[ Page Text ]
Preservation of American Hellenic History
by Jason C. Mavrovitis
On 23 April 1916, Dimitraki arrived in America and was reunited with his half brother George Papana. He soon became known as Jimmy.(1)
For several months, Jimmy worked with George and lived with his family at 141 West Seventeenth Street in Manhattan. A family photograph was taken, about 1917.[•*] The brothers apparently never got along well, and circumstances did not improve the relationship. George treated his wife and children badly. He was demanding, selfish and arrogant.
Jimmy was uncomfortable in George's unhappy home. He left it with the few dollars he had accumulated and found a job. He was a Western Union delivery boy on a bicycle for all of one snowy New York day. He did not know his way around the territory and got lost. His supervisor chastised him, telling him that he was slow and a loafer. Jimmy's pride was hurt so he quit. He would not allow his integrity to be questioned and placed a high value on his reputation.
After his experience at Western Union, Jimmy worked for two years as a sewing machine operator for a doll manufacturer. When the opportunity presented itself he entered the fur trade. A photograph shows Jimmy at work in February of 1919.[•**]
Manufacture of fashionable furs had become an industry in Kastoria in the eighteenth century. Generations who entered the fur trade learned their craft well there. Kastorian furriers were active in Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Germany, France, and Canada. Some established themselves as far north as Denmark and Sweden. Many of these young men arrived in the United States either directly from Greece, or from countries to which they had previously immigrated. They were ready to provide the fur fashions demanded by women in prosperous America.
Furriers in New York City had their businesses centered on Seventh Avenue; framed east to west by Sixth and Eighth Avenues, and north to south by Thirty-second and Twenty-sixth Street Streets. This was the fur market, known to its workers as "the Market." Dingy, high-rise buildings housed its factories. By the late 1920's the manufacturers' showrooms were decorated in an art-deco style. They lost any semblance of elegance as they aged, worn and ill kept. Rarely did the proprietors even clean their showroom mirrors, whose patinas of dust softened the reflections of generations of women who adored themselves in mink, fox, ermine and sable.
The factories, behind showrooms and bookkeepers' office space, consisted of large open bays with unfinished wood floors and nine-foot windows. Along the windows were waist high benches. Matchers and cutters worked there in the natural light that enabled them to judge fur color and hair height. Close by were rows of machines where operators under the watchful eye and supervision of a matcher and cutter sewed together long pieces of fur skins that had been carefully sliced by the cutter. When joined these strips reformed the appearance of the fur and, when attached to adjoining skins, attained the shape and style of a designer's conception.
There were tables where junior workers opened the bellies of tanned fur skins, removing heads, paws and tails for use in manufacture of "plates," or large rectangles of fur material that were cut into shapes to sew into "piece garments." At other tables, men called "nailers," stretched and nailed semi-finished products to pattern boards to establish the final form of a garment. In larger factories groups of women chattering in Greek or Yiddish sewed silk linings and monograms into stoles, jackets, capes and coats. Cleaning equipment, patterns hanging from wall pegs, and bundles of furs filled the rest of the space.
There was heat in the winter, but not a lot of it. In New York summers the shops were hot, humid spaces relieved only a bit when on a day that the wind blew fresh from the north and west it found its way through open windows to restore the workers. Ubiquitous loose hair clung to perspiring skin. One toilette served up to one hundred male and female workers in a loft. Winter or summer Jimmy wore a white shirt and tie, and a white, cotton smock that reached his knees.
The Market was for the most part composed of two ethnic groups. One third consisted of Kastorian Greeks, including men from villages close by Lake Kastoria such as Jimmy's Mavrovo. Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia were the two-thirds majority.
The Market boasted a degree of cooperation between two culturally, ethnically, and religiously disparate groups that was remarkable in a fiercely competitive business. They demonstrated the respect each had for the other in countless ways. Their business ethics and personal conduct reflected their identification with strong religious and cultural heritages. Written contracts were unknown. The Market worked on a system of honor and trust. A man's word and handshake were irrevocable commitments. An dishonored commitment meant expulsion from the Market and permanent exile.
Greeks attended bar mitzvahs, Jews gave baptismal gifts; Jews held Christmas parties, Greeks sent greetings at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; Greeks honored the Passover, and Jews respected the Anástasi (Resurrection-Easter); and in the years following the Second World War, Jews contributed to Greek War Relief, and Greeks bought Israeli Bonds.
Both groups came late to the United States. Their low social and economic status derived from their east European origin, lack of education and centuries of subjugation ~ the Greeks treated as cattle under the Ottomans, the Jews persecuted and segregated by European Christian communities. Their languages, religions, customs, and unfamiliarity with western European culture hampered them. They were below the bottom rung.
Yet they had ownership of the religions and cultures on which western European civilization had been built: Judaic and Roman (Byzantine) Law, monotheism and Christianity; the old and new testaments; and the art, literature, philosophy, and democratic ideals of Classical Greece. They had great pride. They had a sense of themselves as inheritors of cultural legacies, and held traditions that revered education and knowledge.
Their ancestors had succeeded in the commerce of the world of the Levant, of the Black Sea, the Bosphorus and the Mediterranean, and survived invasions of Persians, Romans, Huns, Bulgars, Ottomans, Turks, and Christian Crusaders. A rich tapestry of ethnic and religious tradition that had passed from generation to generation nurtured their indomitable spirits. They worked together, Greek and Jew, to create the greatest fur design and manufacturing center in the world.
In this world Jimmy learned his trade and developed as a young man. He was socially active among immigrant Greeks and with his closest friend, Peter Stamatis, served on the Board of St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Brooklyn. He also offered his talents as a psaltis, a skill he learned as a boy at the small monastery on a remote shore of Lake Kastoria.
Jimmy was eager to learn the language of his adopted country and enrolled in night school shortly after his arrival. The memory of his English teacher remained strong throughout his life. He diligently followed the guidance he received when his teacher recognized his intelligence and sensitivity:
Read the New York Times every day, and carry a dictionary in your pocket. For the next seventy-two years Jimmy did just that. He rarely missed an edition. Some long articles he saved to read on a weekend or on vacation. He had the Times on his bed in the hospital and at home shortly before his death.
To paraphrase what an immigrant said about opportunity in America:
They told me that the streets were paved with gold in America. I arrived to learn that they were not only unpaved, but that I would pave them.
What were "paved with gold" were the unique paths of opportunity for education that New York City provided to immigrants and their children at the turn of the century. One of the foremost among these was the New York Public Library. Founded by once governor Samuel J. Tilden with a $2.4 million donation in 1886, the library grew when both the Astor and Lenox libraries merged into it in 1895. In 1901, Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million for the construction of 65 branch libraries throughout the city. The grand, main public library building at Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, with twin lion sculptures guarding its entrance, opened on 23 May 1911.
The Main Library was and still is an elegant, marble floored structure with dark wood paneling and bookcases. It offered access to the world's great books to anyone who entered its doors. Shabbily dressed, poor, working immigrants found their way to the reading rooms to study literature and find knowledge that had never before been available to them. Jimmy found this place and spent long evening hours with its books.
New York City opened the Free Academy in 1847 to educate the common people. The Academy became the City University of New York that included City College of New York (CCNY), Hunter College, Brooklyn College, and Queens College. Immigrant children became doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, accountants and scientists.
In 1917, sometime during his second year in the United States, on a snowy winter Saturday, Jimmy walked past New York's "old" Metropolitan Opera House at Thirty-ninth Street and Broadway. Curious about the show, and not having anything else to do, he purchased a standing room ticket. Inside he found a new world: one of music, drama, song and dance. It captivated him. He became a regular patron in the standing room section and attended the opera frequently during each season until his marriage ten years later.
Jimmy saved playbills of many opera performances. In the Metropolitan Opera's 1924-1925 Season he attended performances of:(2)
An appreciation of books and history grew out of his exposure to the Times, the Forty-second Street Library and the Metropolitan Opera.
His personal library contained the works of Tolstoy, Dumas, De Maupassant, Shakespeare and others. He treasured his set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and revered education and knowledge. Jimmy was a romantic. He found great pleasure in literature and poetry, and tried to write a bit himself.
In time, his attendance at the opera was limited by life events, but he heard Metropolitan Opera performances on the Texaco Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts on Saturday afternoons, enjoyed his collection of recordings, and listened to live radio broadcasts of operetta on the Chicago Theater of the Air.
Jimmy also discovered the Metropolitan Museum of Art which he visited frequently. He was especially attracted to the representational art of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. He held the arts as man's crowning achievement and celebrated creative ability.
In 1921, Jimmy met seventeen-year-old Lily Athenas at a dance and fell in love. His courtship failed when Lily chose to marry James Tsavalas. It is not clear why Tsavalas was chosen over her other suitors. He may simply have been the first to express his intentions and because of his declared financial success and Lily's eagerness to marry won her hand.
From 1921 through 1926, Jimmy learned the fur business and became an expert matcher and cutter. The first of these skills involves matching color, texture and hair height of fur pelts to assure that a finished garment has a uniform appearance. The second, cutting, is the process by which a skin is sliced into long pieces that are then sewn back together in a way that narrows and elongates the skin, and gives it proper shape for the garment's design. These skills and designing are the highest paid in the industry.
On 22 June 1926, Jimmy became a citizen of the United States. He took his citizenship seriously. He stayed current with the political and economic events of the country and never missed voting in an election. He was one of the few Greek immigrants who identified himself as a Republican.
Jimmy was confident enough of his ability and experience to enter into partnership in 1926 with Vasili (Basil, William, ergo Bill) Rusuli, who was five years older than Jimmy. They had met and become friends in the Market.
As a child of six, young Vasili had been sent as an apprentice to a Kastorian furrier in St. Petersburg. He lived in Russia until just before the outbreak of World War I. He found a way to board a ship at a Baltic port and made his way to New York City. Vasili was proud to have been in the United States Army in 1917-1918. Though he entered the military too late to be sent to war, he gained United States citizenship because of his service.
Bill Rusuli married Rose Dimitroff in the late 1920's. Jimmy remembered Rose as a beautiful young bookkeeper who worked for various firms in the Market. She and her brother, Louis J. Dimitroff, claimed Bulgarian and Greek ancestry (Bulgarian father, Greek mother). They arrived in the United States with their mother when Louis was six years old having immigrated to the United States as refugees from Constantinople. They probably had been made refugees by the aftermath of the Turko-Greek War of 1898.
After his arrival in the United States at the age of seven (c.1901), Louis was a dishwasher at a Hell's Kitchen restaurant on Tenth Avenue. He grew, matured, attended night school, and eventually entered the insurance business. Louis developed into a smart, cosmopolitan gentleman who was at ease with the rich, Governors and Senators, hunting Dove at a Maryland retreat, or hosting guests in private rooms at the Waldorf Astoria and Astor Hotels. When he died in 1952 he was a Vice President of The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Louis lived with Rose, and then with Rose and Bill all his life. From 1932 on they shared an elegant twelfth floor, upper West Side apartment on Riverside Drive.
Jimmy and Bill's business prospered in the economic boom of the nineteen twenties. They and their bachelor friends had an active social life. There are many photographs of them at the seashore and beach, hunting north of the city, in wooded surroundings turning a spitted lamb at celebrations, and relaxing in Manhattan's Central Park. They worked hard and knew how to enjoy life.
The young men sent money to their families in Greece. Jimmy forwarded many Western Union Money Orders to his mother. And, he could be counted on to provide additional financial support to his family in difficult times.
These young, immigrant men from the mountains of Greece who without shoes on their feet had lived on village farms became impeccably well-groomed New York men-about-town. Their appearance was remarkable. They turned out in the latest fashions with crisply ironed suits, elegant cravats, highly polished shoes, and straw or felt hats as the season required.
A photograph of Jimmy with a friend in 1925, and photograph of Jimmy with young men from Kastoria in Central Park in 1923, are good examples of the importance the young men placed on their appearance.[•‡]
Jimmy followed a path that elevated his social and cultural life beyond anything he might have imagined as a boy. He pursued knowledge as best he could independently and gained the respect of his peers and community. He was young, successful and vain enough about his good looks to have had portrait photographs taken almost every year, like a photograph taken in 1917 and a photograph taken in 1924. One cannot help but wonder to whom, other than his mother and family, these portraits were given.[•‡‡]
Jimmy's triumph was a Valentino look-a-like black and white portrait photograph. In black tie, holding an ebony cigarette holder with smoke rising from its cigarette, Jimmy strikes the pose of a Manhattan sophisticate.[•‡‡‡]
[ Skip ]
[ Skip ]