Hesketh Pearson


Biography of Hesketh Pearson

Edward Hesketh Gibbons Pearson (20 February 1887 – 9 April 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.

Pearson 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. He was a great-great-great nephew of Francis Galton, whom he described in Modern Men and Mummers. 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 Sir 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. 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.

After the war, Pearson returned to the stage and, in 1921, met Hugh Kingsmill, an encounter which, thanks to Kingsmill's charismatic friendship and influence, changed his life.

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.

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