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  Gerald Kersh (1911–1968), by Simon Richard Bloom, c.1965 Gerald Kersh (1911–1968), by Simon Richard Bloom, c.1965
Kersh, Gerald (1911–1968), novelist and short-story writer, was born on 26 August 1911 at 18 High Street, Teddington, Middlesex, the son of Hyman Leon Kersh, born Chaim Kerszenblat (1877–1929), a Polish master tailor, and his wife, Leah, née Miller (1880–1962). He was brought up with his elder sisters Annette and Sylvia in a secular Jewish milieu in Teddington and Shepherd's Bush, and then in 1922 his father set up shop and home at 18 Blandford Street, near Marylebone, where his younger brother, Cyril, later a journalist and novelist, was born in 1925. He was educated at Christ Church School, Ealing, and won a scholarship to the Regent Street Polytechnic (1924–8). Kersh was a precocious child. At seven he wrote his first novel and published it privately in a limited edition of one copy, bound in his father's brocade waistcoat. He read his favourite writers, Guy de Maupassant and Charles Baudelaire, in French. After his father's death Kersh was unable to support his family and left so that he would not be a burden to them. He worked in London as a cinema manager, bodyguard, debt collector, cook in a fish and chip restaurant, travelling salesman, French teacher, and all-in-wrestler, among other trades, all of which contributed background and characters for his novels and short stories. At this time he frequently moved residence and his whereabouts were unknown to his family.

In 1934 Kersh published his first novel, Jews without Jehovah (1934), to positive reviews. However, four uncles and a cousin recognized unflattering portraits of themselves, sued the publisher, Wishart, and the book was withdrawn soon afterwards. His next novel, Men are so Ardent (1935), was a critical and commercial failure, but this was followed by his most famous novel, Night and the City (1938), which describes the exploits of a lowlife pimp, Harry Fabian, in 1930s Soho. Reviewers acknowledged the influence of contemporary American fiction, including Dashiell Hammett, John Dos Passos, and Ernest Hemingway, describing it as ‘a brutal, ruthless piece of work’ (Richard Church, John O'London's) that ‘far surpasses anything of the kind recently published’ (Frank Swinnerton, The Observer). With the proceeds of this novel Kersh married Alice Thompson Rostron (1909–1986), daughter of Robert Rostron, farmer, on 12 December 1938, at Caxton Hall, London. In this period Kersh contributed numerous short stories and articles for newspapers and was credited as associate editor of the first seven issues of Courier Magazine (1937–9) for which he wrote most of the content. Aspects of his early life form the basis of memoirs and stories in his autobiographical collection, I Got References (1939), which included warm portraits of his family as his apology for his first novel.

In 1940 Kersh joined the Coldstream Guards and published his training experiences anonymously in the Daily Herald from September of that year, prior to their appearance as The Private Life of a Private in 1941. These pieces were also rewritten and expanded as the novel They Die with Their Boots Clean (1941), which became one of the best-sellers of the war years and led to a sequel, The Nine Lives of Bill Nelson (1942). Having been buried alive during the blitz, Kersh was deemed unfit for combat. He therefore concentrated on writing—often anonymously and pseudonymously—for the BBC, Ministry of Information, and Ealing Studios, as well as for newspapers and magazines, among them The People (as Piers England, which earned him a death threat from Adolf Hitler) and John Bull (as Waldo Kellar). He estimated that he wrote over half a million words each year, a work rate that ruined his health.

Kersh's first marriage was short-lived and, following a divorce, he married—on 22 June 1943 at Caxton Hall, London—Claire Alyne Boyle, known widely and simply as Lee (b. 1909), the Canadian-born daughter of Lucien Turcotte Pacaud, diplomat. The couple had lived together since 1939, with Kersh writing and Lee managing his career. He completed three more war novels: The Dead Look On (1943), a chilling retelling of the Lidice atrocity; A Brain and Ten Fingers (1943) about Yugoslav guerrillas, the proceeds of which went towards aiding their plight; and Faces in a Dusty Picture (1944), about the North African desert campaign. These novels, in conjunction with three short-story collections, made him one of the best-selling authors of the war years, with print runs of his books limited only by paper restrictions. Having gained accreditation as a journalist with the United States army, Kersh covered the invasion of France, including the liberation of Paris, where he supplied food to his relatives, the Kershenblatt family. His wartime experiences are recounted in Clean, Bright and Slightly Oiled (1946).

Kersh first visited the USA in 1945, where he sold stories to major magazines including Cosmopolitan and Esquire. In 1946 Night and the City was published in the USA to acclaim, and eventually achieved a print run of over one million copies. The film rights were purchased and four years later Jules Dassin directed a film noir, atmospherically shot in the ruins of post-war London, starring Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney. Dassin's film bore little resemblance to Kersh's novel, in which he had no involvement. Heavily criticized by British reviewers as too seedy, Dassin's adaptation was subsequently praised as one of the best examples of its genre. In 1992 a remake, with Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange, transposed the action to New York and used Dassin's film as its source material.

As the war ended Kersh published An Ape, a Dog and a Serpent, about a film producer-cum-con-artist, and The Weak and the Strong (both 1945), a disaster novel about a group of people trapped in a cave, which was extraordinarily successful in Britain but failed in America. In 1947, after publication of his noir mystery Prelude to a Certain Midnight, Kersh left London for Perce on the Canadian east coast, where he finished The Song of the Flea (1948), the story of a struggling writer in 1930s Soho; he subsequently moved to Florida and then purchased Ashton Hall in Barbados, which was destroyed by fire in 1949. Kersh's second marriage had been in trouble for some time, and divorce proceedings took five years. Throughout this period he wrote many short stories to pay for his medical treatments, travels, and debts. His novel about a Jewish man experiencing a nervous breakdown, The Thousand Deaths of Mr Small (1950), was followed by a science fiction adventure, The Great Wash (1953; Secret Masters in the USA). After losing his divorce case in November 1954, Kersh married Florence Sochis (b. 1907), daughter of Morris Sochis of Philadelphia, on 11 January 1955, again at Caxton Hall, London. Originally a friend of his first wife, Sochis looked after Kersh from 1949, and they eventually began a personal relationship in 1951.

In 1955 Kersh left England and took up permanent residence in upstate New York, becoming an American citizen four years later. There he wrote what has since become one of his best-known novels, Fowler's End (1957), the story of a sly, cruel, and greedy Soho cinema proprietor, described by Anthony Burgess as ‘one of the best comic novels of the century, with Sam Yudenow as superb a creation (almost) as Falstaff’. It was followed by The Implacable Hunter (1961), the story of St Paul's conversion, which Burgess compared favourably with the work of Robert Graves. Kersh fought throat cancer to complete his last great novel, The Angel and the Cuckoo (1966), based around characters at a London café, which his American publisher released without publicity. After a recurrence of the cancer Kersh died, in poverty, on 5 November 1968, at Horton Memorial Hospital, Middletown, New York. His last novel, Brock, was published posthumously the following year. Largely ignored by the critical establishment during his lifetime, Kersh's nineteen novels and twenty-one short-story collections are now much sought after, gaining their author a popular following, notably for his Jewish and London low life novels—of which Fowler's End, Night and the City, and The Angel and the Cuckoo were republished in the opening years of the twenty-first century.

Paul Duncan

Sources  

G. Kersh, I got references (1939) · G. Kersh, Clean, bright and slightly oiled (1946) · C. Kersh, A few gross words (1990) · The Times (9 Nov 1965) · The Guardian (9 Nov 1965) · WW · private information (2012) [S. Bloom, B. Miller, G. Majin, F. Kersh] · b. cert. · m. certs.

Likenesses  

S. Bloom, photograph, c.1965, priv. coll. [see illus.] · S. Bloom, photograph, repro. in G. Kersh, Night and the city (2007) · photograph, repro. in www.london-books.co.uk/Authors/geraldkersh.html · photographs, repro. in G. Kersh, The thousand deaths of Mr Small (1950) · photographs, repro. in G. Kersh, Fowler's end (1957) · portrait, photograph, repro. in goodreads.com/photo/author/54469.Gerald_Kersh, accessed on Oct 2011