Solon Vlasto: A Study in Temperament

In the pages of Greek-American history Solon J. Vlasto as both an editor and political figure is always featured prominently. As the publisher of the Atlantis newspaper, Vlasto unquestionably held a prominent place in Greek-American thought during the very foundation of a Greek community in North America. Vlasto was also by all accounts a ruthless man. Never being one to dodge a fight, verbal or as it turns out physical, the usual explanation for Vlasto’s pugnacious manner was that it sold newspapers. Clearly, more was at work. If we are to understand the man’s temperament as well as his politics or opinions on events of the day we need to extend our scope of exploration beyond the avenues and arguments offered to date. What follows is but a sketch in that larger project of coming to terms with Vlasto as man and public figure.
A study of Vlasto’s life can begin fittingly by citing no less a figure than Theodore Saloutos, the recognized dean of Greek-American history, in his landmark, The Greeks in the United States. “Foremost among Greek public men of the early years, and especially during the high point of immigration, was Solon J. Vlasto, an import-exporter of some statues, a New York community leader, and best known to his compatriots as the bearded founder and publisher of the Atlantis. The descendant of a prominent Cretan family, Vlasto was born on the island of Syros in August 1852, and educated in the schools of Syros and Athens. His father was a teacher of the Greek language. At the age of eighteen young Vlasto went to work in the banking house of an uncle; and in 1873, at the age of twenty-one, he arrived in New York (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1964),” Saloutos wrote.
Young Vlasto was far from the first Hellene to reach American shores. Beginning in the 1830s Greek merchants began to establish a small but exceedingly vibrant community in New York City. For those interested in that period of Greek- American history the late Michael Contopoulos’, The Greek Community of New York City: Early Years to 1910 (New Rochelle, New York: Caratzas, 1992) is the best starting point. As that volume recounts, “the Greek merchants with family ties to the nobility of Chios were the most influential force in the New York Greek colony from the 1850s to the 1890s. They provided the emerging Greek community with leadership and direction. The most influential leaders were Solon J. Vlasto, Demetrius Botassi, Theodore P. Ralli, Anthony P. Ralli, Pandelli A. Fachiri, Pandelli Y. Fachiri, Theodore Fachiri and Paul S. Galatti.” The prominence Vlasto would attain was not due to his abilities in commerce, far from it. Anyone in the above list was the better businessman, no matter what claims Vlasto made at the time or later.
{41651}For those of you wondering about Vlasto’s ancestry, as well as all those Greek merchants from Chios, it appears that no published volume covers that extensive emigration from Europe and beyond. A website by Christopher Long does provide some particularly well-detailed genealogical information I have ever seen on Greeks from Chios, Crete, and Constantinople (http://www.christopherlong.co.uk/per/vlasto.crete.html).
This information serves two purposes: it offers the general tone and content of how Vlasto is presented in Greek-American historical accounts; and introduces primary source volumes that anyone interested in the history of Greeks in the United States ought to read.
Upon arriving in New York City, the accounts continue, Vlasto found work at a confectionary factory, then in a firm of steamship agents, before entering an import-export business with his brother, Demetrius (1869-1944), with offices in New York and Boston.
Although Vlasto’s sustained efforts in helping to establish a Greek church in New York City are often cited, most writers focus on the most significant period of his life, his founding of not the first but certainly the first significant Greek newspaper in North America, the Atlantis. On March 3, 1894, the Atlantis debuted as a weekly newspaper, becoming a daily in 1904. Without question, the Atlantis was the earliest successful Greek newspaper in the United States with a national circulation and influence. Today, the Atlantis is recognized as supporting the royalist faction in Greek politics until the mid-1960s. Other reoccurring editorial themes were naturalization, war relief, Greek-American business interests and Greek religious unity. The Atlantis closed in 1973.
These standard descriptions of Vlasto aside, in order to gain a complete understanding of the man, it is necessary to investigate what his contemporaries experienced and read about him. Otherwise, key elements in understanding of Vlasto’s public influence would be missing.
Vlasto was not always a successful businessman. In the years before founding the Atlantis, Vlasto was often involved in financial speculations that went sour, to say the least. One such event took place in 1887. In a New York Times story, “A Broker Disappears – S. J. Vlasto Among the Missing, Leaving Debts of About $60,000” reported that: “S. J. Vlasto, who is a Greek, a member of the Produce Exchange, and a Beaver-street ship broker, has some creditors who were anxiously seeking him yesterday. Their quest was fruitless, however, and the Compliant Committee of the Produce Exchange will hold a special meeting to-morrow to investigate some of the missing man’s actions. Rumors in down-town business circles yesterday alleged that he had gone from the country, leaving $60,000 or so of debts for other folks to worry over (March 20).”
Many attribute Vlasto’s style of verbal and written assault on the notion that controversy sells newspapers, although that approach to journalism had its downside for Vlasto. He was and remains without question the most assaulted Greek-American publisher in history. Vlasto was physically attacked at least four times in public. One argument ended up in a duel of canes (gentlemen walked with canes in those days) while another ended up with Vlasto beaten down by his assailant’s cane. Undeniably the post notable public beating that Vlasto ever received was at the hands of Maria S. Economidou, the journalist whose series of stories about Greek immigrant laborers was gathered in the book E Hellines tis Amerikis opos tou Eida (The Greeks in America: As I Saw Them) (New York: D.C. Divry, 1916). “selecting a place in the lobby of the Hotel Imperial directly in front of the clerk’s desk as the scene of the performance, Mrs. Harilous Ekonomidy…horsewhipped Solon J. Vlasto, proprietor of the Atlantis, a Greek daily newspaper, at one o’clock yesterday afternoon…the woman said she had punished Vlasto because he had discharged from his employ her husband, against whom Vlasto had made charges which were not to the liking of Mrs. Ekonomidy.”
In 1908, through a series of highly sensationalized newspaper accounts we learn that Mrs. Elizabeth R. Vlasto sued Mrs. Everett Culver (daughter of Montana Senator William Clark, which only added to the scandal) for $500,000 over her ongoing alleged attempts to alienate the affections of Mrs. Vlasto’s husband. Given the polite language of the era it appears that Mrs. Culver was trying to seduce Mr. Vlasto. Whether true or not, the story raged on for quite some time.
Solon J. Vlasto died in his home just outside of Paris on Sept. 29, 1927. At the time of his death he was still president of the company that published the Atlantis. All human beings are a complex mix of emotions and abilities, not just those few individuals who end up in history books. Still, as with so many other figures in Greek-American history Solon Vlasto deserves a full-length biography so that his life and career can be fully accessed.

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