A PORTRAIT OF A (PAGAN) LADY: MABEL GORDON DUNLAPPosted: December 11, 2020
In 1897 a young American woman announced in the newspapers her return to Chicago after a year in Europe. “Miss Mabel Gordon Dunlap of Michigan Boulevard, who has been in Europe for a year, will sail for home on Wednesday” (Chicago Inter Ocean, August 15, 1897). The same woman had also made an earlier announcement that she was still in London “spending most of her time at the British Museum” (17 July 1897). While in London she printed a handsome pamphlet, titled “A Critical Study of Sculpture and Painting,” that contained information about her as a teacher and a lecturer, and a summary of two art courses that she was “ready to deliver before ladies’ clubs and schools” in the winter: “A Course of Twelve Lectures on the History & Philosophy of Greek Sculpture,” and “A Course of Twelve Lectures of the History of Painting in Italy.” While in England she had attended lectures by Charles Waldstein, Professor of Fine Arts at Cambridge University (and former Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens), whom she quoted in her brochure: “There are those who make art, there are those who enjoy art, and there are those who understand art.” Dunlap’s courses, fully illustrated with stereopticon views, were designed to help people understand art.
Her brochure also contained press notices covering a series of lectures that she had delivered the previous year in Portland, Oregon. “Late of Chicago University” is the only information that is provided in the pamphlet about her academic background, meaning that she had attended classes but had not obtained a university degree. In 1892 the newly founded University of Chicago attempted to engage the local community and offer access to as many students as possible through extended education. Dunlap must have been one of the first to participate in the Chicago University Extension.
Still only 24 years old in December 1897 but armed with confidence, Dunlap (in later years her name appeared as Dunlop as well) secured a series of paid lectures in New York. A long article in the New York Tribune described the details of one event at Carnegie Hall where Dunlap staged a memorable performance:
“The rooms were decorated for the occasion with cut flowers, and softly lighted with shaded lamps, and the lecturer was clad in a wonderful purple robe, embroidered with gold in a Greek meander pattern. The gown is that of a Master of Fine Arts in the University of Pisa a hundred years ago, and with the accompanying gold-tasseled cap, constitutes Miss Dunlap’s lecture costume. In the daytime it is purple and at night white, but otherwise never changes.”
In her lecture, titled “The Value of a Critical Study of Great Works of Art,” Dunlap condemned amateurism in art for if people really loved art, they should not simply enjoy it but “study [it] to get the pleasure that comes from true appreciation of the best works of art” (New York Tribune, Dec. 8, 1897). In February 1898, she delivered a series of lectures at the Waldorf-Astoria and the Metropolitan Museum about Greek sculpture taking a few breaks to lecture at other nearby places, such as Pittsburgh. That year she left for Athens, Greece, which she used as a base for the next few years while travelling to Constantinople, Rome and Paris.
FROM HUMBLE ORIGINS
Mabel did not come to Athens as a student of the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or School hereafter); the lack of an undergraduate degree would have prohibited her from being admitted to the School. It remains a mystery how she funded her European trips before her marriage to Serbian diplomat Slavko Grouitch in 1902, when she was almost thirty. Nothing in the information that I managed to gather about her suggests that she was an “American heiress,” such as other globetrotters of her age. In fact, most of the information that one can find about Dunlap on the web concerns her later life, as the wife of a distinguished diplomat, and her fund-raising activities in America to alleviate the suffering of the Serbian people during WW I.
Born in 1872 or 1873 in Clarksburg, West Virginia (WV), Dunlap was raised by neighbors after her mother’s death and the disappearance her father. According to an entry on the web page of the Harrison County WV Historical Society: “She lived in a penniless condition until her father was located working as a manager for the railroad company in Rock Island, Illinois.” He was forced to provide her with an annuity which allowed the knowledge-thirsty girl to attend school. In later years, as she tried to re-create her past, Mabel spoke fondly of her father’s transforming influence on her, but one should take her accounts with a grain of salt.
The annuity she had secured from her father (which was likely railway stocks) must have allowed for a decent living, but if she wanted to travel abroad she had to find ways to finance her trips. Mabel owed her intellectual and social advancement largely to her intelligence, as well as to her “rare beauty,” exquisite voice” and her “well-balanced enthusiasm” according to a press release (Chicago Inter-Ocean, November 20, 1896).
HER GRECIAN DAYS
I became interested in Mabel Dunlap some twenty years ago when I found in the ASCSA Archives a copy of the pamphlet she had printed in England in 1897. In 2000, we opened the trunks that contained the papers of Ion Dragoumis (1878-1920), the legendary diplomat and statesman, who was assassinated on Kephissias Avenue (one of the main streets of Athens) on July 31, 1920 by supporters of Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos. Together with the pamphlet there were several letters by Mabel from the late 1890s and early 1900s, and a few photos of her. Mabel also figured large in Ion’s youthful diaries (1895-1902), which were published by Theodoros Sotiropoulos in 1988.
In an exhibition, organized by the ASCSA Archives and titled Ion Dragoumis: Between East and West. One Hundred Years after his Assassination, which opened on October 15, 2020, the blown-up portrait of Mabel Dunlop is eye-catching. Five years older than him, she quickly cast a spell on Ion. She has “des gouts raffinés… she is half païenne and half décadante” according to a description in his diary (Sotiropoulos 1988, p. 75, entry for April 23, 1900). But she also fell hard for Ion, at least for a while. She was his first, but not hers.
From Ion’s diary, we learn a lot about Mabel’s earlier life, although it is difficult to crosscheck the accuracy of her story. For example, her mention of an early and unfortunate marriage is not documented elsewhere.
“She was very young when she married. Her husband, Lionel, was very sensitive, perhaps like her. They did not leave well together. They were separated by court. When he heard the news [of their divorce] he went to the tavern, where men in those places go, and drank too much; that, as well as the idea that he would no longer have her as a wife, drove him to such despair that he committed suicide. She was mad at first and then very sad which made her suffer a lot. She had her father [at least] and slowly-slowly near him she found peace while studying Greek archaeology… Then her father died, whom she admired more than anybody in the world. He was handsome and noble, and artiste. She lived by herself or with a cousin for a while, travelled a lot, and fell in love with many… if the man she liked each time interested her, she would give him her body as well. But it always ended soon after her initial enthusiasm was gone… But she holds no memory of the past, which means that she never falls deeply in love and explains how she carries her enthusiasm from one man to the other… ”Sotiropoulos 1988, p. 107, entry for January 14, 1901 (my loose translation).
Their relationship was most likely consummated in April 1900. They must have carried on for another year in-between Mabel’s trips to Constantinople and Paris, although Mabel was soon out of it. In January 1901, puzzled by Mabel’s inability to commit to anyone, Ion scribbled: “The situation scares me. When I am with her, I feel a strong love for her, but then I see her awful passivity and while I want to show her my feelings I feel disarmed… I cannot understand how she lives… Nothing makes an imprint on her” (my loose translation).
Mabel must have treaded on thin ice. The morals of the time, especially in a small European capital like Athens, were relentless, and keeping up appearances must have been difficult for a “voluptueuse” like Mabel. Genuine intelligence, grace, and impeccable manners must have saved her from falling into disgrace; in addition, her maverick nature and small financial independence allowed Mabel not to become a kept woman.
It is unclear whether her relationship with Ion was widely known in the upper circles of Athenian society. When in town, Mabel stayed at the Merlin house on the corner of Kephissias and Academias street, where most foreign women, including many students of the American School, took up residence. After Ion’s extensive entries, the best description of Mabel belongs to Ida Thallon (she would marry the School’s director, Bert Hodge Hill, in 1924), a student of the American School in 1899-1901. “We knew she [Mabel] was coming to Athens, and I was anxious to see her again. There are a lot of amusing stories about the last time she was in Athens and took the town by storm. Dr. Wilhelm [=Adolf Wilhelm, a famous epigraphist and director of the Austrian Archaeological Mission, and a resident of the Merlin House] is much struck on her, a victim of her first visit…” Ida wrote to her mother (ACSCA Archives, Ida Thallon Hill, Box 3, folder 3, May 8, 1900).
A few days later in another letter (May 13, 1900,) she elaborated more about Mabel in her description of the Inselreise, the annual island trip that architect and archaeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld organized every year for members of the foreign archaeological schools in Athens. From her description, it appears that Dunlap had also joined the trip at some point. “Miss D[unlap]’s fame had preceded her and the Damen expected she would steal their steadies but she made no effort in that direction; she was very tired on the trip and had a sprained ankle and anyway, she lets the men do the chasing.”
On another occasion, Ida exalted Mabel’s fine qualities: “You see Miss D. is stylish and very even and a fine talker and knows a tremendous lot about art and archaeology, having been brought up to it since she was a child. Her father always surrounded her with books of that sort and it is second nature to her. She is also very attractive to the men and they fall tremendously in love with her etc.” Not everybody shared Ida’s feelings towards Mabel:
“Lida [Shaw King] and I like her very much; Cambridge [a nickname for a British girl], I think disapproves of her because she (Miss D.) is rather unusual and a type she (C) is not accustomed to, and Mrs. Smyth and Miss Adt are positively cattish to her; I think they are jealous” concluded young Ida. On another occasion, Ida described the Smyths as being awfully horrid to Mabel. “Mrs. S. laid it on thick and told Miss D[unlap] what a beautiful bunch of flowers Karo [=Georg Karo, archaeologist and future director of the German Archaeological Institute] had sent her and described them in detail” only to hear from Mabel, “Yes, I think he has good taste, he sent me a beautiful bunch yesterday.” Karo had borrowed a basket from Mabel to hold his potsherds during the “Inselreise,” and “naturally sent it back filled.”ASCSA Archives, Ida Thallon Hill Papers, Box 3, folder 3.
In August 1902, Mabel married Slavko Grouitch (Grujić) [1871-1937], chargé d’affaires of the Serbian Legation in Athens, and the scion of a notable Serbian family. In between her relationship with Ion and her marriage to Grouitch, she had been engaged to a Mr. Pennell (again the information from an undated letter she sent to Ion from London). Ion and Mabel continued to correspond and occasionally see each other, even intimately, until 1915. “She nourished me for two years, I don’t think she realized it” Ion wrote in his last, long diary entry about Mabel (Sotiropoulos 1988, p. 179, entry for April 11, 1902). Her imprint on Ion’s mind, body, and soul lasted for years, and defined him as a man. He was badly shaken when in early July 1902 he received a letter from her: “Mabel wrote me ‘Live, my boy, live,’ and then she announced her wedding” (ASCSA Archives, Ion Dragoumis Papers, box 1, folder 4, diary, entry for July 3, 1902). Later that year, he would write: “Mabel’s love is gone… she no longer exists but her ideas have stayed and are related with mine with… whether I write to her or not, her ideas are alive and mix with mine and struggle with mine, occasionally exchanging sweet talks, or bites” (ASCSA Archives, Ion Dragoumis Papers, box 1, folder 4, diary, October 21, 1902 [my paraphrase]).
As kindred spirits Ion and Mabel also shared an admiration for the French philosopher and thinker Maurice Barrès (1862-1923), whom they met when he was travelling in Greece in the spring of 1900. Although largely forgotten today (and criticized for his anti-Semitic views), Barrès at the turn of the century was highly influential and considered by his contemporaries as the model engagé intellectual. Following his visit to Greece, Barrès published Le voyage de Sparte (1906) in which he laid out his beliefs about social Darwinism. And who else other than Mabel Dunlap embodied the core idea of social Darwinism, namely, “survival of the fittest”?
“Barrès advised me to be more affirmative (Il suffit d’ affirmer)” wrote Ion in his diary. In the same entry, he also recalled that Mabel had told him that it was a disadvantage not to trust his strength, not to claim his position, even if he had to push others below where they belonged regardless of age or worldly opinions (Sotiropoulos 1988, p. 77, entry for May 24, 1900). A year or so later, she would write to Ion from Paris: “Mr. Barrès was here yesterday, and we spoke much of you. He, too, finds your mind of rare power and balance… Your right ear must have burned during the hour and a half of his visit” (ASCSA Archives, Ion Dragoumis Papers, box 4, folder 2, Paris, May 20 [undated]).
While living in Paris, where Grouitch was posted soon after their marriage, Mabel tried to help Ion’s brother, Niko, la bête noire of the Dragoumis family. A painter without any financial support from his family, except for a small trust that allowed him to subsist, Niko led a reclusive and marginal life in Paris: “Nico will not come to me. He says he is not presentable because of his clothes… He writes me though, sweet sad letters… If only one could convince him of the dignity of work, of the nobility of earning one’s own bread in some manner… Money is the key to life. Sad but true. Work, my boy, foul fortune to give you gold for some of your dreams, then you realize the others” (ASCSA Archives, Ion Dragoumis Papers, box 4, folder 2, Paris, “Greek Christmas” [undated]).
MADAME SLAVKO GROUITCH
Until she married Grouitch, Mabel had pursued “one dream and followed it as a moth will the flame—that dream was my vision of the ideal beauty of the gods…”. She rejoiced in the study of ancient Greece “and worshipped Athena in the ashes of her greatness” (ASCSA Archives, Ion Dragoumis Papers, box 4, folder 2, Paris, April 26 [undated]).
In Paris, where she and Slavko moved at first, she was living “the life of a nun… all my time is passed in the galleries, the gardens, here in my little salon”. Finally, there was “no gossip of black tongues to disturb me… Alone with my ideals and my dreams, forgetting and forgiving the past…” One thing, however, disturbed Mabel’s serenity: the lack of work. “I should like to do something, to work for someone I love, for my friends all.” Always Olympian in spirit, Mabel would also advise Ion, her beloved Hermes (as she addressed him in her letters), to search for serenity, for “to complain is too mortal for a child of the gods” (all quotes from an undated letter she wrote on April 26th ).
Ion and Mabel continued to write to each other although with less frequency on Ion’s part after 1905. By then he had met in Alexandria and fallen in love with Penelope Delta, who would dominate his thought until 1908. Mabel held on to her love of Greece through her love for Ion.
“When I think of Greece and you, it is to recall certain lovers on Pendeli, the ride up to Delphi and the afternoon rest on the grass, your eyes and certain dawn lights, when the sun came up, your lips, and the perfumed fruit of Greek gardens” Mabel would write him, and when he fretted about the social and political ugliness of Greece, the ever aesthete Mabel advised him “to shut away you Socrates in the prison he deserved” and encouraged him to find comfort “in the possession of the objective beauty we set our hearts upon. You have always the long thrilling curve of Parnes and the violet sheen on Hymettos and the cool kiss of the purple waters to calm your fever. These are as they always were the real grandeur of Greece because of what men wrote and did for them.”ASCSA Archives, Ion Dragoumis Papers, box 4, folder 2, St. Petersburg, Jan. 10, .
The new century, however, had no room for aesthetes like Mabel, as she would soon discover. By marrying a statesman from a poor and tortured Balkan nation, she would have to put aside her Greek dream, change course, and become a pragmatist. In 1911 she would go to America, not to visit museums but “to study the schools of domestic science for women…”. Her new goal was to uplift the Serbian women and made plans to establish a school for them in Belgrade (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 29 January 1911).
By 1914, the Grouitch couple was living in Belgrade since Grujić had been appointed as secretary-general of the Serbian ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to historian Christopher Clark, Grouitch was one of the main contributors of the reply to the Austrian-Hungarian ultimatum of July 23rd, 1914, which was “a masterpiece of diplomatic equivocation” (Clark 2013, p. 464). Despite her skilled diplomacy, Serbia did not escape the war with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Soon after, Mabel went to London where with her own expenses she led a team of 10 English nurses and two surgeons to Serbia to help the wounded and organize relief aid in the battlefield (The Baltimore Sun, August 20, 1914).
Unable to enter Serbia by a direct route, they traveled to Serbia via Italy and Greece. While briefly in Athens, she did not see Ion who had been transferred to St. Petersburg, but she was met by his sisters. “When I landed it seemed to me impossible that I could be there and you not come to meet me. Then out of the dusty crowd come three goddesses bearing flowers, your flowers, Effie, Charliclea and Alexandra… Such joy it was to drive up to the ‘violet-crowned’ city. How my heart felt as each sacred and well-remembered point appeared… The next day I lunched with dear Nata and then you come. For the moment, I quite forgot, even yet I cannot believe that it was Philip [Ion’s younger brother]…”.
Two days later she and the English nurses and surgeons travelled to Thessaloniki and from there they all entered Serbia. Writing from Nish (Niš), the wartime capital of Serbia until 1915, Mabel worried about her personal belongings at Belgrade where she also saved Ion’s letters, “even the little envelope marked ‘it comes from the gods’.” But if they were to be destroyed by war, she still hoped that their friendship could “last through fire and flood and disaster of every kind. Ours is so old and precious, Jean [Ion]. You must help me to keep it always, whatever comes,” she asked him on September 20, 1914.
In addition to her initiative to bring medical assistance from England, Mabel tried to mobilize young surgeons from Baltimore medical schools by sending a petition through her friend George Dobbin Penniman, an attorney in Baltimore: “I wish the people in America could know the need of Servia… Other nations engaged in this horrible war have their efficient corps of surgeons and Red Cross nurses supplied with abundant funds, while Servia burdened with the debt of two recent wars and with thousands of subjects still suffering from the crushing effect of Turkish rule, has not the means to procure doctors and nurses and medical supplies, and the suffering of her brave wounded soldiers will be terrible” (The Baltimore Sun, August 20, 1914).
Within a short time, Mabel through her various European connections secured the aid of the International Red Cross, while through targeted publicity in the U.S. press, she managed to attract the attention of Mabel Boardman, the head of the American Red Cross, hoping to place Serbia on the list of the ARC beneficiaries (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Sept. 27, 1914). In February 1915, Mabel was in New York fundraising for Serbia. Within a few days after her arrival she put together the Serbian Agricultural Relief Commission, which included Charles W. Eliot, president emeritus of Harvard, Charles Scribner, and journalist Albert Shaw. The Commission’s goal was to secure seed, grains and farm implements for 800,000 starving Serbians: “All of the able-bodied men of Serbia are at the front. The women and children must plant and cultivate the crops in the spring or there will be no grain on which the nation can live next winter” (The Wilkes-Barre Record, February 5, 1915). In addition, the ARC had raised enough money to establish a baby hospital in Serbia. The announcement in the newspapers also mentioned that the establishment would be known as the Mabel Grouitch Baby Hospital in recognition of her Red Cross activities (Pittsburgh Daily Post, 18 July 1915).
Today Mabel Grouitch is considered one of the greatest benefactors of Serbia. When I searched her last name spelled as “Grujić,” I came across many Serbian pages dedicated to her, including a recent novel in the form of historiographical metafiction, by Maja Herman-Sekulić, titled Ma Belle: The First American Lady of Serbia. Through the use of “Google Translate” I was able to skim through most of them. Moreover, after the war, in 1920, she and Slavko secured funding through the Carnegie Corporation for the erection of the University Library in Belgrade. In a recent, well-researched article, historian Ljubinka Trgovčević wrote that her story is “the story of a woman who connected two countries and two cultures” and who managed “to bring America closer to Serbs, and Serbia to Americans” (2008, p. 325).
One thing, however, struck me as strange while browsing through the Serbian web pages. There were studded with inaccuracies, starting from Mabel’s birth year: 1881. Mabel was born either in 1872 or 1873 and there is no doubt about it since she gave Ion a small calendar marking her birthday on it (1873); they also frequently referred to their age difference (he was born in 1878) in their letters. They were other inaccuracies about her early years in America and her studies, one page mentioning that “Mabel had enrolled at the ASCSA at which later she taught.” Some of the confusion must have derived from her obituary in the The New York Times, “Mme Grouitch Aided Refugees” (August 14, 1956), which noted her age as 75, and also that she had been “a student at the American School of Archaeology in Athens.” Skilled at promoting herself, Mabel never missed an opportunity to reinvent her past, especially when she moved from one country to another.
THE END OF A PAGAN DREAM
From Ion’s diary we know that Ion and Mabel met again in Athens in the late summer of 1915. He had resigned from the diplomatic corps to pursue a political career, representing a party in opposition to Venizelos. He was also involved since 1908 with actress Marika Kotopouli. In August 1915, he scribbled that he had encountered on the same social occasion both Mabel “who had returned from America on her way to Serbia” and an unnamed woman, most likely Penelope Delta: “two women that I loved and they loved me, and who did not know each other. After eating, I walked with the first [Mabel] to Zappeion and kissed her under the darkness of the trees. Then I returned to my beloved one [i.e. Marika]” (Sotiropoulos 1986, p. 107).
In December of the same year she was briefly back in Athens. Among Ion’s papers is her last (preserved) letter to him and a draft of his reply. Mabel was upset because Greece had not offered any aid to Serbia when her adopted country had been attacked by Bulgaria in October 1915; she was further afraid that Greece would ally with Bulgaria against Serbia. In his reply Ion told his “dear pagan” that her fears were unfounded.
A year later, in December 1916, Mabel entered Ion’s diaries for one last time. “The women I loved or loved me are slowly-slowly renouncing me. Last year Mabel wrote me some strange letters showing that she did not approve of my political choices. The Friend [Penelope Delta] the same; especially, this year that her father was imprisoned for conspiring with the Venizelists, she told my sister that she had been disillusioned with me” (Sotiropoulos 1986, p. 161, entry for December 31, 1916 [my loose translation]).
If those two continued to correspond during Ion’s exile in Corsica (1917-1919) we have no evidence. He returned to Athens in November 1919. Seven months later he would be murdered by supporters of Venizelos. She must have learned the news about Ion’s assassination in America where her husband had become the first ambassador of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in Washington. It must have been a blow to her, to have lost her dear Hermes. Her “gods” had not taken care of him.
I would like to thank Jennifer Bakatselou for transcribing a portion of Mabel Gordon Dunlap’s letters. It was not an easy task because of her difficult hand-writing. Another difficulty when studying Dunlap’s letters is that most of them are undated.
Mabel Dunlap Grouitch came up one more time in the ASCSA Archives. On May 17, 1930 she sent a letter to Rhys Carpenter, Director of the ASCSA (1927-1932), and his wife where she referred to the charming evening she and Slavko had spent with Mrs. Carpenter at the School last spring and that they were “still hoping to take advantage of her kind invitation to stay at the School next time” they visited Greece (ASCSA AdmRec, box 108/1, folder 12).
Clark, C. 2013. The Sleepwalkers. How Europe Went to War in 1914, London.
Sotiropoulos, T. 1986. Ίων Δραγούμης. Φύλλα Ημερολογίου Ε’ (1913-1917), Athens.
Sotiropoulos, T. 1988. Ίων Δραγούμης. Φύλλα Ημερολογίου Α’ (1895-1902), Athens.
Trgovčević, L. 2008. “Mabel Grujić – An American in Serbia. Contribution on Her Humanitarian Work during the World War One,” in 125 Years of Diplomatic Relations between the USA, Belgrade, pp. 311-325.