hedexpose

The Hoaxers were excited about their jolly jape. To be effective, it had to be a secret. But James McAuley and Harold Stewart were bursting to talk about it. And so it came to pass that with McAuley away in New Guinea on service, Stewart told his friend Tess van Sommers about it. She was a would-be journalist waiting for a cadetship on Sydney's Sunday Sun. At the same time that he swore her to secrecy, he gave her some pencil-written drafts of the Ern Malley poems and promised that she could have the scoop of this "wonderful jape" which was "going to absolutely slay Max Harris".

It was a bad move. Sommers jumped the gun the moment she saw the Ern Malley edition of Angry Penguins on the streets. Of course she was no journalist and the paper would hardly let her have her "scoop" - so senior journalists took over, hunting down the hoaxers before they were ready to account for their actions. They were not pleased. They were revelling in the success of their hoax. They wanted to make the most of it - and to keep their secret for as long as possible.

However, the hoax suspicions were erupting in a very different way in Adelaide.
Max Harris was being accused of writing the poems.
He had given the Ern Malley edition of Angry Penguins to one of his former university lecturers, Brian Elliott. The academic was impressed by the poems, but immediately charged Harris with having written them as self-satire. Harris's emphatic denials were not enough for Elliott. He wrote in the university paper, On Dit, that he and other academics, while recognising the poetry as "very good" believed that Ern Malley was fictional - most likely Harris himself. The article was headed "Local lecturer cries 'hoax' - is Malley, Malley or Malley, Harris - or who?"

And the Ern Malley Scandal was born - seven months after the poems were written.
 

Harris found himself on the defensive. The poetry was acclaimed - but suspected. He knew he was not a hoaxer. He hired a Sydney private detective called Bannister to stake out Ethel Malley's address at Dalmar Street, Croydon. At first Bannister investigated the wrong address, 14 instead of 40. But he did check the electoral roll and establish that there was no E. Malley listed in the area. Number 40, he discovered, was occupied by people called Stewart and when, finally, he found a woman at home in the house, he was to be told that the person who may be able to talk about Ern Malley was in hospital. (As it happened, Harold Stewart was in hospital, recovering from surgery on an abscess.)

Telegram

Harris's alarm bells were ringing. He cabled John Reed that there was a "strong chance" Ern Malley was a fraud.

By now the Sydney journalists were descending on McAuley and Stewart who, naively, insisted that van Sommers be the reporter of their story. Senior journalist Colin Simpson, had firm hold on the reins. It was he who chased up Harris, waking him from "Nembutal-stupefied sleep" at 2 am to catch him off guard and quiz him about the poems.

Not knowing about van Sommers' little arrangement with the hoaxers, Harris assumed that it was the English lecturer, Elliott, who had tipped off the media.
He pondered in a letter to John Reed that he was guilty of some over lack of restraint in his launching of Malley on the world, although he believed profoundly in the quality of the literature.
He volunteered to take responsibility for whatever may ensue.

The private detective was still at work, chasing up English professor and detective fiction writer J.I.M. Stewart, to whom Harris had early shown the poems for opinion. Stewart had said he was not impressed with the poems, but he was now among a growing list of suspects. He denied nothing, saying only that had heard of Ern Malley and Max Harris. Bannister also interviewed the Sydney journalists who were keeping their scoop to themselves. They published it in Fact - asserting that they had a poor opinion of the poetry and that there had never been a National Mutual Life Assurance salesman called Ernest Malley or an Ethel Malley in Croydon. They quoted Harris as saying that while there had been suggestions that the poetry was a hoax "it is not our job to inquire into credentials but to valuate work as poetry".

Other detective work was going on between the university newspaper editors. On Dit editor Roy Leaney sent Ethel Malley's address off to his counterpart, Murray Sayle at Honi Soit in Sydney - and hit paydirt. Sayle immediately recognised the Malley address of 40 Dalmar Street, Croydon, as that of former student and would-be poet Harold Stewart.

But confusions and suspicions reigned for quite some time - fingers were pointing in all directions. Harris was still suspected of hoaxing himself. He, in turn, suspected various other writers of his acquaintance - Michael Keon and Adrian Lawler among them. There was much talk of "the soldier poets". Some people suspected it was a larger group of pranksters.

Then On Dit hit the streets, exposing Harold Stewart and Professor J.I.M. Stewart issued adamant denials. The story then broke in the mainstream press - and the guessing game was over.

McAuley and Stewart wrote fairly smug admissions which were printed in Sydney's Fact - claiming they had knocked up the verse in one afternoon "with the aid of a chance collection of books which happened to be on our desks". They described their poems as "nonsensical sentences" and "bad verse", "utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry". They claimed that it was all in the way of a literary "experiment".AD Hope ... in on the hoax

A.D. Hope was in seventh heaven. The worse things were for Max, the happier was Hope. He had been in on the hoax since its inception now it was time for "a great big horse laugh" at seeing 'Maxie played for a sucker". He called it "the greatest literary hoax since Bacon wrote Shakespeare". And his pleasure at thinking of poor Max "roll those great big bedroom eyes" was far from over. His venomous review of Max's surrealist novel was about to be printed - giving Hope the further satisfaction of kicking Harris while he was down.

The hoax was big news - and Ern Malley's name was becoming famous. The hoax was reported around the world. Harris, responding to the McAuley/Stewart explanations, said he hoped that their names may one day "grow larger than their highly commendable myth". They didn't. Ern Malley was their greatest creation - and, many say, their best work.

Harris's view was endorsed by none other than the distinguished literary authority Sir Herbert Read and, to a modest degree, T.S. Eliot - who read the poems in England. Read cabled Harris offering his support saying that he, too, would have been deceived by Malley's "elements of genuine poetry".

The bigger the scandal became, the more people wanted a slice of the action. Melbourne's Establishment had never been happy with the Heide crowd and Angry Penguins' leftist views. The persecution of Harris and Angry Penguins turned political. Even the Catholic Church was hitting out at Harris. He was mocked, attacked, vilified - and then the police turned up.

Detective Vogelsang arrived at the Adelaide office of Reed & Harris to inform Harris that he was under instructions to make inquiries about Angry Penguins under the Police Act "with respect to immoral or indecent publications".

In September, 1944, Max Harris went to court to defend Ern Malley against charges of obscenity.