An Unconventional Union: “Mr. and Mrs. George Kosmopoulos”Posted: March 14, 2020
“That giant Arcadian mountaineer, servant, foreman and friend, proved the hero of the week-end. I never saw any one more dignified, grave and competent, and as he came from the heights of Arcadia, his physique was impressive, unlike that of the usual wiry little Greek. He brought us tea in the Museum, which we ate sitting among baskets of pottery and fragments of sculpture” (Conway 1917, p. 37).
The passage above comes from Agnes Ethel Conway’s book, A Ride through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera, and refers to George (Γεώργιος) Kosmopoulos, the son of Angelis (Αγγελής) –both skilled and highly valued foremen of American and German excavations in Greece in the late 19th and early 20th century. Published in 1917, the book is an account of a journey that two young, English women, Conway and her friend Evelyn Radford, made in the Balkan Peninsula in the spring of 1914 as students of the British School of Archaeology. One of their first excursions, while still living in Athens, was to the nearby site of Corinth, where the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School) had been digging since 1895.
Evelyn, “had a friend, an archaeologist, who was taking part in the excavations at Corinth, and invited us to come to her for the week-end.” The friend was no other than Alice Leslie Walker (1885-1954), a graduate of Vassar College (Class of 1906) who had already acquired the reputation of a seasoned excavator, having co-directed with Hetty Goldman the excavations of ancient Halae in Boeotia in 1911-1913. Upon arriving at Corinth the two women went to the excavations, where “our friend had just dug up the oldest piece of pottery ever found in the Peloponnese,” described Conway in her book (p. 36). Eighty years later, John C. Lavezzi, writing a biographical essay about Walker (for Brown University’s online project, Breaking Ground: Women in Old World Archaeology) would describe her discovery “as the largest and probably still the most significant deposit of Early Neolithic pottery from Corinth.” (Also check the comments that John Lavezzi and others added to the post since it went online.)
The following day the three women and George drove with a “sousta” (a kind of carriage) to ancient Sicyon to see the ancient theater. On the way back they “persuaded George to sing to us… His grandfather had been in close attendance to Kolokotronis and his pride in the songs was splendid to see. He was very anxious that we should understand all the words in the songs, and assured us over and over again that the circumstances were really historical… George had the remains of a fine voice, and to hear a patriot, full of pride in his songs, sing them in his own country, in the moonlight, was an experience worth having” (Conway 1917, pp. 39-40).
Their book is lightly written with archaeology “intentionally suppressed,” because Conway and Radford decided at midpoint during their Balkan journey to “go on strike” as archaeologists and “give themselves over to an orgy of wandering and brisk adventure,” photographing and scribbling notes about the different folk they encountered in their travels (p. 15). Sparing her readers any description of the archaeological site at Corinth, and charmed by the “giant Arcadian mountaineer,” Conway dedicated most of her Corinthian chapter to George, who would later, in 1924, marry their friend Alice Leslie.
I am grateful to Amara Thornton, the author of the innovative Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for People (2018) and a fellow blogger, who alerted me to the existence of Conway’s book and the references to Walker (who is not named in the book) and her “servant, foreman and friend” George. I am also glad because this is the only time that his character comes alive and is larger than we had ever imagined him, almost an epic figure. After marrying “Miss Walker” he was condemned to be a lesser figure in the eyes of the American community of Athens.
The American community’s frame of mind is best described by Charlotte Eleanor Ferguson, a young American teacher at Miss Miles’s girls school at Old Phaleron, who attended an American tea-party on October 23, 1924 at the house of Mrs. Sakellariou, “the Columbia graduate who married the Greek university professor”: …Then along came Mr. and Mrs. Cosmopoulos –she a Vassar graduate of 1902, a famous archaeologist (Miss Walker), very deaf, and with a cherubic face. Last year, she married the man who bossed all her excavations-a man well versed in excavating but without the educational background she has…” (D. L. Aronson, Odyssey of a Learning Teacher (Greece and the Near East 1924-1925), 2005, p. 45; about Charlotte Eleanor Ferguson’s experience in Greece read: “To Know One’s Country as a Foreign Land”).
Some years later, an exchange of letters between Edward Capps, Chair of the School’s Managing Committee, and Rhys Carpenter, Director of the School, implied that George Kosmopoulos had not been included in the guest list for the School’s Thanksgiving party in 1930. “Now that the dinner is over, and I hope you had a jolly time, I do not mind telling you that she appealed to me on the subject… She may not understand, and probably never will, that while nobody objects to her George, who is a very fine chap, of course, the members of the School would have little pleasure in his society and George, himself, would be quite miserable. Her wish that he might be ‘recognized’ is quite understandable, though her density as regards the function shows how Greek she has become,” conveyed Capps to Carpenter (ASCSA AdmRec 318/2, folder 2, December 17, 1930).
Et in Arcadia Ego
Throughout their joint life, Walker would affectionately call George “Kyr Yoryi” (Mr. George). Although they became engaged only in 1923 when she was 39 years old, two stories in Conway’s account make me suspect that Alice Leslie and George might have become intimately involved much earlier. In one of them, George and his sisters are elaborating to their visitors details of the dowry system that was prohibiting him from getting married. “In the absence of a father, the brothers take on the burden, and George was saddled with the dowries of their sisters. By ceaseless toil and by mortgaging his best bit of land, he had recently succeeded in marrying one of them; the other two sit at home making the trousseaux they will probably never use, and lamenting that in the nature of things they must be a burden on their brother. ‘You are happy, Kyria,’ Conway was told. ‘You need not feel that you are hindering your brother from marriage.’ (Conway 1917, p. 38).
The other passage that suggests an increased level of intimacy is when Walker described to her visitors how she and George toured the Peloponnese during the Balkan Wars, distributing relief among the wives and children of soldiers. “Dressed as a peasant herself, she and George obtained access to cottages, and in the course of talk heard of the needs of the poor people, without the purpose of their visit being suspected. She chose the poorest and most neglected districts, and must have been a godsend. Her knowledge of the peasants was profound, and we listened rapturously to an account in the highest habited village of Arcadia” (Conway 1917, pp. 37-38).
Walker referred to the same journey, but with less details about her traveling companion, in a letter to her father written on February 16, 1913. There she related “a most wonderful journey of more than two months” that took her “to many a wild and romantic part of Greece, unknown alike to the traveler and the archaeologist” and brought her into contact “with the kindliest peasantry in the world” and put her in tune with mankind. She also implied that it was a much-needed healing process after having suffered a rough summer in 1912 caused by “that collection of white sepulchers that is called the School.” Her poignant comment rhymes well with the long letter that Hetty Goldman, her partner in the Halae excavations, had sent about the same time to the Director of the American School, Bert Hodge Hill, accusing him of negligence and moral smallness. Both women believed that Hill, together with the School’s Secretary Carl W. Blegen, had intentionally caused the paper work for the expropriation of the site of Halae and the advancement of their project to linger. After a rough start, however, and over the years, the two women were able to patch up their relationship with both Hill and Blegen. (Read also: “Hetty Goldman: The Potentate of American Archaeology in Greece.”)
In a subsequent letter to her father, in September of 1913, Walker made sure to praise George. While describing their new foreman at Halae as “good and industrious and kindly,” she noted that he lacked “the picturesqueness and dramatic power of our good George,” who had been forced to go to the Pergamon excavations because of a previous standing agreement with the Germans. She further likened him to “a wonderful electric battery in an excavation under whom the moving of a large stone became an epic, and a row with the natives a battle of Gods and giants.” Reading between the lines, it doesn’t take much intuition to guess that Alice Leslie was already in love with George as early as in 1913.
Part of a generation that felt threatened by the rapid advances of civilization, Walker was in search of her own “Arcadia.” In Martin Conway’s introduction to A Ride through the Balkans, Arcadia is presented as something hardly attainable, like a fleeting woman.
“Where shall we find her? How catch her? She will not be caught; she is always beyond, just out of reach. She lives in the blue distance, on the top of the unclimbed mountain… You cannot even hope to pursue her in the conventional world… The ordinary man must get out of himself, out of the routine of his daily life, and away –away off somewhere among sights and folk that are strange to him, and then perhaps for a moment he may feel the touch of her garments as she passes by…” In George Kosmopoulos, a true Arcadian, Walker discovered her own Arcadia.
At Magouliana, the highest habited village of Arkadia, where George owned land, they would build a house for the summer. It was only recently, with the acquisition of the papers of Leicester B. Holland (1882-1952), an architect and member of the School in the early 1920s, that I found photos of the mockup that Holland had prepared in 1923 or 1924 for their house at Magouliana. Perched on a cliff and built of local stone following traditional forms, it would have been a spectacular house had it been built. (Let’s not forget that Walker was a woman of means.)
In a letter to Holland, ten years later (February 14, 1934), Walker regretted that they were not able to follow his proposal. “It has always been a great regret to us that were unable to use the excellent plans that you made for our house there –but it was fortunate indeed that we did not build during your years in Greece, for a couple of years later the village site became impossible as a place of residence; partly because Magouliana began to be full of summer visitors… and partly because many of them were tubercular, so that one would not have been safe… We moved out over the pass, past the threshing floors, to a hillside that belonged to Yoryi…. From high on our slope we can see the great mountains, Erymanthus, Chelmos, Cyllene… and on clear days Mt. Lycaeum to the west and Taygetus to the south.” W. Stuart Thompson (1890-1968), the architect of the Gennadius Library and Loring Hall, had drafted the plans for the new location.
Picturing “Mr. and Mrs. Kosmopoulos”
Lavezzi in his introductory paragraph to the only biographical essay we have for Alice Leslie Walker Kosmopoulos described her as “the ‘High-priestess of Science’ who underwent a near damnatio memoriae. Stately and fine, she was struck down by disease, but Job-like, persevered – though her life’s work remained famously incomplete. Greece was her second home, and she is remembered for her love for the country; in return she was beloved by many in the country.” For anyone who wants to learn more about the life of Walker, I highly recommend reading Lavezzi’s well-researched essay. New evidence allowed me to approach her from a different angle and catch a glimpse of the girl behind the formidable woman she turned into later in her life.
There is very little visual aid for any period of Walker’s life. There is the Vassar photo depicting her in her late teens where she does resemble a cherub; the one from Halae where I have hard time recognizing her – although I am certain that the girl in the pithos is not Hetty Goldman; the group photo from 1923 showing her as a stout woman, but because of her big hat we cannot discern her face; and, finally, one other photo that I was able to locate through a search at Newspapers.com. There I discovered an interview she gave to the Coos Bay Times on Oct. 17, 1953, a year before her death.
“Archaeologist Wins Reputation for Discoveries in Greece” is an account of her origins, the people who influenced her, her excavations in Greece -curiously omitting or forgetting Halae, of George, manager of archaeological excavations (“because it takes a Greek to manage a Greek”), and aspects of Modern Greek history. I already knew most of what she related in the interview. What pleased me most in this discovery was the photo, probably her last one, because not only was I able to recall in it the cherubic face of the Vassar photo but also to catch a fleeting moment of girlish vanity. “She is still a beautiful woman and dresses meticulously. To match the hydrangea blue of her eyes she wore a blue velvet ribbon in a plain band around her white hair which was echoed by a tiny blue bow on the neckline of her black dress” wrote the (anonymous) journalist who interviewed her.
There is only one photo of George preserved, unlike his father Angelis, whose insistence on being clad in fustanella until his death attracted the photographic lens of the School’s students. We acquired his photo three or four years ago when Bryn Mawr College sent to the ASCSA Archives the remainder of the Halae Excavation records. The shipment included an old photo depicting an ancient tower and next to it a tall young man holding a stadia (a ranging rod). The young man of the photo is identified on the back as:
“George Kosmopoulos, the son of the fore-archaeologist, the famous, good and trusted Angelis Kosmopoulos, a son of Magouliana and a brave lad, and a good archaeological assistant to Ferdinard Noack, in Aug. – Sept. 1901” (my translation).
It is unclear if it was George, or somebody else, who wrote the “epigram” on the back of the photo. The elegant handwriting, however, barely resembles that of a note signed by George three decades later, when, in 1937, he notified Bert H. Hill about his father’s death:
“Dear Mr. Hill: Your dear friend and trusted fellow worker –who was loyal to all his friends, the φουστανελοφόρος Hero of Arcadia Angelis (my father) died on the 18th of this month. I apologize for not having notified you on the day of his death. Respectfully, G.A. Kosmopoulos. Old Phaleron, 24.11.37” (my translation).
We don’t know how much longer George lived after Walker’s death, though I suspect that he spent the last years of his adventurous life in his beloved Magouliana. The only person from today’s American School community who remembers him is Trustee William (Rob) Loomis, whose parents were next-door neighbors to Mr. and Mrs. Kosmopoulos in Santa Barbara. Loomis told Lavezzi that Leslie went to his parents’ house for tea, “though Kyr Yoryi did not, being content to tend field back on the ca. one acre they owed.”
 Angelis Kosmopoulos was the great-great-grandfather of my best friend and “koumbara,” Angeliki Kosmopoulou, an archaeologist herself with a doctorate degree from Bryn Mawr College, and a Regular (1993-1994) and Associate Member (1994-1996) of the School.
 I am now certain that the girl inside the pithos at Halae is not Walker. John Lee sent me a link to the Find A Grave site, where someone has uploaded a nice photo of Walker bearing strong resemblance to her last photo in the Coos Bay Times.