Edward Hesketh Gibbons Pearson 1887 - 1964
August 18, 2009
Edward Hesketh Gibbons Pearson 1887 - 1964 was a British actor, theatre director and writer. He is known mainly for his popular biographies; they made him the leading British biographer of his time, in terms of commercial success.
Hesketh Pearson was a patient of homeopath Raphael Roche (recommended to him by George Bernard Shaw), and he wrote about George Bernard Shaw’s treatment by Raphael Roche of his hydrocoele (in George Bernard Shaw: his life and his personality).
He was born in Hawford, Claines Worcestershire, to a family with a large number of members in Holy Orders. His parents were Thomas Henry Gibbons Pearson, a farmer, and the former Amy Mary Constance Biggs.
After the family moved to Bedford in 1896, he was educated at Orkney House School for five years, a period he later described as the only unhappy episode in his life, for the compulsive flogging beloved of its headmaster.
At 14, he was sent to Bedford Grammar School, where he proved an indifferent student. Rebelling against his father’s desire that he study Classics in order to prepare himself for a career in Holy Orders, on graduation he entered commerce, but happily accepted his dismissal as a troublemaker when he inherited £1,000 from a deceased aunt. He employed the funds to travel widely, and on his return joined his brother’s car business.
Conservative by temperament, he was a passionate reader of Shakespeare’s plays, and a frequent theatre-goer. When his brother’s business faced bankruptcy, he applied for a job with Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and began acting with that theatrical entrepreneur’s company in 1911. He also acted with the companies of Harley Granville Barker and George Alexander.
In 1912 he married the actress Gladys Rosalind Bardili. They had a son, Henry Car Hesketh Pearson, who was killed in 1939 in the Spanish Civil War. Gladys died in 1951 and the same year he married Dorothy Joyce Ryder, who survived him.
Pearson published his first full length biography, “Doctor Darwin”, when he was 43. By the time of his death thirty four years later he had written another eighteen biographies, three travel books (all with Hugh Kingsmill), three books of reminiscences (one written with Malcolm Muggeridge), four collections of brief lives, a collection of short stories and essays, and a book on the craft of biographical writing, as well as numerous articles and talks.
In England he was the most popular and successful biographer of his time.
At the outbreak of World War I, Pearson enlisted immediately in the British Army but was soon invalided out when it was discovered that he suffered from tuberculosis. He volunteered for the Army Service Corps and was sent to Mesopotamia, whose climate was conducive to treatment for tuberculosis.
He recovered from that malady while there, but contracted several other diseases, septic sores, dysentery and malaria and was close to death on three occasions. he attributed his survival to his practice of reciting long passages of Shakespeare while critically ill.
He distinguished himself under fire, and on one occasion received a severe headwound from shrapnel. He was subsequently awarded the Military Cross.
In 1926 the anonymously-published Whispering Gallery, purporting to be diary pages from leading political figures, caused him to be prosecuted for attempted fraud. He won the case.
A mutual interest in Frank Harris led to his meeting Hugh Kingsmill in 1921, and the two formed a close friendship. Hugh Kingsmill dropped his last name when he began publishing biographies and novels and was known both professionally and privately as Hugh Kingsmill. Together they wrote three books of a unique mix of travel writing, reminiscence, and literary gossip. Hugh Kingsmill died in 1949.
Throughout his career Pearson made the acquaintance of many celebrated writers and performers, including George Bernard Shaw, Frank Harris, Alfred Bruce Douglas, Max Beerbohm, Francis Galton, Winston Churchill, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, and Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
He was a close friend and collaborator of Hugh Kingsmill and of Malcolm Muggeridge; Richard Ingrams’ later biography of Malcolm Muggeridge [Muggeridge: The Biography ISBN 0-00-255610-3] claims Pearson had an affair with Kitty Muggeridge, at the beginning of the 1940s, when Malcolm was in Washington D.C..