Elizabeth A. Fisher
JNSL: We are here today, Monday, July 6, 2009. We are interviewing Professor Elizabeth Fisher. My name is Jeanne-Nicole Saint Laurent.
EG: I’m Beth Gettinger.
AS: I’m Anne Steptoe.
JNSL: We’re delighted to have a conversation with you today –
EF: Thank you.
JNSL: – talking about your memories and the history of your affiliation with Dumbarton Oaks, and influential things that you recall, and people with whom you were able to be in contact. Would one of you ladies like to start off?
AS: Sure. Well, you began as a graduate student in the wonderful Harvard Classics Department.
EF: That is so true. Yes indeed.
AS: Is that how you first came to know of Dumbarton Oaks?
EF: Yes, indirectly. I took a seminar in the Classics Department on the textual criticism of Ovid’s Heroides, taught by E. J. Kenney, who was a visiting professor just for a year at Harvard. And as a part of that seminar, I wrote my seminar paper on Planudes’ translation of Ovid’s – no, I heard about Planudes’ translation of Ovid’s Heroides. And I thought, “How strange! Why would someone in the thirteenth century translate Ovid into Greek?” So, we talked about that a little bit in connection with textual history of the Heroides. And I just kept thinking about this personality, though, that would do such a thing, because the Heroides are pretty large. So, I asked Kenney at the end of the seminar if he thought there was a thesis topic in this translation. And he said, “Well, I think that you’d do better with the Metamorphoses. It’s longer.” And it certainly is. And he said, “That’s also kind of nice to work with Planudes.” So, he said, “You’ll just have to learn some Byzantine studies in order to do that. And you’ll have to find an adviser.” – because he was not on the permanent faculty at Harvard. So, I went to Glenn Bowersock, and I said, “This is what I’d like to work on.” And Kenney said, “Don’t work on it as a textual problem. Work on the translation as a work of literature.” And I really liked that idea. So, I told Bowersock that I’d like to work on the thirteenth-century translation into Greek of the Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a literary work. And Bowersock kind of looked at me, and he said, “Well, the approach interests me, but I don’t know anything about Byzantine studies. So, you will have to go and get a Byzantine adviser.” And I said, “Well, who?” And he said, “There’s a very good assistant professor here who’s working on the thirteenth century, and she would be good for you to work with. It’s Angeliki Laiou. But,” he said, “you’ll have to be careful about this because Robert Lee Wolff is the medievalist at Harvard.” Well, this is true. So, I went to see Robert Lee Wolff. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen pictures of him, but he was a very large man. And he was ensconced behind his desk in Widener Library, which was one of those interior offices that was lighted from the hallway, so it was kind of gloomy in there. And he had a very high voice for a very large man. So, I explained what I wanted to do and that I needed to learn about Byzantine studies up to the thirteenth century. And he kind of looked at me, and he said, “Well, unfortunately I will not be here next year so you’ll have to work with someone else. But you can work with my assistant professor Angeliki Laiou, so goodbye.” So, I went to see her. It was July; it was about this time of year. It was high summer. She had an office down in maybe Lowell House at Harvard. She had her office down there – it was one of the Harvard houses. And it was a chair like this – they must have ordered them in bulk. And it was very hot, and I had sun tan oil all over me, and I was kind of sliding off this thing. But she and I hit a deal. She said, “I’ll give you a reading list.” Well, she certainly did. It had things on it like Das Papsttum und Byzanz – because this was after all in the late ‘60s, and there wasn’t a lot – and Krumbacher. “Just read it,” she said. “It’ll be good.” So, I went off, and it was a long reading list. And I would read and go and see her, and eventually I started to work on the thesis. And Bowersock was very tough. He was a very tough adviser. But it was probably good for me. And eventually the thesis did get written, and she was co-director. He was the formal director because he was the Classics philology professor and she was in the History Department. Well, in the course of all this, Dumbarton Oaks had a wonderful symposium called “The Book in Byzantium,” I think. They had people like Nigel Wilson and Irigoin, the Frenchman, and Ševčenko of course, and Mango. And this was really a landmark symposium for people in literary studies. At that time a Dumbarton Oaks symposium was open only by invitation. The people who were invited could bring one guest. Angeliki was invited, and she brought me as her guest. That was my introduction to Dumbarton Oaks, which was quite an introduction. [Laughter.]
JNSL: What were some of your first impressions from that symposium, the people there and Angeliki herself?
EF: You know, she and I were not very far apart in age. So, we were kind of friends, you know, and we got along very well. I remember Weitzmann was there and his wife as well. He was talking, and she was a very fierce, little tiny lady. And she said, “Wo ist dein Schal?” because it was April, but it was kind of cool, and he wasn’t bundled up as apparently she thought he should be. I thought that was kind of funny. And I remember asking a question of maybe Ševčenko – daring to ask a question – and he didn’t understand it. And he had to have it repeated and translated. And I said to her afterwards, “Why did he have to have my question translated? He knows all these languages. He knows English.” And she said, “Well, he doesn’t hear” – well, it could have been Ševčenko but at any rate, one of the luminaries – she said, “Well, they don’t hear very much American English here, and they’re not really used to it.” [Laughter.] That’s all I’ve ever spoken, is American English. But I remember the gardens just astounding me – and of course the museum. And as Angeliki said, it’s so nice to go to a place where you don’t have to explain what a Byzantine emperor is – because really, in general, in the Harvard Classics Department, that’s what you had to do. You had to explain what Byzantium was. And she was right. Here was this Mount Olympus of Byzantine Studies. It was a very large impression. At that time, too, the food was terrific. They had lunch set up in the Orangery with crystal and white tablecloths, and everything was served. Oh yes. It was very elegant. And I had never seen anything like it. They didn’t do that for us in the Harvard Classics Department. I don’t know if they did it for you. [Laughter.] I sort of doubt it.
AS: Not quite as nice.
EG: So, then you became a Fellow here at Dumbarton Oaks in 1990?
EF: Well, I took my first job at the University of Minnesota. And that was a strategically important thing to do because the job market was very bad. I’d applied for a fellowship here, and actually I was granted one, but I was also offered the job, and it was a tenure-line job. I knew I had to take it. So, Angeliki said, “Just be very careful. Be very tactful. They don’t care about jobs in tenure lines. Just tell them that you can’t at this point, and you hope that you’ll have the opportunity to apply at a later date.” So, I did tell them that, and two years later applied for a fellowship at the Center for Hellenic Studies and got one. That was very fortunate, and at that time the two institutions kind of exchanged Fellows. I think that’s happened still. And we were invited to symposia, so I got to go to a second symposium. That is where I met Leendert Westerink, who was a tremendous influence for me. He was a brilliant textual critic, and one of the kindest and most humane people I’ve ever met. He was at the symposium, and he was actively prospecting for people to work on the Psellos texts. Well, I’d never done a Greek text. I did an article after the Kenney seminar that was published in HSCP. So, when he met me, we talked a little bit. He asked me if I was interested in doing a Psellos text, and I said, “Well, I’ve never done any Greek textual criticism.” I’d done a review of Renaud’s Chronographia for a periodical. He said, “Well, let me look at your work.” So, I sent him those two things, and he said, “Oh, you can do this.” He said, “I’ll help you.” And he did. I would send him my collations and my text and he would look them over and offer comments. Especially in the days before the TLG, he would offer me fontes which he had in his head. And this was a great gift because I depended entirely on printed concordances. He gave me so much. Also, he gave me acquaintance with some of the other people working on the project for Psellos. Tony Littlewood told me that Westerink called him up in his office once and said, “My name is Leendert Westerink. I’m at SUNY New York, Buffalo. And I’d like to come and see you.” “Fine,” Antony said. He had no idea what this was about. Westerink’s wife drove him up because he never drove. And he walked into Antony Littlewood’s office and said, “I would like you to do a textual edition of Psellos’s hagiographic orations. I know your work on Geometres.” So they struck a deal. And that’s how Westerink recruited people for that really major project. And it was through Dumbarton Oaks that I met him, through the symposium. Then I applied for a fellowship in 1991, for 1991-92, and I did receive it. And that was the last moments of my Psellos work. Never let anyone tell you that textual edition will go quickly. It doesn’t. It doesn’t. But that was finishing it up. At that time, George Dennis was here, and Ljubarskij, and we were all working on Psellos editions for Teubner. Angeliki was the director at that time – Director of Dumbarton Oaks and also Director of Studies. I remember she said to me, “Well, all I can say is you all had better come up with something really good, because we put an awful lot of money on Psellos.” [Laughter.]
EF: We did. Ljubarskij was working on another project with Psellos that I think eventually turned into an article in a book in Russia.
JNSL: What was Laiou like as the director here? How would you describe her presence here?
EF: She was conscious that she had a position to maintain. And she was cautious not to compromise that in any way. She kept to herself, I would say. Obviously she dealt with the Fellows. She attended our research reports and talked. She was interested in trying to get something going with publications for Dumbarton Oaks. She felt that was a strength the institution lacked. She may have interviewed everyone, I don’t know. But she called me in once and said, “Well what do you think Dumbarton Oaks should be sponsoring?” And I said, “Well, translations, because there’s nothing to use in the classroom. I mean, it’s very spotty.” And she said, “Well, what?” And I said, “Oh, history.” And she said, “Oh, those things have been done.” So, I said, “Well, I don’t know, Saints Lives?” And she must have heard that from other people because then they got the Dumbarton Oaks translated Saints Lives going. I think those have been a very good thing. And I’ve been very, very grateful as an instructor that those three volumes of Saints Lives are available on the web free. It means that people can put a Byzantine work into a course without undue expense to students, and I think it’s been very important. I think those translations were well-conceived. It was Alice-Mary who did them, but I think it was Angeliki who got things going. Of course, they had National Endowment for the Humanities money for at least one of them – maybe more, I don’t know.
AS: Were there three volumes in all?
EF: Mhmm. I actually worked with Alice-Mary on one of the translations for Defenders of the Images, which was a great privilege. I think it was one of the happiest experiences of my life to send in a part of the translation to her, and she would go over it and sometimes Lee Sherry or Alex Alexakis would too. And then she and I would talk about it. It was like playing tennis with a really good tennis player.
JNSL: Did you have interaction with Alexander Kazhdan as well?
EF: With who?
EF: Oh, yes! Definitely. When he first came, I remember he was at a symposium, and he asked a question. And he was just arrived, and his English was halting. But I thought, you know, “Oh my goodness, this is really a mentality.” It must have been ’79. Well, shortly after that, John Duffy called, and he said, “You know, Kazhdan would like to do a reading group of local people, reading Psellos.” And I thought, “Oh, terrific!” Because I was buried in Psellos at this point. And I just felt kind of hopeless because I was really working on my own, and I hadn’t read that much Psellos, and he’s a difficult author. So, John said, “Would you like to join the reading group reading the Chronographia with Kazhdan?” And I said, “Yes, of course!” So, we would meet every week, and Kazhdan would set us a passage from the Chronographia, and then we would translate. Some really wonderful people passed through that seminar. Apostolos Karpozilos, and Roger Scott, and John Duffy himself was always a good participant. Sydney Griffith for a while was in that seminar. It was such a good experience. Kazhdan would bring in things that something in the Chronographia reminded him of. And he’d bring in a passage. And then we’d have to sight translate. Ugh! [Laughter.] But it was good for us. It was like playing at Wimbledon with the champion from last year! But he was a very nice man, very kind, and very supportive and wanted us to come along and enjoy Psellos. At one point he also brought in – he was interested in the life of the Emperor Basil that Ševčenko’s working on. I think that’s right. And he brought in just a part of that for us to work on. And I remember there was a section about the emperor going on a hunting expedition and being caught on the antlers of a deer that carried him off, and he was rescued by one of his henchmen or helpers. And I thought, “What kind of a deer is that?” Because I grew up in northern Minnesota and they’re not – you wouldn’t carry a full-grown man if you were a deer with antlers. You know, that would be quite a challenge. So, I said, “What could this be about?” And he said, “I don’t know.” So, I asked around at the university, and one of my colleagues in the Biology Department said, “Oh, you should call so-and-so at the Smithsonian. He does historical species.” Fine, so I called him up – very nice man. My experience here has been the more important the people are, the better they are to deal with. It’s the people who are kind of on the make that are trouble. Remember this, ladies. [Laughter.] But the really big people are just eager to help and they’re interested in helping. So, this man was just fascinated with the idea of a deer that could carry a full-grown man on its antlers. He said, “It must be the European red deer, which is very large.” And he said, “I didn’t know their range was that far south.” “But,” he said, “in the tenth century it could be.” So, you know, it was kind of interesting to all of us. Well, I have to say that Kazhdan did not have a burning interest in historical biology and zoology. And I told him this with the air of someone bringing him the treasure of Ali Baba and he said, “Oh.” [Laughter.] Textual problem, probably. Kazhdan, yes – he was brilliant, you know. I will say though that I wrote one article for the ODB, and I thought it was pretty good. It was on Planudes. I thought it was pretty good. And I got it back just all marked up. He said, “This is too literary.” I thought, “Well, I mean, what’s wrong with that? It’s a literary figure!” But he was right. He was a very good editor-in-chief, and I put in the kind of historical things that I should have. And then of course I got an author’s discount for the ODB, which didn’t hurt. He broke his leg at one point, I think, and we had to meet in the house because he couldn’t get around very well. So, the reading group met upstairs in the little house, which now is where the guards are and the grounds people and so forth. But that was a little house at that time with two sections – one of the gardener and one for Kazhdan. So, as you’re facing the house, they had the right side of the house. It was just a house, with a kitchen and so forth. And we met up in the little top room and did our Psellos all together. It was fun.
AS: Were there other such seminars that took place over the years?
EF: Yeah. I had an interesting experience. Robert Thomson did a seminar for local students, and the idea was that they would be able to register through their universities for credit. But all the teaching and the grading would be done at Dumbarton Oaks. This was terrific. So, they contacted local people and said, “Do you have anybody who could benefit? If they knew Greek well and they’re good, they can do classical Armenian with Robert Thompson.” I had one student, and he was brilliant. He was pre-med, but he was a double major in biology and Greek. So, he joined that seminar and he said to me, “You know, the best thing that happened to me at G.W. was being able to get on my bicycle every week and ride my bicycle up to Dumbarton Oaks and do classical Armenian for two hours with Robert Thompson and then come back down.” And let me see, there was also a seminar that I took. It was probably in 1978 or ’79 – that Ševčenko and Giles Constable did together. It was called “Hagiography East and West.” And that was wonderful because we would read various things in Latin or in Greek, and we all had seminar papers assigned, so Ševčenko took the Byzantine people. Most people were in the Latin side, and most were from Catholic University. But I did the Greek side. So, I did my paper with Ševčenko and I was really worried about this. He said, “Well, do the life or Lazarus. You’ll find it in the Acta Sanctorum.” So, I thought, hmmm. I got the Acta Sanctorum and I looked and there were two lives of Lazarus – Vitae of Lazarus. And one was this huge one and one was by Gregorio and I thought, this is the one he means for me to do because its 14th century and that’s my area. And look, it’s only about ten pages. That was wrong. He meant for me to do the eighty page one. Ahhh! Which of course wasn’t translated except for in the Latin. I was dying. I was teaching full time, you know, and I couldn’t go over – we didn’t have the Acta Sanctorum at G.W. I’d have to go over to Georgetown and use it down in their library. I finally figured out a way to photocopy part of it. It was so heavy I could hardly lift it, to photocopy it. I thought, I have to be strategic. Maybe Ševčenko knows this. Please don’t call him up to tell him [laughs.] I did the beginning, I did the end, and I took apart the middle, and I hoped he wouldn’t catch me. And he didn’t! Now he may have suspected what was going on, but I did the seminar paper. I wasn’t doing it for a grade, and I don’t want to know what it would have been. But eventually that was the life that Greenfield translated so wonderfully in the series for Dumbarton Oaks hagiography translations.
AS: So, how did you come to be involved in all of these different seminars? Was it by invitation only or –?
EF: Well, I would hear about them because I was an outside reader. Oh, and there was another one – Robert Browning. He gave twice – he gave seminars on paleography. And I had never had a paleography course. It wasn’t so easy to find one. The medieval academy would give one every year, but it was in the summer and I couldn’t necessarily go. So, when Browning came and gave a semester long seminar on Paleography for two years running, I took them both years. That’s how I learned what I know about paleography as a paleographer. And he was a wonderful teacher. He would give us things to prepare and he would hand us things and say, “Here. Read this.” It was very good for us. It was hard, it was very hard. But again, it was something – it may have been advertised for graduate students also. We didn’t have another undergraduate really who could do a seminar with the exception of the Thompson Arminian seminars.
EG: As a professor, did you find undergraduates at local universities had other forms of interaction at Dumbarton Oaks? We’ve heard various things of community access to the collections and the museum.
EF: I’ve found them to be very cooperative. I got to know Cynthia Pinkston in my years here. She would be very supportive of having the classics club come over and do the garden as a Roman garden. The garden does have its base in Roman gardens. It’s a French garden mostly, but that’s based in Italy – in Roman gardens. So, she was very helpful in that. She was also very supportive if I wanted to bring my beginning Greek classes over to look at objects in the Dumbarton Oaks collection that incorporate Greek into their design and conception. The beginning Greek students could do that and they were really quite thrilled. I would typically bring them over on a Saturday morning and they would have their tour. They would always do the apostle spoons and the Eutychianos paten and things like that, that were so obviously Greek it was the natural language. For the students, it was really good for them. And then at one time G.W. wanted professors to do these outings with students and they would pay if you would take students to lunch afterwards. So, we would go down to the Georgetown Café, which is run by Persians and they would have their lunches. I would say, the only condition is you have to try Hummus. Because that’s what an ancient diet really included. Really a lot of vegetable protein. Some of them really had no idea what this was. I said, you don’t have to make your whole meal of that. I think one of the most interesting variations on eating hummus I ever saw was this student who dipped his French fries in it. I said, whatever, whatever. Let me see – I also had the opportunity twice to do a Byzantine literature and civilization course at G.W. in the Classics department. I could send the students here to do a paper. So, I tended before they had the new exhibition on lighting, to send them over to do a project on lighting. Because all the objects were here, they just weren’t particularly integrated. I’d ask them questions that meant they’d have to look at the objects and figure out what they were and the changes in the technology of lighting, so to speak, and the public use of it. So, they’d get over to the museum, and they’d never been. Many would never have come. So, yeah, I’ve found them very cooperative. Then I wasn’t teaching beginning Greek. Another colleague was doing it for awhile. So, I didn’t have a class to bring over. Kristen and Gudrun have been very supportive that the students could come over and we could even look at some manuscripts, which I think they would find really thrilling. The fact of a human hand visible on these objects would be, I think, very thrilling to them. So, this year I’ll have beginning Greek again and I’m looking forward to reestablishing contact.
AS: Is there a lot of interaction between scholars and Fellows and the museum and collections? Or are they really quite separate?
EF: Well, in 1991 I really don’t remember interaction, no. But when I had the fellowship in 2007-8, Gudrun was very forthcoming about that. She wanted our ideas about display and about how people would interact with the collections. I found that really exciting. I hope that there’s more to come. But I think part of the problem is that the collection is so precious. That’s something that they have to take responsibility for.
AS: Can you give some striking changes since when the first time you arrived to your more recent fellowship? Some of the things that pop into your mind about how Dumbarton Oaks has changed in, say, the last two decades?
EF: You know, it was not easy to get access when I first came. It was 1976. And I had to convince them that I really was working on a Byzantine project. At one point the librarian became convinced that there were too many classicists using the library for their own non-Byzantine purposes. So, the librarian at the time revoked the library privileges of all readers who were in Classics departments. This was a very severe blow for me. It would have really been a very severe blow, but the angels watch out for fools and small children. And I’m not a small child, so I guess I know what these angels are concerned about. So, it was January that the assistant librarian said, “I’m very sorry but I have to revoke your card.” Yes, your face said it all, Jeanne-Nicole – hmm. I said, “You know that’s going to be very difficult because I’ve just been awarded a Dumbarton Oaks fellowship in 1991-92 and I don’t know how I can fulfill the terms of the fellowship if I don’t have library access.” So, that finished that little moment. And I think Dumbarton Oaks has become – they have to be sure the people who have access are serious scholars. I understand that. But in the late 1970s it was very difficult. And then this kind of thunderstorm in January of 1991 was very difficult for me. Of course, I was accustomed to the old house and all the books in the old house. And we ran. We went up the stairs and down the stairs, and there was a curling staircase that took you up into the one side of the attic and you took your heart in your hand and you went up the curling little staircase if you didn’t go up the main one. So, it was really something to get at the books. You got your exercise. Outside readers were allowed to use what was then the reference room with a large table, but if there were a couple of art historians there with large folio books, there wasn’t room to sit. So, I would sit on the floor sometimes up on the third floor attic and do my work. I found some little secret places that had tables. There was a table where Irfan Shahid set up with a typewriter that was kind of hard to find. But I found it and I could sit there if he wasn’t there. So, I would sneak off in this secret little corner or off in the side where they kept the microfilms, I could sometimes work up there if there was no room downstairs. So, you learn these things. I think the darkest moment for me in the old house was when they put in the first compact stacks. They were in one room in the basement. And this was quite new and we didn’t know about these things. We were all told, “This is how they work, do it. You’ll just have to use them.” They didn’t always work. They worked too well the time I was in there getting a book way at the end. And someone just closed it on me. I screamed and ran and I made it. But thereafter whenever I went into those stacks I would sing. Maybe singing at the table was a sign of insanity, as I was told growing up in the Midwest. And maybe singing in the stacks was a sign of insanity, but I don’t want to die in the stacks. But now they have all these new trip devices and you couldn’t possibly be compressed into the stacks, but I was determined not to have that happen again. Let me see – well photocopying was difficult in the old building. It was expensive. It’s much easier now. Things are – the new library works very well, I think. I miss the old house. It had such a feeling of tradition about it. And the card catalogue room, you know, was in an open brightly lighted space. And I remember one of the people who – maybe it was Seka Allen who said – or maybe it was Dina who was the assistant librarian when I first came to Dumbarton Oaks. They said they remembered when Mrs. Bliss would first come over to the house. And the card catalogue room was set up as a card catalogue room. So, one of them was working in that card catalogue room. And Mrs. Bliss swept in with some of her friends, and she said, “This was my dressing room.” And they all went, “Whoops! Excuse us!” [Laughs]. I never met Mrs. Bliss. I just heard stories, you know, from people who had known her.
JNSL: Are there any other times you recall being told stories about Mrs. Bliss?
EF: Yes, she used to give the Fellows ties because there were no women Fellows.
AS: Why were there no women Fellows? [Laughs]
EF: Because women weren’t serious about these things. They were going to have babies and get married. Well, no – get married and have babies! [Laughs.] This was not an age when people thought of having babies and then getting married. I think it was just her feeling that the Fellows at Oxford were all men, so the Fellows at Dumbarton Oaks would be men. This was a story that I cannot substantiate, but it is such a good story I have to tell you. When I first went to the University of Minnesota, the Byzantinist was Carl Sheppard who had had a fellowship here at Dumbarton Oaks in, I think, 1948. He was one of the early Fellows. He was an art historian. And of course Sheila McNally joined that department, but Carl and Sheila overlapped a bit. But Carl said, “You know that Mrs. Bliss – she was really formidable.” And I said, “Oh, I never met her.” He said, “You know, the Fellows were all men,” and I said, “Oh.” “And they weren’t supposed to be married.” And I said, “Well what happened? Did anyone ever get married?” “Oh, yes,” he said, “I got married the summer before my fellowship. I had gotten married after it was already granted, but I wasn’t married when it was granted and then we got married that summer and we came as a couple to Dumbarton Oaks. Mrs. Bliss was furious. She said, ‘What, he has a wife? Well we can’t put them in the Fellows Building. Clean out the snake house, they can live there.’” Now I never saw the snake house and I don’t know. You’d have to do some inquiring among some people who know the grounds better than I about if there was a snake house. It should have been down over there somewhere. I don’t know, over there. There were some little buildings. I remember seeing their roofs. But that was never open to the public and I was the public, so I don’t know.
JNSL: So what do you see as the Blisses’ legacy here at Dumbarton Oaks, just from what you’ve heard in stories and, you know.
EF: Oh, you know I think that they had very good lawyers and they had a very good sense that the humanities were not going to be in the central position of American academic life and that Byzantine studies was not going to be in the central position of academic life and that they needed to protect the collection, both the museum collection and the books. They had a very good will drawn up. There was a rumor that went around, and I don’t know if it’s true, that in 1942 when the Blisses drew up their will, it looked like the Nazis may capture the southern part of the United States. And a friend of mine who used to work for the OSS before it was the CIA told me that that was something that people talked about. It was very bad in 1942. The will was written so that the collection couldn’t be moved to Harvard unless this Washington would be occupied by a foreign power, but I’m not sure. I’ve never seen the will. I don’t know if that’s true. There was talk in the late 1960s that Dumbarton Oaks would be moved up to Cambridge and that this would be turned into a kind of a place for, I don’t know, government studies or something – I don’t know, something like that. And Giles Constable was director at the time and said, “I have no intention to preside over the demise of Dumbarton Oaks.” So, I really don’t know about that story. At the time people said, they can’t move it because of the will. But that’s what people down here were saying they were desperate for it not to move. And it didn’t. And I think the Blisses’ legacy of the symposia has been important. I don’t know how that will evolve through the years, but the idea of a place where people who are at the top of their profession met to exchange ideas and stimulate one another and to allow others to participate in that was important. The fact that they secured this space for it to happen in and the resources to support it is their legacy, and a very important one. Its much more important than “This was my bedroom.” And “Put them in the snake house.” That’s just tittle-tattle. It doesn’t matter. But there’s serious dedication to not only the beautiful objects – because a lot of people are dedicated to beautiful objects and you can read about those people, and they’re kind of notorious. But the Blisses believed in the scholarship to support the understanding of those objects and that was the fact of the library. And that was the fact of scholars and the fact of the Fellows. I think that acknowledgement of a living tradition through the objects, the books, to understand them and the ability of people to interface with those things and with one another, that was very important. I don’t know of another place like it.
AS: What was your perception of their decision to combine pre-Columbian studies and garden and landscape architecture with Byzantine studies?
EF: Oh, it’s fine with me.
AS: Was there a lot of interaction with the other departments?
EF: Oh yeah. There was a man in 1991 named Norris Johnson, who was a Garden Fellow. He did Japanese gardens. We had wonderful conversations – just about, I don’t know, landscape and life. I feel that’s an important part of literature, that interaction between physical environment and people, humans, who mediate it through literature. And I found Norris Johnson had a very stimulating intellect. Also, there was a woman that year named Rebecca. I think she was University of Virginia, that may not be right. I was working on some gloss at the time and I had encountered a section in the oration of the Blachernae that I was editing where Psellos quoted himself, and it was quite extensive. I just happened upon this quote and I couldn’t understand it. I said to Westerink, what’s going on? He’s quoted himself exactly. And Westerink said, “He could have had his own work on his desk and copied it out.” So, I was telling Rebecca about this, and she was a Garden Fellow. She said, “Well, you know some people have embarrassingly retentive verbal memories.” And I said, what do you mean? She said, “I find that I have to be very careful when I write because I read something and take notes on it, and then I go to write an article and incorporate the material, you know, that I had taken notes on.” She didn’t copy out a photocopy or something. But she said, “I’ll just find the words fall in a certain way and that’s a perfect way to express it.” And then she said that she would find that she had inadvertently quoted a source that she had read a year ago, and it’s just in there. And she had to be really careful. I think that the medieval had that same people. She didn’t cultivate hers. She didn’t want it, because it could get you in trouble for plagiarism. But I think medieval people had the same ability we do and don’t cultivate, but they did cultivate it. But someone like Psellos who said he memorized the Iliad and the Odyssey, he had that ability, you know, for a really retentive verbal memory. And I think I sort of discounted things he would say, like “I memorized the Iliad and the Odyssey.” I would think, sure. Tell me another one, pull another one. But that experience talking to her, just over lunch – we were sitting right over there in the lunch room at the time – really opened my eyes and made me think of human capacities that I hadn’t thought about. And pre-Columbians – I’ve enjoyed talking to them. I formed a good friendship when I had my last fellowship with Liz, who is another parrot person – not really, but she works in Central America. I found their work with the NEH – they had a fellowship meeting about getting NEH fellowships. That’s not very different from my colleagues who work in archeology – in Bronze Age and Classical archeology. So, I found that very interesting. So, yes, I think it’s a fruitful exchange, and I never have been conscious that the programs were in combat or competition. Maybe they are, I don’t know.
EG: What was your social life like here, both in the 1990s and more recently? – typical day to day activities?
EF: Not at all typical. Because you remember that I live here. And so my – I had two lives. I had my friends here in Washington. I was married in 1991 and my late husband and I were both readers here. I had the life I would have had just on my own, except I got to use Dumbarton Oaks more regularly. And I had a desk and got to meet Yildiz “Ötüken, who became a very good friend – a Byzantine archeologist. Three of us – my husband, who was fluent in Turkish, Yildiz and I had wonderful times together in 1991-2. I can more or less define my social life. If I wanted to invite people over, I could. I didn’t have to live with them. They were at the time living up on Wisconsin Avenue in the apartment buildings, which were not entirely desirable, I think.
JNSL: This is before La Quercia.
EF: Yeah, and I think you would just get such different impressions of social life at Dumbarton Oaks from the people who lived here in different years. I think you have to honor that. I had just another life, you know, in Washington. I can walk from my apartment to Dumbarton Oaks, and that’s always been a good thing. In 1991-2 when I was married, I would go home and have dinner. I would have lunch here. I gained about ten pounds. I thought, that’s got to end.
JNSL: Were there activities for all the Fellows to participate in? Christmas parties –
EF: Oh yes. That’s true. There were the activities like Christmas parties. That I remember well. And I remember there in 1991, my other life conflicted with this one. I had arranged to go and serve at Christ House, which is a facility for the homeless in Adams Morgan, and I couldn’t substitute, so I had to miss the Christmas party. I heard about it, and I thought, this is the most bizarre contrast on Washington, you know. Dinner at the homeless facility in Adams Morgan versus the Christmas party at Dumbarton Oaks. I understand they had tiny éclairs, and I love tiny éclairs. I didn’t get any. And of course, the symposium. In 1991-2, we didn’t have these colloquia that they have now. That was something that I really enjoyed in 2007-8. I think that there were almost too many opportunities for lectures and so forth that we needed to get our work done in 2007-8, and it was almost too much. Do we need to stop, Jeanne-Nicole? I don’t mean to be voluble.
JNSL: Ten more minutes.
JNSL: Do you have any – who were some of the most unique characters that you met here? – almost quirky, or quirky memories. Anything funny or peculiar that you recall from Dumbarton Oaks? – people, stories, parties? You mentioned the library.
EF: Oh! That’s true. Well, I remember Kazhdan, you know, sitting in his office and reading with books on his nose, practically, because he was so near-sighted. And then he had a corneal transplant, I think. And suddenly he didn’t have to wear glasses. And his life was just transformed. That was miraculous, really. All his life, he had been so near-sighted and suddenly this was transformed. I remember that Jakov Ljubarskij had a heart attack in the year that we were Fellows. And of course this was frightening. And he had Dumbarton Oaks on his Kaiser Permanente healthcare, I think. So, they did a bypass and it was either triple or, I’m not sure. It was a major bypass surgery. We would go and visit him at Georgetown hospital, and I remember he was kind of groggy, and he said, “Shall we waltz around my hospital room, Elizabeth?” And I said, not yet, Jakov. Later! [Laughs} But he said to me, you know, I never could have had this operation in the Soviet Union. That was 1991-2 and it was not yet what it is now. I don’t know what it is now. But anyway, he said, I could never have had that operation. Even though he needed it desperately – it saved his life. I said, “Why not? Don’t they know how to do it?” So dumb. He said, “Well, it’s for high party members and people like that.” He was at the pinnacle of Byzantine studies in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union honored Byzantine studies, and so does Russia, in a way that we don’t here. But he said that it wouldn’t have been available. I think that – I don’t know the circumstances of his death, but I know that a bypass lives about five years and he didn’t live much longer than that. I remember when – let me get this right. Kazhdan had brought his History of Byzantine Literature to a certain point, and a number of us were asked to read it. Is this right? And – yes, I think this is right. And so they circulated an electronic copy, and I remember Littlewood was there and Duffy and Browning was given a copy – and Ljubarskij. He presided over. This was just a kind of discussion over the directions where the History of Byzantine Literature should go. I felt so privileged to get a copy of that because the sections, for instance, on the aristocracy in the sixth century were just brilliant. I used them with classes, they were wonderful. But we met and Ljubarskij presided over this gathering and it was announced that Robert Browning couldn’t come. He had died. It was so fast. We were all shocked. But Ljubarskij presided, and he had a nervous habit of cleaning his eyeglasses when he was nervous. I first noticed it when we were Fellows together and he was giving his Fellows report and he was cleaning his eyeglasses nervously, but he didn’t have a tissue in his hand, so he was sort of rubbing them just worse and worse and worse [laughing.] But he presided over that. There was something of a pall over the gathering because of Robert Browning’s absence. And then of course a year later, I remember it so well – May 29th. I was in the old mail room over in the old house and Kazhdan came in and said, “Here’s the History of Byzantine Literature. I’m sending it off.” And I looked at him and thought wow! And he said, “I put an article on your shelf that I want you to fix the English for me.” Well, I mean his English was fine, but he didn’t think it was a native speaker’s English, and it wasn’t. So, I would do that sometimes. So, I went home and the next day I heard that he had gone to the swimming pool and that he had collapsed at the pool and died. And Stamatina was with him – Stamatina McGrath. And then, you know, people came. His funeral was very stark because his son is very orthodox and they did it exactly correctly by an orthodox funeral. So, I remember they couldn’t speak of the dead, and his son had to wear exactly what he was wearing when he heard the news with a tear just over the left pocket and they couldn’t look at us or speak to us. Kazhdan’s grandchildren could, and did, and that was good. And Ševčenko spoke, and Alice-Mary. It was very hard to say goodbye to Kazhdan. He was such a presence at Dumbarton Oaks.
JNSL: I think that’s a very appropriate place to end our conversation. And I want to thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your memories. We’re very grateful.
EF: You’re very welcome. It was a pleasure. Thank you all.