The Spirit of St. Louis Lives in Athens, GreecePosted: February 2, 2017
Have you noticed that in the last ten days the press has been flooded with articles about the Doomsday Clock? Here are some of the titles: “The Doomsday Clock is the closest to midnight since 1953” (Engadget, Jan. 28, 2017), “Nuclear ‘Doomsday Clock’ ticks closest to midnight in 64 years (Reuters), “Doomsday Clock Moves Closer to Midnight, Signaling Concern Among Scientists (The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2017), and “The Doomsday Clock is now 2.5 minutes to midnight, but what does that really mean? (Science Alert).
The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 by members of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’s Science and Security Board; several of them were part of the “The Manhattan Project” that led to the creation of the first atomic bomb. (For those of you who want to learn more about “The Manhattan Project,” I recommend a drama series that premiered in 2014; although the series was discontinued after the second season, it featured good acting and it was fun to watch. Also see Jack Davis’s Communism In and Out of Fashion, Sept. 1, 2016.) “Originally the Clock, which hangs on a wall in The Bulletin’s office at the University of Chicago, represented an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war; however, since 2007 it has also reflected climate change and new developments in the life sciences and technology that could inflict irrevocable harm to humanity… The Clock’s original setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight. It has been set backward and forward 22 times since then, the smallest ever number of minutes to midnight being two in 1953, and the largest seventeen in 1991” (after Wikipedia, accessed 28/1/2017). As of January 2017 (and this explains the flurry of articles in the press), the Clock has been set at two and a half minutes to midnight, a reflection of President Trump’s comments about nuclear weapons: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Trump posted this remark on Twitter on December 22, 2016, and followed it with an even more worrisome comment: “Let it be an arms race,” he said, referring to the Russians.
While reading the history of the Doomsday Clock my eyes happened to fall on the cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which featured for the first time the Clock (at seven minutes to midnight), and the name of the artist who had designed it: Martyl Langsdorf. Martyl is an unusual name, and I had seen it before. I went to the Archives Room of the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or the School hereafter), where we keep the School’s administrative records, and personal papers of its members. There, hanging on one of the walls, was an abstract painting depicting a mountainous landscape, and signed in the bottom left corner: “Martyl.” To my surprise, when I checked our inventory, there was a second work of art, an etching, by “Martyl” in the Archives of the ASCSA. But this one also carried a personal dedication: “To George and Lela with affection and admiration, Martyl.” This meant that Martyl’s other painting had also originally belonged to George and Lela Mylonas.
George Mylonas (1898-1988), a renowned Greek archaeologist, professor of archaeology at the Washington University of St. Louis, and excavator of many Greek sites including Mycenae, had died the year before I arrived at the School, as a first year student in 1989. After the death of his wife Lela in 1993 (I was not the School’s Archivist yet) I remember items from the Mylonas apartment in Athens arriving at the School. Unfortunately, no inventory was made at the time, so now I rely on my institutional memory, and that of other people, in order to identify those items. For example, I recently discovered that the large, heavy table where food is being served in Loring Hall was once George and Lela’s dining room table.
To return to Martyl … I had once googled her without being sure if Martyl was her first or last name. I had found her both under Martyl Schweig (her maiden name) and Martyl Langsdorf (1917-2013). Her husband. Alexander Langsdorf, Jr., was, in fact, a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project and one of the founders of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. They were both graduates of Washington University in St. Louis (WUSL hereafter). Langsdorf had worked as Physics Instructor at WUSL from 1939 to 1942 before joining the Manhattan Project. One can assume from the intimate tone of Martyl’s dedication to George and Lela that the Langsdorfs must have known the Mylonas’s quite well. Much later, in 1963, Mrs. Martin Schweig [Martyl’s mother] and her granddaughter Suzanne Langsdorf [Martyl’s daughter] would visit the Mylonases at Mycenae (Brokaw to O’Reilly, August 7, 1963). One wonders whether the etching was given as a gift after that.
Martyl’s obituary in The New York Times (April 10, 2013), “Martyl Langsdorf, Doomsday Clock Designer, Dies at 96,” notes that her “career designing magazine covers stopped and started with that first magazine issue of the Bulletin… She devoted herself instead to her artwork.” From the same obituary we learn that when she was 18 she sold a painting to George Gershwin, and that “her art sold well throughout her life” with many museums holding it (e.g., The National Museum of American Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). To these, we can now add Martyl’s work at the ASCSA.
Mylonas taught at WUSL for thirty-five years, thirty as chair of his department. Although there are brief biographical essays at the beginning of Φίλια έπη εις Γεώργιον Ε. Μυλωνάν δια τα 60 έτη του ανασκαφικού του έργου (Athens 1986-1990), Mylonas’s Festschrift, and in Γεώργιος Εμμ. Μυλωνάς : Βίος και Έργο. 1898-1988 (Athens 2013), a posthumous volume, one can learn more about his long and distinguished career from his personal scrapbooks in the School’s Archives. From leafing through his many scrapbooks, one has the impression that he and Lela participated fully in a broad spectrum of local activities in St. Louis.
1952 was an important year in Greek archaeology since it was the first year after WW II that the Greek government allowed any excavations to take place in the country. The School launched two new projects, with Carl W. Blegen digging at Pylos, funded by the University of Cincinnati, and Oscar Broneer at Isthmia, funded by the University of Chicago. Mylonas, who spent that year in Greece teaching at the University of Athens, supported by a Fulbright teaching award, went into an excavation frenzy, digging at four different sites in one season: Agios Kosmas in Attica, Pylos, Eleusis, and Mycenae. Mylonas always made sure that his work in Greece was highly publicized in the newspapers of St. Louis, especially the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch.” Although he was the driving force in the creation of the Greek War Relief Fund during WW II, it is unclear if he continued his ties with the local Greek-American community after the war, since he rarely makes mention of it. The one and only time that the Greek-American community is mentioned is in 1952, in reference to Mylonas’s extensive digging activities of that year, which had been financed “in part by St. Louisans of Greek descent.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 8, 1952; and St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Aug. 10, 1952).
Mylonas was a pioneer in fund-raising for archaeological projects. Unlike Blegen, who did not need to worry about funding his dig at Pylos because of the University of Cincinnati’s commitment to supporting archaeological research through its Semple Fund, Broneer and Mylonas had to raise most of their excavation money, either by applying to philanthropic foundations or through private philanthropy. Unlike Broneer, who looked for funding opportunities among the members of the Greek-American Community in Chicago —often with poor results— Mylonas pursued St. Louis’s upper class systematically.
He and Lela created a group of ardent supporters, a club whose members were encouraged not only to visit Mylonas’ archaeological projects, but also to participate actively in them. Every prominent visit was followed by a press announcement in St. Louis’s press. “Comptons Digging in Greece” announced the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sept. 10, 1952. What more could Mylonas have wished for, in terms of publicity, in regard to his new excavation at Mycenae! Arthur Holly Compton (1892-1962) was a well-known and esteemed figure in St. Louis, not only for being the ninth chancellor of WUSL (1946-1952), but also as a Nobel prize laureate in Physics (1927) for having discovered the Compton effect. In 1936 he was featured on the cover of TIME magazine (Jan. 13 1936), and a few years later he was one of the key participants (together with Langsdorf) in the Manhattan Project.
Two years later, the St. Louisans would read in the local press about Mylonas’s major discovery at Eleusis of what is known today as the Eleusis amphora, “to have been named ‘the Shepley Vase’ in honor of Chancellor Ethan A. H. Shepley.” Shepley, who practiced law before and after his term at WUSL, descended from an old St. Louis family. Mylonas and his work in Greece were highly appreciated by the highest echelons of Washington University, feeding the city’s pride. In 1958, members of the faculty of WUSL raised and presented to Mylonas a check for $5,000 (the equivalent of about $45,000 today) to finance his excavations. The publicity photos show George and Lela surrounded by the Shepleys and the Comptons, as well as Lucia King O’Reilly (1925-2004), a graduate of WUSL (1947) and President of Washington University’s Archaeological Society. Her husband, Daniel Elliott O’Reilly (1916-1998) was a prominent physician at St. Louis University Hospital and professor at St. Louis University School.
But it was Edwin and Betty Grossman who most systematically and wholeheartedly promoted Mylonas’s work in Greece. He was a prominent lawyer and a public figure of St. Louis, and she was an archaeologist who had written her dissertation under Mylonas’s supervision and who worked for the City Museum of St. Louis (the Saint Louis Art Museum now). Through the City Museum and later through the Washington University Archaeological Society she and Lucia O’ Reilly helped Mylonas to organize local lectures, workshops, and educational programs, as well as highly publicized cruises to Greece.
The first of these cruises was led in the fall of 1963. “The trip is planned for twelve days on board ship, because the Greeks were a sea-faring people and most of their cities are located close to the sea…” according to the advertising brochure. The participants were promised time with the Queen of Greece, “a friend of many St. Louisans,” as well as with the American Ambassador, Roger Labouisse, in the new U.S. Embassy, and a reception “in the beautiful colonnade flanking the Gennadeion Library.”
Several months before the cruise the Washington University Archaeological Society was featured in a special contribution to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with photos of prominent St. Louisans, who, in preparation for the cruise, were immersing themselves in Modern Greek culture: either by admiring hand-crafted dolls clad in Greek costumes and hand-embroidered modern-day Greek dresses, or by dressing their daughters in Greek costumes that had been brought from Greece (March 31, 1963). By June of the same year, in the same newspaper, there would be headings such as “Washington U. Students Aiding Mylonas on Mycenae Project,” naming Elizabeth Brokaw and Richard Rothman.
The participants of the 1966 cruise were informed that:
“Zolotas, the fine jeweler (who surely must have taken a trip of his own after the ’63 descent of St. Louisans on his shop!) would be open from 2-5 —the usual siesta time— for us alone on Thursday…” and “Gentlemen, do your Christmas shopping early and avoid the rush.”
In addition to the cost of the trip ($1,000-1,500 per person, about $8,000 today), the participants were required to donate another $250 to Washington University for the research of George Mylonas. In 1969, one year after his retirement from WUSL, Mylonas would lead a final cruise to Greece, the highlight of which would be the dedication of the Mycenaean Melathron Center at Mycenae.
In 1968, after almost four decades abroad, Lela and George would move permanently back to Greece. If in the 1930s the couple had carried with them memories of Greece to St. Louis —as Asia Minor refugees they would have had abandoned most of their possessions in Smyrna —this time, thirty-five years later, they would bring pieces of St. Louis to their Greek home in Athens. In addition to Martyl’s artworks, the ASCSA is in the possession of a painting by another St. Louisan artist: Wallace Herndom Smith. Born in 1901 to a wealthy family, Smith studied architecture and built houses for relatives and friends of his family at Ladue, an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis, before devoting himself to painting. Although early in his career Smith flirted with modernism, his work is now thought to be closer to American Regionalism — but he had a definite, personal, style. Mylonas would have become aware of the artist’s work through Smith’s portrait of George Reeves Throop, Chancellor of WUSL from 1927 to 1944 (the painting now in the Kemper Art Museum). Mylonas had known Throop from Athens when the latter spent two summers at the American School in 1927 and 1934. We do not know how Mylonas acquired Smith’s painting. A gift perhaps? Although there is no evidence in the scrapbooks that Smiths participated in any of Mylonas’s cruises, “Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Herndon Smith” appear in the brochures as members of the Committee of the Archaeological Society of Washington University. The Mediterranean theme of the painting (some idyllic cove on the French Riviera?) would have appealed to George and Lela. Today the painting is on display in the ASCSA Director’s house.
After a period of oblivion, there has been increased interest in Wallace Herndon Smith’s work since 1985, when James Van Sant, the retired chairman of General Steel Industries, and Lee Hall took an interest in his paintings, with Hall publishing a monograph about Smith. Most of Smith’s art now belongs to the Bellwether Foundation. The city of St. Louis, justifiably proud of him, has held many exhibits of his works. The latest,“Wallace Smith: Paintings and Drawings,” opened at The Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries on Dec. 2, 2016 and will continue until March 13, 2017.
Today George Mylonas is mostly known for his impressive archaeological discoveries, but a glance at George and Lela’s carefully compiled scrapbooks and their personal art collection not only reveals less known aspects of their lives, but also introduces us to the post-WWII spirit of a Midwestern town, St. Louis, and its people who shared with enthusiasm the aspirations of a Greek archaeologist.
Note: The title of this essay is taken from the name of the plane that Charles Lindbergh (another St. Louisan) flew from New York to Paris non-stop in 1927. He described it as: “a living creature, gliding along smoothly, happily, as though a successful flight means as much to it as to me, as though we shared our experiences together, each feeling beauty, life, and death as keenly, each dependent on the other’s loyalty. We have made this flight across the ocean, not I or it.”