Every generation or so American culture fabricates ever new stereotypes of persons and things Greek. In times past, Greeks who found themselves on American shores were virtually mandated to live up to these stereotypes or have their claims as being a Greek denied. On rare occasion one or another Greek, visiting North America has found themselves not only mirroring the latest American held impression but in fact benefiting from these fictional creations.
At least one individual, Nikolaos Efthimios Theodorianitis, managed to embody simultaneously quite literally two different versions of the American imagination concerning Greeks. Theodorianitis was viewed as both a living representative of Classical Greece as well as those who fought in the Greek War of Independence. For those Americans who had lived through the Grecian Fever days America had experienced between 1821 and 1829, Theodorianitis offered a unique public figure.
Theodorianitis made at least two separate trips to North America once in 1893 and then again in 1896. As he traveled across the country a variety of news accounts appeared attesting to his presence. The news coverage of Theodorianitis and his activities are steeped in uniquely held American ideas of the 1890s. While it is easy enough to quote from a selection of news accounts on this man and his actions some explanations will become necessary, from time to time, as we tease out his activities from American projections on his life and actions.
On his first documented trip in 1893, Theodorianitis came to the United States to attend the World’s Columbian Exposition, known generally as the Chicago World’s Fair. This Fair was said to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492 but this massive event also served to show the world that Chicago had risen from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, which had destroyed much of the city in 1871.
The Chicago World’s Fair opened on May 1, 1893 and continued until October 30, 1893. It has been claimed that this Fair was such a profoundly influential social and cultural event due to the fact that one out of every four Americans attended this outdoor spectacle. The exposition covered more than 600 acres, featuring nearly 200 new (but purposely temporary) buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture, canals and lagoons, and people and cultures from 46 countries. More than 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month run. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world fairs, and it became a symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism, much in the same way that the Great Exhibition became a symbol of the Victorian era United Kingdom.
Theodorianitis was one of many foreign visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair. But the story of who he was and who he looked like had preceded him. On May 8, 1893, the New York Times carried a story of Theodorianitis’ arrival and his informal reception at 12 Vandewater Street hosted by local Greek notables. As articles appeared in the American press across the nation, in one version or another a common story was presented: “Mr. Theodorianitis is described as ‘The Living Greek.’ He is a remarkable looking man, bearing as he does an almost perfect likeness to the ideal pictures of the god Jupiter. It is said that Theodorianitis is to be part of the Greek exhibit at the world’s fair. His principal occupation of late years has been posing as a model of Jupiter for European artists, among them Meissonier (Sioux Valley News May 11, 1893).”
Jean Meissonier (1815-1891) was an internationally-recognized French Classical painter and sculptor famous for his depictions of Napoleon, militaries themes and scenes from everyday life. In all these news accounts Theodorianitis is said to look just like Jupiter this is the Roman and/or Northern European name for Zeus.
Theodorianitis was 70 years old in 1893 and was a published philosopher, among other things, as we shall see. What is interesting is not that he posed a “Jupiter” but that as a Greek, and a philosopher he also physically resembled what Europeans and Americans imagined Greeks from Classical times looked like.
I have looked for documentation or really any information about Theodorianitis at the Chicago Fair and all I could find was a terse report that “at the World’s Fair he posed for many artists and delivered an address in Greek that was afterward translated into English, and won much applause from him (Salt Lake Daily Tribune September 30, 1896).” Theodorianitis’ posing was not simply his standing still for artists to draw or paint his likeness. The 1880s through the 1890s was the era of the tableau vivant.
An extremely popular entertainment during the nineteenth century the tableau vivants e.g. “living pictures” featured performers who posed without moving. Usually seen on stages individuals would assume the pose of a famous historical event or personage and remain unmoving while they were observed by the audience. A sign or an announcement was made just before the curtain was opened for each scene. Classical figures and historical events were extremely popular.
From the available press cover this seems to have been what Theodorianitis did at the Chicago Fair. Tableau vivants have an extremely complex history where even nudity was allowed, under certain conditions. At times the Classical figures were presented completely covered in white so that they more closely resembled a statue. Theodorianitis being able to both pose and then speak was not unheard of given who or which event he was mean to represent.
But Theodorianitis also represented, for Americans, another facet of their understanding of Greek history, “Nikolaos Ethermius Theodorianitis was born in Theodoniania, Greece, in 1820. His father was a captain in the Grecian army. The boy spent some time with him in active service during the Greco-Turkish troubles of 1835. He first went to school when 18 years of age, but later, when 34 years of age, entered the University of Athens. He was helped in his college days by the King of Greece, and in 1856 received his diploma, which he always carries with him. After leaving college, Theodorianitis studied law, and for a time edited a weekly paper in Athens.” Having said all that the American journalists seems unable to help himself and returns to Theodorianitis’ classical appearance.
“Straight, muscular and robust, he is the picture of health and vitality. He has the appearance and bearing of a hardy frontiersman, 40 years of age. His face, tanned and brown, is apparently marked by the furrows of age and not by the lines of dissipation. His large black eyes are kind and gentle and serve as transparent windows to his seemingly tender and benign nature. Though dimmed slightly through age, they sparkle with a gleam of intelligence whenever the old man becomes absorbed in a conversation. It doesn’t take much to start him, for he has a word to say on every topic announced. .. A broad, high forehead indicates a good intellect and a retentive memory.
But the most striking characteristic of the aged Macedonian is his long hair and his shaggy beard. His hair is so heavy and long that it is necessary to keep it braided and tied in a knot on top of his head, which he covers from the outside world with a silk hat. He took off his head covering during an interview with The Call correspondent to-day and exhibited a growth of capillary substance twenty-two inches in length. He had it braided into at least forty strings which, when left to hang down his back, resembled as many flaxen ropes. His beard is almost entirely while and is a simple mass of curls. Taking into account his whole visage, his well-developed forehead, his wrinkled brow, his intelligent countenance, his aquiline nose, his keen black eyes and his long flowing hair, he bears every appearance of a historic Grecian god. In fact he has posed as Jupiter, Hermes and Apollo, and his photographs bear close resemblance to the originals in marble (San Francisco Call September 14, 1896).”
In 1896, on his second trip to the United States Theodorianitis, while staying in the San Francisco area he was the guest of C. Demetrek, the president of the Hellenic Benevolent Society of California. Now 76 years of age, Theodorianitis stood 5 feet 6 inches, and was said to be ‘short and stocky, but his running muscles, though but little used for three years, are hard and prominent.’
This last point was observed by the journalists at the San Francisco Call due to the fact that “Theodorianitis won the championship of Greece in the first Olympiad of modern times on the newly rebuilt stadium at Athens…against 300 competitors. The race was won by one Icanomo, but the 70-year-old sprinter challenged the winner, ran a mile with him again and beat him, for which astonishing feat he was presented with a crown of laurel.’ In the end, for an American-based audience, Nikolaos E. Theodorianitis could only be a ‘Living Greek’ in Classical terms. From our perspective in time Theodorianitis remains a living man caught up in the American imagination.”
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