Artemis Leontis, Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019. Pp. xlv + 392, 55 illustrations. Cloth $35.00.
In her biography Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins, Artemis Leontis takes on a formidable task: to reclaim the life and work of a wealthy American woman who moved to Greece in 1906 in order to study, teach, financially support, and disseminate ancient Greek arts; married renown Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos, and with him revived the ancient Delphic Festivals in 1927 and 1930, but who is nearly forgotten today, “slipped into the footnotes of other people’s stories” (xvii). Such erasure is not unusual in the case of women, particularly queer women, Leontis points out. For example, “In Greece, [Eva] is known as Sikelianos’ wife and helper and her story is censored in order to promote his legacy” (Leontis 2019, np). This biography succeeds in telling a different story, a story about a brilliant, self-driven, singular woman, no one’s appendage, who was instrumental in reintroducing ancient Greek arts in modern Greece and America.
To retrieve Palmer Sikelianos and her accomplishments, Leontis embarked on a decade-long journey through little-known archives, uncovering documents, letters, as well as material objects, including photographs, drawings, and diagrams, 55 illustrations of which are reproduced in the text, an extraordinary number in this period of limited publication outlays. The result is a deeply researched, wide-ranging and unique study that dispenses with detailed histories of antecedents, childhood experiences, and tangential social, cultural, and political events, the staples of most biographies. Instead, Leontis focuses on Palmer Sikelianos’s love of ancient Greece and her indefatigable determination to restore its storied past, convinced that it offers an alternative to modern societies, enthralled with the new and uninterested in, or unaware of, the rich Greek past buried “in ruins,” the subtitle Leontis chooses.
She divides the biography into five chapters, each bearing the title of a specific ancient form: “Sapphic Performances,” “Weaving,” “Patron of Byzantine Music,” “Drama,” and “Writing,” prefaced by a 14-page “Chronology of Dates,” citing significant events and personages that played a role in transforming this beautiful, talented, debutante into one of the most influential, albeit unacknowledged, purveyors of ancient Greek arts in the first half of the twentieth century.
American heir Natalie Clifford Barney, Palmer’s first and longest love, dominates much of Chapter 1. As teenagers, she and Palmer shared a fascination with the poetry and life of Sappho, enacting Sapphic-inspired performances at the Palmer summer retreat in Bar Harbor, Maine. In 1901, when Palmer was suspended after her first year at Bryn Mawr College for some “unspecified heresy” (10), Barney convinced her to move to Paris and join her famous literary salon of “self-described women lovers” (1), who performed lesbian-themed dramas that Barney concocted and in which Palmer performed. Although studies of this coterie, including Shari Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank (1986), mention Palmer only in passing, Barney and Palmer’s attachment continued for decades, as Leontis’s discovery of more than 900 letters from Palmer to Barney indicate.
The physical, if not emotional, break from Barney occurred in Paris in 1906, when Palmer met Penelope Sikelianos, sister of Angelos, and her husband Raymond Duncan, brother of Isadora Duncan, both wearing classical Greek-style clothing that Penelope wove on a horizontal loom that Raymond built. He would make the same loom for Palmer, allowing her to shed her modern clothing and, until her death in 1952, Palmer wore only what she wove. Thanks to the many photographs Leontis provides, it is possible to see the variety and beauty of her clothing—the fall of material, the intricate embroidery decorations—as well as the hairstyles and body postures that Palmer replicated from ancient models and poses she studied in museums. The first photograph in the book, dated 1906, already shows her on an Athens street wearing her handwoven dress and leather sandals, surrounded by Greeks in Western clothes, a visual sign of her singularity, audacity, and determination, not to perform an act of cultural appropriation, but rather to prod wealthy Greek women to follow suit and wean themselves from the modern styles of Paris and other Western industrialized countries.
That Leontis titles the chapter in which Palmer meets and soon marries Sikelianos “Weaving” implies that theirs was less a love match than a shared love of Greece’s past, which she at thirty two—ten years older than Sikelianos and wealthy—could nurture and support. This may also explain why Leontis offers few details of their marriage or of Palmer’s role as mother of their son, Glafkos, born in 1909, concentrating instead on her immersion in the study of Greek art forms.
The Delphic Festivals of 1927 and 1930 were unquestionably the fulfillment of their shared dream of restoring the ancient Delphic idea of beauty and harmony in the modern world. Although Sikelianos imagined and initiated the festivals, Palmer created them, weaving costumes, choreographing movements and dances of the Oceanides, and directing the chorus in Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, a play she included in the festival that year. She also organized the Craft Fair and Pythian Games, all of which she funded, as well as the housing, food, and accommodations for the several thousand international visitors who attended. For her work, she was listed as co-creator of the 1927 festival. However, Sikelianos omitted her name in the 1930 iteration, claiming that his sister Penelope, who died in 1917, was the inspiration.
Despite this slight, Leontis indicates that Palmer remained unshakable in her belief in Sikelianos and the importance of their joint project. Since the festival left her nearly penniless, she returned to America in order to seek funding to continue their work. Her reputation was such that Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to the White House to discuss the festivals, but the meeting did not produce the needed funding. Instead, Palmer began teaching and staging Greek performances at universities and venues around the country in order share her knowledge of ancient Greek art forms, particularly theatre, and to support herself. During this period, she also began collaborating with the pioneer American dancer and choreographer Ted Shawn, introducing him to ancient Greek postures, movements, and music, as well chlamys—the short mantle or cloak worn by men in ancient Greece—which Shawn began wearing in his classical works, as did his male chorus in Aeschylus’s The Persians, on which Palmer worked.
In addition, during the war years and the Greek Civil War that followed, she became the Greek voice for war-torn Greece in need of aid, writing over 1,000 letters to influential Americans asking them for assistance. Still devoted to, and in contact with, Sikelianos, now a resistance hero and a revered poet, she continued working to publish his writing abroad and promote his name, despite his request that she agree to annul their marriage so that he could marry his longtime companion Anna Karamani, her ready compliance indicating that she prized faithfulness to their shared Delphic dream more than his faithfulness to her.
After 20 years in America, Palmer returned to Greece in 1952 to attend the 25th anniversary of the Delphic Festival, held a year after Sikelianos’s sudden death. Leontis includes a photograph of her in Delphi, surrounded by local villagers and those performing in her honor. It was during this celebration that she suffered a stroke and soon after died, her body interred in the Delphi cemetery near the grave of George Cram “Jig” Cook, another American philhellene she had known in 1920s Greece, and in whose honor the Pythian games were held at the 1927 festival (Ben-Zvi 2005). Across from the cemetery stands Palmer’s original Delphi home, designated the Sikelianos museum and later appended to include her name. It contains materials from their joint love affair with the Greece that was and might be again.
One may forgive readers who suspect this end too cinematically determined to be true; however, all of Palmer Sikelianos’s life seems the stuff of fantasy. Leontis’s great accomplishment is to turn her extensive research into a work that is so compelling and fascinating that scholars of Greek/American, Feminist, Queer, Modern Dance, Theatre, and Cultural studies, as well as general readers, will want to follow the numerous strands she carefully weaves and interweaves in her biographical study of Palmer. Leontis’s decision to organize her study into five discrete areas of ancient Greek culture rather than follow a more traditional biographical format allows future researchers to more readily focus on a specific category of Palmer’s extensive work rather than address the general trajectory of her life. For example, Leontis’s discussion of Palmer’s creation of ancient Greek dress has parallels to contemporary studies of clothing as a means of literal self-fashioning, as Palmer used it, and a cultural means of escaping the conformity that mass-produced clothing encourages. In a similar way, Leontis’s description of Palmer’s collaboration with, and influence on, the work of Ted Shawn provides those studying the origins of American dance a new way of understanding his use of ancient Greek movements and costume, derived not only from his work with Martha Graham but as well from his fruitful collaboration with Palmer. Most importantly, Leontis’s compelling portrait of Palmer as a formidable, courageous, and determined lesbian woman, who charted life through Greek “ruins,” will certainly prompt others to study, discuss, and build on Leontis’s groundbreaking retrieval.
Benstock, Shari. 1986. Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. 2005. Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times. New York: Oxford University Press.
Leontis, Artemis. 2019. “Interview,” Greek News Agenda.
Professor Emeritae, English and Theatre Studies
Colorado State and Tel Aviv University
Linda Ben-Zvi has authored and edited 13 books: four on Samuel Beckett and four on Susan Glaspell, including Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times (Oxford University Press), which was awarded the Special Jury Prize of the American Theatre Library Association, and edited Glaspell’s biography of George Cram Cook, The Road to the Temple (McFarland & Company).