Marie Spiro

Oral History Interview with Marie Spiro, undertaken by Jean-Nicole Saint-Laurent, Elizabeth Gettinger, and Anne Steptoe in the Guest House (Fellows’ Building) at Dumbarton Oaks on July 28, 2009. At Dumbarton Oaks, Spiro was a Junior Fellow in Byzantine Studies between 1970 and 1972.

JNSL: Today is Tuesday July 28, 2009. My name is Jean-Nicole Saint-Laurent.

AS: I'm Anne Steptoe.

EG: And I'm Elizabeth Gettinger.

JNSL: And we have the privilege today – we are here at Dumbarton Oaks, to interview Miss Marie Spiro. Good morning.

MS: Good morning.

AS: I think you first came to Dumbarton Oaks as a Junior Fellow in 1970.

MS: Good, I'm glad you furnished the date.

AS: Was that your first interaction with Dumbarton Oaks?

MS: No, no, no. I had come – we'll probably get into it – you had a magnificent photographic archives, archives of mosaics collected by Professor Irving Lavin of the Institute of Advanced Study, and I had taken a seminar with him and had decided then that my – that I would write my dissertation on great mosaics. And so, I'm fluent in Greek. And so, I was, I came down here to use the files, to use the library, and to meet Ernst Kitzinger for the first time. So, this is not the first time. And in 1970 I was in – 1970 they established a program with Ernst, Irving – Irving Lavin – and Frank Brown, who was the Director of the Academy in Rome, to begin studying the mosaics in Tunisia, and they wanted me to be part of it, and I said, “No, I will not give up the second half of my fellowship.” And Ernst was a little bit taken aback, and he said, “What would happen if we gave you a second year?” And I think I was the last one to ever have two years, or one and a half year of fellowships. And so I left for Tunisia, and then I came back for my second year, working both on the Tunisian mosaics as well as the Greek mosaics. And then the second year – I mean, Dumbarton Oaks is a sacred place as far as I'm concerned, and always will be, because for the second year somebody called me up from the University of Maryland and asked me if I was interested in a job for the following year in the Art History Department, and I said, “Well, you don't have any plans, Marie,” and I drove out there and was hired and stayed there until I retired around three years ago – and then continued to use the library because it was the only library that had both the visual material that I needed, the field notes of Irving, as well as the books. And it took me quite some time to finish my dissertation because I worked on a hundred and something mosaics in Greece. You have a copy of my – it was published by Garland – and I donated all of my photographs, copies of my photographs, to build up the archives here, and so I've been coming back and forth, back and forth until I developed this back problem, but it's being handled.

EG: So, what were your first impressions of Dumbarton Oaks when you first came here?

MS: Stuffy, very stuffy, but I went to a stuffy graduate school, the Institute of Fine Arts, and that was stuffy too, but we had a wonderful group of people, excellent, John Duffy, John Nesbitt, and – you know, I can't remember the others, and we all sat – you know that big room near the Founders Room? Well, that was a study place for us, and John smoked, I smoked, and there was a Greek, who was gay –

AS: Ioli Kalavrezou?

MS: No, no, no, a male, John something. I'm driving up, I was trying to think, and he smoked, and so we just had a wonderful time, it was a very congenial group, and we used to go down to Georgetown, but to a cigar shop right near Nathan's.

EG: It's still there.

MS: It's still there? Well, we used to go in there and buy cigarillos, whenever we could afford it, but it was all – it was stuffy, but by that time Ernst had left and it was the first year of Bill Loerke. Is he still alive?

JNSL: Yes.

MS: He is, and he was a little bit insecure and therefore much more flexible so we had a wonderful time, we really did, and it was a very congenial group, but it's – I look less at this whole experience from the point of view of a social environment and more of an intellectual environment, and it was incredible, an incredible opportunity, and I remember my second year, so that would have been ’71–’72, right? When they, we were interviewed since we were in this big room, somebody from Harvard came, an arrogant man came and said to us, “Well, you know, we're thinking of closing Dumbarton Oaks,” and he said, “It's not cost effective, it's not cost effective, and we're taking the museum up,” I think that's what he said, “and no more research, you can do your research at Harvard,” and we really let into him, saying that “you don't understand what this place represents, next time send a representative who knows something, who's had more experience,” and I told him that I would get as many members of the Board of Trustees involved to make sure that doesn't happen, and it didn't happen for one reason, and one reason only: Joseph Alsop. You've heard all this, haven't you?

AS: We've heard his name in reference to saving Dumbarton Oaks in the ’70s, but I wonder if you could –

MS: He did. He pulled out all his little dirty stories that he had and threatened a massive publication campaign because he wrote for the Washington Post, and I think – now I never spoke to him personally, because he preferred to speak to men, but I had heard that once they heard that Joe Alsop was involved, then Harvard started just moving away, moving away, because they wanted the money, what was it? A fifty million dollar, I think, estate, even at that time it was tremendous, this is what they wanted, and it didn't happen and we were all very happy about that.

AS: This person that you spoke to was someone from the administration?

MS: Pardon me?

AS: The Harvard official was someone from the administration who came down?

MS: It was never clarified, because we said, “Who are you? Who are you?” “Never mind, never mind. I represent Harvard.” He was about my height and I always feel that men shouldn't be about my height, and so we were looking at each other eye to eye and then the others joined in as well, and – but there was a very, very distinct move to close the whole place.

EG: There was no one here at the time that you ever heard of who was in favor of moving?

MS: No, no. Wait a minute, there were one or two who liked the idea of being offered an opportunity to go up to work at Harvard, because they felt that it would be more important to have that on their CV than Dumbarton Oaks Center of Byzantine Studies or whatever, but there were one or two. But that was quickly – they dropped it once they realized that they were in the minority. What other questions do you have?

EG: Could you tell us a little bit about what daily life was like when you were a Junior Fellow here, where you lived and where you ate?

MS: We lived in the Fellows’ Building, ate in the Fellows’ Building. They had – they gave us three meals a day. This is one of the reasons John and I opted for – when we compared notes, we didn't want to have to worry about feeding ourselves and not only that, the propinquity of the library, and the library closed at twelve, so we could work very late at night, and it was a wonderful experience, not only because we were cared for, but because all the visiting scholars were given rooms in the Fellows Building. Does that still happen?

JNSL: It depends, because we have La Quercia now, where the Fellows live, and then some people, the visiting scholars will live in the cottage here and some people, there, in different locations.

MS: It was nice to have dinner with Momigliano, with Paul Lemerle – he and I would talk about mosaics all the time because he worked in Greece, and with others. It was an incredible experience, because we had cocktails and then we had dinner and all these scholars who would work all day and could unwind with a cocktail or two and then have dinner, it was wonderful, and they didn't know where to put me, because I was the only female, so they gave me – I had a wing to myself, and my own bathroom. I think the room is still up there, and then the second year they said, “We may have to move you,” and I said, “Then I won't come back. I'm not going to share a communal bathroom.” So, they listened to me, but the cooperation on the part of everyone in the administration and also the – Ernst, Ihor Ševčenko, Cyril Mango was here, and he and I would have long chats about mosaics. I don't know if you still display some of the mosaic drawings that he made.

EG: I'm not sure.

AS: I've never seen those.

MS: They're wonderful, absolutely wonderful, primarily from Saint Sophia, tessera by tessera by tessera, and I said, “Cyril! How'd you do that?” “Patience, patience, patience.” They were all very, very good, and I think Professor Loerke was a little bit intimidated by them, because – had Cyril been a former director of Dumbarton Oaks, or Ševčenko?

AS: Ševčenko was Director of Studies for a while.

MS: Yeah, and Tyler. Tyler was the director of Dumbarton Oaks and he was incredibly busy. He created a tone, a very aristocratic tone, and his father was involved with Dumbarton Oaks, as well, so that there was continuity throughout and then once they started focusing on building up the photographic archives and visual resources archives, then we started getting people who were involved in archaeology as well, archaeological material, which I think is very important, not because I was, but because it adds another dimension to the study of late Roman through Byzantine art, so it was very good. Any other questions?

EG: If we could return for a second to the talk of a sort of aristocratic side of Dumbarton Oaks. You would have arrived, I think, just after Mrs. Bliss had passed away, but I'm sure her presence was still very much felt on the campus.

MS: Every time we have tea – do they have tea now?

JNSL: It's just being restored under – Alice-Mary has just retired, Alice-Mary Talbot, and Margaret Mullett has – and she has re-instituted the teas.

MS: Good, it was wonderful, and everyone would say, “That's where Mrs. Bliss sat, and she had complete control of the conversation.” And if I heard it once, I heard it about twenty-five, thirty times. She had just died, as a matter of fact – you're right, I had forgotten that.

EG: You must have heard a lot of stories about her interactions with the scholars.

MS: That I have no recollection of, because I think she had died about four or five months before I arrived, and I don't take kindly to people who are dictators or what I heard she was. I kept on saying, “Well, why shouldn't she be, this is hers and her husband's.” I did hear about one of their last purchases that still has not been exhibited at Dumbarton Oaks. It's in the, some vault downstairs, a huge altarpiece, I think from Syria.

JNSL: What impact did your work here as a young scholar have throughout the rest of your career? How were those years formative for you in the long run?

MS: Well I kept on, I continued excavating in Tunisia from 1970 until around 1982–83, and then I was invited to – have you interviewed Ken Holum?

EG: Yes, yesterday.

MS: Oh, isn't that funny. Then he and I were invited to excavate at Caesarea, and I was the only female on the – it was fun. The other one, the Tunisian excavations, the leader was Margaret Alexander, who is now dead, but she was a former Dumbarton Oaks Fellow, and when she died, Christine Kondoleon, Anna Gonosova, and I said, “We've got to get the material out of her house since Dumbarton Oaks was a sponsor of the excavation, we've got to get everything to Dumbarton Oaks. Photographs, black and white photographs, negatives, all the field notes are here,” because I was worried that the University of Iowa would take over, especially the visual materials, so you have a complete record of the work that she did, that we did in Tunisia, and I don't know if Ken, if any – has Ken donated anything from Caesarea?

JNSL: He didn't bring that up, but I'm not sure.

MS: Well I'll ask him, because a lot of the material is late Roman through the eighth century, and I just finished a book with two others on a synagogue in Caesarea and I want to donate a copy – who do I see about donating a copy?

JNSL: The librarian in Byzantine studies is Deborah Stewart.

MS: I'll call her up, see if you accept books anymore, but so I continued in the – and I was rather exceptional at that time because art historians rarely went to archaeology, usually you find the historians, perhaps the numismatists, but not the art historian. As a result, I have trained students in the field because I got money for them from the University to excavate in Tunisia and in Caesarea. So, it continued up until my last year, taking the students, teaching them how to excavate, teaching them the importance of found objects and holding them. I'm giving my whole collection of mosaic fragments to, not to the University of Maryland in College Park, but to UMBC [University of Maryland Baltimore County], because they're building a whole wing and they promised me that everything I give them – I have at least thirty-five to forty pieces of mosaic pavement – they promised me that the students will have access to these pieces and be able to touch them, to study them and to learn what it's like to work with material. I'm giving them all my pots. I don't know how many shards I have, other things.

AS: I wonder with your archaeological background if you could talk a little bit about, as you know, Dumbarton Oaks has moved away from archaeological projects in its focus. You know there used to be someone in charge, the Director of Studies would run fieldwork and administrate that – and that really is no longer the case. I mean, D.O. gives grants for fieldwork for individuals but doesn't really run projects. I wonder, as someone who was here when that was changing, what you think about that.

MS: I think they should go back to having somebody at Dumbarton Oaks lead excavations. I – isn't something happening in the Pre-Columbian section?

JNSL: Oh yes.

MS: I think they're much more advanced now. Who is the Director? I can't remember her name.

JNSL: Joanne Pillsbury.

MS: Yeah, well she was an archaeologist, I think, also, and I think that we should continue to do this in Byzantine studies, I really do. You scratch the surface and you find something, and it's, as I said, the hands-on experience just complements the research that students and scholars do. It's very important, very, very important. And I don't know how many Americans now would be able to lead a Dumbarton Oaks sponsored dig. I know there are Brits all over, I shouldn't say Brits, I say this with affection, and I've said it in front of them, that the Brits have an awful lot of people and they're awfully competent and I think it should be restored, I think there's – money should be set aside for that.

AS: Is there a benefit to having a project or a dig led by Dumbarton Oaks as opposed to Dumbarton Oaks giving grants, which they still do?

MS: Well that – giving grants is an easy way of getting the publicity but not doing the work, and I think it should be Dumbarton Oaks sponsored, not only sponsored but sponsored in a big way by having the leader, the administrative leader and the head archaeologist involved with Dumbarton Oaks, I really do.

AS: And that was the case with the Tunisia project?

MS: Yes. I mean, we had the three of them, we used to call them the Holy Trinity, visit us once a year in Tunisia going over everything and Ersnt was – Frank Brown and Irving Lavin were interested in the country and travel, we used to take them here or there. Ernst was interested in the texts, head down to the museum, “Why do you say this, why do you say that?” But it was very useful, and it was a wonderful, wonderful group, and very important, very, very important, and equally important was that each of them had a very important name in – Frank Brown in archaeology, being the Director of the American Academy in Rome, Irving having written one of the seminal articles on floor mosaics and at the Institute for Advanced Study, and Ersnt Kitzinger at Dumbarton Oaks, so it opened up a lot of doors, where permits – they would have thought about the permits, they could not reject us because they realized that we were extraordinarily legitimate and they wanted this legitimacy and they also knew that we would not take the material and run, which is very important to Arab – everyone in every country. When I was doing my research in Greece, thank God I spoke Greek, and thank God I had Irving Lavin as my mentor and supervisor – doors are opened where there is legitimacy, where the people are known, because they know there won't be this, dig, run, dig, run, dig, run. And the reason I have all these pieces of mosaic – I mean I had a hand, I have an eye, I have decorative patterns – is because I told, primarily from Israel, I told them that I would be using all this material in my coursework, and then they gave up. I mean, they weren't part of a recognizable floor, they would be used as subfloors, broken up mosaics, and they would stick, because they were well made, as support for a later floor. If Dumbarton Oaks became involved, it would be wonderful, really, it would be, I think, not only wonderful, but a significant contribution to scholarship in archaeology.

EG: Well, in 1972 you left Dumbarton Oaks but remained a local, just going over to Maryland, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about interactions as a local person in subsequent years?

MS: I used the library all the time. I used the library and the visual resources library, and –

JNSL: Did you attend symposia?

MS: Oh, yes, I tried to get to this symposium because of Sharon Gerstel, and I had forgotten that she was the symposiarch, and I was told it was completely full, so I had to go, “Sharon, I can't make it!” That's another thing, I'm glad I brought her up. When I was at the University of Maryland I kept on saying we need a Byzantinist, we need a Byzantinist, and Henry and I, I think we both put our heads together – there was a program – is there still a program of Dumbarton Oaks supporting a scholar, a teacher?

JNSL: Yes, it's always fluid, these things. There's new types of sponsorships and support, joint appointments, for instance, Stratis Papaioannou is a joint appointment with Brown and at Dumbarton Oaks, and they have – it's changing a lot.

MS: Oh, good. Sharon was absolutely fantastic. I heard from Alice-Mary when I saw her about two months ago that when she left – isn't there a paper that they sign that they would continue to maintain that slot after a person leaves?

JNSL: That I don't know.

AS: I don't think, I think it's the sort of thing that's put down in good faith and then some universities follow through. There seems to be about a fifty percent –

MS: Alice-Mary said that my former department did refuse to do anything about it, but there should be some kind of agreement in writing, if I may suggest, that once the affiliation begins that it continues, because I think it's a coup, and Sharon got three graduate students and they – each one has received his own Ph.D. – I think it's very, very important, and I would push that also, at the University of Maryland, but I know that there are budget difficulties now, there's no hiring of any kind, but once there is an agreement then it should be followed in perpetuity, anyway.

EG: Have you noticed over the time of your affiliation with Dumbarton Oaks any significant changes in the place in terms of the academic life or the physical layout of it?

MS: Yes, I like that building, I really do, I think it's fantastic, although it's hard for me to walk down the hill. I think the library system is more open now, which I think is very good, very important, and I think that as – is the visual resource center – we called it the visual resource center. What do you call it, where all the files are kept?

JNSL: Images and Archives

MS: Okay. Images and Archives collection. I was sorry to see that Natalia is no longer there because she was quite good and very cooperative, I felt, and we dumped on her the Alexander collection and she took it with a smile, which is very good. I think it's the greater flexibility, the greater openness that has impressed me. The security awes me because we never had anything like that, but I think it's very necessary, but it's just easier now to do research because of the availability of all the duplicating machines, etcetera, etcetera, and well something like this, I don't think anybody would have thought about it. Have you come across the photographs of each year?

JNSL: No.

MS: You don't know about the photographs?

JNSL: From the Byzantine, from the symposium?

MS: No. Photographs were taken at least, when I was here, photographs were taken of the Junior and Senior Fellows with the Director, so there's a whole photographic record of who was here when, and it was nice to see that, we all got copies, but still, I can't think of any other place that equals the – that equals Dumbarton Oaks, I really cannot. There may be places that try to pretend, but none, they're not really.

AS: Speaking of changes, you've been around for the addition of colloquia to symposia in the sort of academic goings on of Dumbarton Oaks, and you've been involved in colloquia, I think.

MS: Have I?

AS: I think maybe you've given a paper at one, or I could be wrong in that.

MS: Oh, we had to give papers as Junior Fellows, we had to give papers once a year on what we were working on, but I haven't, I don't think so, as a matter of fact, I was thinking of establishing – what is the name of the new director?

JNSL: Margaret Mullett.

MS: Mullett, I don't know why her name is familiar. Was she a Fellow?

JNSL: Oh yes.

MS: That must be – of suggesting a colloquium on mosaics, I don't think there's ever been one, and there are enough people now – have you interviewed Irina Andreescu?

AS: Not yet. Where is she?

MS: She was at the University of South Florida, but then her husband – I think she met her husband here, as a matter of fact – whoopee! – then he got a position in the mid-west or someplace like that, and it – how many foreign students do you have? I mean, not scholars, juniors.

JNSL: We had this past year, both among the Fellows, among the regular Fellows and the Junior Fellows, it was all European except for me.

MS: Except for you? Did you feel isolated?

JNSL: No, I enjoyed it.

MS: That's wonderful, that's very, very good.

JNSL: It's always been that way.

MS: What does that indicate?

EG: Not a lot of Americans studying Byzantine –

JNSL: I think it depends. I think that's not necessarily always the case. There's always a strong international presence here, but it's not exclusively so.

MS: Well, I think the more international presence the better, quite frankly, but I am concerned, the reason I brought it up was that I'm concerned with what is happening to Byzantine studies in the United States, unless they're just not sending their students – that doesn't make sense. Maybe there aren't that many, as many professors as there used to be. I studied with Krautheimer, the biggest Byzantine architectural historian. I did my master's degree with him and he was a terror but very nice, and he had students who came here. Margaret Alexander was one of his students who came here, then I came here and there were – Henry, Institute of Fine Arts – I'm just pinpointing certain academic units that furnished – where did you get, where did you study?

JNSL: University of Notre Dame and Brown University.

MS: Oh, very nice. I gave a lecture at Brown on mosaics, but there is something wrong, something that's amiss, I shouldn't say wrong, in the United States in Byzantine studies – with whom did you study at Notre Dame?

JNSL: Brian Daley.

MS: Oh, yes.

JNSL: And Joseph Amar, Blake Leyerle, more on the late antique side.

MS: Well, don't apologize, if you think that's the most interesting side, that's very, very good, and I think people are beginning to move a little more towards the earlier periods – but who's at Columbia? Well, Tom Matthews, but he was at the Institute but now he's retired, and that wonderful Turkish woman [Orgu Dalgic] –

EG: Garsoian?

JNSL: She's Armenian. Nina Garsoian?

MS: No, I took a course with her, she was marvelous, absolutely marvelous. No, who gave a lecture on mosaics around four, five months ago, Tom Matthew's student. You probably didn't attend it because it was on mosaics. She was studying mosaics in Istanbul.

JNSL: Ah yes, she's here now as a joint appointment at Catholic University.

MS: Oh she is?

JNSL: She got that position.

MS: She got that position, good. Do me a favor, would you write down her name for me, because I want to contact her. I have some material I'd like her to see. That's very, very good, good. Alright, anything else? I've wandered a little bit.

AS: Well, I think you've answered the questions we wanted to ask. I wonder if, in summary, you might talk, following up on your last couple of statements, talk about the role of Dumbarton Oaks in the field of Byzantine studies and whether you see that changing or if it should change in the future?

MS: I think it should change in terms of supporting archaeological activities and I would speak to the Director of the Pre-Columbian Collection, I really would, since she's had so much experience. I would try to find out, and perhaps you can with this oral research, how many professors are teaching late Roman through Byzantine in the United States, to find out what's going on, what's going wrong. An awful lot of professors are going into the modern field. My department at Maryland didn't replace me, didn't replace Sharon, didn't replace the medieval professor, and didn't replace the Northern European specialist, and all, and this was during a period of affluence, and all the people were, who were hired, were in the modern fields. Is that one of the reasons? How many joint appointments does Dumbarton Oaks have?

JNSL: Right now?

EG: There are the five Dumbarton Oaks professorships at Harvard that are all currently filled.

MS: John, Ioli, right? And then three others.

EG: And then, Gary Urton, Thomas Cummins, and, oh, I guess Jan has one of them.

JNSL: And then Stratis Papaioannou at Brown. They've been considering one with Notre Dame in Theology, but that hasn't been filled, but that was explored.

MS: That would be wonderful. That would, it's always been a snobbism that it has to go to an appropriate college or university, and to hear about – I think they broke the mold when they appointed Sharon and supported Sharon at the University of Maryland, but I think that's where one focus should be, to spread out a little bit more into smaller colleges, less well known colleges. I think that if Dumbarton Oaks were to close, I think it would be a catastrophe for Byzantine studies. I hate to be that dramatic, but I really believe that. It would be a catastrophe.

EG: Thank you for coming. Did we leave anything out or forget anything?

MS: If I think, I'll email you. I don't think so, I just think it's a wonderful place.

JNSL: We're grateful for the opportunity to have this conversation with you today. Thank you so much.

MS: You're quite welcome.

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