Revisiting George Cram Cook and Other Delphic SurprisesPosted: October 15, 2013
Back in August, when I wrote about the unusual life of George Cram Cook and his death and burial at Delphi, I promised to add a photo of his grave. Artemis Leontis of Michigan University kindly sent me her own photos of Cook’s and Eva Palmer’s tombs at Delphi, but I hesitated to post them because I felt that I had to visit Cook’s grave myself. Moreover, as an archaeologist, I was curious to examine the ancient block that had been used for his headstone. Susan Glaspell in The Road to the Temple described it as “one of the great fallen stones from the Temple of Apollo” (1926, p. 343). But by the time Elias Venezis referred to Cook’s grave in his American Earth, the block had assumed the shape of a column “συντροφευμένος από μια κολόνα του Ιερού των Δελφών” (1955 , 301). Was it a block or a column drum?
On September 24, Tom Brogan and I drove to Delphi to hear the papers of Tom Levy and his team at a conference on virtual reality in archaeology. Before going to the conference center, we made a brief stop at the local cemetery, which is located above modern village near the southwest edge of the ancient site. Several foreigners are buried in the northwest corner of the cemetery. It wasn’t hard to locate Cook’s grave, two burials to the right of Eva Palmer Sikelianou’s. With a broom that I borrowed from a nearby grave, I cleaned the surface of the marble plaque and revealed this inscription:
I HEAR THE MOUNTAIN STREAM
POURING THE BEAUTY THAT RHYTHMIC WATER
DOES NOT NEED TO BE MORE THAN ITSELF
HAVE NO REASON FOR LIVING
UNLESS SOMEHOW FOR SPIRIT SOMEWHERE
LIFE IS IMMORTAL
The lines come from a poem “At Fifty I Ask God,” that George (“Jig”) Cook wrote a couple of months before his death. Below his name is carved the image of a little bird. That’s not accidental. While living at Kalania above Delphi, Cook had befriended a bird which he fed and sheltered. In Glaspell’s book there is an entire chapter dedicated to that bird “The Bird and the Gods,” but it also appears elsewhere in the book. “He [the bird] was now so sure of us that he not only had breakfast on his table, but as we sat at lunch or supper on our upper terrace he would perch on ToPuppy’s [Cook’s puppy] drinking-pan” (Glaspell 1926, p. 308). “Had we taken him too far out of his bird life?” Glaspell asks when the bird wouldn’t leave Cook’s hut to migrate with the other birds. Cook got a cage for the bird and decided to bring it down to the village for the winter. One day the bird left, but by that time Cook had become very attached to the fatal puppy (“ToPuppy”).
The ancient stone from the Temple of Apollo is a large rectangular block that may be part the stylobate. It is not a column or even part of one as Venezis implied in American Earth. I was pleasantly surprised to find, next to Cook’s grave, a small marble plaque with the name of his daughter, Nella Cook. Nella, who had accompanied her father and Susan on their Greek journey, had attended newly-founded Pierce College and was later married for a short time to a Greek poet. Nella (or Nilla) had a tumultuous life which at some point followed her father’s dream to live in India. “If we ever went back to America, it would be by way of India,” Cook once said (Glaspell 1926, p. 315). In her New York Times obituary (October 13, 1982), she is remembered as an author and linguist. We read that Nilla became a disciple of Ghandi in the 1930s and returned to Greece in 1940 to cover the Albanian front for American newspapers before going farther east to serve as a United States attaché in Iran from 1941 to 1947. Although Nella died in Austria, I suspect that it was her wish to be buried at Delphi next to her father. On the stone wall behind George and Nella’s graves there is a another plaque inscribed with three female names, who were the most important women (other than Nella) in Jig’s life: his second wife and Nella’s mother, Mollie Pierce, Susan Glaspell, and his mother Ellen Dodge (Ma-Mie), with whom he had a close relationship. When Cook left Iowa to go to Harvard, his mother wrote him encouraging letters: “It is hard for a western fellow to get acquainted with the eastern people. You will miss the warm hearts and real sympathy of our West. But don’t mind, or make too many advances. Those who are best for you will come to you at last” (Glaspell 1926, p. 35). This plaque was put here by Nella.
After photographing Jig and Nella Cook’s graves, my eye fell on a simple plaque to the left, one that bore a surprising inscription. The name on the plaque read:
ΚΑΙΡΟΣ ΔΕΠΙ ΠΑΣΙΝ ΑΡΙΣΤΟΣ
WOLFGANG NIKOLAOS BINDER
21-ΙΙΙ-1907 – 12-I-1971
He was Judith Perlzweig Binder’s husband. Judith, a long-time member of the staff of ASCSA’s Agora Excavations and a regular fixture at ASCSA, had just passed away two weeks before my trip to Delphi. I was never close to her, but as Jim Wright, director of the ASCSA, put it, when I told him about this discovery, “It looks as if she sent you there…” I have not yet discovered the reason why Wolfgang Binder was buried in Delphi and his connections, if any, to the site. Nothing turned up in my Google searches except for his book, Der Roma-Augustus Monopteros auf der Akropolis in Athen und sein typologischer Ort (Stuttgart 1969).
The only Delphi connection I could find was Judith Binder’s translation into English of Pierre Amandry’s guide to Delphi (Delphi and Its History, Athens 1984). It is, however, a curious coincidence that both George Cram Cook and Wolfgang Binder died the same day, the 12th of January. I also heard that Judith had left her personal papers at Duke University, a fact that came as surprise to many people. Why Duke of all places? One possible reason is that Judith Perlzweig grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where her father was the Chairman of the Biochemistry Department at Duke University’s Medical Center.
Near the plaque that commemorated the names of the three women in Jig and Nella Cook’s lives, hung another marble plaque. Although the plaque looked new, the information carved on it commemorated the name of a young person who had died back in 1963.
RICHARD MARK HILLARY
A CLASSICAL SCHOLAR WHO
DIED IN THE PLACE HE LOVED
I had never heard of Richard Hillary, but to judge by his age it appeared that he might have been an undergraduate or recent graduate who had died on a trip to Delphi. Climbing accident? What puzzled me was that although Hillary had died fifty years ago, the commemorative plaque looked very new. On the way back to Athens, I started Googling his name in several possible versions, all without success, until I typed “Mark Hillary 1963”. One “hit” was an article in the Daily Mail of December 9, 2012, under the fascinating title “18th century half cent coin that lay at back of cupboard for 50 years expected to reach £30,000 at auction.” The rare American half cent coin dating to 1796, was one of just 1,400 that were minted. It belonged to Mark Hillary, who had collected coins “since childhood and his passion often took him to the London coin dealers Spink’s and Seaby’s.”
According to the newspaper, “Mr Hillary was a classical scholar who attended both Winchester College and Magdalen College, Oxford.” This thread became even more interesting. Another article of the Daily Mail, this one from January 13, 2013, recorded that the coin was finally sold for the staggering price of £225,700, almost nine times higher than the original estimate in the article of December 9th and 72 million times its face value! It suddenly made sense why Mark Hillary’s commemorative plaque was so new. It had been put up a few months ago, most likely from members of his family, in his memory, and in gratitude for an unexpected present.
I felt exhilarated for several days after my trip to Delphi. I had gone to visit George Cram Cook’s grave and had come back with two more stories. And just when I thought I was finished with Delphi, I began coming across references to Delphi in Charles Waldstein’s papers. (Waldstein was director of ASCSA and served from 1888-1892). I am now researching the failed attempt that the American School made in the 1880s to secure rights to excavate at Delphi. Stay tuned for more news from the oracle!
Sources to consult about Richard Mark Hillary