HISTORY | CULTURE
Of Secret Love Letters, Queerness & Reimagining Life as a Greek
THE BIOGRAPHY OF EVA PALMER SIKELIANOS
"EVERY LETTER, EVERY ACT BORE THE MARKS OF PERSONAL DESIRE AND A WISHED-FOR SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION"
- DR. ARTEMIS LEONTIS
It was over 100 years ago that two adolescents of prominent roots entertained the idea of an intimate relationship, one which was not without its travels, emotional distress, and the deep influence of other loves, both human and utopian. It is none other than the passionate story of polyamorous Eva Palmer (1874 - 1952) and Natalie Clifford Barney (1876 - 1972), a tale documented through written correspondence revealing of sentiment, memories, and details of life in early 20th century Greece as a foreigner. For almost half a century, dressed in handmade tunics and sandals, Palmer sought to make modern life freer and more beautiful through creative engagement with the Greeks. She was the mastermind behind the modern revival of the Delphic Festivals, on which she devoted her time and money in her adult years.
Enthralled by their story, Dr. Artemis Leontis, a professor of modern Greek and chair of the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan, embarked on her own journey to locate, access and examine letters written between the two. The decade-long effort has resulted in a book titled Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins. A tremendous feat bringing to light more than the story of two friends, lovers and penpals, Dr. Leontis’ book delves into the story of a nonconformist philhellene, her global modernist network, and the ways she shaped the modern Greek life.
Handwritten in English and French, the voluminous collection of letters between Palmer and Barney were often undated, and the majority scattered between the Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet in Paris, the Benaki Museum in Athens, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., the University of Wisconsin Special Collections in Madison, Wisconsin, and lastly, the Center for Asia Minor Studies in Athens, where they remained absolutely inaccessible for many years.
The letters themselves, correspondence between Palmer and Barney and other lovers and friends, Dr. Leontis reveals, have their own interesting plot. With her decision to marry poet Angelos Sikelianos in 1907, Palmer in 1909 asked Barney to cease not only their intimate relationship, but with the coming of Palmer’s first child, also their written word.
“[Palmer] asked Barney to keep the correspondence hidden away as a token of their love,” Dr. Leontis says. “Barney responded with cruel sarcasm, especially because Palmer had thrown the pile of letters at her doorstep on a rainy day, allegedly in the mud, yet she did keep the letters, mixing them in with letters she had received from Eva Palmer since 1900.”
Fast forward to 2009, Dr. Leontis held in her hands two blue archival boxes titled “ΑΡΧΕΊΟ ΕΥΑΣ ΣΙΚΕΛΙΑΝΟΥ” with the words “ΜΗ ΠΡΟΣΙΤΟ” (not accessible) written on the spine in black marker. “Gingerly, I opened the first folder in the first blue box,” she says. Inside were bundles of randomly organized letters tied with satin ribbons from the early 1900s. “There were signs of dried mud from that rainy day when Eva threw the bundles on Natalie Barney’s threshold,” Dr. Leontis says.
As author Lia Papadakis revealed in her introduction to Γράμματα της Εύας Palmer Σικελιανού στη Natalie Clifford Barney, a collection of 163 previously unpublished love letters, word had it that a stash of letters remained hidden from public eye at the Center for Asia Minor Studies.
Access to the collection was officially forbidden with a personal appeal to the director of the Center by Anna Sikelianos, Angelos Sikelianos’ second wife and surviving widow until she passed away at the age of 105 in 2006.
“I think she wanted to limit knowledge of what she considered to be an embarrassing family secret...she feared that the exposure of Eva’s affairs with women might reflect badly on the Sikelianos name,” Dr. Leontis says. “I do not blame Anna Sikelianos for paying attention to her husband’s reputation...as the executor of his literary estate, her financial well-being depended on the value of his good name.”
Though Anna Sikelianos bore no legal say in the handling of these letters, her wish was granted until Dr. Leontis persuaded directors to grant her access to the material in the name of international scholarship. It is this extraordinary collection of previously inaccessible letters from this that Leontis derives much of her understanding of Eva Palmer’s craze for an unconventional and Greek way of life.
Having been granted full access and the right to reorganize, catalogue, and digitize the archive in 2016, Dr. Leontis meticulously worked through the bundles of letters, untying and retying bows, opening and closing envelopes, unfolding and again folding letters, opening and closing folders and boxes.
In addition to the 127 letters from Barney to Palmer and 56 letters from Palmer to Barney, the collection also includes 54 letters from Palmer’s family members, several hundred letters written to Palmer by many women, including the writer Colette, actor Marguerite Moreno, opera star Emma Calvé, playwright Constant Lounsbery and painter Virginia Yardley, and finally, a tuft of Palmer’s characteristic auburn hair.
The collection, Dr. Leontis reveals, includes long letters from Eva’s mother, and even harsh recriminations from her brother, but most significantly, a tribute to the two women’s visions for the future and tumultuous love affair, from its very beginnings to its end.
“Every letter, every act bore the marks of personal desire and a wished-for social transformation,” Dr. Leontis says. “Just by finding the letters there and receiving permission to read them, I could feel the effects of their authors’ efforts to live a different life.”
The ladies belonged to a self-identified group of “Sapphics,” young, upper-class, artistic American, British, and French women that drew parallels between themselves and the ancient Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos, considering Sappho a “distant ancestor” of their woman-centered social order, Dr. Leontis says. “As queer, smart, monied women, they felt empowered to play act the society they imagined in the fragmented poetry of Sappho, to give authorial voice to women and challenge heterosexual norms,” she says.
Among insights derived from the secret letters, Dr. Leontis says the correspondence helped her identify Palmer’s leading role as an advisor, stage manager, producer, and actor in a series of Sapphic-inspired performances from 1900 to 1906. “With attention to the details of making the staging (scenery, props, and especially the music) and acting (costumes, gestures, movement) as ‘Greek’ as possible, she [Palmer] was working to develop ways of performing the lesbian life on, and beyond the stage,” Dr. Leontis says.
It was Palmer’s roles in these performances that preceded her later performance of Greek life and finally, her masterpiece: the Delphic Festivals of 1927 and 1930.
A wealthy New York debutante who had studied Latin and Greek at Bryn Mawr College from 1896 to 1898, Palmer continued pursuing knowledge of the Greek language in Greece, and mastered the arts of weaving and Byzantine chant, dressing in handcrafted ancient style tunics and sandals for nearly half a century, all while she worked to reintroduce the traditions of ancient Greece.
Eva Palmer Sikelianos used archaeological discoveries to reimagine life in the present, seeking signs of a Greek life in the past as a way of making herself modern Greek, a Greek for modern life, Dr. Leontis explains.
“She was not interested in antiquity per se, or even in viewing the Greek past correctly....she was interested in transforming life in the modern West, which she perceived as becoming so thoroughly mechanized that it stole from people their capacity to feel and think,” Dr. Leontis says. “For her, the truth of the Greeks, ancient and modern, was an emotional truth capable of transforming 20th century life.”
In the first biography of Eva Palmer Sikelianos, Dr. Leontis situates the protagonist as a crucial link connecting the search for new identities and artistic forms in the early 20th century with women’s classical learning. It attempts to piece together a network of disparate scenes, from Barney’s circle in Paris to modern dance in the U.S., Greek vernacular re-workings of ancient sources, the search for alternative tonalities, urban women’s efforts to promote loom weaving, protests of American imperialism during the Greek civil war, Greece’s post-war tourist development, and diverse other cultural moments, Dr. Leontis says.
“What drove me to write this book was my sense that Eva Palmer Sikelianos is an important, missing figure in a number of stories that together fill in the portrait of modern artists and activists who worked across the globe to shape modern life,” she says.
But the researcher’s work does not end there. She plans on digitizing the material to make it available to other researchers, in essence, reuniting the letters that were separated with time. “My wish would be to have a completely open archive connecting the letters in the Eva Sikelianou papers in the Center for Asia Minor Studies in Athens with those in the Natalie Clifford Barney papers in the Jacques Doucet Bibliothèque Littéraire,” she says.
Featuring previously unpublished photographs and letters, the biography recreates the remarkable story of a brilliant woman one of her theater acquaintances once described as “the only ancient Greek I ever knew.”
“Readers can expect to find in my book a lot that is missing in the usual Eva Sikelianos, riches-to-rags-supportive-American-wife-of-the-great-Greek-poet story,” Dr. Leontis says. “I bring to the foreground everything countercultural, subversive, lunatic, queer, fraught, and surprisingly relevant today in her encounter with the Greeks and confrontation of the present world.”
WORDS: Anthe Mitrakos
PHOTOS: The Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive of the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation (ELIA/MIET)
Anthe Mitrakos is a journalist and editor of Portes Magazine.
Dr. Artemis Leontis is professor of modern Greek and chair of the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2019) and Topographies of Hellenism, among other books.