To Live Alone and Like It: Women and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Between the Wars.Posted: August 5, 2019
“But it is not education only that is needed. It is that women should have liberty of experience… to idle and loiter, the mental space to let your mind wonder,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own in 1929. The work was based on lectures she delivered in October 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College in Cambridge (both for women). She further advised her female audience “to drink wine and have a room of their own.” I will not dwell on the issue of wine because women of all classes had access to alcohol, at least privately, but for a woman to have a room of her own was highly unusual before WW II, especially for women who had not inherited wealth. Woolf would be eternally grateful to her aunt for leaving her a lifelong annual stipend of 500 pounds.
That a woman could live alone by her own choice was almost unheard of. Young women who moved to the big cities in search of work were usually sharing apartments with others of the same sex, for a few years at most, until they got married. However, WW I upset traditional demographics by creating a population imbalance in the western world: more women than men. To put it bluntly, for these extra women it meant that the prospect of marriage was less attainable (Scutts 2017). If Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was fighting her own battles in ultra conservative England, Marjorie Hillis (1889-1971), an American writer and contemporary of Woolf, was sufficiently daring to publish in 1936 a book that encouraged single women to take control of their lives and Live Alone and Like it. “A Lady and Her Liquor,” “Pleasures of a Single Bed,” and “Solitary Refinement?” were some of the chapter titles. Her book became an immediate best-seller and remained popular for many years.
I must admit that I had not read Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own until very recently although I had seen references to it many times before. I was not aware of Hillis’ book until I began to study the impact of Woolf’s essays. It is also not clear whether Hillis knew of Woolf’s work, but that’s not really the point. What I want to draw attention to is the fact that many women in the 1920’s and 1930’s on both continents were thinking in a similar manner: Woolf conveying her thoughts within a theoretical framework and Hillis offering useful, practical advice. I began researching this subject after a spring trip to Princeton where I went for business, but, while there, I decided to combine business with pleasure. And what is pleasure for an archivist? Instead of facilitating other people’s research, during lunch breaks I conducted my own study of the Special Collections of the Firestone Library. (Their new Reading Room is fantastic!) For lack of time I decided to focus on Alison Frantz’s early letters from abroad to her mother Mary Kate.
Mary Alison Frantz (1903-1995) was a graduate of Smith College with a PhD from Columbia University. She is remembered today for her scholarly contributions to the study of Byzantine Art and for her archaeological photography. Following WW II she served as the Cultural Attaché of the U.S. Embassy in Athens and was the first Executive Director of the newly established Fulbright Foundation in Greece (1946-1949). (For her work at the Fulbright Foundation, as “a woman of power,” see Lalaki 2018.) I was fortunate to meet Frantz in person in the early 1990s, when she came to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) for a lecture in her honor and stayed at the Annex of Loring Hall, where I was living as a graduate student. I will never forget how elegant and distinguished she looked in her long black dress and her pearl necklace (she was 90 at the time).
In a few days at Princeton I managed to read the letters she sent during her first visit to Greece in 1925, in a second brief visit in 1927, and in the course of an extended stay in 1929-1930 when she spent a year working as a librarian at the American School. Her first visit was rather short and part of an educational trip that the Director of the American Academy of Rome, Gorham P. Stevens, and his Greek wife, Annette Notaras, had organized. She experienced Greece as an informed tourist who was herded around with the other members of her group. Although I will refer to her earliest impressions of Greece, I am more interested in the accounts of her third and defining time in Greece. All the letters I will be quoting from are part of her personal papers in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University.
“Rome is far superior to Athens, except for the Acropolis” (1925)
In 1925 Alison stayed in Greece slightly more than a month, visiting Central Greece and the Peloponnese with the rest of the AAR group. Traveling outside Athens remained difficult, almost primitive, with dirt roads, mules, and a noticeable lack of clean hotels and restaurants. To get to Delphi they sailed from Piraeus to Itea, and from there they climbed up for three hours to reach the ancient site. “Everything is done by mules and we have seen only two automobiles since we have been here,” she wrote to her mother from the Pythian Apollo Hotel. At St. Luke’s Monastery “there were seventeen of us and there seemed to be only about four beds…”. One of the monks “went out into the field and got a kid, and killed and cooked it,” while another one “sat in the garden and ground the coffee in a fascinating brass grinder” (April 4, 1925). At Tripolis, the proprietor of a greasy restaurant “came out with a leg of a mutton in his hand and slapped and stroked it and said we could have it” (April 20, 1925). The entire time she was in Greece she was longing for the Roman fountains “and the feeling of an indefinite water supply, because here there is practically none. It runs twice a week and we have to drink boiled or bottled water” (May 4, 1925). Athens would solve its water problem a few years later with the completion of the construction of the Marathon Dam in 1929.
It only takes a quick glance at her letters to gather that the 22 year-old Alison did not enjoy her first time in Greece. “Rome is far superior to Athens, except for the Acropolis,” she declared to her mother after returning to Rome (May 15, 1925). Her comment is in marked contrast with the one made a few years earlier by A. Winsor Weld (1869-1956), one of the deputy commissioners of the American Red Cross Commission to Greece in 1918, who claimed that Athens was “in every way a much more attractive city than Rome.” (See an earlier post from 2015, titled “Athens 1918: “In Every Way A Much More Attractive City than Rome.”) Aside from personal tastes, there was a defining event in the history of the city –between Weld’s experience in 1918 and that of Frantz in 1925– one that affected Athens’ character for ever: the influx of hundreds of thousands of Greek refugees after the Asia Minor Catastrophe in 1922, followed by the population exchange of 1923. It would take the city years to recover from the shock and to absorb the new population by expanding her radius. No wonder that there was a shortage of water in 1925.
Athens to Trikala: Fifteen Hours by Train (1927)
Alison would be back in Athens briefly in the fall of 1927. This time she found another, slightly older, graduate of Smith College, Priscilla Capps (1900-1985), the daughter of Edward Capps, the Chairman of the School’s Managing Committee. Alison went to visit Priscilla “at her headquarters,” that is, the Near East Industries that Priscilla was managing near Constitution Square. “You know she is in charge of the workrooms of the American Friends of Greece. They have the most fascinating things there—embroidery of all kinds. They get characteristic designs from various parts of Greece and the islands, and the women work and sell them here—they handle two thousand dollars’ worth a month,” Alison reported to her mother, a native of Princeton, who must have known the members of the Capps family who lived there.
This time Alison travelled to Meteora. “We were on the train fifteen hours and got to Trikkala about nine where we spent the night in a rather unfortunate hotel.” But Meteora was worth the trouble because “this is the most amazing place I have even seen. Perfectly smooth sheer rocks rise two and three hundred feet away from the ground and on the top are perched these monasteries… The view over the Thessalian mountains was superb with the Pindos range in the distance, and, literally, dozens of eagles soared over our heads all the time” (September 23 ).
From 1927 to 1929 Alison would join the staff of the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University, a program founded in 1917 by Charles Rufus Morey (1877-1955), chair of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton, who aimed to make Princeton the center for the study of Early Christian, Byzantine, and Early Medieval Art. He also wanted to train a new generation of American scholars in these fields. One of them was Alison Frantz, who would earn her doctorate on Byzantine ornament from Columbia University, under his supervision, since Princeton remained an all-male school.
To Greece for a Third Time (1929)
In early September 1929 Alison returned to Athens not for a visit but to work in the library of the American School. Her good friend Priscilla had reserved a room for her at the Miramare Palace in Old Phaleron. “It is right on the bay with a marvelous view of the islands on one side and Hymettus on the other… There is a big sea-airport here, and as I arrived a British plane from England bound for Constantinople and India took off from the harbor.’ Alison is referring to an air harbor which had operated at Old Phaleron since 1926. On the web I found that an Italian company, Aero Espresso, was running a line: Brindisi – Old Phaleron – Syros – Constantinople, and that the trip lasted nine hours. The author of the essay, Cliton Samatiadis, also discovered in an old Eleftheroudakis guide that, because of the air harbor, Phaleron, Kalamaki, and Nea Smyrni were popular neighborhoods among refugees from Constantinople (“H εγκατάσταση Κωνσταντινουπολιτών και η γραμμή υδροπλάνων Παλαιό Φάληρο-Κωνσταντινούπολη,” 24/12/2017). Interestingly enough, lately there have been efforts to reintroduce hydroplanes to Greece; in fact, Minister Adonis Georgiadis just announced that “Του χρόνου τέτοια εποχή θα πετάμε με υδροπλάνα.” As they say, believe it when you see it!
Back to Alison and her Phaleron days, which can only be described as joyful. Often joined by Priscilla, she went swimming at the Golf Club (yes, there was a golf club in Athens since the 1900s; I have written about it in “Athens at the Turn of the Century: A Sentimental Capital and a Resort for Scholars“): “the golf course, which is on sand was very wet from a recent rain.” (Sept. 10, 1929). The two women also went riding: “Priscilla and I have been riding about twice a week and it’s perfectly lovely… We usually ride along the slopes of Hymettus, and every now and then look up and see the Acropolis…” (Sept. 17, 1929). On another occasion, she and Priscilla “had a marvelous ride. The horses were frisky and the air [was] delightful” (Oct. 9, 1929).Alison went to Athens almost every day. It took her only fifteen minutes by bus to get to the center of the city: “it is a very pleasant ride, although the buses never start until they are quite full, so that you are always packed together like sardines or else don’t go at all” (Sept. 10, 1929). The construction of Loring Hall was nearing completion, with a due date of November 1st. Its completion was expected to solve the School’s accommodation problem, which had become more pressing after 1922 with the influx of the Asia Minor refugees. It is amusing to find that there was resistance among the members who were living in the main building (in the basement rooms of what is today the Director’s house) against moving to Loring Hall, despite it being state of the art, with hot running water and central heating. Alison and others preferred the old building because “all the rooms have fireplaces while none of the new ones do, and I would sacrifice a good deal for one…” she wrote to her mother (Sept. 22, 1929).
Living in Old Phaleron likely stretched her means because she was asking for a small loan from her mother until she received her first salary on Oct. 1st. “Yesterday morning Mr. Carpenter and I went over the library work and I think it’s going to be very interesting, chiefly ordering books and keeping track of them as they come in.” In another letter she gives a few more details about her daily tasks in the Library: “I also open the many book catalogues and advertisements to see if there is anything we ought to have. I also see to the binding of books…”. Alison was essentially the School’s librarian for that year; yet, if one checks the Annual Report for 1929-1930, her name does not appear anywhere.
Of Rhys Carpenter, ASCSA Director (1927-1932) and Professor of Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College, she wrote admiringly: “Mr. Carpenter is a most extra-ordinary person. Besides being one of the foremost archaeologists they say he is a very good poet, painter, and musician, and speaks eight languages fluently” (Sept. 22, 1929). Two months later she would modify slightly her first impression. “The Carpenters I like very much although both are temperamental. His lectures at Olympia were marvelous, he really is extraordinarily brilliant” (Nov. 18, 1929).
A Place of Their Own
The slightly older and well-to-do Priscilla Capps must have been a trend setter among a host of young American women who were living in the orbit of the American School. First, she was running her own business, managing the Near East Industries–embroidery workshops for refugee women; second, she was renting a place of her own. She conformed to both of Virginia Woolf’s tips for women who wanted to experience life on their own terms. “Priscilla has taken a little four room house near the School for the winter. She has a maid called Aphrodite… it is quite darling. She has a lot of nice things and has fixed it up in a very attractive way…” (Oct. 9, 1929). Inspired by Priscilla, Alison went out to buy “two adorable little Skyros chairs, very low with string seats, carved backs, and no arms…” Yet, to her mother Alison had to defend Priscilla’s decision to have a place of her own: “she prefers a place where she can keep house and have her possessions and dog about her…” (Oct. 22, 1929). Mary K. was asking why Priscilla had not opted for a room at Loring Hall.
I have been curious about the houses, especially the interiors, of the American archaeologists who decided to make Athens as their permanent home. A few years ago Vivian Florou studied various primary sources in order to ‘restore’ the interior of the Blegen/Hill household (Florou 2015). Only one photograph of the interior of 9 Ploutarchou has survived, and, by good fortune, it’s the one that depicts the “Greek Room” with its Skyrian furniture.
I was not so lucky as to find photos from Priscilla’s apartment, but in the Special Collections of Bryn Mawr College, the archivist located in the Lucy Shoe Merritt Papers interior photos from another Athenian apartment. Lucy Shoe (1906-2003) was a graduate of Bryn Mawr and a student at the School in 1929-1930, who had saved photos of the apartment she and Dorothy Burr had shared in the early 1930s. Naturally, they had chosen one with a fireplace, in front of which they took their afternoon tea; and like the “Greek Room” of the Blegen house, they had placed two low, armless Skyrian chairs on either side of it. (About the American fascination with the island of Skyros, see an earlier essay, titled “Skyromania? American Archaeologists in 1930s Skyros.”)
By 1929 Alison had completely changed her mind about Athens which she now considered “a much nicer city to live in than Paris because you can always get away from the city atmosphere and don’t feel so stuffy” (Oct. 31, 1929). Remember her earlier comment (from 1925) about “Rome being far more superior than Athens?” Athens was, and remains an acquired taste. It is often not love at first sight but once you become comfortable, you don’t abandon her easily. Although Carpenter asked Alison to come back to the School the following year, she declined because she wanted to go back to the U.S. to pursue her doctorate at Columbia University. “I think I’ll write my dissertation on Byzantine ornament in Greece instead of landscape painting… It would be very interesting to go to all the little Byzantine churches round about, and very little has been done on the subject” (Jan. 24, 1930). But she would return to Athens a few years later, after the completion of her doctorate degree, to join the staff, as a photographer of the newly opened excavations in the Athenian Agora, a position she kept until her retirement. Although her house in Princeton remained Alison’s main residence, she also maintained a place in Athens, which classicist and ASCSA trustee Rob Loomis sublet in the 1960s.  (John Camp, Director of the Agora Excavations, told me that Alison shared the place with Lucy Talcott and that it was located at the corner of Anapiron Polemou and the Lykabettus ring-road.)
“The M. Alison Frantz Fellowship, formerly known as the Gennadeion Fellowship in Post-Classical Studies, was named in honor of archaeologist, Byzantinist, and photographer M. Alison Frantz (1903-1995), a scholar of the post-classical Athenian Agora whose photographs of antiquities are widely used in books on Greek culture. Frantz donated a large part of her photographic collection to the American School, where is available for research.”
. Soon after my story went online, Loomis emailed me a note which I reproduce with his permission: “In 1967/8, when I was a Regular Member at the School, I sublet Lucy’s and Alison’s apartment for the academic year. As you say, it was located at the corner of Anapiron Polemou (#24 if I remember correctly) and the Peripheriako. It was the top half of a two-family house, since torn down and replaced by an apartment block. The owner lived with her maid on the ground floor. I had the second floor, entered by an outside staircase bordered by a flower garden and some orange and lemon trees (maintained as a side-job by Giorgos, one of the School gardeners, who also provided firewood); the apartment also came with a maid from Ikaria (whose name I cannot now recall) and an aged laundress, Penelope, who always seemed to know when I was in residence, appearing at all hours without any advance notice to collect and deliver my laundry. There was a small entrance hall with a fireplace, flanked by two of those little Skyros chairs. On one side of the hall was a long living room, fully furnished with sofa, chairs, table, desk, radio, phonograph and an enormous collection of vinyl records (lots of Mozart). On the other side a bathroom and two bedrooms, each with a balcony. A back hall led to a small kitchen and a back porch from which circular metal stairs ascended to a flat roof of the same size as the entire apartment. It had splendid views of Lykabettos, Hymettos, and even Aigina, although as I recall the Akropolis view was blocked by some buildings in between; in any event, it was the scene of some wonderful parties. For all of this, I paid $100 per month! As I recall, I heard about the apartment from John Camp and Emily Vermeule (who with her husband Cornelius had sublet it in a prior year), and I made all of the arrangements by mail with Lucy Talcott, whom I never met. I may have met Alison Frantz in the summer of 1966, but I only got to know her after my year in her apartment. In my time, there was no “Poussy” cat but Alison and Lucy may have brought their cat(s) back and forth from Princeton to Athens. Alison gave much of the apartment furniture to John Camp, who now has it in Merrill House.”
Florou, V. 2015. “The House at 9 Ploutarchou Street: A Grape Arbor and a Dense Shadow of Beautiful Meanings,” in Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives, ed. N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L.Davis, and V. Florou, Atlanta, pp. 121-146.
Lalaki, D. 2018. “The Cultural Cold War and the New Women of Power: Making a Case based on the Fulbright and Ford Foundations in Greece,” Histoire@Politique 35, pp. 1-20 [www.histoire-politique.fr].
Scutts, J. 2017. The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It, New York.