NEW YORK – Professor Artemis Leontis is the C. P. Cavafy Professor of Modern Greek Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Her latest book, Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins, offers a well-researched and well-written look at the life of the woman who brought ancient Greek culture from an idea into practice in the modern era.
The first biography to tell the fascinating story of the visionary American actor, director, composer, and weaver, best known for reviving the Delphic Festivals, the book reveals Palmer’s most spectacular performance – her daily revival of ancient Greek life. For almost half a century, dressed in handmade Greek tunics and sandals, she sought to make modern life freer and more beautiful through a creative engagement with the ancients. Along the way, Palmer crossed paths with other seminal modern artists such as Natalie Clifford Barney, Renee Vivien, Isadora Duncan, Susan Glaspell, George Cram Cook, Richard Strauss, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Nikos Kazantzakis, George Seferis, Henry Miller, Paul Robeson, and Ted Shawn.
As noted in the book’s description, brilliant and gorgeous, with floor-length auburn hair, Palmer was a wealthy New York debutante who studied Greek at Bryn Mawr College before turning her back on conventional society to live a lesbian life in Paris. She later followed Raymond Duncan (brother of Isadora) and his wife to Greece and married the Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos in 1907. With single-minded purpose, Palmer re-created ancient art forms, staging Greek tragedy with her own choreography, costumes, and even music. Having exhausted her inheritance, she returned to the United States in 1933, was blacklisted for criticizing American imperialism during the Cold War, and was barred from returning to Greece until just before her death.
Drawing on hundreds of newly discovered letters and featuring many previously unpublished photographs, the biography vividly re-creates the unforgettable story of a remarkable nonconformist whom one contemporary described as “the only ancient Greek I ever knew.”
With a chronology, many illustrations, extensive footnotes, a detailed list of references, and an appendix titled Cast of Characters, the biography brings together the individual threads of Palmer’s life with the history, politics, and culture of the time for a compelling read. She was quite famous in her day, though Leontis points out in her introduction that “Eva Palmer Sikelianos has become an ancillary figure in the history of other personages.”
The arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Sikelianos in New York in 1907 caused a sensation and was covered by the newspapers of the time. Leontis writes that “it made front-page headlines in both the Washington Post and New York Times.” The newspapers “called Angelos an ‘ancient philosopher,’ though he cut a contemporary figure,” Leontis continues, adding that “the onetime debutante Eva Palmer, Greek-dressed in the shadow of America’s Greek attired Statue of Liberty, ‘attracted more attention…because of her classic costume.’”
Published by Princeton University Press in March of this year, Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins by Artemis Leontis is available online and in bookstores.
Leontis is also the author of Topographies of Hellenism and the coeditor of “What These Ithakas Mean...”: Readings in Cavafy, among other books. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.