In a photo taken at the turn of the 20th century, the beguiling and largely forgotten performer Eva Palmer sits in a plush leather chair, gazing intently at a large book. Her shoulders are draped in a fur stole, and her thick, lovely hair is knotted into a bun at the back of her neck. It looks as though the photographer has crept up on her unaware, but according to an illuminating new biography of Eva by Artemis Leontis, the image was carefully posed. Everything from Eva’s seated position, to her hairstyle, to the book she clutches like an ancient scroll echoes a 5th century Greek vase painting — possibly of a woman reading the ancient poet Sappho, possibly of Sappho herself.
Fluency in the classics was de rigueur among the American upper class into which Eva was born in 1874, but her interest in Greek culture soared to exceptional, all-encompassing heights. In Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins, Leontis reveals the little-known story of what was, for Eva, the performance of a lifetime: recreating, on a daily basis, the arts of the ancient Greeks.
A privileged New York debutante, Eva studied classical subjects at Bryn Mawr and acted in ancient history-inspired “tableaux” at Bar Harbor, an island resort off the coast of Maine. It was there that she connected with Natalie Clifford Barney, the writer and socialite at the heart of what Leontis deems “an international circle of interinvolved female writers and performers” who sought to emulate Sappho’s own women’s circle. Though little is definitively known about the poet’s life, she has been touted as the leader of a cult of young women linked by homoerotic relationships; per Natalie’s interpretation, living like Sappho meant privileging lesbian desires and devoting oneself to the art of writing.
Natalie and Eva fell into a passionate romance, but Natalie could be a harsh lover, often criticizing what she saw as Eva’s predilection for “effeminate” theaterarts, particularly musical performances. Worn down by the relationship, Eva found solace in a new friendship with Penelope Duncan, the Greek sister-in-law of dancer Isadora Duncan. She ultimately married Penelope’s brother, the eminent 20th-century poet Angelos Sikelianos, and moved to Greece.
Once in her adopted homeland, Eva threw herself into what Barney dismissively referred to as her “performance of defiance.” Eva hand-wove tunics in the style of the ancients and wore her dresses amid crowds of Greeks in modern attire. She mimicked the poses of ancient sculptures and vase figures, both on and off stage. She poured her money into the construction of an organ that, she hoped, would produce an authentically Greek sound. Eva may have been playing a role, but the performance suffused her everyday existence, and she believed it served a higher purpose. Reviving ancient modes of creativity, she thought, offered a retrograde path to a more beautiful life, free from the crushing stresses of a modernizing world.
Leontis writes that as part of her research process, she made more than one hundred trips to Eva’s official archive and gained access to a collection of letters that had been sealed to the public for many years. Drawing on such sources, the author renders some aspects of Eva’s personal life — like her difficult love affair with Natalie — in electric detail. But other important relationships remain opaque, at times making the biography feel unintimate. Leontis mentions, for instance, that although Eva was a devoted champion of her husband’s work until the end of his life, their marriage quickly chilled and Eva reportedly requested that they stop sleeping together. Angelos later attempted to edge Eva out of the story of their most ambitious collaboration: the staging of two festivals at the archaeological site at Delphi. What might have transpired between them? Leontis provides few details.
Rather than dwell on such matters, the author turns a scholarly eye to Eva’s creative and intellectual endeavours. Each chapter of the biography is devoted to one of the arts that Eva enthusiastically pursued: Sapphic performances, weaving, Byzantine music, and writing. Here, too, the narrative can be frustratingly narrow, particularly when it comes to Leontis’ depiction of the Delphic Festivals, which hones in on the dramatic performances that fell under Eva’s purview and gives only passing mention to the festival’s other, surely spectacular events. But through meticulous attention to her subject’s own work, Leontis makes a strong argument that Eva’s impact on modern culture has not received nearly as much appreciation as it deserves.
Life in Ruins reveals Eva’s connections to some of the most important cultural figures of her day — Isadora Duncan, Henry Miller, Colette and George Cram Cook, to name a few — and shows how she worked with, diverged from, and influenced them. A particularly enlightening section of the book deals with her fruitful collaboration with Ted Shawn, the man hailed as the “father of American dance.” What’s more, in her younger years, Eva was part of subculture of women who sought “to invert the heterosexual norms that pressed hard against their bodies” by looking to Sappho for a different model of living, as Leontis writes. Other members of the group, including Natalie Barney, have been recognized for their pioneering contributions to LGBT history. Eva, for the most part, has not.
Thus, in spite of its shortcomings, Life in Ruins is an enlightening, important biography of a woman who could be both brashly anachronistic and remarkably current. In more ways than one, Eva refused to conform to the limitations of her time, but her decades-long commitment to inhabiting an ancient culture is arguably her most remarkable feat. “She was,” quipped one collaborator quoted by Leontis, “the only ancient Greek I ever knew.”