“All Aboard”: Cruising the Aegean in 1923

On the morning of May 14, 1923, a private yacht approached the island of Santorini and cast anchor just outside the bay of Phira. The Zion carried twenty-five passengers and belonged to an American millionaire and philanthropist, George D. Pratt. Pratt, a recent widower, had come to Greece a few weeks earlier, and the cruise would allow him “to go about the islands taking photographs” as one of the Zion passengers –or so Natalie Murray Gifford wrote in her own account of the trip. There was, however, another, more practical, motivation that lay behind Zion’s Aegean course. At the end of the cruise, the yacht would sail to Mount Athos to deliver food and supplies to starving Bulgarian and Russian monks, who had lost vital support from home as a consequence of the Russian Revolution. Thomas Whittemore, one of Zion’s passengers, was monitoring this relief effort.

Santorini, 1923 (ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers)

Santorini, 1923 (ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers)

Pratt’s guests on board the Zion were archaeologists or classicists affiliated with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) or with the American Academy in Rome (AAR). All were advanced students and scholars, making the trip entirely unlike the contemporary commercial cruises to the renowned harbors of the Mediterranean that had become increasingly popular in the first decades of the 20th century. Evelyn Waugh describes such a trip aboard the Stella Polaris in Labels (1930), as well as how pleasure cruising had evolved by his time. “Before that only the very rich, who owned their own yachts, could afford this leisurely pottering from port to port,” and this is exactly what George Pratt’s Zion was tasked to do; to offer an exclusive, old-fashion cruise to the members of the School at Athens and the five “Romans” who had come from the Academy in Rome. Waugh also drew a colorful distinction between travelers and tourists, and Pratt’s guests were clearly members of the former club.

George Dupont Pratt (1869-1935)

George Dupont Pratt (1869-1935)

The American School had never officially included an island trip in its rigorous academic program. The famous “Insel Reise” of the 1890s, which many American students attended, was the creation of the director of the German Archaeological Institute, Wilhelm Dörpfeld, who had dug with Heinrich Schliemann at Troy. After Schliemann’s death in 1890, Dörpfeld designed an educational cruise starting from Piraeus with stops at Poros and Aegina before heading for Delos.  Returning from the Cyclades to Cape Sounion, the boat then traced the east coast of Attica and the straits of Euboea before turning northeast for “a straight sail of eighteen or twenty hours to Samothrace,” and its final destination, Troy. We are fortunate to have Ruth Emerson’s and Nellie Reed’s descriptions of Dörpfeld’s island trip of 1896, when both women were students of the American School during the 1895-1896 academic year. Of the two trips that Dörpfeld offered annually to the archaeological community of Athens, a Peloponnesian and an Island trip, women were only allowed to join the second. The Peloponnesian was thought to be very hard on women, while the second was considered more manageable because of the boat’s facilities.

The Insel Reise of 1896 (ASCSA Archives, Ruth Emerson Papers)

The Insel Reise of 1896 (ASCSA Archives, Ruth Emerson Papers). Click to enlarge.

The focus of Dörpfeld’s Insel Reise in 1896 was strictly archaeological. In the spirit of the “big digs,” Dörpfeld included only large archaeological sites in his program. Islands like Paros, Melos, and Thera had no place in the Insel Reise. In 1923, on the other hand, the passengers aboard the Zion did enjoy a taste of the new “pleasure cruising” menu typical of the first decades of the 20th century. Yes, they wanted to see the ancient ruins of Aegina and Delos, but they also wanted to visit old churches, wander the narrow streets of white-washed Cycladic islands, and even take a plunge in the Aegean sea. They also appreciated the grand hospitality of an American millionaire living large on his private yacht –if only for a few days. “Lib and I have a fine room, everything is ideally arranged” wrote Ida Thallon in her diary (ASCSA Archives, Ida Thallon Hill Papers, diary 1923, entry for May 9th). “Everything we could wish for is at our disposal. We have butter twice a day, three times if we have tea,” wrote an impressed young Natalie Gifford to her family on May 11th. She was also glad that she took her bathing suit, which she “split into two parts, the top one and the Annette [she refers to her Annette Kellerman swimsuit], so all of us girls that wanted could go in” (ASCSA Archives, Natalie Murray Gifford Papers, letter of May 25th, 1923).

An Annette Kellerman swimsuit from the 1920s

An Annette Kellerman swimsuit from the 1920s

But who were the other guests of George D. Pratt aside from socialite-archaeologist Charles Whittemore? In addition to Ida Thallon’s and Natalie Gifford’s accounts, our best source of information is a commemorative photo taken near the Temple of Isis on Delos (ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers, Box 35). In the top row, five men stand between the columns. On the left is Joseph Replat, the architect of the French excavations on Delos. He had raised the American flag over the French dig house in honor of his visitors. Next to him stands C. Densmore Curtis, professor of archaeology at the AAR. The three men between the two columns of the propylon are archaeologists Alan J. B. Wace, Bert H. Hill, and Carl W. Blegen –already good friends who would work still more closely together in the future. Wace and Blegen soon after ruffled the feathers of Sir Arthur Evans with their new ideas about the origins of the Mycenaean civilization.

The middle row, from left to right, featured Ruskin Rosborough (?), a fellow at the AAR, Mrs. and Mr. Hall from the U.S. Embassy in Athens, and Charles Whittemore who leans against the column. Natalie Gifford described “Mrs. Hall, [as] a rare bird (she appeared the first day in a decidedly décolleté black velvet gown).” Seated between the two columns are Franklin P. Johnson, Kate Denny McKnight from Vassar College (Elizabeth Pierce’s first cousin), and Mrs. Erhardt, wife of the U.S. consul in Athens, John G. Erhardt (1920-1924). Standing in front of the column is Natalie Gifford (mother of the late Bill Wyatt, professor of Classics at Brown University), whose letters to her family give us our more complete description of the cruise). There remain two people to the right of the column, one seated, one standing. The seated girl is Louise Adams, an assistant professor of Latin at Smith College. In December of 1923 she would marry architect Leicester Holland, who also participated in the cruise (their daughter Marian Holland McAllister would have a long and successful career as the Director of Publications for the ASCSA). The man to her right is probably Kenneth Scott, another ASCSA member.

The passengers of Zion at Delos, 1923 (ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers)

The passengers of the Zion at Delos, 1923 (ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers). Click to enlarge.

Eleven people sit in the front row, Phil H. Davis and Sydney P. Noe to the left. Davis would serve as professor of Classics at Vassar College until his premature death in 1940, while Noe would become a well-known numismatist and for many years an employee of the American Numismatic Society. Next to them sits Rita Fuguet, a recent Vassar graduate who was spending a year at the AAR, and J. Pybus of the British School at Athens who would later marry Arthur M. Woodward, the excavator of Sparta. The man with the Panama hat and the mourning band on his left arm is none other than the host of the cruise, George D. Pratt. The handsome man seated slightly behind Pratt is Leicester Holland. The romance between him and Louise Adams was already in progress. My description of the first row ends with a group of five women seated together at the right end of the photo: Hazel Hansen, who would become a professor of Classics at Stanford University, Ida Thallon, who was already an established professor of History at Vassar College, her intimate friend and former student at Vassar, Elizabeth Denny Pierce, who at the time was engaged to Carl W. Blegen, Helen Pence, a student from the AAR who would marry Alan Wace, and last, but not least, the elusive Dorothy H. Cox, an architect by training, who would become an accomplished numismatist, as well as a successful intelligence officer during WW II.

One could fill many pages with descriptions of the rich personal and professional lives of the twenty-five passengers on board the Zion (and I may write more about them in a follow-up post to this blog), not to mention the romances and breakups that ensued. I have already mentioned the marriage of Louise Adams and Leicester Holland; Pence and Wace married two years later, in 1925; Elizabeth Pierce would break her engagement to Carl Blegen after the cruise, only to marry him a year later. But there were also two others on the cruise who as yet had no idea that life would unite them within a year: Bert H. Hill and Ida Thallon. Although there was never a romance between them, they would arrange their marriage so they could live together with Carl and Elizabeth Blegen, and join the notorious “quartet,” still discussed during tea time at the American School (on this subject, later this year watch for Robert Pounder’s fascinating contribution to Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives, ed. N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L. Davis, and V. Florou, Lockwood Press).

Thomas Whittemore (1871-1950). Photo from Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks)

Thomas Whittemore (1871-1950)

However, perhaps the most interesting passenger on the Zion was Thomas Whittemore, whose adventurous and eccentric life has the makings of a Hollywood movie. A well-connected Bostonian, Whittemore, after efforts to save and educate Russian refugees following the revolution, dedicated the remainder of his life to the preservation and restoration of Byzantine art and monuments (his papers now housed in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, have been recently catalogued in an exemplary fashion; see http://www.doaks.org/news-events/newsletter/news-archives/thomas-whittemore).

But what about the cruise itself, which took place less than year after the Smyrna Disaster of 1922? Tragic reminders would have been unmistakable because most of the islands visited by the Zion were still full of impoverished refugees in May 1923. And yet, Ida Thallon does not touch on the subject in her diary, except once in a slightly nuanced passage. While on Paros, members of the cruise tried to see finds in the archaeological museum, but, because every inch of the island was occupied by refugees, Blegen, Hill, and Wace went to check if the museum could be visited. “They soon said it was not, but a filthy hole full of fleas which left many marks on the unlucky visitors,” a disappointed Ida wrote in her diary.

Unlike Ida’s strictly descriptive diary, the letters of Natalie Murray Gifford, a graduate student at Harvard University, are a treasure of information, with astute observations and insightful comments about what she was seeing. Having read many letters written by students of the School in the early decades of the 20th century, I can say that most of them, even the lengthier ones, are usually self-involved (limited to descriptions of other students, and the School’s activities and trips), almost never looking down from the “ivory tower” and outside the immediate confines of the American School’s program. While Ida describes in one line their visit to the Church of Panagia Ekatontapyliani at Paros “went to church of Hek. which now is full of refugees, so we could not poke around much,” Natalie gives us a charming description of the church and the town. She also remarks on the privileged status of the American visitors. “We had two policemen detailed to keep the crowd off of us.” She found the town “fascinating” with narrow and winding streets and “immaculately clean” houses. Her account of the museum on the island of Melos is entirely amusing. “… We stopped at the museum which was also the prison, and were shown around by the gorgeous chief of police. He was decidedly plum, and had bright blue trousers with cerise stripes. They had some very fine vases found at Phylakopi in 1910.” On another occasion she describes threshing the grain: “All over Greece they have circles of paved stones. They put a stick in the middle and line up four or five horses, and drive them round and round on the stalks of grain. In some way or other the grain comes out.” And from Phira in Santorini, they “could look out over the bay way beyond and saw the snow capped mountains of Crete.”

Gifford saves her best prose for Candia, which she found “the most oriental town” after Constantinople, and the Cretans “a highly superior people… extremely fond of colors… much taller than the mainland Greeks, and they carry themselves as if the owned the world.” Evelyn Waugh who stopped at Candia in 1929 also characterized these same Cretans in Labels as “a good-looking race, particularly the old men, who had noble aquiline noses and great grey beards… with coloured handkerchiefs round their heads.”

Cretan men in the 1920s. Photo by Fred Boissonas

Cretan men. Photo by Fred Boissonas, 1911.

My Penguin copy of Labels by Evelyn Waugh

My Penguin copy of Labels by Evelyn Waugh

But where Gifford marveled at the Minoan stone vases and frescoes in the Herakleion museum, Waugh “saw nothing to suggest any genuine aesthetic feeling at all,” in “the barbarities of Minoan culture.” He was also very critical of the Minoan frescoes, “since only a few square inches of the vast area exposed to our consideration are earlier than the last twenty years,” (here contemptuous of the restorations of the Gilliéron family). Both Gifford and Waugh would criticized Arthur Evans for the heavy reconstructions that were under way at Knossos. To Natalie “he is a dear old man, a strange combination of shyness and mannerisms.” She found his restorations “a little unfortunate,” and the colors of the unrestored frescoes in the palace “much lovelier than the restored ones, the colors in the latter ones are all together too bright for our modern taste.” Waugh, though a compatriot, was much more critical: “if our English Lord Evans ever finishes even a part of his vast undertaking, it will be a place of oppressive wickedness.”

Candia was the final stop on the Zion’s itinerary, and her passengers were sorry to see her depart for Mount Athos. After a week of cushy life on board, it was “a shock to us to come down to ordinary Greek life, hard beds, poor food, and disturbed nights” from fleas in hotel rooms. To get back to Piraeus, the group took a ferry boat (the Byzantion) with poor amenities, and full of refugees and army volunteers. Its members quickly became “touchy” and impatient. Gifford again gives another perceptive description of both worlds. “We travel on a private boat with our cook and maid. When we land on the islands special police are detailed to keep the crowds from us. Here on this ship [the Byzantion] we women have the only good stateroom… Our John cooks us coffee every morning. We have oranges, eggs, toast and coffee, but nobody else has any breakfast except Turkish coffee. If I were a Greek and had Americans come and lord it over me the way we do them, I’d be awfully peeved.”


2 Comments on ““All Aboard”: Cruising the Aegean in 1923”

  1. Glenn R. Bugh says:

    As ever, fascinating School stuff, particularly compelling following so close upon the Smyrna disaster. Keep it coming. Great to see you in Athens. Glenn

  2. Lizabeth Ward Papageorgiou says:

    Perfect summer reading. Thanks Natalia. Now go relax and enjoy the sea.


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