A look inside Eva Palmer Sikelianos

A look inside Eva Palmer Sikelianos

By Artemis Leontis

I was myself introduced to Eva Palmer Sikelianos while leafing through books and magazines about Greece in my parents’ library in the 1960s and 1970s. The name and pictures of Eva Sikelianos appeared in several highbrow magazines of contemporary Greek culture. In one, I found a close-­up of her middle-­aged face and torso in a Greek tunic, with fashionable people in Western dress visible in the background. I was mystified by the caption: “High Priestess of Delphi.”1 The text around the picture spoke of her life with Angelos Sikelianos, and how she helped him to organize two revivals of the ancient Delphic Festivals in 1927 and 1930 as part of his plan to make Delphi an international center of culture and learning. Elsewhere I read that she had come to Greece in 1905 or 1906 (sources were inconsistent) with Raymond Duncan, brother of Isadora, and his Greek wife Penelope, after pursuing a life in theater in Paris for several years. She married Angelos Sikelianos, brother of Penelope, in 1907 and supported his poetic career with absolute dedication. Having spent all her money to produce the festivals, she returned to the United States to raise funds for Angelos’s larger project, his Delphic Idea. She failed; then World War II interrupted the Delphic plan. Now impoverished, she stayed in the United States. But, according to these sources, her love for Sikelianos never waned. In the last pages of a large volume celebrating her legacy, I found a photograph of an older Eva Sikelianos, in Delphi, near the end of her life, back in Greece to honor the dead Sikelianos. She was dressed in a Greek tunic again.2 Always she was in her Greek tunic; her slight figure, penetrating eyes, plain face, and straight-lined dresses of natural fibers were an obvious display of fashion independence. Here, her tired body rested on the seats of the theater of Delphi. The same volume opened with a photo of a youthful Eva Palmer, fashionable and pretty, in the white satin tulle dress of her New York society debut.3 In this way, it set up a contrast between her life before and after Greece to make the narrative point, stretched out over four hundred pages of exposition, that Eva Palmer, once a beautiful, rich American, sacrificed herself for the love of Greece and Sikelianos. Thus, the images of the Eva Palmer before Greece underscored the overwhelming philhellenic passions of Eva Sikelianos after Greece, who absorbed the lessons of Greek national culture to help realize the dreams of her husband, the noted Greek poet. Eva Palmer Sikelianos struck me as a temporal misfit: lost in the past, misapprehending contemporary Greece, and underestimating the force of its forward-­moving currents.

Sepia toned photograph of a crowd of people in the street
Figure 1

Decades later, a Kodak No. 1 snapshot of 1906 caught my eye (figure 1). I was drawn by its distinctly round shape, a charming by-­product of the limited technology of the first roll film camera.4 A crowd of some fifty people is gathered in a street in Athens. It takes time to find Eva Palmer (then still unmarried) in the crowd. She is slightly off center to the left. She is turned away from the camera, and she wears a sleeveless white tunic that exposes her arms, shoulders, and back. Her hair is gathered in a low chignon. She looks like an ancient statue. Her classicizing dress and pose echo the rhythms of the city’s neoclassical buildings; but they collide with the appearance of Athens’s residents. Though Greek, they do not wear Greek-­style tunics. Some men have on business suits topped with fedoras or straw hats, and others wear the uniform of the servant (shirt, vest, and fez) or laborer (jacket or vest and fisherman’s cap). There are child laborers present, perhaps also some street children. A woman dressed in the style of the Paris belle époque is carrying a baby. At least half the men are staring at her. An unidentified man has stopped to confront her. The focal point falls on the tense space of interaction between them.

Though hard to read, the photograph confirmed my impression that Eva Palmer Sikelianos was a modern anomaly, focused on living in the past. My initial conclusion was challenged, however, by the volume in which the photograph appeared. Entitled Γράμματα της Εύας Palmer Σικελιανού στη Natalie Clifford Barney (Letters of Eva Palmer Sikelianos to Natalie Clifford Barney), this Greek translation of 163 previously unpublished love letters caused a bit of trouble in Greek literary circles. The collection covered the years 1900 to 1909, with a few stray letters from later decades. Published in Greece in 1995, the letters were appearing in print roughly nine decades after they were written, and yet, prior to the book’s appearance, no one in Greek circles publicly discussed Eva Palmer’s love life. After its publication, protectors of Angelos Sikelianos’s reputation scrambled to limit the book’s impact. They marginalized its editor and translator, Lia Papadaki, a scholar with encyclopedic knowledge of Sikelianos’s oeuvre. Suppressed in Greece and unpublished except in Greek translation, Palmer’s letters gained limited notice.

Though partial and one-­sided, the letters were sufficient to identify Eva Palmer as a crucial member of Barney’s circle of self-­identifying “Sapphics.”5 The young, upper-­class artistic American, British, and French women formed a group in Paris in the first decade of the twentieth century and produced an “incredible Sapphic outpouring,” in the words of Joan DeJean in her masterful study, Fictions of Sappho: 1546–1937.6 DeJean and others have analyzed the parallelism that Barney and poet Renée Vivien drew between themselves and the Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos, with a view to making Sappho a “distant ancestor” of their free-­loving, woman-­centered social order.7 The letters demonstrated that Palmer was another key player in this circle. Not only did her ties with Barney run deep; when she was a student at Bryn Mawr College in 1900, Eva Palmer introduced Barney and Renée Vivien to ancient Greek learning, laying the ground for their learned appropriation of Sappho.8

I noticed a distinct interpretive approach in Palmer’s handling of the fragmentary corpus of Sappho, as represented in her letters to Barney. She immersed herself intuitively in the unreconstructed gaps, responding to the lacunae of lost words and meaning with creative restoration. Moreover, fragmentary poems allowed Palmer to experience a different flow of time: one that moves not progressively forward toward fulfillment followed by decay, but backward, into the holes of history, to recover a past that never was in order to suggest a future that will never be.9 Willful anachronism was part of the group’s creative practice. Palmer, Barney, and others frequently put on period costumes and photographed each other in carefully assumed poses that commented on, parodied, and transformed words received from the past.

Over the years, Palmer and Barney formed many love triangles. Indeed, they sought out love triangles quite deliberately as the building blocks of their sexual-social community. In this too, they were creatively reading Sappho. The pursuit of desire, the triangulation of love, the unbearable pain of jealousy and broken ties were running themes found in Sappho’s work and repeated in Eva Palmer’s love letters. The letters chart the evolution of her relationship to Barney: chilly to Barney’s approach in July 1900, Palmer became her learned adviser, stage manager, and costume designer, and still later, her sidelined, humiliated lover. The tensions between Palmer and Barney became unbearable in June 1906, just after Palmer, in a classicizing Greek costume, performed the role of Sappho’s runaway lover in Barney’s play Equivoque, a creative revision of several fragments in the Sapphic corpus. Palmer did indeed run away a few weeks later, to Greece, carrying the costumes she had made for Equivoque and another Greek-­style tunic she wove while making the costumes.10

This last discovery stopped me in my tracks. Palmer’s unconventional Greek dress was the most conspicuous element in the round Kodak No. 1 snapshot, and it was rooted in her prior life: it was either a costume or the by-­product of her costuming for Equivoque. It represented both a continuity in her conception of herself as she moved from Paris to Athens and a transition to another way of life. Reading Palmer’s correspondence from after her arrival in Greece, I gathered—and later confirmed when I read Barney’s side of the correspondence—that Barney was outraged to learn that Palmer was wearing Greek tunics in the streets of Athens. She was incensed that Palmer would make public modes of dress with in-­group significance. For Barney, this kind of dress was meaningful only in private, carefully controlled settings. She was especially provoked because Palmer was making her public display in Athens, a place of no interest to Barney, filled—in her view—with subaltern people who did not merit her interest. In a letter of her own, she rebuked Palmer’s “performance of defiance.”11 Palmer did not protest. She wrote of the freedom she felt in Greece, and she never took orders from Barney again.

From that moment, Greek-­style tunics would become Palmer’s daily habit, part of a broader drive against the forward movement of modern time that aspired not exactly to “make it new”—the modernist slogan read for the value it assigns to novelty—but to make it old: creatively to change the direction of modernity by implicating it in the revival of the inherited past.12 Palmer’s return to old styles and forms was not a misunderstanding of the present. The fact that the first tunic she wore in Athens’s streets was a costume from a Sapphic performance in Paris showed me that her inhabitation of the past was an act, but it was also a piece of what would become a lifetime commitment to making herself different through imitation of the Greeks: a continuation, in other words, of her modernist engagement with missing elements of Sappho’s universe.

I became curious to trace this continuity: to follow what happened to the Sapphic modernity of Eva Palmer as she crossed into modern Greek society to become Eva Sikelianos.13 How did her former performance history of Sapphic roles in the circle around Barney inform creative activities such as her mastery of weaving and study, patronage, and composition of Byzantine music? By what genealogy was Eva Palmer, the performer in theatricals that made Sappho a model of emulation for a protolesbian movement, connected with Eva Sikelianos, the director of the Delphic Festivals and other ancient revivals?

This is an excerpt from Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins by Artemis Leontis.

About the Author

Artemis Leontis is professor of modern Greek and comparative literature and chair of the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Topographies of Hellenism.


1. Corovilles, “Tragedies of Angelos Sikelianos,” 5.

2. EOS, 384.

3. EOS, 8.

4. National Museum of American History, “Original Kodak Camera, Serial No. 540.”

5. “Sapphic” (or the lowercase “sapphic”) was becoming a term of self-­ascription naming a specifically modern understanding of female same sex desire (Doan and Garrity, “Introduction,” 5) and referring to women who desired women with awareness that the ancient poetess Sappho wrote about female same-­sex love. The word “Lesbian” names a person from Lesbos, the birthplace of Sappho, and was not used with clear connotations of the woman with intimate attachments to women before the 1920s, with rare exceptions. Barney calls the woman who dares to become a creator after the “virile” Sappho a “Lesbian” (BLJD NCB 12 9995 Nos. 44–50, discussed below). The lowercase “lesbian” became a positive term of self-­ascription in the 1960s, when it also acquired strong in-­group associations. When not attentive to period self-­ascription, I use “lesbian” to denote female same-­sex desire and “queer” or LGBTQ for persons not subscribing to normative sexual or gender identities. On several occasions, I have found myself at a loss because the words available to me do not align with identities or acts of a given moment.

6. DeJean, Fictions of Sappho, 282.

7. Kantsa, “ ‘Lesvia,’ ” 29.

8. M. Reynolds, Sappho Companion, 291–92.

9. Freeman, Time Binds, especially p. 9.

10. UP, 51.

11. BLJD NCB 12 9995 Nos. 230–34 Letter NCB to EP January 8, 1907, Paris to c/o Jean Siciliani Ile de St. Maure (les Ionienne), Greece.

12. The newness to which contemporary modernists were devoted is epitomized by this phrase from Ezra Pound’s canto 53. “Make it new, day by day, make it new” is Pound’s phrase in full, and the antecedent of “it” is old material (Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Anglo-­Saxon) that Pound considered to be worth reviving. Moreover, “day by day” may be taken as the medium in addition to the temporal frame for this achievement. Eva Palmer’s working at transforming herself and the world by reviving the old “day by day” was therefore not opposed to Pound’s meaning.

13. Doan and Garrity, “Introduction,” use the term “Sapphic modernities” to establish a link between cultural theories of modernity and “sapphism,” a word connecting Sappho exclusively with same sex desire in English in the 1890s (3) and bearing connotations of modern urban life (8).