl’s paper for the first time on 16 April 1944.

In 1948 Pearl added the editorship of A.M., Consolidated Press Ltd’s new monthly magazine, to his responsibilities, and in 1950 resigned as editor of the Sunday Telegraph.  He had had enough of the world of salaried journalism in Australia, in which he felt that advertising and sectional politics had made it impossible to write with honesty and freedom.  In 1953 he resigned from Consolidated Press altogether and moved back to Melbourne.  Apart from a short stint as editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Mirror in 1960-61 (which occasioned a permanent return to Sydney), he never again worked as a staff journalist.  For the next thirty years he wrote, on commission, hundreds of feature articles, columns and reviews for a range of newspapers and magazines, especially the Sydney Morning Herald and the fortnightly Nation (for which he wrote satire as both 'Tom Ugly' and the 'Melbourne Spy'), and later the weekly Nation Review and the Weekend Australian.

But Pearl had resigned in order to write books; indeed he wrote more than twenty in the last thirty years of his life.  He had a passion for social history, which he believed had been neglected in Australia and Britain.  Taking their cue from the American Herbert Asbury’s popular histories of Prohibition and the big-city gangs, he and Irma first compiled a photographic history of Australia, evoking its changing social atmosphere from 1853 (Our Yesterdays, 1954).  This was followed by his revisionist study of Victorian sexual morality, The Girl with the Swansdown Seat (1955), and by Wild Men of Sydney (1958), a book which exposed the corruption of politics and the press in colonial Sydney; the latter may have changed the law in New South Wales, when the family of John Norton, the long-deceased editor of the scurrilous weekly, Truth, reputedly pressured the Cahill government into legislating to make it an offence to defame the dead.

Social history overlapped with Pearl’s other great enthusiasm, biography.  Both were instruments for 'debunking' social myths and exposing unpalatable truths in the mode of H. L. Mencken—an example was his book on Robert Burns, Bawdy Burns (1958).  As a biographer he was attracted to individuals (especially those with an Australian connection) who, in his judgment, had been unjustly neglected.  His three most significant biographies were Always Morning—about the poet 'Orion' Horne (1960), Morrison of Peking (1967) and Brilliant Dan Deniehy (1972).  Deniehy intersected with his interest in all things Irish, which also produced books on James Joyce’s Dublin in 1969 and the Irish-Australian politician Sir Charles Gavan Duffy in 1979.

Pearl was an accomplished raconteur, a bon viveur and a humourist.  He published a book of Australian limericks (1986), a selection of Lennie Lower’s best columns (1963), a history of beer (1969), and some light-hearted satires on the Australian scene, of which the best-known, So, You Want to be an Australian (1959), provoked a hostile question in the Senate on 22 November 1960, alleging insult to the Public Service.  His wit and erudition made him a natural for television panel shows such as 'Any Questions?' in the early 1960s and 'Would You Believe?' in the early 1970s.  Irma had died in 1962 and on 11 May 1965 at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Manly, he married Patricia Mary (Paddy) Donohoe.  They travelled widely, gathering information for his books on Hardy Wilson (1970) and the Dunera 'boys' (1983).  Survived by his wife and the younger son of his first marriage and predeceased by his elder son, he died on 3 March 1987 at Bondi and was buried in the Jewish section of Botany cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Forty-Two Faces (1963)
  • B. Griffen-Foley, The House of Packer (2000)
  • P. Ryan, Brief Lives (2004)
  • H. de Berg, interview with C. Pearl (ts, 1968, National Library of Australia)
  • D. Ritch, interview with P. Pearl (ts, 1988-89, National Library of Australia)
  • C. Pearl papers (National Library of Australia)

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Patrick Buckridge, 'Pearl, Cyril Altson (1904–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pearl-cyril-altson-15048/text26246, published in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 September 2014.

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

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