Greece 1935-1938: Involuntary TestimoniesPosted: May 2, 2017
For the really significant history is that grass roots history which reveals the everyday life of people, in their homes, and at their retreats, in their work and in their play, in turbulence and in repose.
Theodore C. Blegen, 1948
“I suppose you have heard about the Revolution which is taking place here. It began last Friday night -March 1st. During dinner we heard various rumblings and shots out in the city, but didn’t think much about it, believing them just the ordinary noises of the city. But afterwards they became so pronounced that we knew something was happening. So Betty [Dow] and I went down-town, in the direction from which the shots came. We met many troops marching through the streets, and finally came to the region where the firing came from – near the Akropolis. A revolution is such a strange thing here – everyone takes it as a matter of course, and a little as a joke – and the firing isn’t widespread at all. We were able to approach so near –without any danger – that we witnessed a tank storming a barracks for soldiers, and saw the firing on both sides… after the attacks on the barracks which we saw (we were in a crowd of about 25 – the sole witnesses), we saw other tanks, at close range and finally came upon battalions of soldiers drawn up with guns and bayonets in the streets and ready for action… ” wrote Richard (Dick) H. Howland, age 25, to his family back in America.
The attempted coup d’état of March 1, 1935, a failed Venizelist revolt against the government of Panagis Tsaldaris, would hasten the collapse of Greece’s short-lasting parliamentary democracy (1924-1935) and the return of the king in November that same year. Fifteen months later, on August 4th, 1936, Howland, Gladys Davidson, and a few others from the School would look desperately for a taxi to take them to Piraeus to catch the boat to Istanbul. Howland reported to his family that they managed to arrive in the harbor “despite the fact there was a taxi strike in town and a general strike of all workers because the premier of Greece had just made himself dictator. Soldiers in the streets everywhere, but no goings-on. No newspapers published at all that day. I have learned since, of course, that it all went off quietly and things settled down, but as we left, it looked as though we were going to miss a big revolution.”
Having come to Greece in the fall of 1933 to attend the year-long program of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), Howland and his peers at the School became “witnesses in spite of themselves” to critical events in the political history of the nation (Ricoeur 2006). Their “involuntary testimonies” (and the “target of a historian’s indiscretion”) may or may not add new information to what was already described in the press at the time but they suggest real potential for any systematic study of mundane history which lies unacknowledged or hidden in archival reserves. This is a type of social history, one that starts from the bottom rank of social agency, even if, in our case, the agents were privileged foreigners living protected lives within the walls of the “white tower” of academia. This is also “applied history” in the sense that it engages and connects its readers with “large history,” and allows, as in novels, “one’s own mind to be temporarily inhabited by that of another person” (Phillips 2017).
The King Does Not Eat Better Food Than We Do
“I haven’t met the King yet, but then, none of the American School, even the Director has. We trade at the same grocery, however, and the King has no better food to eat than we do. Very often, when we stop by in the evening for a box of crackers, some cheese, or wine, we see the King’s kitchen buying a can of peaches or something similar for the royal dessert” Howland wrote on Feb. 9, 1936. A week later, at the School’s Open Meeting, “his highness, the Crown Prince Paul sat down in front, and left as soon as it was over, not stopping to talk to anyone except to say a word to Dr. Shear and Dr. Capps, the Director” he reported to his family with some disappointment, not perhaps realizing that there was probably a better explanation for the Crown Prince’s lack of interest in socializing with the leadership of the American School. It must have been known to the royal family that both T. Leslie Shear and Edward Capps had been ardent supporters of former Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos. In fact, immediately after Venizelos’s death on March 18, 1936, Stuart Thompson, the architect of the Gennadius Library, was asked, most likely by Capps, to draw up plans for an extension to the building which would be named after Venizelos (“Μουσείον του Ελευθερίου Βενιζέλου”). (The plans, long-forgotten, were discovered in a closet of the Gennadius Library during construction work in 1999; see Kalligas 2004).
Howland’s wish to meet or, at least see, King George II up close was granted a year later, at the Open Meeting of the French Archaeological School. Howland noted (February 19, 1937) that “the king, who sat in a chair about 15 feet away from mine, looked tired and thin and yellowish, as if he was getting jaundice. He left the minute it was over, of course, as a King can’t stick around to chat with people… ”. A month later he would find King George attending the Archaeological Society’s meeting “where the lecture was delivered at break-neck speed – in order not to tire the King…” (March 21, 1937). Deserted by his wife, Queen Elizabeth (the former Princess Elisabeta of Roumania), who divorced him in July 1935, and childless, the King cultivated a reserve that was noticeable to everybody.
Howland’s descriptions of the royal family’s aloofness provide a sharp contrast to the narratives of other members of the School from the earlier 20th century. The letters of Nellie Marie Reed (1895-1896), Ida Thallon (1899-1901), Theodore Heermance (1903-1905), and those of long-time Athenian residents Carl Blegen and Bert Hodge Hill describe the court as lively and hospitable during the reign of King George I and Queen Olga, and later during the short reign of King Alexander (1917-1920). But back then, the royal family had not yet experienced long periods of exile and the extent of Venizelos’s power over the Greek people.
Looking Like an English Lord
Richard Hubbard Howland (1910-2006) was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island. He studied at Brown (B.A., 1931), Harvard (M.A., 1933), and Johns Hopkins (Ph.D., 1946) universities. Following the end of WW II, he made a career in historic preservation in the U.S., the U.K., and Ireland. He served as the first president of the (U.S.) National Trust for Historic Preservation (1956-1960) and served for many years in various positions at the Smithsonian Institution.
From 1933 until 1938 Howland lived in Athens, first as a student and later as a fellow of the ASCSA, excavating both at Corinth and the Athenian Agora. Having lost his mother in 1932, he addressed most of his letters to an extended family (“Dear Folks”), the Hubbards and the Howlands, who lived in a “two-family,” eight bedroom house (according to the State of Rhode Island Historic Property Search) on 89 and 91 Whitmarsh Street, Providence. There he took great care of his appearance — always impeccably dressed— and surroundings. Tall, blond, and handsome, he was often mistaken for a noble Englishman during his time in Greece. In a few cases he was even mistaken for the Crown Prince and “treated to much embarrassed formality, which fled when they found out I wasn’t,” he wrote after a week of vacation at Corfu in July 1938.
During his second year in Greece he met Carol Bullard, whom he initially described as “a Chicago debutante with lots of money and no ideas at all of archaeology. Her aunt [Ada Small Moore] gave the new Corinth Museum, and thought her niece might enjoy a year in Greece…” Soon after, however, he would take Carol to late dinners and dancing at the Cosmopolite Roof, the Fix Brewery “where there is an excellent restaurant run by a Hungarian, in connection with the brewery,” and the Glyphada Casino (July 27, 1936).
By the 1930s Glyphada, a newly developed suburb on the south side of the city, had become the preferred recreational destination (including night swims) for Americans and other foreigners living in Athens. In July 1937, Henry Beck, the U.S. Vice Consul, hosted a big party “at his villa in Glyphada – a buffet cocktail and supper on the terrace, with musicians in a balcony above. Afterwards dancing and at midnight, when the moon came up, everybody got into a small boat and were paddled, with the musicians, to the Glyphada casino, for more dancing. It was quite a brawl” (July 17, 1935 to Gladys Davidson, with whom he shared a close friendship). After two years of courtship, he and Carol were married in 1937 setting up their first household on the second floor of a house behind the School on Dinokratous Street. The uncertainty of the times, however, forced them to return to America in 1938. After their divorce in 1942, Howland did not remarry but continued to lead a vigorous social life that contributed to successful fundraising for the institutions he served. As chairman of the School’s Managing Committee (1965-1975) he persuaded Claire Woolie Mayer to donate her house in New York to the American School in 1974. The so-called Mayer House housed served for years as the School’s base of operations in America until it was sold for $5,850,000 in 1998, thus enriching the ASCSA’s endowment.
But for Classical archaeologists (and I have to admit it took me some years to realize this) his most lasting contribution to the field was Greek Lamps and Their Survivals (Princeton 1958) —a.k.a. Agora IV. Sixty years after its publication it remains one of the most important reference volumes in Greek archaeology. Very few, however, are aware of the man behind H[owland]T[ype] 24, or HT 25 Prime.
An Innocent Abroad
I was, however, fortunate to meet Howland in 1996 on his last journey to Greece — an elderly, distinguished man who walked into the Archives and introduced himself as Dick Howland. He had brought with him his collection of photos from his various times in Greece. He had already entrusted his personal correspondence to his old friend and Trustee of the School Doreen Canaday Spitzer. (His photographic collection, as well as that of Gladys Davidson Weinberg, was digitized as part of a recent ESPA project.) Although there are a number of photographic collections from the 1930s in the School’s Archives, Howland’s letters to his family are perhaps the only written record preserving information about the daily activities of the small “colony” of American expatriates living in Athens during that decade. Dorothy Burr Thompson’s diaries at Bryn Mawr College also exist, but after 1933 these accounts are limited to descriptions of summer visits. There also are the M. Alison Frantz’s papers in the Firestone Library at Princeton, which I have not yet had the pleasure of reading.
A few years ago Kostis Kourelis published a rich and multi-layered essay exploring the avant-guard leanings and bohemian background of several of the School’s members, including directors Rhys Carpenter, Richard Stillwell, and Charles Morgan, artists Piet de Jong and Georg von Peschke, and their occasional interactions with members of the Greek “Thirties Generation” through the extended social circles of Eva Palmer Sikelianos and Joan Bush Vanderpool (Kourelis 2007). Howland did not belong to this group, either because he was too young, just “an innocent abroad,” or perhaps because the “others” (i.e., the Carpenters and the Stillwells) were an exception to the rule. His letters rarely mention social interactions outside the orbit of the American colony in Athens. Although he and others from the School were invited to parties at Olga Cheimonas’s new apartment on Speusippou street — Mme Cheimona being the Russian widow of Greek-Russian painter Nikos Cheimonas (1866-1929) — where they might have met Greek artists, these encounters seemed not to have generated new ones (July 17, 1935 to GD). (I must mention here that the School owns two paintings by Nikos Cheimonas, which are currently on display in the dining room of the Director’s residence.) On another occasion, he, Gladys, and Ted Erck (Assistant Librarian at the Gennadius Library) “were invited to the Vanderpools for dinner. The Sikelianos were there…; we had a good dinner down in their garden” (July 27, 1936), but again he did not seem to have been able to reach out further into contemporary Greek intellectual circles.
On Sunday morning, September 27, 1936, Howland and others from the School visited Corinth “as the Athens Symphony Orchestra with Mitropoulos directing, gave a concert in the ancient theater, at old Corinth” attended by 3,000 people. “The concert was very good, Beethoven’s 1st and 7th Symphonies and was well appreciated, despite the rain which immediately preceded it.” (The program from that event has survived in the papers of Oscar Broneer, who also must have been in attendance.)
A few months later, during the week of April 17, 1937, Howland represented Brown University at the festivities for the 100th Anniversary of the University of Athens. There is a great photo in the Howland papers commemorating the event, which was attended by many members of the School who had been appointed delegates of American Universities.
But most often, when Carol Bullard was not in Athens, Howland would dine with Rodney Young, Gladys Davidson, Alison Frantz, and Mary Zelia (Philippides). Other guests on these evenings might have included junior members of the U.S. Legation such as vice-consul Burton Berry (1901-1985), Henry Beck (died in 1939), and Harold Schantz, all bachelors with a laissez-faire attitude to life and a preference for Balkan or Eastern Mediterranean posts. Ambassador Charles W. Yost, in his memoirs, described Beck, upon his arrival in Alexandria in 1931, as a “natty little man in a Panama hat and tropical suit” who introduced him to the talents of an Egyptian belly dancer. Burton Berry who spent many years between Istanbul and Athens before he was appointed Ambassador to Iraq (1952-1954), is mostly known today for his valuable textile collection (Art Institute of Chicago) and his coin collection (American Numismatic Society).
As a couple, Howland and Carol socialized with the Joneses, the Kohlers, and the Rankins. G. Lewis Jones (1907-1971), Assistant Commercial Attaché at the U.S. Legation in Athens (1935-1939) would later become Ambassador to Tunisia (1956-1959) and Assistant Secretary of State; Foy D. Kohler (1908-1990), the Legation’s Secretary from 1936-1941, who would conclude his diplomatic career as Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1962-1966); and Karl Rankin (1898-1981), the Commercial Attaché (1932-1939), would later be appointed U.S. Ambassador to China (1950-1953) and Yugoslavia (1953-1957). To a mover and shaker like Howland these early brushes with the diplomatic corps must have come in handy later in his career, as the head of U.S. cultural foundations. (With this new information in mind, his chairmanship of the ASCSA Managing Committee deserves to be studied anew.)
The Magic of Old Corinth
If life in Athens required compliance with a certain decorum, the rural environment and simplicity of life at Old Corinth not only freed the School’s students from the city’s dos and don’ts, but also encouraged contact with the locals during excavation or time at the dig house. Apart from the local hospitality, this was for many their only opportunity to practice Greek, or even learn αρβανίτικα. “It is spoken in Corinth very much, as most of the natives for miles around are of Albanian descent. It causes them great amusement to hear me speak it… I have had one ‘lesson’ from Argyrie, my pot mender. The maid, Helene, nearly dropped the soup when I talked to her in Albanian, and returned to the kitchen where she told the cook and the other maid about it with great astonishment. She’s my friend for life,” he wrote to his family with pride (Oct. 28, 1934).
And indeed, young Richard did not hesitate to form a life-long relationship with one of the local families, when Evangelos Lekkas, the foreman of the dig, “asked me to baptize and be godfather to his daughter aged 10 months… In Greece it is quite a thing to be a Godfather… So according to customs and much advice from Greek friends in Athens, I went down to Corinth armed with a complete Baptismal outfit… all nicely embroidered, seven candles to use during the ceremony, a cake of soap, oil and incense, [and] some forty tin crosses to give to each guest as a souvenir, and last but not least a cash present to start a bank account for the baby. Any money I may have spent was certainly worth it, for I never had such a time in my life” (Jan. 21, 1935). Proof that he was not an “accidental” godfather, sixteen years later, in 1960, Howland would become again νονός, this time to Lekkas’s grandchild; and every time he came to Greece, even during his last visit in 1996, he would travel to Corinth to spend time with his Greek family.
I have borrowed the terms “involuntary witness” and “witnesses in spite of themselves” from Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. K. Blamey and D. Pellauer, Chicago 2006.
Blegen, T. C. “The Saga of Saga Hill,” Minnesota History 29 (1948), pp. 289-299.
Kalligas, H. “1936: Μουσείον του Ελευθερίου Βενιζέλου,” The New Griffon 7 (2004), pp. 33-35.
Kourelis, K. “Byzantium and the Avant-Garde: Excavations at Corinth, 1920s-1930s,” Hesperia 76 (2007), pp. 391-442.
Phillips, S. “Should you Feel Sad about the Demise of the Handwritten Letter?” Aeon Magazine April 12, 2017 (https://aeon.co/ideas/should-you-feel-sad-about-the-demise-of-the-handwritten-letter, accessed April 30, 2017).