- Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins by Artemis Leontis
In 1898, a Bryn Mawr undergraduate, Eva Palmer, was expelled from her dormitory—and from Bryn Mawr itself—for a year. Why? Because she had been caught doing something "strictly prohibited" in her room (10). President M. Carey Thomas, who had enthusiastically welcomed Eva two years earlier, made the determination to banish her from campus. Eva decided to travel to Europe with her brother during this period of exile, but the following academic year she returned and finished her degree. We shall undoubtedly never know what infraction of the rules aroused the ire of M. Carey Thomas, but the incident stands as an emblem of the enigmatic Eva Palmer, who throughout her life broke rules, asserted her independence, embraced eccentricity, defied convention—and acted rashly, often to her own detriment.
Artemis Leontis, C.P. Cavafy Professor of Modern Greek and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, has written a gripping, deeply researched biography of Eva Palmer Sikelianos (as she eventually became known). This was not an easy task, given the complicated life of her subject, a life that kept changing focus over the course of many decades. Leontis's approach [End Page 251] to her subject is characterized by deep respect and subtle analysis, creating a portrait that is sympathetic even as it cuts deep and exposes manifold flaws and shortcomings. In doing so, she also provides a social history of a Greece that was trying to resurrect and redefine its culture and of the Hellenophile Americans who supported and expanded these efforts in the first half of the twentieth century.
Not least of the virtues of this handsome book are the photographs that document aspects of Eva Palmer's life, among which is an image made in 1906 with the first film roll camera, a Kodak No. 1 (xx). It depicts Palmer wearing garb—woven on her own loom—inspired by images of ancient Greek dress in vase painting and sculpture. Throughout the volume one encounters such intriguing oddities as a photo taken ca. 1900 of a completely nude (except for sandals) Eva Palmer bowing before an enthroned and equally nude (except for drapery over her legs) Natalie Barney (14). We even discover the two final photographs taken of Palmer, in May 1952, a month before her death, one showing her ensconced on a throne-like chair surrounded by village men and women of Delphi, where she had a house (223) and had revived the Delphic Festivals in the 1920s, the other an image of a wan Eva seated in the theater of Delphi and attended by two anxious and adoring friends (xxxi). Photographs of people from all periods of her life—Eleftherios Venizelos, Isadora Duncan, Ted Shawn, George Cram Cook—accompany numerous images of Palmer herself throughout.
Evalina Palmer was born in New York in 1874, the youngest of five children, to Courtlandt and Catherine Amory Bennett Palmer, patricians both. Eva graduated from Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut in 1891. A brilliant redhead, she was presented to New York society in 1893. A year or two later, she met Natalie Clifford Barney, two years her junior, another product of the upper echelons of New York society. They apparently saw one another regularly in the years that followed, and in 1900 Eva and Natalie performed tableaux inspired by Sappho in Bar Harbor, Maine. The following year the two young women traveled together to Paris. Eva took acting lessons (and met Sarah Bernhardt) as her relationship with Natalie deepened. Upon the death of her father in 1902, Barney commenced an openly lesbian life; she and Eva shared an apartment in Paris in the summer of 1904, when Eva, too, embarked on lesbian dalliances that often included Barney. She also auditioned for Mrs. Patrick Campbell in London; when offered a part in one of the celebrated actress's productions, she turned it down.
In 1904 Eva and Natalie moved into neighboring houses in Neuilly. In that year, Barney traveled...