Rediscovering the American Pioneer Spirit in Greece, 1928: The Letters of Robert Stroock

In the Main Reading Room of the Carl and Elizabeth Blegen Library in Athens, on the narrow side of one of the old bookcases, hangs a heavy bronze plaque inscribed: “In Memory of Robert L. Stroock: A Lover of Ancient Greece. MCMXXX”.

Unlike other commemorative plaques at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) which have often changed locations or even have been withdrawn from public view over the years, this one has remained in the same spot since it was dedicated shortly after Stroock’s death in 1930.

On display in the Carl and Elizabeth Blegen Library of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Two Meaningful Gifts

In Louis E. Lord’s A History of the American School of Classical Studies (1947), the Stroock name is mentioned twice, not in connection with Robert but with his father Sol, a prominent New York lawyer and an active member of the Jewish community in New York at the time. (His firm, which was founded in 1876, still exists as Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.) The first time Sol Stroock’s name is mentioned is in connection with the death in 1933  of James Loeb, an important philanthropist and a major benefactor of the School. “At his death it was found that he [Loeb] had been one of the School’s greatest benefactors. He left to the Trustees of the School five hundred thousand dollars to be used in conducting excavations in Greece. ‘Greece’ was to be interpreted as meaning ancient Hellas. A liberal interpretation of this by the executor, Mr. Sol M. Stroock, also a friend of the School, gave the School the benefit of the income on this legacy from the time of Mr. Loeb’s death,” wrote Lord (p. 245) in a somewhat cryptic paragraph, perhaps alluding to some complications with Loeb’s will, which  Stroock was able to deal with.

The next time Sol Stroock’s name is mentioned is on the eve of WW II, when Edward Capps, the Chair of the School’s Managing Committee, announced a special gift “of three thousand dollars through Mr. Sol M. Stroock, to be used as a fellowship fund to assist properly qualified Jewish students who had been driven from Germany by Hitler’s persecution. To this German Refugee Fellowship, Heinrich Immerwahr, a graduate of Breslau, was appointed. He had just received his doctorate from the University of Florence and went immediately to Greece, rescued thus from a German concentration camp” (Lord 1947, p. 267).

This was the second gift by the Stroock family to the American School within a decade. Upon the death of their son Robert in December 1930, Sol Stroock established a Library fund of about $1,500, to be used for the purchase of books. (He established a similar fund of $20,000 at Harvard College, his son’s alma mater.)  From 1932 until 1955, the Robert L. Stroock Fund appeared as a line in the School’s annual budget. (It appeared once again as the Robert L. Stroock Fellowship in 1969 with Frederick A. Cooper as its recipient.) Yet, there is no special mention of this fund either in Lord’s History or in the ASCSA Annual Reports. One would think that the premature death of a School member, one that was also followed by a commemorative gift, would have been noted in either publication.

“Be lowly wise…”

A graduate of Harvard College, Robert Louis Stroock attended the ASCSA program in 1928-1929. According to his application , which is preserved in the School’s Archives, Robert was a late arrival, having reached Athens in late October 1928, almost a month after the regular program had started. A search on the internet produced nothing about Robert Stroock in contrast to the many entries about his father.

What prompted me to write about Robert Stroock, the mysterious “lover of Ancient Greece,” was the recent re-discovery of a book that I had forgotten we had in the small reference library attached to the School’s Archives. Titled Letters of Robert Stroock: Written at Various Times, to Members of his Family and to some of his Friends, it was compiled, and privately printed in 200 copies, by Sol Stroock in 1932. I must have leafed through the book before, but it was only lately that I noticed that among the many letters written from England and Norway, it also contained about fifteen letters from Greece composed in 1928-1929, when Robert participated in the School ’s program. Since this period is poorly documented in terms of personal papers and photographic collections in the School’s Archives, I delved into the book with a renewed interest. While reading it, I was also struck by Robert’s writing style. These were the usual, descriptive (and sometimes gossipy) family letters that I have been accustomed to read in the School’s Archives. There is, however, a certain mysticism in Robert’s composition, as well as a profound need to go deeper. “He took the whole field of knowledge for his own,” wrote his father in the preface of the book.

Robert Louis Stroock, 1905-1930

Robert arrived in Athens during the second year of Rhys Carpenter’s directorship. Louis E. Lord of Oberlin College was the Annual Professor (Lord would later write the first volume of the School’s History), young Oscar Broneer had been appointed Instructor of Archaeology, Ferdinand de Waele was the Special Assistant in Archaeology, with Richard Stillwell serving as Special Professor of Architecture. Two of the three fellows were women, both from Bryn Mawr College, Agnes E. Newhall (later Mrs. Stillwell) and Mary Zelia Pease (later Mrs. Philippides); the third fellow was architect Lyman C. Douglas. Although most of them would have later illustrious careers in classics and archaeology, in 1928 they represented the School’s “new guard,” a relatively inexperienced group of scholars, most of them handpicked by the mighty Edward Capps. The “old guard”, Bert Hodge Hill and Carl W. Blegen, had become by then personae non gratae, and were not welcome on the School’s premises. In terms of facilities, the School’s campus in Kolonaki had expanded significantly after the erection of the Gennadius Library in 1926, while a dormitory, not yet named, to the west of the Gennadeion, was under construction: Loring Hall was completed in late 1929, a few months after Robert’s departure from Greece. And the School’s most powerful man, Edward Capps, was in the midst of crucial negotiations with the Greek government and its prime-minister Eleutherios Venizelos for the much sought after concession for the Athenian Agora excavations.

The Gennadius Library, ca. 1930. ASCSA Archives, Homer A. Thompson Photographic Collection.

Robert Strook was a handsome young man but of weak health. “While he was still an infant it was discovered that his heart was not strong, so that he was unable to participate in the vigorous sports of other boys,” wrote Sol Stroock in his preface.  His weak heart was probably the reason for his untimely death in 1930, at the age of 25.

“Bob wrote his own autobiography in his letters. His profound religious experiences, the depths as well as the shallows of his thought, the fullness of his love of art and of learning, and the humble simplicity of his life are best expressed as he revealed them in those letters” further added Sol Stroock. After landing in France, unlike other foreigners of his time, Robert reached Greece in October 1928 not by boat, via Italy, but by land, “a day and a half of ugly Jugoslavia, and some twelve hours through the mountains and valleys of northern Greece—rugged, unclimbable, but low mountains, separated by broad, flat, stony fertile plains, unlike anything I’ve ever seen elsewhere” (Stroock, p. 104).

Rediscovering the American Pioneer Spirit

A month later he wrote to his friend Allan about his fellow students at the American School, praising the high tone of the group, especially the women who were able to put up with the most difficult living conditions.

“In Athens conditions are not over civilized, though in some points it is a finely European place and I love it for this. But Greece outside Athens and one or two other places is more primitive than anything… The coat of arms of the School en tour is ‘a Flit-gun on a field of argent, with a bed-bug dormant, a flea rampant, and a mosquito couchant.’ At some places the men sleep in the halls and dining room (from which the goats have been chased) and the women are crowded into the rooms. Running water is unknown… The point is that these American women… are able not merely to bear such conditions by night and to climb acropolises which horses die on by day, but to make the desert blossom like the rose” (Stroock, p. 106).

Mary Caperton. Photo: S. Bingham, The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters, 2014.

Robert’s women fellow-travelers in 1928-1929 were: Priscilla Lord, daughter of Annual Professor Louis Lord, Frances Capps, niece of Edward Capps, and Mary Caperton (who would later become the matriarch of the Bingham newspaper empire). Mary Zelia Pease and Agnes Newhall, second year fellows, might have joined the group from time to time. Robert attributed the stamina of the women in the program “to that strange conglomerate of freedom and old-fashioned Puritanism which seems to form the better aspect of the character of American woman”.  The son of a dynamic woman, Hilda Weil Stroock (1876-1945), a graduate of Hunter College with an active interest in the welfare of women and children throughout her life, Robert had grown up in an environment that encouraged the development of women, especially in the Jewish communities.

Do you want precision? Study your Classical Architecture

The ability of the Americans to adjust to the hard living conditions was a recurrent theme in Robert’s letters. He felt that most of his fellow countrymen had lost their pioneer spirit, because:

“they have had nothing important to do… There are so few Americans who could possibly plaster onto any of their acts-figuratively speaking- the thrilling, simple words “Jones εποίησε” with all the weight of meaning” (Stroock, p. 114).

For Robert it must have been also liberating to be for a while away from Jewish environments, to judge from one of his comments to his friend Ruth: “Here one is not in the midst of that mauled race which we call fellow Jews—in fact here there are no Jews at all besides myself—but one does find an art with which to establish connections, and which was, perhaps, not so very remote from our more famous ancestors… Do you want precision? Study your classical architecture. Do you want clever associates[?]… Here there is a higher level of intelligence than in any other group of twenty diverse people I have ever found. Do you need your comforts? Ah then you had better stay away” (Stroock, pp. 110-111).

Stroock oozed happiness during his first months in Greece. Literally in love with the country, he felt that Greece with her brightness and clarity had cleared the “cloggings of his brain.” Raised with the notion that Greek Classical civilization was the foundation of America’s democracy and high culture, he wanted to “write the history of the Greeks but not in Greece nor for the Greeks. I shall return to America and write as an American with the Americans as a background and for my great American generation… In fact never did I feel more American than when I saw this prospect for myself here in Greece” (Stroock, p. 112).

Of Greek Folklore

Robert was much attracted to Greek folk songs, perhaps because they reminded him of Jewish folk music. “The music is extremely interesting, not being written in our scales, but apparently in modes, with an accompaniment in fifths. Some of the things, played by the peasants on a rude sort of pipe that looks like a large clarinet with accompaniment on a five stringed instrument about the size of a guitar or a little larger, with a smaller head… are extremely fine.” He wanted his friend Allan to find whether Victor records had a complete library of Greek music (Stroock, pp. 108-109).

He also thought of Modern Greeks as an extraordinary race. “Their constant good-nature, their sense of fitness, and their self-respect are three inestimable qualities exemplified in innumerable ways. They lie beautifully, thrillingly, on most occasions, yet the lies are not of great importance. Paradoxical as it may sound, one would rather trust a Greek than an American.

To put it epigrammatically, the American too often loses the spirit in the fact, the Greek embroiders the fact to fit the spirit” wrote Robert on November 30, 1928 (Stroock, p. 117).

Theodore Leslie Shear, Oliver MIles Washburn, and Gorham P. Stevens in fustanellas, 1906. ASCSA Archives.

In May 1929, he attended a national pageant of Greek costumes of all ages in the Stadium because he was interested in Modern Greek costumes and claimed to have known them “much better than do most native-born Athenians.” The next morning he went to Priscilla Capps’s shop “to buy what is known as the School uniform, a dozen or more being already in existence among both men and women: nine feet of washable, raw silk material which one takes to a tailor, at a total cost for the whole suit of about $20 and five days” Stroock reported to his family on May 21, 1929 (p. 158). The so-called School uniform that Stroock was making in the tailor’s must have been a Greek fustanella. There is a well-known photo among the School’s students which shows Theodore Leslie Shear, Oliver Washburn, and Gorham P. Stevens dancing, dressed in beautiful costumes in the early 1900s. I have discovered recently through the curator of the Greek Women Lyceum Club, Tania Veliskou, that Stevens’s Greek national costume is part of their collections, a gift of his Greek wife, Annette Notara Stevens.

Folkore pageants and performances at the Panathenaic Stadium, ca. 1930. ASCSA Archives, Charles H. Morgan Papers.

Visiting Palestine

During Easter break in April of 1929, Robert travelled to Palestine where he met other friends from New York, including Felix Warburg, a German-born Jewish banker and leader of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Hetty Goldman had worked for that Committee in 1918-1919, offering relief to the Jewish population of Northern Greece). During his trip, Stroock made it a point to visit a number of collective communities. “Their communistic experiments are unexpectedly successful thus far, and in their intellectual and artistic development they are fully abreast of the most important movements in the modern world… In their intense faith that they can create once more for themselves a live humanism they are unsurpassed.” Despite the fact that he had grown up in a secular and non-Zionist environment in America (anti-Zionism enjoyed considerable support in the Jewish communities before WW II), and also disliked the nationalistic aspect of these experiments, he found them appealing, especially to those who were looking to “retire from the dreadful prejudices which [one] must meet in America at every turn, and by which he is only too often beaten, frustrated”; Robert was obviously alluding to the antisemitism that he and other Jews encountered back home. (See also, Gulie Ne’eman Arad, America, its Jews and the Rise of Nazism, Bloomington 2000.)

A Hetty Goldman Connection?

Stroock returned to America in the summer of 1929 to continue graduate work at Harvard “in preparation for his doctorate and to fit himself to return to Greece to ‘carry on’ there.” And it is certain that he would have returned had he not taken severely ill in the spring of 1930.

Sol Stroock’s telegram to Rhys Carpenter announcing Robert’s death. ASCSA Archives, Administrative Records.

As mentioned above, Sol Stroock honored his son’s love for Greece by establishing the Robert L. Stroock library fund at the ASCSA in 1931. Eight years later he would remember the School again by establishing a life-saving fund, the German Refugee Fellowship, to assist German Jewish students who had to flee Germany because of Hitler. Jack Davis who has published about Jewish academics in Athens in the 1930s, was not able to find more information about Sol Stroock’s initiative; he suspects, however, that Hetty Goldman might have been behind it, since her maternal uncle Cyrus Adler and Sol Stroock knew each other well and had worked together for the benefit of the American Jewish Committee [link]. In fact, Stroock succeeded Adler in the presidency of the Committee in 1940, a position, however, that he did not hold long; Sol died in 1941 at the age of 68.

10 Comments on “Rediscovering the American Pioneer Spirit in Greece, 1928: The Letters of Robert Stroock”

  1. Glenn Bugh says:

    Poignant story, yet terribly sad to think he died so young and never made it back to Greece. He might have become an early version of Kevin Andrews, fascinated as much by modern Greece and Greeks as by their ancient ancestors. And he missed running into Wilhelmina van Ingen by one year–a shame. The connection to Henry Immerwahr, my professor at UNC, added a wonderful personal touch. I still miss his wry sense of humor. Keep the stories coming, Natalia. Glenn

  2. Tessa Dinsmoor says:

    Thanks, Natalia.Fascinating as always!

  3. Edward Hector Williams says:

    A moving story…fifty years since I was a student at the School and I really appreciate your giving us these vignettes from the past.

  4. Maria Liston says:

    I have often wondered about that plaque in the library and who Robert Strook was. Now I know the sad, but fascinating story. Thank you. I am also wondering about all those plaques that have been taken down. Who are the people that were deemed unworthy for continued remembrance? There have to be some stories there too. Perhaps there would be a wall somewhere in the space of the old archives where all those old memorials could reappear.

    • Thanks, Maria. About plaques that have been withdrawn, it usually happens during renovations, either because there is no physical space for them or there is a new donor (therefore, a new plaque), or people no longer “recognize” the name on the plaque so it is replaced with something else…

  5. Bill Morison says:

    I agree with Maria that it would be fascinating to learn more about those plaques that are no longer there. Thank you for such a wonderful story about Mr. Strook. I have seen the plaque many times and often wondered who he was.

  6. David Jonas Bardin says:

    Truly fascinating.
    I heard so much about Robert Louis Stroock from my mother (né Ruth Jonas) which your excerpts from his letters seem to corroborate.
    I grew up with his sculpted head which my mother had carved in marble (based on his death mask) and exhibited in the Palestine Pavilion of the1939 World’s Fair.

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