HISTORY | CULTURE
Grèce en Vogue:
A New Wave of American Philhellenism in the 1920s
"THEY WERE MEMBERS OF THE SAME GENERATION THAT HAD 'LOST' ITSELF IN EUROPE...THESE NEW AMERICAN PHILHELLENES HAD MUCH IN COMMON: A DISLIKE FOR MODERN AMERICA
AND A SEARCH FOR PRIMITIVISM..."
In early October of 1924, Elizabeth Pierce Blegen, together with Ida Thallon Hill, was planning one of their first official dinners in the Director’s House at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). They were both new brides. In July, Elizabeth (Libbie) had married Carl Blegen at Lake Placid, New York. Blegen was then assistant director of the School. Within a month, Ida, Libbie’s lover and former professor at Vassar College, married Bert Hodge Hill in England. Hill had been the director of the School since 1906.
Emeritus Professor of Classics at Vassar College, Robert L. Pounder, has recently written about the complicated nature of the Blegens’ and Hills’ relationship or partnership, as they themselves described it (as noted in Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives) Libbie kept a social diary recording the activities of the two couples during the academic year 1924-1925. The entry for October 8th 1924 reads as follows: "The dinner was formal, for eight people in honor of a distinguished guest: trustee Mrs. J. Montgomery Sears."
Sarah Sears (1858-1935), née Choate, had a long association with the American School from the time that her son, Montgomery (Monty) Sears Jr., had been a student in 1900-1901. After Monty’s premature death in a car accident in 1908, Sarah Sears, an accomplished watercolorist and photographer herself, long supported the School, especially the Corinth excavations, with annual gifts. From 1924-1927 she also served as the first female trustee of the ASCSA.
With her husband, the real estate magnate Joshua Montgomery Sears (1854-1905), she had established one of the foremost salons in Boston, where guests could attend performances by such international stars as Ignacy Paderewski, Fritz Kreisler, and Dame Nellie Melba. After her husband’s death in 1905, Sarah began to travel extensively in Europe, collecting art in the company of Mary Cassat and Getrude Stein, and with the advice of Alfred Stieglitz.
We do not know why Sears was visiting Greece in the fall of 1924 in the company of one of her nephews, a Mr. Choate who was included in the guest list. The list also included W. Stuart Thompson and his wife Gladys, (Thompson was the architect of the Gennadius Library, under construction in 1924), and David Robinson, professor of Classics at Johns Hopkins and the future excavator of Olynthus, an ancient city of Halkidiki.
There was one other prominent guest at the table that evening: Mrs. Sikelianos. Eva Palmer Sikelianos (1874-1952) was probably the most famous American woman living in Greece in the 1920s. Married to the Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos since 1907, she had abandoned dressing in western clothes and adopted ancient Greek dress as her everyday attire after the example of Sikelianos’s sister Penelope.
From the early 1900s, Penelope and her husband Raymond, brother of the dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), had spearheaded with their lifestyle a “return to ancient Greece” movement. Soon after their first trip to Greece in 1902, the Duncans designed and built on Kopanos Hill, near Hymettus, an unusual house inspired by Mycenaean architecture. It was planned in such a way as to facilitate dancing all day long. In addition, the Duncans taught themselves and others to weave ancient Greek garments on a loom.
Still preserved today, the building houses the Raymond and Isadora Duncan Dance Research Center. While accepted and even admired in Greece because of their eccentric lifestyle, the Duncans were considered curiosities abroad. Isadora describes in her memoirs the following incident, which must have taken place soon after the so-called Ευαγγελικά. (In 1901 Queen Olga of Greece had encouraged the translation of the gospels from Greek koine to demotic Greek, an action that was met with strong opposition from university students.)
“Athens was then, as it usually is, in a state of revolution. This time it was a revolution founded upon the difference of opinion between the Royal House and the students as to which version of the Greek language should be used upon the stage, the ancient or the modern. Crowds of students paraded the streets with banners in favour of the ancient Greek language. On the day of our return from Kopanos, they surrounded our carriage and acclaimed our Hellenic tunics and asked us to join their parade, which we did willingly, for antique Hellas. From this meeting, a representation was arranged at the Municipal Theatre by the students. The ten Greek boys and the Byzantine Seminarist, all attired in multi-coloured flowing tunics, sang the choruses of Aeschylus in ancient Greek idiom, and I danced. This caused a delirium of joy among the students. Then King George, hearing of this manifestation, expressed a wish to have the performance repeated at the Royal Theatre.” - Isadora Duncan, My Life. The Restored Edition.
The Duncan family’s eccentricities were not welcome in Berlin in 1907, however, as the title of an article in The New York Times (July 14, 1907) demonstrates: Would Live like Ancient Greeks. Raymond Duncan and his Hellenic Wife Create a Sensation in Berlin. According to the author of the article, “Mr. Duncan and his wife, who is a Greek woman named Penelope, have been shocking Berlin for the past four months by appearing in the streets and shops clad in Greek negligee…when the Duncans reached Berlin in early spring, admittance was refused [to] them at several hotels on account of their scanty attire.”
Returning to the dinner of October 8th 1924, it is almost certain that Eva Palmer Sikelianos joined the party dressed in ancient Greek garments that she had woven herself. I also suspect that she had been included in the guest list at the request of Sarah Sears. This supposition is confirmed by Libbie’s entry for the next day, which records the guests at a dinner that Sarah hosted at the Grande Bretagne Hotel:
"B.H.H, I.T.H. + E.D.B dined at G[rande] B[retagne] with Mrs. Sears. Others present-Mr. Choate + Mrs. Sikeliano. Whole party went to Acropolis afterward-moonlight. Also Miss Winsor and Miss Allen."
It is quite likely that Sears and Palmer were old acquaintances from Paris. Sears, who always flirted with bohemia, had travelled to Paris in the early 1900s, collecting art in the company of her friend, painter Mary Cassat. Cassat’s nephew Robert had been briefly engaged to Natalie Clifford Barney, Eva’s lover before her marriage to Sikelianos. Sears had also come to know Gertrude Stein, another who frequented Natalie Barney’s salon in Paris.
Eva Palmer first came to Greece in 1905, following Raymond and Penelope Duncan. Penelope, Angelos Sikelianos’s sister, introduced her to the poet. Two years later, Eva married Angelos and established herself in Greece, living there until their divorce in 1934. Her Paris days (and her relationship with Natalie Barney Clifford) were over. For a long time, Eva and Angelos would share the same vision: that of the Delphic Idea.
In 1927 and 1930 they would twice organize the Delphic Celebrations. Eva would stage large open-air performances of two of Aeschylus’s tragedies, Prometheus Bound (1927, 1930) and the Suppliants (1930), at the theater of Delphi.
Although in later years her role was denigrated, considered only a rich American wife who financed the Delphic dream of one of Greece’s most important poets, Palmer was, in fact, the heart and soul of the Delphic Celebrations and attended to each and every detail of the festival: from acting and choreography to music and costumes, all of the latter woven on her looms.
Together with folklorist Angeliki Hatzimichali (1895-1965), they also organized exhibits of Greek traditional handicrafts, one of the highlights of the celebrations. Artemis Leontis, professor of Modern Greek at the University of Michigan, who has researched and written more about Palmer’s life than anyone else, has said in a recent interview: “She [Eva] lived her entire adult life as a Greek revival.”
The details of the two Delphic festivals are known from descriptions in the Greek press and contemporary Greek photographs. In addition, wonderful color photos (in autochrome technique) were taken by Maynard Owen Williams (1888-1963) and published in the December 1930 issue of National Geographic, in an article titled New Greece, the Centenarian Forges Ahead. Only after looking at those photos can one appreciate the high quality of the garments that Palmer designed and wove for her performances.
We are also fortunate to have the notes in the personal diary of an eyewitness: Ida Thallon Hill. She, Libbie, Carl, and Bert attended the second Delphic celebrations in 1930. On the morning of April 30th, their group left Athens by car to arrive at Delphi, after several stops, in early evening. The next day, Ida and Libbie, after spending some time at the handicraft exhibit, joined Bert and Carl who guided about 50 people, including the U.S. Ambassador to Greece, Robert Skinner, and his family, through the ancient sanctuary. “Got lots of loot, including blue Cretan chess, pochette for H, slippers, 2 bedspreads, 2 red + white silk scarves, 1 cover, some Athos paper knives… silver things from Epirus, L[ibbie] got Cretan costume, etc.” entered Ida in her diary for the morning of May 1st, 1930.
In the afternoon of the same day, they all went to the theater to see Prometheus Bound. “Play fine, stele + platform instead of rocks” Ida noted, referring to a number of changes that had occurred since the first performance of Prometheus in 1927. “Same Prom[etheus], excellent, fine cho[rus]. Veniz[elos] +Co. on hand.”
On May 2nd, they were back at the theater by 3:30 p.m. to attend the new play, The Suppliants. “Play began earlier, splendid performance of Suppl[iants]. Cho[rus] of 50 in groups of 10, wonderful arrangement + great variety in dances. Speech after it by Sik[elianos]-Bush…” Ida must refer to some speech that Eva Sikelianos gave together, I suspect, with Joan Bush.
Joan Jeffery Bush, another American expatriate who would work in the Athenian Agora excavations as a photographer in the early 1930s, would later marry the archaeologist Eugene Vanderpool and settle in Greece for the rest of her life. Mrs. Vanderpool is mentioned twice in Palmer’s autobiography Upward Panic, but both references seem to post-date the two women’s collaboration in the second Delphic Festival.
It has been argued that there was a significant change in the profile of American philhellenes who came to Greece in the early 20th century, with academics replacing the romantic travelers of the mid 19th century. The establishment of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in 1881 must have in part contributed to this change. The School, with its staff and facilities became the base for any student with a classics degree from an American University who wanted to experience ancient Greece. However, the presence of Palmer, Raymond Duncan, his sister Isadora, and later in the 1920s, of writers George Cram Cook, Susan Glaspell, and poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), attests to a supplementary wave of philhellenism, composed of artists and writers, during the first two decades of the century.
They were members of the same generation that had “lost” itself in Europe, with the only difference being that some of them were “lost” in Greece instead of Paris (although Eva Palmer, and later Joan Jeffery Bush, had made a brief stop in Paris before coming to Athens, and others, like the Duncans, after a brief stop in Athens, returned to Paris). These new American philhellenes had much in common: a dislike for modern America and a search for primitivism, a love for Nietzsche’s philosophy, and a willingness to experiment with socialism.
Noted in a 2013 book titled Americans and the Delphi Experience, an essay by Michael Winetsky, The Noble Peasant: Primitivism, Classicism, and the Epistemological Pivot in Susan Glaspell’s Career, analyzes Glaspell’s turn to primitivism as a reaction to the industrial progress of America, and also helps us to understand the mixture of primitivism and classicism that the lifestyle of the Duncans promoted.
According to Winetsky, “Both primitivism and classicism represent philosophical alternatives to the dominant paradigms of what would come to be called ‘American civilization.'"
In American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and his Ideas, 2012, Jennifer Rather-Rosenhagen describes how the German philosopher’s writings, which criticized almost everything that concerned American culture, became “surprisingly influential” among young Americans who felt estranged from their culture. For Eva Palmer, Nietzche’s Birth of Tragedy, which balances logos (the Apollonian element) and mania (the Dionysian element), formed the basis of her approach to the interpretation and enactment of Greek tragedy.
Cook and Glaspell, as well as Isadora Duncan, were also attracted to Nietzsche. For them, the burning issue was how to reconcile the philosopher’s anti-egalitarianism with socialism. According to Linda Ben-Zvi, Cook arrived “at a philosophy that embraced socialism while retaining the idea of superior individuals able to create a higher order of social good and beauty that would enrich the lives of the many."
In a letter to his adolescent daughter Nilla, just before he left New York for Greece in 1922, George Cram Cook not only encapsulated in poetic verse his agony over his role as a father raising a child in an America he disapproved of, but also the chasm that separated him from his own generation:
I’d like to save you somehow from the bunk
With which America is doped.
I’d like to hand you
The clean tools of thought
Like well-filed, unrusted chisels
By which a sound spirit
Can maintain its soundness
In a rusty and dull world
I’d like, for a change, in short,
To get some real understanding
Between two successive generations
Instead of the traditional
Between stupid old age
And stupid youth.
(Susan Glaspell, The Road to the Temple, London 1926)
WORDS: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan
PHOTOS: American School of Classical Studies in Athens | Bain Collection, Library of Congress
Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan is an archivist, archaeologist and historian at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. She studied Classical Archaeology in Greece (University of Thessaloniki) and the United States (Bryn Mawr College), and has conducted fieldwork in East Crete for many years. Since 1994, she has served as head of archives at the American School of Classical Studies, from which she draws inspiration for most of her writings. She co-edited a volume titled "Philhellenism, Philanthropy, or Political Convenience? American Archaeology in Greece, Hesperia 82:1", (Princeton 2013.) Natalia also co-published another edited volume titled "Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives" (Atlanta: Lockwood Press 2015).