1904-1987 | VIC | Journalist & Author
Pearl was a fine journalist, editor, social historian and biographer. In the mid-1930s he was one of a talented group of newsmen on the Evening Star – during which time he once made an audacious phone call to Adolf Hitler to ask his intentions. By 1939 he was editor of The Sydney Sunday Telegraph, where he and his adjacent editor Brian Penton (Daily Telegraph) resisted occasionally wrong-headed wartime censorship. Pearl later worked as a freelance journalist, and wrote 20 books, including the biography Morrison of Peking (1967) and Wild Men of Sydney (1958).
Cyril Pearl, whose career captured the heights and range of 20th century journalistic ambition, was born to some affluence in Melbourne’s inner city suburb of Fitzroy, the second child of Jewish parents, Joseph and Goldy. He later described them as “tolerant, liberal-minded and prepared to let their children grow up the way they wanted to.” His father was a gem dealer. He attended primary schools in Carlton, then Scotch College before the family shifted to Perth, where he went to Perth High School.
Pearl came back to Melbourne University, where he started studying Russian and philosophy, but dropped out. More importantly, he became co-editor of the student newspaper Farrago, where in his first editorial he pledged to create a “state of ferment”. While at university he also founded a literary magazine, Stream, which drew its influence from a European aesthetic in contrast to more conservative mainstream publications – but which struggled, and then ceased after three editions.
It was not until he was 27 that Pearl took up a full time journalistic career, working as both reporter and sub-editor at The Star, the evening newspaper within The Argus group, during the three years the paper survived. His rapidly acquired status as a legend of the profession was established there, burnished by a phone call he made to Adolf Hitler to question the Fuhrer’s intentions. His friend Richard Hughes – who was also to become a legendary figure in journalism – claimed that although the German leader was unavailable, his press chief passed on Hitler’s desire to “live in peace with the world and especially with Australia – and The Star”. The year after joining the paper, Pearl married artist Irma Janetzki, publishing poetry together in a tiny imprint.
When The Star folded, Pearl and several colleagues, including Hughes, shifted to Sydney, joining Frank Packer’s flagship The Daily Telegraph. He became features editor, then as his working relationship with Packer developed, editor of The Sunday Telegraph. His personality was stamped through the paper, which included his handwritten signatures and “Memos from the Editor”. He had taken over the paper when World War II began in 1939, and two years later formed a close alliance with Brian Penton, who had then become editor of the daily paper, in challenging the wartime censors. On April 16 1944, Pearl published blank columns to draw attention to what he viewed as heavy-handed Commonwealth censorship.
He became editor in 1948 of a new Packer magazine, A.M., and two years later quit The Sunday Telegraph. In 1953 a further highly fruitful era dawned for Pearl, as he left the Packer employ altogether and returned to Melbourne. He continued to write profusely for newspapers and magazines, but not again on staff – except from 1960-61, when he briefly returned to Sydney to edit Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Mirror. He wrote under the noms de plume “Tom Ugly” and “Melbourne Spy” for the celebrated publication Nation, and contributed to Nation Review.
Pearl chiefly, however, made his mark through this latter phase of his long career, as an author of 26 books. He and Irma told the Australian story through photographs in Our Yesterdays. Then he wrote of Victorian sexual morality in The Girl with the Swansdown Seat. But it was his next work that caused his reputation to soar: Wild Men of Sydney, published in 1958. It probably took a Melburnian to write in the way Pearl did, about political and press corruption in the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The book’s sales were boosted mightily by the attempts to censor or prevent its publication altogether, by the family of John Norton, the editor and proprietor of the then immensely powerful newspaper Truth, who also became a state parliamentarian. Pressure was placed on the NSW Parliament to enact legislation to make it an offence to defame the dead. Pearl was not a man to pull his punches under pressure. In his foreword to the book, he says of Norton that “he had been publicly denounced many times as a thief, a blackmailer, a wife-beater and an obscene drunkard, without ever refuting the charges; and he had been accused of killing his oldest friend in a drunken quarrel. Norton was a fascist when Mussolini was a schoolboy ...”. He says Norton’s life mirrors “the dirty, tough, intimate, turbulent, crooked, hard-drinking, politically immature Sydney of the late 19th century”.
In 1967, Pearl wrote a magnificent biography of the extraordinarily wide-ranging career of another journalist, George Morrison: Morrison of Peking. A remarkable variety of other works followed, including in 1983 The Dunera Scandal, which became a highly successful telemovie. His pungent wit and vast knowledge made him a familiar figure on television panel shows and other programs. Irma – with whom he had two sons, the elder dying before him – passed away in 1962, and he married Patricia (Paddy) Donohoe three years later. He died at Bondi in 1987.
Rohan Callick is Asia-Pacific editor of The Australian and a committee member of Melbourne Press Club. He was the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year in 1995.
Portrait by William Edward Pidgeon, courtesy National Library of Australia.
‘Pearl, Cyril Altson (1904–1987)’, Patrick Buckridge, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, 2012.
Brief Lives, Peter Ryan, Duffy & Snellgrove, 2004.