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Stephensen, Percy Reginald (1901–1965)

by Craig Munro

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Percy Reginald Stephensen (1901-1965), by Edward Quicke, 1945

Percy Reginald Stephensen (1901-1965), by Edward Quicke, 1945

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2292667

Percy Reginald Stephensen (1901-1965), writer, editor and publisher, was born on 20 November 1901 at Maryborough, Queensland, eldest son of Christian Julius Stephensen, wheelwright, and his Russian-born Swiss wife Marie Louise Aimée, daughter of Henry Tardent. Percy attended Biggenden State School, then boarded at Maryborough Grammar. At the University of Queensland (B.A., 1922) he acquired the lifelong nickname 'Inky' (from the popular wartime song, Mademoiselle from Armentières); he also made friends with two returned servicemen, Fred Paterson, the communist, and Eric Partridge, the lexicographer. Norman Lindsay's son, Jack, introduced him to Brisbane radicals and intellectuals. Stephensen edited the university magazine, Galmahra, in 1921 and caused controversy by including Jack's erotic lyrics. That year Stephensen joined the Communist Party of Australia. After graduating, he taught at Ipswich Grammar School in 1922-23. To everyone's surprise, including his own, he won the 1924 Queensland Rhodes scholarship and left for England in August.

Reading philosophy, politics and economics at The Queen's College, Oxford, Stephensen joined the university branch of the Communist Party with A. J. P. Taylor, Graham Greene and Tom Driberg, an undercover agent for MI5. Threatened with expulsion by the university authorities for his communist agitation, Stephensen was involved in the 1926 general strike and, after it failed, helped to organize the Workers' Theatre Movement in London.

Graduating with second-class honours in 1927, Stephensen joined Jack Lindsay and managed the Fanfrolico Press at Bloomsbury, London. He devoted his energies to literary and fine press publishing, issuing about twenty titles in 1927-29: all lavishly printed and illustrated limited editions, they included works by the Lindsays and Hugh McCrae, as well as his own translation, The Antichrist of Nietzsche. He also co-edited with Jack the literary magazine, London Aphrodite. Stephensen began living with a former ballerina Winifred Sarah Venus, née Lockyer, with whom he shared the rest of his stormy life. They married, after her husband's death, on 7 November 1947 in Melbourne; Winifred raised a son Jack from her first marriage.

After meeting D. H. Lawrence in December 1928, Stephensen established the Mandrake Press (1929-30) — with backing from a Bloomsbury book-dealer — to publish Lawrence's controversial paintings. As a champion of Lawrence, he took part in a spirited anti-censorship crusade, writing satirical pamphlets and arranging with Lawrence to produce a secret English edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover. He also published his own collection of Australian stories, The Bushwhackers (1929), as well as work by Jack McLaren and others, among them the legendary Aleister Crowley.

Returning to Australia in 1932, Stephensen established the Endeavour Press in Sydney with Norman Lindsay, producing over a dozen titles by such writers as Banjo Paterson and Miles Franklin. Disagreements with the board led to Stephensen's resignation in 1933. He set up his own under-capitalized firm, P. R. Stephensen & Co., which brought out another dozen Australian books by Franklin, Henry Handel Richardson, Eleanor Dark and others. The company's inevitable demise in 1935 delayed publication of Xavier Herbert's Capricornia until 1938.

With the failure of his publishing ventures, Stephensen became active as a polemicist and organizer. The attempted banning of the Czech writer Egon Kisch from Australia in 1934-35 prompted Stephensen to lead a rebellion against George Mackaness in the Fellowship of Australian Writers; 'Inky' was supported by Frank Clune, for whom he was to ghost-write almost seventy books over the next thirty years. Stephensen expanded a long essay for his short-lived 'national literary magazine', Australian Mercury, into The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) which was his most significant achievement and one of the most stimulating works of the 1930s. Its influence led to the formation of the Jindyworobak poetry movement.

Publication of the book was financed by a new patron William Miles who, with Stephensen's assistance, in July 1936 launched the monthly Publicist; it had a strongly anti-British, anti-Semitic and anti-democratic flavour by 1938 and was criticized for its overt Fascism. An early champion of Aboriginal rights, Stephensen helped to organize the 'Day of Mourning and Protest' to mark the sesquicentenary on 26 January 1938.

The central puzzle of Stephensen's life was his sudden shift of sympathy from the left to the far right. If his need to rely on the patronage of Miles was one reason, another was his frustration at his own business failures. The widely-publicized Moscow trials of 1936-38 convinced him that communism was no longer a solution. Disillusioned with democracy, he now looked to extreme nationalism, although he idolized Gandhi rather than Hitler. Like conservative Australian politicians, Stephensen showed admiration for Japan.

In October 1941 Stephensen formed the Australia-First Movement, a political pressure group based on the programme advocated by the Publicist. Military Intelligence, after failing to have the group banned, used a plot concocted by an agent provocateur in Western Australia to implicate Stephensen. He took over as editor of the Publicist in January 1942, but was arrested and interned without trial on 10 March, with fifteen other A.F.M. members, on suspicion of collaboration with the Japanese and of planning sabotage and assassination.

There was uproar in Federal parliament and criticism of the Labor government when it became clear that there was no genuine connexion between the Western Australian 'plot' and Stephensen. Yet he was held without trial in various internment camps for the rest of the war. A Commonwealth commission of inquiry found that there were 'substantial reasons' for Stephensen's detention, but this opinion was mainly based on pre-war evidence of his disloyalty to Britain and admiration for Germany and Japan. An official war historian, (Sir) Paul Hasluck, wrote that the detentions were the 'grossest infringement of individual liberty made during the war'.

For ten bitter years after World War II Stephensen lived with Winifred in various parts of Victoria, sustained only by his ghost-writing for Clune. In 1954 their major biography of Jorgen Jorgenson, The Viking of Van Diemen's Land, was published by Angus and Robertson Ltd; Stephensen's memoir of the Fanfrolico Press, Kookaburras and Satyrs, appeared that year.

Having returned to Sydney with Winifred in 1956, Stephensen lived at Cremorne within sight of the harbour. He ghosted books for retired sea captains and published under his own name the definitive History and Description of Sydney Harbour (Adelaide, 1966). He wrote or edited many entries in the 1958 Australian Encyclopaedia, edited four volumes of William Baylebridge's poetry (1961-64), was a foundation member of the Australian Society of Authors (1963) and worked as a literary agent. On 28 May 1965, after giving an enthusiastic speech to the Sydney Savage Club, he collapsed and died in the State Ballroom. Walter Stone gave a panegyric at his cremation. Stephensen's wife survived him; they had no issue.

An intellectual and literary adventurer, as well as a political rebel, Stephensen was a talented writer and a brilliant editor. As a publisher he influenced the careers of major writers. In the 1930s he helped to improve the standard of Australian book design and production, and to stimulate more vigorous cultural and intellectual debate. Almost 6 ft. (183 cm) tall, Stephensen was of athletic build, with fair to reddish hair and a toothbrush moustache. A portrait of him by Edward Quicke, a fellow-internee at Tatura camp, Victoria, is held by the National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Muirden, The Puzzled Patriots (Melb, 1968)
  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945 (Canb, 1970)
  • E. Stephensen, Brief Biographical Memorandum of Percy Reginald (‘Inky’) Stephensen
  • E. Stephensen, Bibliography of Percy Reginald Stephensen (Melb, priv print, 1981)
  • J. Lindsay, Life Rarely Tells (Melb, 1982)
  • C. Munro, Wild Man of Letters (Melb, 1984)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1945-46, 4, p 941
  • R. Fotheringham, The Life of P. R. Stephensen, Australian Publisher (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1970)
  • R. L. Hall, Notes about P. R. Stephensen 1918-1932 (Fotheringham papers, University of Queensland Library)
  • Stephensen papers (State Library of New South Wales and University of Queensland Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Craig Munro, 'Stephensen, Percy Reginald (1901–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephensen-percy-reginald-8645/text15115, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 28 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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