“Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins by Artemis Leontis— A Visionary Performer

Leontis, Artemis. “Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins”,  Princeton University Press, 2019.

A Visionary Performer

Amos Lassen

Artemis Leontis brings us the first biography of Eva Palmer Sikelianos, a visionary twentieth-century American performer who devoted her life to the revival of ancient Greek culture. She was a director, composer, and weaver best known for reviving the Delphic Festivals. Yet, as Artemis Leontis reveals, Palmer’s most spectacular performance was her daily revival of ancient Greek life. For almost half a century, she dressed in handmade Greek tunics and sandals and looked to make modern life freer and more beautiful through a creative engagement with the ancients. She was in contact with other modern artists including Natalie Clifford Barney, Renée Vivien, Isadora Duncan, Susan Glaspell, George Cram Cook, Richard Strauss, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Nikos Kazantzakis, George Seferis, Henry Miller, Paul Robeson, and Ted Shawn.

Not only was Palmer a style creator, she was brilliant ad beautiful. She had been a wealthy New York debutante who studied Greek at Bryn Mawr College before leaving “conventional society” to live a lesbian life in Paris. She later followed Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond and his wife to Greece and married the Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos in 1907. With her single-minded purpose set out, she re-created ancient art forms, staging Greek tragedy with her own choreography, costumes, and even music. When she had 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.

Writer Leontis based her research on hundreds of newly discovered letters and previously unpublished photographs that are included in the book. What we get is a fascinating look at a fascinating women written in a fascinating way. I have always loved the stories and history of Isadora Duncan so I was quite surprised to realize that I had never heard of Palmer before reading this. It is almost like finding a new subject to pursue and learn about.  Palmer was, without doubt, a remarkable nonconformist.

 Of course to make this book the read that it is took a larger than life character as subject and a remarkable storyteller to share that character’s life. I have always loved learning and to have a chance to read a book with all new information is a real treat.
Palmer’s life work influenced the cultural direction of modern Greece and changed and “queered American culture in ways we have yet to recognize.”―Eleni Sikelianos, poet and great-granddaughter of Eva Palmer Sikeliano.

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