ABF: We are Anna Bonnell-Freiden and Clem Wood, and we have the great pleasure of interviewing Professor Michael McCormick at his house, August 13, 2008, about his relationship with Dumbarton Oaks over the years. So, we’d like to begin by asking you about how you first came to Dumbarton Oaks.
MM: I believe that I applied there once and didn’t get a Junior Fellowship. So, when I came there first I was just employed – or I was about to be employed and didn’t know it. I had just finished my Ph.D. at the University of Louvain in Belgium, at the Institut d'Études Médiévales, and was quite discouraged about the possibility of ever coming back to America. It was a very dire year. It was ’79, and I believe that, that year, there was one job advertised in North America in late antique, medieval and Byzantine history or art history – and it was this job. And I learned about it quite by accident, because my doctoral mentor had gone to Kalamazoo and was trying to carry my dissertation – two volumes – and was trying to show it to people there, and was quite discouraged by what they told him. But he met Walter Goffart there, with whom I had worked when I was at the University of Toronto. And, Goffart got the announcement of the joint appointment, which was started, I think – set up at the last moment, approved at the last moment – between Johns Hopkins Department of History or Art History and Dumbarton Oaks and sent it to Jennie Coe. I was in Italy, working on manuscripts there, and happened to – someone called me and told me. So, we cobbled together an application. I was coming home to see my mom anyways. I said, “I was going to be in the U.S.; I’d be happy to interview.” I went, and had a day-and-a-half or two days of interviews at Johns Hopkins; and at the end of that, my host, John Baldwin, who was the senior medievalist, drove me to the train station and said, “Michael, it’s been wonderful to meet you, but you’re never going to get a job at Johns Hopkins, and you’re not going to get a job in America, probably, because with your kind of scholarship, you really aren’t prepared to teach American students. It’s just going to be very, very hard. We love your work, we admire you a lot, but you’d better stay in Europe.” So, I was like, [laughing] “Fine. This makes it easy for the second half of the interviews, at Dumbarton Oaks.” So, I was very relaxed, and I walked into Dumbarton Oaks, and it was just like being back in Europe. The interview committee was Giles Constable and Herb Kessler, Alexander Kazhdan – I don’t know if Peter Topping – Peter Topping may have been on it. He certainly – I recall meeting with him afterwards, I think it was that occasion, and talking with him. And the whole thing was just quite remarkable for me; because I thought that there was no chance for this job. John Baldwin is a wonderful man. I love him dearly; he’s grown – became one of my dearest friends. He’s always been a strong and staunch supporter and helper; but he believes in telling you exactly the way things look, to him – and that was undoubtedly an accurate read. So, I was quite relaxed. I learned the night before who was going to be on the committee. Last I’d heard, Alexander Kazhdan was in the Soviet Union. And I had learned Russian, such as it is, to be able to read Kazhdan. His work was so fundamental and really so transformative. There were things being published in the Soviet Union, but basically pre-revolutionary scholarship and the very early revolutionary scholarship, and then Kazhdan, were the sole reasons for learning Russian – aside from pleasure and its beautiful literature. And so I learned to read Russian and do that. And then, all of a sudden, there he was in the director’s office. I was overwhelmed. So, I had the interviews and such, and that was quite an experience – I enjoyed it and I felt like I was very much at home: the way they thought, the scholarship, the library, everything. I mean, this was a milieu that – this was not dissimilar from the University of Louvain in many respects. I was kind of sad that nothing else was going to come of it, but I was really happy to meet all these people and be at Dumbarton Oaks, this great place of scholarship that I had heard so much about; and I got to use the library (I was working on a little article, so I got to work right away). And then, at the end, when I went to say goodbye to Giles Constable and thank him, he offered me the job. [laughing] I was quite shocked, as you can imagine, and quite pleased. However, I have – how candid should I be here?
MM: Okay. I come from a family, an Irish Erie Canal family. We had boats on the Erie Canal. My father, my uncles were all raised as canallers, driving mules on the canal. The canal went down the tubes, and they had to find new jobs. One of my uncles, who’s a very gifted guy, went off and helped found a new industry called management consulting [laughing]. I stayed at his house the night before I came down for the interviews, and he said, “Now, if they ever offer you the job, don’t take it.” [laughing] I said, “What?” He said, “Tell them you have to think about it. Tell them it’s great, and it’s wonderful, but you have to think about it; and see if it doesn’t do anything for the salary.” I was shocked. I’ve never told Giles this, but I looked at Giles and said, “This is the best news I’ve ever heard in my life, but it’s also the biggest decision I’ve ever – I’ll ever have to make in my life. Can I think about this? I’ll have to get back to you.” So, I went home and went back and told my mother – my father had died the year before, and I had wanted very much to come home to the United States to help – to look after my mother and my younger brother, who was still in college, I think, at this time. So, it looked like I was coming home, so that was great. Then I went back to Belgium and closed down my life there. I had a job, working on the Medieval Latin dictionary of Belgium; and I had to close it all down and start, because school was starting in two weeks. I came in August, for my vacation, and next thing you know, I was moving house, country, job, everything. So, I came to Dumbarton Oaks, and in the first days I was there, they arranged for me to be able to stay in the apartments they were then renting up the hill. We always called it by the number, but I forget what the number was.
ABF: I think there’s a new –
CW: Wisconsin –
MM: Yeah, up Wisconsin: 1610, or something like that. But the apartment wasn’t ready yet. There was some issue, so I stayed in the Fellows’ Building, with Irfan Shahîd and Mary, who had an apartment there at the time. And I had never seen heat like this. You know, there was no air conditioning. There was a giant fan, about the size of an airplane propeller.
ABF: This was, like, August?
MM: This is August, and it’s like 104 degrees. You know, you’re down there. Golly, it was amazing. Anyhow, that was interesting. And there was the pool, so that was great. I had to scramble. I had to get my classes ready for Hopkins, and so forth. My duties were – I was a research associate, was my formal title – my duties were a little bit unclear, but Giles – I forget exactly how it evolved, but basically, I think there was no Director of Studies; or Alice-Mary was acting Director of Studies and came in once a week from Cleveland – was a later year, I don’t know, it all kind of blends together. But, I was the person who wound up being in charge of the Fellows, organizing the informal talks, chairing the informal talks, and trying to devise with Giles ways to liven up the intellectual life at D.O. That was really, I think, a formative – there were many aspects of life at Dumbarton Oaks in the ’80s, for me, that were really quite remarkable.
ABF: And you were also teaching, right?
MM: I was also teaching. Yes, yes. I was also teaching. I used to say, “I’ve got this great job. I’ve got two jobs, you know, each supposedly half-time. I work 80% of the time on one and 80% of the time for the other, and the rest of the time is for me to work on writing my book, so I can get a permanent job.” It was a very short-term job. It was made perfectly clear, it was written on the contract, or on the letter of appointment, that it was non-tenure track and non-renewable – three years and you’re out. In fact, there were no benefits, even at the beginning; there was some follow-up on that, and they got that squared away – it was thrown together at the last minute. But, the salary did go up – from $16,000 to $18,000.
ABF: Now, what were the circumstances, do you know, under which this position was created?
MM: I believe that Giles was trying – Giles will have to confirm this and tell you more about it, because, of course it was all created before I got there – but, he was trying to build more of an intellectual community at Dumbarton Oaks by having more people in place. There were the departures that you know about. The other aspect was to try and build some links between Dumbarton Oaks and the local intellectual institutions, of which Johns Hopkins was perhaps the preeminent one, certainly one of the most eminent ones. So, he had worked with the chair of the History Department, I believe, Matt Walker, who was a Harvard Ph.D., a wonderful historian of early modern Germany, to help create this position. Whether it would wind up in the history department or art history, I believe, was unclear, depending on the candidates. It was one of several such positions created, I think, by Giles. One would have been with John Duffy, with the University of Maryland. Another was with the Georgetown University; and two of my peers had that job – Gary Vikan (he was full time at Dumbarton Oaks, I guess; he didn’t have a joint appointment) –
ABF: He also had a curatorial –
MM: That’s right. And, so Georgetown, they first had John Thomas, and then they had Frank Trombley. And John, I think, has left the field; he went to San Francisco and is working in software or something. And, Trombley finally got his act together and has some kind of appointment in Wales, and continues to work and publish. And, there were others along the way. So, jobs were very scarce at that time, so it was really just a wonderful, wonderful thing. I mean, it could have been hell, and I would have been happy – hell as long as it was in the United States and closer to home. And it was anything but hell – it was just marvelous. So, that was the first thing. I’ve often said to my students that being at Dumbarton Oaks in this period was very much like an extra graduate degree for me – like an extra doctorate, really. I had lunch every day with Alexander Kazhdan, Philip Grierson. Robert Browning came to join us after a few years; Bob van Nice, on a regular basis. John Callahan, who may not be the best-known person today, but who is one of the best specialists of Latin and Greek that I’ve encountered in my life, and who actually taught me much more – and I was blessed with a very strong philological training, starting in high school, through Louvain, and then two years at the University of Toronto – but Callahan taught me more about Latin and Greek and their relations to Indo-European, and it was really quite remarkable. And, then the people who were visiting there: the likes of David Jacoby, and Huygens, and Nicky Oikonomides – he had had a visiting appointment at Toronto when I was there, so he had actually been one of my advisers on my dissertation when I began it. At the beginning, in human terms, it was a difficult situation in some respects. As you may know, as I remember it, there was a lot of feeling in the field about Giles’ directorship which was not necessarily positive. And, it was a time, I think, that was probably the hardest that I can imagine that I have seen in my lifetime for young scholars, young academics. I remember vividly, since I was in charge of the Fellows and responsible for dealing with them and tried to spend – in fact I had to spend a lot of time with them – there was a fair bit of bitterness because more than one of the Junior Fellows at that time was actually on their last appointment, their last fellowship, and they knew it; and they would be leaving the field. So, psychologically, that is not an easy thing. Also, in those days, Dumbarton Oaks had larger numbers of Junior Fellows than I believe they do today. I was part of the decision to – certainly my opinion was canvassed on whether we should cut back on the numbers and try and do something to ensure we had a higher quality among the Junior Fellows, and a number of measures were devised to do that, including scaling back the number of Junior Fellowships and bringing people in for interviews, which I thought was absolutely fundamental – I don’t know why we don’t do it for graduate studies at Harvard, if we think about what we’re investing in terms of time and money; but that’s another issue. So, it was a difficult time for many, especially the young people there, and I think some of them were tempted to take it out on me. You know what it can be like in a small milieu; it can become a little unpleasant sometimes. Well, it was nothing major, and I’d certainly faced much more difficult circumstances than anything like that. But it was sometimes a little unpleasant, because of innuendos. I remember being told to my face that I was a Trojan Horse, and that Constable was planning on turning Dumbarton Oaks into an institute of western medieval studies and I was the first one and that everybody knew it, and they were going to take care of me, in some way. I remember hearing people say that I didn’t know any Greek, which I found rather offensive – I started Greek before I started Latin, in the 8th grade – doesn’t mean I knew it well, [laughing] but I certainly had a long pedigree for it, anyway. But I attribute these things to the difficult situation that so many young people were in, who had spent years learning Arabic and Greek and preparing themselves for jobs that simply had disappeared, and there was no future and they weren’t going out. I was probably not going to be in the field long either, but I was going to be in it three years longer than they were.
ABF: And you were also young.
MM: And I was young; but these were recent Ph.Ds or who had just finished their Ph.Ds and run out of money and were trying to get jobs for five, six, seven years. So, it was tough. But the point of this is that I was a little bit isolated, in terms of my peers; and, in any kind of institution like this, there’s another aspect, which is the regulars who, I think like to – hazing is too strong a word – but they like to gently, or not so gently, introduce the person. At that time, there was a lady by the name of Joan Southcote-Aston who was very prominent at lunch because Giles (I believe it was Giles) began to allow the staff to eat lunch, not just the fellows; and so they were over there big time. The first time I sat down to lunch, Joan Southcote-Aston, with a very distinguished English accent, put me in my place and said I was not properly dressed and my manners were not very impressive.
ABF: What were you wearing?
MM: Probably this. You know, basically this. [laughing] I said, “I’m sorry. You know, I’m kind of out of it.” It was a little bit later that I learned that the story of Joan is much more complex than this. She ultimately became in charge of concerts, and, in fact, we became, over the years, the best of friends. Seka Allen was also – she perhaps had her own favorites for the job and they didn’t get the job and so she was a little standoffish in the beginning, but we became dear, warm friends. I love Seka – quite a remarkable, gentle, kind, wonderful person – but at the beginning, there was a little cognitive dissonance, let’s say. There was one person who sat there quietly, who always wore a seersucker suit coat and a bandage over his nose (because he had cancer, I guess, and part of it was gone so he bandaged it up); and that was Bob van Nice. And, Bob van Nice made up his mind very quickly that he liked me, and he wouldn’t let these people inflict baloney on me. So, Bob kind of took me under his wing, of all people; somehow, we just kind of hit it off. And, I sat with Bob and when “Joanie Baloney” got out of line, Bob would kind of push her back. So, Bob was really one of my first close friends there; so much so, for example, that when my mother first came to visit to see the cherry blossoms, it was Bob who took us and drove us to see the prettiest neighborhoods with cherry blossoms in D.C. From Bob, I learned a lot of gossip about previous generations of scholars at Dumbarton Oaks, which I can share with you or not, as you wish. So, Bob was quite remarkable. Early on, I had a close link with him that persisted through the years until his daughter died, and then he withdrew; and he really refused to even answer my phone calls – or I’d write to him to try to be in touch with him, but he really remained isolated until the end, when he passed away. But, we had many happy years prior to that. He used to tell me stories about Vasiliev. Vasiliev, according to van Nice, had a certain taste that Mrs. Bliss would not have approved of at all, and that included vaudeville or, according to Bob, burlesque shows; and he needed to make regular trips to Baltimore to go to see shows. I don’t know if Vasiliev couldn’t drive or he felt that he shouldn’t drive or it was too dangerous for him to drive to Baltimore, but he got Bob to drive him, so Bob spent a lot of time with Vasiliev taking him to his forbidden pleasures, I guess, in Baltimore; and he entertained me with many tales about those trips. I wish I could remember them, but I can’t – but they were awfully funny; even if they weren’t true, they were wonderful to listen to. And Bob – do you have any information about Bob?
ABF and CW: Not beyond the basic – go for it.
MM: He, as you know, worked extensively in Iran and in Turkey, and he worked for the OSS during the war; and he told me that he was the number two of the OSS office in Switzerland in charge of penetrating Nazi Germany and relayed very interesting information about – I mean stories about the plot to kill Hitler – yeah, the one with the pipe bomb. He would debrief one of the people that was involved –
MM: I guess that was it. Yeah, he told me, but I don’t – I mean, this is kind of general history; but it’s interesting. Bob was a serious guy. He said that the German officer in question told him that they had tested it like three times or six times and each time, it worked perfectly. I don’t know, it was a bomb in an airplane or something, and it didn’t work.
CW: It was in a conference room –
MM: That one; there may have been another one.
CW: It was a different plot?
MM: I forget; someone else can check out the details. But anyhow, Bob always thought it hilarious that these Prussians had tried it like six times and the seventh time or the fourth or whatever it was, it hadn’t worked. He told me other things about Iran and different things about the toppling of the regime there, which he was present for. So that was – and he told me wonderful things about the Saint Sophia – how did he say it? He had a funny way of saying it – about the details of how it was built and the questions he had – the things he didn’t understand or the things that intrigued him: how quickly it was built, how sloppily it was built, and how they were improvising. They were moving so fast; there was something – for some reason, they were moving so fast. He was always struck by the fact that they never finished the columns. They left the knobs on them that you used to detach – this is what Bob tells me. I’ve seen knobs on them, on the back when you detach them from the wall of the quarry. They never took them off; just get the damn things up. And, many, many little things like that. And, to Bob I owe my knowledge of the numbers that are carved in the floor of the galleries. He’d never been able to figure those out. They thought they were building marks. There are numbers carved in the floor of the imperial galleries.
ABF: Arabic numerals?
MM: Greek numbers. And I concluded they were to help people find their place for ceremonies. If you hang around Washington, you can see that they mark the floor where everybody is supposed to stand. So, they put numbers in the floor telling who stood where. I talked about it a little in Eternal Victories. So, that was a little nugget that came from Bob van Nice. You wanted to know about my relationship with Alexander Kazhdan.
MM: So, this man was famous. I mean, I’d read whatever he’d written in a Western language before I learned Russian. My first contact with him was quite indirect. It was with my Greek teacher in Toronto, Walter Hays, who was a wonderful Hellenist and with whom I did Classical Greek and Byzantine Greek and Greek Paleography in the two years I was at Toronto. And, he had to consult with Kazhdan about some – he was doing a catalogue (I think it was funded by Dumbarton Oaks; I don’t think it ever came out either) – a catalogue of catalogues of Greek manuscripts. And, he consulted with Kazhdan about something; and we got talking about Kazhdan, because I worked closely with Hays and was his research assistant for a couple months, at least. He said, “Well, I’ve written to this guy, Kazhdan, but I asked myself, what language should I write to him in? I don’t know any Russian. My German’s not good enough. What can I write to him in? I can’t write to him in English; he probably doesn’t know English. Well, the language we both know is Greek, so I wrote him a letter in Classical Greek. And, look, he wrote back to me in English and said, ‘You know, that was a very beautiful letter, but you don’t need to write to me in Greek anymore.’” [laughing] So, that was my first – I never told that to Sanya either and I regret that – you never know when you’re going to lose them. So, I met Kazhdan, who was sitting on the coach with Herb Kessler, who is someone you should talk to for the gossip –
ABF: Yes. I mean, I have corresponded with him.
MM: He’ll tell you all kinds of stories. Ask him about Joan Southcote-Aston and her background; let him be the purveyor of that information – all my old friends, I have to be careful here, because as a historian we’re torn between truth, the pleasure of the tale, and respect for people who had just as many foibles as I do. But, anyhow, so Kazhdan, he was sitting there. Okay, that was great. [gestures vigorously] That was the way he was. You know, he was very short and very stocky – gray hair, then white hair that was like brush – and blind as a bat, with thick glasses. And, many people, especially the younger people, thought he was forbidding and cruel and difficult. I actually was at a dinner in Istanbul three weeks ago – a month ago – and they were talking about Kazhdan. They said, “Oh, yes, he was cruel and mean”; and really, nothing could have been farther from the truth. But, he was almost blind, and he concealed that from people. So, he could walk – I mean, we became very, very good friends. When I used to go back to Dumbarton Oaks, when I came up here, I’d stay at his thing and I’d sleep upstairs in the extra room. I mean, they both came to my mother’s house in Tonawanda; they stayed for a week. We drove everywhere. I fixed all the things that were broken in their house [laughing] and I loved them both dearly. So, I knew them pretty well. It would happen that we’d be walking in the main corridor there going upstairs to the old building, the main central building that faces the lawn; and he would walk right by me and not recognize me, his eyes were so bad. I figured out if I didn’t say anything once and then said something, he would look up and say, “Oh, Mike.” So, he wouldn’t recognize people or acknowledge them, and people thought he was being stubborn or something, and he just wouldn’t see them. So, there was that. Plus, he was quite critical in discussions of the informal talks, to say the least. So, that kind of threw people for a loop sometimes. But, in fact, he was terribly, terribly generous. After my interviews, when I didn’t know that I was coming back to Dumbarton Oaks, he and Musja invited me to come and have tea. They had recently moved out of the apartment that, actually, I was going to take over.
ABF: When was this?
MM: This was – this would have been August of 1979; and they had just arrived a few months before, and they had, to their dismay, been put in this apartment among the apartment that Dumbarton Oaks rented there, that was in an enclave surrounded by the huge new Soviet Union’s embassy. So, they were surrounded by the KGB. [laughing] I mean, it was like, “No, no, no.” They were a little skittish about it, actually, although I don’t think they ever said anything to Giles. I mean, you wake up and all you see around you is Sovetsky soyuz; I mean, the power of the Soviet Union.
ABF: This must have been something that was very palpable at Dumbarton Oaks, also, with all of these people who had run away from Europe.
MM: Well, the older group from World War II were really an older group by this time. I mean, Ihor is kind of a special case, a little bit of a separate case, and he was not too much in evidence in the first few years. I don’t know, Dumbarton Oaks was not – I don’t know how he was feeling at the time about Dumbarton Oaks in those years. He would come down to see Kazhdan from time to time. I would always be over for dinner for that, and that would be a scream [laughing] – yes, Ihor will – anyhow, they had me to tea. Musja had made, already, jam from – she would make food from anything, anything that grew nearby. So, she had collected all the berries at Dumbarton Oaks and had made jams and jellies from them, so we had the stuff she had made from the crabapples or something, which was quite good. It was quite good tea. I was told what a pleasure it was to meet him and what a great honor. I was working on an article and got a chance to run some of the ideas, and he gave me another reference – you know, he was very, very generous, extraordinarily generous with his learning. And then, next thing you knew, I was coming back. So, I got to know them quite well. They moved. They were originally – let’s see, when I first got there, they were living in the house, the building now that the Director of Studies is in, I don’t know what they called it, the Old Fellows’ Building. There was an apartment in the end closest to Wisconsin Avenue; that was their apartment. Subsequently, they moved to the house that some people call the Der Nersessian house, and other people call the Kazhdan house. There were two apartments in the little house to the left of the driveway that goes down to the former directors’ house – down to the library, now. That was their house; they had the bigger of the two halves – or the smaller of the two halves. Judy Siggins had one; they had the other, in the end. Anyhow, so they moved – let’s see, they were still there and his mother came to live with them or had been expulsed with them. His mother found out about me, and she was a little lonely. She was quite elderly; I suppose she was in her eighties at this time.
ABF: And you spoke Russian?
MM: I spoke – no, my spoken Russian is terrible. I can read it – that’s another story. But, I spoke French, which was my intellectual language, and she spoke French as her intellectual language. And, so, she figured out my routine, which was to show up to D.O. at about 10:00, 10:30 in the morning and then work until midnight with Callahan and others. And so, she would be out there with her cane every morning when I would come in every morning, waiting for me: “Ahh, bonjour!” And, she would just – I would have twenty minutes of talking with her, so she would have someone to talk to. That was quite entertaining. She was quite an imposing woman. I’m not sure it was always easy for Musja to have her living in the house. She resembled Alexander, perhaps in part of her steely character and her intellect. She had been a stenographer for the Party, perhaps for the Central Committee, but certainly for the Party, and was, in fact, she told me, the stenographer for the key meetings of the Party in 1918, 1919, 1920, when all these terrible, great decisions were made; and, I didn’t know – I knew next to nothing about Soviet history; and she was trying to tell me what really happened. So, I would sit there and listen to her to entertain her, and I would be learning all these things, but unfortunately it went in one ear and out the other. I don’t know if Musja knows any of this, because they were very careful about what they would talk about, I mean, out of reflex, long habit. But, anyhow, there’s some lost history –
ABF: Perhaps because they were surrounded by the KGB.
MM: Exactly, oh yeah, exactly, exactly. So, Sanya’s mother liked me – so what more could you ask for? Sanya was very inclusive. They believed in feeding me, feeding any younger scholar. And, I believed in eating, so I ate hundreds of meals over there, which was quite wonderful. And I had lunch quite regularly with Alexander. Sometimes I would go later – Alexander tended to eat fairly early, about 12:30 pm, and I would go around 1:00 pm and wind up having lunch with Elizabeth Boone, Giles, and John Callahan; we were the late lunch bunch. I got up late, so I wasn’t that hungry until fairly late. But I would still have lunch once a week, at least, with Alexander, and dinners often; and they would come over to the house, and I would barbeque, grill for them, etcetera. It was quite an adjustment for Alexander, obviously, to come. His English was quite good, serviceable. I mean, his written command was remarkable. He absolutely devoted himself to mastering the English tongue. His regime was quite remarkable; he is the hardest working man I’ve ever met, and I’ve met some real hard-working people. He would start every morning – I think he got up at about 6:00 am, and he would start work about 7:00 am – long before I did – and then he would work until 12:15, 12:30 pm, something like that, have an early lunch; and then, I don’t even think he took a walk, I think he came right back and he would work until 5:30 pm and he would stop every day at 5:30 pm. And, then he would go for a long walk, often over to the cemetery behind Dumbarton Oaks or down into the old part of Dumbarton Oaks that now is a public park. Do they call it Dumbarton –
ABF and CW: Dumbarton Oaks Park.
MM: Dumbarton Oaks Park, yeah; and I often went with him on those walks. We would just talk, about scholarship usually, but about other things also. And, then he would go home – get home about 6:00, 6:30 pm. He and Musja, they would watch the news, and he would complain about how soft Reagan was on the Soviet Union [laughing]. And Musja would cook; she would have all kinds of mushrooms. Sanya was the champion mushroom identifier of Moscow, as far as I could tell [laughing] and certainly of the United States. They started going on vacation up in the Adirondacks. They got a little dacha that they used to stay at up there; and, they would come back with bushel baskets, I mean, and grocery bags filled with mushrooms. They came to visit us once in Tonawanda, at my mother’s house, from the Adirondacks, and they kept their own in the trunk, the precious ones, but they came up with two shopping bags filled with fantastic mushrooms and they had a huge steak, so we had this fantastic mushroom feast; and Musja would can them – my mouth is watering just thinking of them [laughing]. So, and you know how the Russians eat, with like fifteen courses, and smoked fish and then salted fish and then mushrooms and, of course, vodka, vodka, vodka, in their little eighteenth-century glasses. Boom, boom, boom. And, of course, Sanya made vodka [laughing]. He would flavor the vodka; and he showed me how to do it. He made it in Tonawanda because he had to have vodka in Tonawanda, so he showed me how to do it. He said, “Buy the cheap vodka. You don’t need the expensive vodka.” And you would add things to it, and then they would keep it in the freezer. You would put lemon and sugar and berries and all kinds of – I liked it, I thought it was good. And then, so Sanya – back to his routine. I would have dinner and – I’m about to fall off my seat – and he did his relaxing activity for the evening, which for a long time consisted of taking Roget’s Thesaurus and translating it into Russian, which is how he taught himself many new words, such that, sometimes I remember he would give me some scripts of his articles that he was writing; and, I remember on one occasion that was quite important, and it was filled with infelicities of English that I think impeded his message, and we were really good friends and pretty frank, and I said, “Sanya, how can you – I mean, I admire your English – but how can you be so – I mean, I know you’re a proud man – but how can you be so arrogant as to write things in English and then send them to the press and not have somebody read them?” And he looked and me and said, “Humph! I am not so arrogant! That was read and corrected.” I asked him by whom, and he told me, by another one of his good friends; and well, he corrected the first page – he didn’t look beyond that. So, I started, then, reading over his things as best as I could; and, I think the first thing I may have done was the article – he came to Johns Hopkins and gave a paper on the history of medieval history in the Soviet Union at the Johns Hopkins seminar, which was quite an event. He then published that later in Speculum; and I reviewed that. I think that may have been the first thing, and then I would do it fairly frequently. Of course, he wrote about two articles a week [laughing], so I won’t pretend that I reread all of them, but I did as much as I could to try and make sure that the English was always as good as the thought; but the point of mentioning this is that he would use all these words that I’d never heard of. And I’d say, “Sanya, you can’t use this word.” And he would say, “But it’s an English word!” [laughing] And he would pull out an English dictionary and show me it was an English word; and Sanya would use it. I mean, I could cross it out and he’d put it back in again. So, he was not weak-willed, that man. So, he began to write, as you know, enormously in English, and to give papers. The first year I was there he began to give what would become People and Power in Byzantium as a series of informal talks at Dumbarton Oaks. So, that was quite interesting. He did it together with Giles and insisted on putting Giles in as co-author, and Giles will tell you that he’s not the co-author; but, you know, Sanya would look at someone in the street, and he would be co-authors immediately [laughing]. He was an incredibly generous man in that way. But, it was very interesting, intellectually; and it is very interesting to see that my students now, still, particularly some of the better students, still find that to be a book that excites them. When they read it, there are parts of it that really excite them, the ideas are so provocative. So, that was a kind of first intellectual thing; and then we talked a lot about my work and his work, and things evolve over time. I don’t remember how this got started, whether it was Giles’ idea or my idea or Sanya’s idea, or somehow it came to be, but Sanya and I started a seminar on Tuesdays, I think. I was at Dumbarton Oaks Monday through Wednesday and I taught at Hopkins on Thursday and Friday. And so, together, sometime – I probably have a file on it somewhere – sometime after I started there, we started a seminar on Psellos, because he was really interested in Psellos. He thought Psellos was the cat’s pajamas, as Giles would say – a really remarkable author. And, I’d read a little Psellos but not a lot, so he said, “Oh, you’ve got to read Psellos. He’s the best.” So, we started a little seminar reading Psellos, and anybody who wanted to come could come among the fellows; and some people did and some people didn’t. And, a few people who were locals came to join us, like Elizabeth Fisher – you might talk to Elizabeth Fisher, at GW. She became very close to the Kazhdans and can give you lots of insight about them. And, what’s her name – oh, gosh – oh, I’m sorry, I’m drawing a blank. The woman who – was it Despina or Latina, who worked for a long time on The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium with Alice-Mary? She lives in Virginia, or something. She was a Byzantinist. She would be a good person, also. She worked a lot with Kazhdan in the final years. She would be a good person for you to talk to if you want more information about Kazhdan. Alice-Mary can tell you. She’s a wonderful person, I’m afraid I just can’t remember; as you get older, your brain turns into Swiss cheese, I’m afraid. So, anyway, we started this seminar on Psellos, and that was really wonderful. Every Tuesday or every other Tuesday we would meet and we would – I would put up a little sign, typed up pre-computer, with “Psellos” in Greek, and, “This week, we’re going to read these passages, these pages.” We’d just start at the beginning and read through; and, gosh, different people would come who were Fellows. I remember, Franz Tinnefeld was a Fellow and working on categories of criticism of Byzantine emperors, or something like that: “Byzantine Kaiserkritik.” He came, and the first time he sat down, he’d done a completely thorough, completely Teutonic description of the rhetorical devices in these pages. It went on, and he started to talk, and he talked for like 15 minutes, categorizing every rhetorical device. It was incredible; it was so impressive. Then, after he’d done his piece, we started reading around and then we would start fighting about what it meant and arguing. I think it perhaps was Giles or some other director complained about the noise, because we used to do it in the Oval Room, which was right next to the director’s office, and the racket coming out of there as we argued and laughed about the text was absolutely incredible. John Duffy came to join that, in time. Robert Browning, when Robert Browning came to Dumbarton Oaks and then when he became a regular at Dumbarton Oaks – which I can tell you more about, if you are interested – was a regular in that; and Robert Browning was one of the sweetest and most gentle persons who ever lived, with the most incredible command of Greek, I mean, from Linear B – is it? I know, I forget even that – all the way up to Cavafy. He was an incredible scholar; and Robert – I don’t know if you’ve read any Psellos, but the sentences go on for like two pages [laughing], and they’re hard work to read them. It’s a lot of work to read them; but the guy’s so intelligent and he’s very ironic, and there’s all kind of sneaky jokes that he’s making, and you get all this tremendous feel for the mentality and the civilization – extraordinary witness to his time and his place. Well, we would sit there and struggle with the Greek; and Alexander and I would fight over what this meant. And, Robert Browning would sit there very quietly and sweetly, and he would pick up the Greek text and he would read it. We always read first the text in Greek – we used the modern and the medieval pronunciation – and then we would offer our translation, and then we would fight over the translation and then what does it mean, what are literary parallels, resonance echoes, allusions to other sources, and so forth. Alexander would spring these parallel texts that no one had prepared on us to read. And Robert, from the very first time he sat down, he just started reading the sentence, and it was miraculous: the way in which Robert read the sentence in Greek, you understood it. He had a way of punctuating and using his inflection as he actually sight-read the Greek that made sense; that the syntactical patterns fell into place. I’ve never seen anything quite like that: absolutely, absolutely remarkable. Then, when Robert became a regular at Dumbarton Oaks, I don’t remember if he came in the fall or the spring semester; but he did come quite regularly and for a number of years, and was a wonderful presence in terms of helping the students with their Greek – John Callahan did that also. They were both always available to discreetly help – and John with Latin also – the students. The students – I should say some of the Junior Fellows and some of the Fellows; and certainly helped me all the time with my Greek and Latin. That was a wonderful thing that went on, I think, until I left; or until I became – I probably stopped doing it when I stopped working at Dumbarton Oaks. I held an appointment there for eight years, and then continued to live in Washington for another four or five years, and was over at Dumbarton Oaks a lot. Maybe I still did it, I don’t remember – but I don’t know, I had a pretty heavy schedule – I just don’t remember how long we continued to do it. But, it was a great, great intellectual experience for me and, I think, for anyone who had the privilege to be there, and it allowed Alexander to work in a group, not quite of peers but of like-minded people and to develop some of his thoughts and to have a little controversy and a regular intellectual sustenance. Alice-Mary was a regular participant in the early years; of course, she was still in Cleveland while her husband was director of the museum there; and so she would fly in on Tuesday or Wednesday and would be there for a couple days and then she would fly back. She was a wonderful participant and could probably tell you more about the seminar; that was my memory, that she did it. So, Alexander was bringing out in English many of the ideas that he had been bringing out in Russia, naturally. The books came hard and fast, one after another, you know: the People and Power in Byzantium, and then the book, Studies in Byzantine Literature that he did with Simon Franklin – if you want to go to the UK, Simon would be another good one to talk to. Simon’s wife was Russian, the daughter of the KGB colonel. Simon became quite close to Alexander in the year that he was there and wound up doing this – co-signing his book that was an English version of a number – I’ve got most of his books up there, in the corner up there – of his literary studies. So, he was really pushing this idea of Byzantine literature as literature, which was pretty heretical. I mean, we all know that it’s decadent and not worth reading [laughing]. He maintained that it was, once it was subjected to literary analysis; and he had great fun doing that. That book was with Cambridge University Press. Somewhere along the line, he got the idea that it would be a good thing for Byzantine Studies to do an Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. We didn’t know it would be an Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium – we thought it would be an encyclopedia or dictionary of Byzantium. He was all for it, and Giles I think was quite skeptical because this is the kind of thing that people always come up with and never execute. It’s an incredibly difficult task; and there had never been a dictionary of Byzantium. Now, imagine that you’re going to do the first encyclopedia in a field. You have no idea what the entries should be. The Oxford Classical Dictionary, there’s been classical dictionaries going back to the seventeenth century, right? No problem. We had no idea what should go into it. So, the first thing was to figure out what the topics should be. He put together – I don’t remember much how it grew up – but he put together little groups, and then there were these cluster leaders, and different friends got dragooned into doing different clusters, and I was one of them. So, he put together an application for the NEH and sent it in, and it got turned down; and I don’t remember why it got turned down: it was implausible or not important or not well thought out, or whether Dumbarton Oaks was not going to do enough because it wasn’t going to give any employees to it, but was going to give the space and the time from Kazhdan or maybe from me or Alice-Mary. And Sanya was quite disconsolate, but he said, “Well, it’s finished. Now I will do other things.” I said, “What do you mean it’s finished?” And he said, “Well, they turned us down.” And I said, “Well, you’ve got to apply again. Take their things into account and apply again.” And he said, “Why? They said no.” I said, “No, that’s not the way things work here, Sanya. Look at your criticisms, revise it, take them into account, and apply again, and maybe it will work” “Really?” “Yeah.” So, we had a long talk about it, and after he thought about it for a while, he decided to try and apply a second time. I’m sure Giles would have given him the same message, and perhaps Alice-Mary and others too. So, he went back and tried a second time and was locked on the great adventure of the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, which was incredible. I mean, as you know, he wrote about ninety percent of it himself –
ABF: But you were also heavily involved.
MM: Yeah, boy was I ever for my sins. Geez. I couldn’t escape him. You know, I was at the other end of the building, but he would come and say, “Mike, I need you to read these” – two hundred essays! Two hundred articles! He would say, “I need them for tomorrow.” I would say, “Alexander, you’re sitting here and researching. I’ve got students; I’ve got papers to grade and dissertations to read.” “You must read this. Okay, you can have an extra day.” Thank you! Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. And, he – as Giles said more than once, if anyone in the world were capable of writing the whole damn thing himself, it was him – and he almost did. I mean, I don’t even know how many articles he signed, but it must be – I signed like one hundred eleven, but he signed one thousand or more; but he rewrote most of everybody else’s and added immense numbers of things. He and I – and he could be stubborn, heesh. He had me reread – I don’t remember how this worked – he had me reread “Popes.” Maybe someone did one on popes, and he didn’t like it, or I did it on popes, and he didn’t like it. I don’t remember. Anyhow, he redid all the ones on popes and gave them to me to read – a big expert on popes, okay. Anyway, I found lots of problems: this is wrong, this is right; and he put my name on it. I said, “No! You’re not putting my name on this, because I don’t agree. You know, if you want to go into print with your idea on this, that and the other thing, you can, but you’re not putting my name on it.” And he goes, “Well, we only disagree on some things.” “Yeah, but it’s in the text! You sign it, not me” So, okay, he signed it. So, some of them I didn’t sign. I specified I have one hundred eleven signed articles in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, but I certainly read for Sanya and with Sanya, many hundreds, and made perhaps some minor suggestions on them also. But he redid everything; it was incredible. He threw himself into that, starting every morning at six or seven or eight or whenever the hell he was there, and he would just go, go, go, go. There was one point when he had a little health scare, and he convinced himself that he was going to die in the next two weeks or something. And, he just locked himself in the room and churned them out. It was incredible. He produced something like – I don’t know, but literally hundreds. He had to go to the hospital and get some operation or some test or something. He produced hundreds of articles in the two weeks or three weeks leading up to the hospitalization. It was absolutely incredible. He was an unbelievable workhorse, unbelievable. His knowledge of the field was encyclopedic, as you can see. Do you want to know about his early career? He started out as a medievalist. He got interested in history. His father was an engineer, a big-time engineer. They were quite privileged in the Stalinist period because of his father’s engineering achievements, I believe. I believe I’ve heard that, perhaps from him or from the family. And you know the story of his having to leave the Soviet Union? Well, his son David – or Dima, Dimitri – became very religious and Alexander and Musja are anything but religious; they are complete atheists. He wrote a book, which I think I might have here. It’s called Why Did Man Create God?. But Dima became very religious, and I think – I don’t think I have this whole story from Alexander and Musja. I have bits of it from them and bits of it from friends and colleagues; but the way I reconstruct it, or the way I understand it is that Dima, who changed his name to David now, became extremely religious and began practicing Judaism and studying Talmud and Torah, and so forth; and, Alexandr and Musja thought this was nuts. I mean, this was the opiate of the masses! [laughing] I mean, come on Dima! But he was very, very devout, and very serious about it, and, ultimately, I believe, he applied to emigrate to Israel; and Alexander was told that he should talk sense into his son. I mean, he tried to talk sense into him – he didn’t think he was being reasonable; but he wouldn’t turn on his son. Consequently, he and Musja were both fired. Alexander had a position, if I understand and remember correctly, at the Academy of Sciences. He was not an academician, but he had a position at the Institute of World History at Academy of Sciences, at the whole union Academy of Sciences of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at Moscow. He lost that, and Musja was employed at a publishing house. I think she was involved in the edition of the works of Engels (something like that), so she was fired. He was forbidden to publish, but there was a strange kind of – this I think Giles told me; I don’t think Alexander told me this – there was a strange kind of logic to the system. Someone came to them and told them that, “Since you’ve been forbidden to publish, we know if you weren’t forbidden to publish, you would be publishing.” And, in the Soviet Union, what they published is what they published, so everybody was reading the stuff Alexander wrote; and he was a very popular writer, he claimed – and I believe it to be true. “So we are going to give you your royalties that you would have gotten if you had been allowed to publish.” So, they continued to get some money, but they lost their fine apartment, and many other hardships ensued. So, this all started out – they had a lovely apartment, a big apartment, and were quite well-connected. And Stalin, as Alexander himself reports in his articles on the history of medieval studies in the Soviet Republic, started to loosen his strictures on the study of history, and it became possible. And Alexander has told me a number of times that he wanted to do patristic studies. He was fascinated with Greek patristics, and maybe there’s a link there with Dima’s religious proclivities. But, he was fascinated as, you know, class struggle and the ideas, the theology, the intellectual history of it; and he somehow got linked up with Kozminski, who was the great Russian medievalist, the great specialist of manors, of late medieval England economic history, who was, I believe, his Doktorarbeit adviser or whatever the equivalent would have been in the Soviet Union; and Kozminski said, “You’re nuts. This is the Soviet Union, and you could not do the history of theology in the Soviet Union. You have to do something else.” So, Kozminski convinced him there was no future in patristics in Sovetsky soyuz. [laughing]. And, so he got him doing social history, and I think he did medieval history for a little bit – western medieval history – and then got into Byzantine, got intrigued because he’d been interested in Greek patristics, so I guess you should look at the Byzantine Greek things. So, he wrote his first book, which I guess comes out of his dissertation on social relations in the Byzantine countryside, which, by the way, has a footnote early-on about the relations of these findings to confirming Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist doctrine – it’s about ’51; I don’t remember if Stalin is mentioned, but anyhow, it’s the obligatory obeisance, and he claimed to me that he did not write that, that that was inserted in his manuscripts, and he doesn’t know to this day who did it. So he told me.
ABF: Do you think it would have been somebody who was trying to help him out?
MM: Oh yeah, oh yeah. If that’s correct, I think that, yeah, that would be the case. His career followed that of – the curve of – I’m told, and certainly the evidence that I have seen myself conforms to this picture – his career followed that of the [unintelligible] Jews in the Soviet Union. So, when the persecution was lessened, his career took off and when it intensified, it went downhill. He did his dissertation through correspondence school, some kind of crazy situation like that, and Musja has told me some funny story – have you guys talked to Musja? Oh you should call her. Yeah, she lives in Jerusalem, with Dima; I mean, she didn’t want to go there, but that’s where she is.
ABF: How’s her English?
MM: Ah, it’s approximate, but speaking to her in Russian would be better, and it’s hard over the phone. But, do you speak Russian?
ABF: Not enough.
MM: I mean, she speaks English. I speak English with her. You have to speak clearly and slowly and clearly.
CW: How about her French?
MM: No. Her German’s probably fairly good, because she always spoke German with her German friends. Anyway, he got a job – so, he got his dissertation – I don’t remember if it was before or after his dissertation – but he got a job at an institute in Tula – a pedagogical, at a normal school in Tula. That’s where he was when the Cosmopolitan Campaign was started, which was Stalin’s kind of final fling and which targeted the Jews. The Jews on the faculty at Tula – and this I know from Alexander. The world that he came from was such a different world. I don’t remember exactly when he told me this story, but I think one time when he was in Tonawanda, he went fishing with me – I love to fish; he doesn’t like to fish. So, we went fishing every day, on the Niagara River, right about Niagara Falls; and we’d drift down to the Falls (the closer you get to the Falls, the better the fishing is). I fished, and Alexander rowed. When we were out in the middle of the river, and there were no boats to be seen anywhere, he told me many things that he’d never told me before and never told me after; and this may have been when he told me about Tula. At that point, the party authorities at the normal University of Tula had gotten instructions to root out the cosmopolitans. They had organized a series of self-criticism sessions; and he didn’t go into details, but it was quite horrific. There were, I don’t remember how many Jews in the faculty or the department – it wasn’t a large number; there were some anyways. But, the person who was called in front of the party cadres or faculty senate, or whatever it was, was given a really tough going-over about their anti-Soviet behavior and attitudes. And, Alexander I guess was next in line; and they spent the day on him or two days on him. Then they stopped for the day, and that night, the person who got mad killed himself. At that point, the local party people and the University people got frightened and they stopped. They just put on hold this process. Shortly thereafter, Stalin was gone, and the whole thing vanished. He wound up being called back to Moscow and starting his quite glorious rise to prominence in the Soviet establishment
ABF: So, things improved for him?
MM: Yes, very dramatically. I don’t know the exact time. I mean, Musja can tell you that; but it was probably when he came back from Tula and got hooked up with the Institute of World History, where he became the ghostwriter and – what’s the name of [unintelligible] – of the top party hack Byzantinist?
ABF: So, how did he end up at Dumbarton Oaks?
MM: Okay so, he’s had a various career. He wrote many famous book reviews. And his books were selling out; I mean, he was a bestselling author: Why Man Created God – bestseller! There wasn’t a lot to read, and the Russians are great readers – that’s what I used to tell him to tease him. So, Dima got religion. They were quite privileged. Both of them had wonderful jobs; they were at the center of the intellectual world, or felt they were, in Moscow. Certainly, they were friends with many illustrious people and intellectuals. Dima got religion, and Alexander and Musja were told to make him un-get religion; and, I think they tried to have a reasonable discussion with him, because they just thought religion is not rational, but he wouldn’t budge and he felt strongly about it, and they said, “That’s his will, and we’re not going to tell him he can’t apply to go to Israel. This is his life.” They refused to turn on him or denounce him or do anything like that. So, they were fired and forbidden to publish. And, in the end, they were expulsed. Dima left, supposedly to go Israel, and then wound up coming right to Harvard, of course; and then Alexander and Musja were expulsed. He claimed to me that he was not stripped of Soviet citizenship. I don’t know if that’s true or not; but someone had told me he was, and he said, “Oh no, I was never stripped of Soviet citizenship!”
ABF: So, they were Party members?
MM: I don’t think he was a Party member – that’s why he didn’t do more of a career. He stayed in the research institutes. Yeah. I presume the mother must have been, because she was a stenographer for the Central Committee or whatever in those days and dad was a big engineer. I’m sorry, I don’t remember. That’s an important fact. But I have the impression – I mean, he’s a believing Marxist. Oh yeah, I think he was a through and through Marxist in terms of his understanding of history and human nature. Oh yeah. Yeah, in a very interesting, in a very “Ronald Reagan is too weak on the Soviet Union” type. [laughing] Yeah, it’s a very complicated world.
ABF: So, it’s like a reactionary Marxism?
MM: Yeah, yeah. I mean, he had no illusions. He was convinced – I mean, he said this under his breath – but he was convinced they were going to do a final solution of the Jews with the Cosmopolitan Campaign. I mean, he said, “I know this for a fact.” I said, “Sanya, come on.” He said, “No, they’ve already built the railroad termini.” That’s what he thought. Anyhow, he wasn’t a Communist in that sense, certainly by the time he got to the U.S., but he was a Marxist in his understanding of history and of human nature and of the role of economics in shaping mentality – but it was more complicated. It wasn’t a Mickey Marxism.
ABF: But how did he get the job at Dumbarton Oaks?
MM: Okay. So, this is the story that I heard from Alexander – I heard a bit from Giles, and I heard it from Ihor a little bit, but mainly I heard it from Alexander and Musja a number of times. So, he got expulsed; he and Musja got expulsed. Tragedy. I mean, his whole life is in his index cards. Have you seen his index cards? Oh, you’ve got to see them, got to film them. I mean, they’re like this big [laughing]. So, he could hide them. His whole life was in a series of cigar boxes with thousands and thousands of cards this big – literally this big. Check this out – you can compare it to the real thing (I’m sure they have it somewhere at D.O.). You could not take it out of the Soviet Union – you could not remove anything written by hand or anything published before 1940 or 1937 or 1951 or something – there was some cutoff date. He had a wonderful library which he had put together, that he had bought and he had acquired from other scholars, so he could sit at home and just do his work with this wonderful little library. Books were falling apart – none of them were bound – but he had all the basic books he needed. It was a great library. He would just sit there and pull everything apart; but, he couldn’t take them or his notes. At this point, he told me, the German embassy intervened and they surreptitiously took his index cards and his pre-1940 books, or whatever the cutoff was, to the embassy and the Bundusrepublik sent them out in diplomatic pouches and delivered them to him at some point, once he was in the West. So, they were deposited at a refugee camp in Vienna; and I think Ihor was the first to go see them, because Ihor knew him from Moscow. Ihor went to see them, and, I think that Ihor then went and talked to Giles – you can check this with them. He said, “This guy is just amazing. You’ve got to do something about him. You know, bring him to Dumbarton Oaks. Bring him to Harvard. We’ve got to do something with this guy.” So, Giles went to Vienna, went to the refugee camp, to meet this guy and sized him up and figured, “Hmm, probably not going to be good with American undergraduates” – I guess, I somehow suspect; I don’t know, this is Mike speculating. But he said, “This guy is an impressive guy. So, instead of going to Harvard, invite him to Dumbarton Oaks for a few months.” Alexander was a very admired – I mean, I was a graduate student, and I learned Russian to be able to read this guy, so, along with the great erudition that was already out there – but, in no small measure, to be able to read him. The first thing I read in Russian was his article which was published in Byzantinische Zeitschrift in Russian, which was a big step in the middle of the Cold War – to publish a long synthetic article in Germany, West Germany, I think, in the middle of the Cold War. So, his friends, his admirers, the big powers in Byzantine studies, endeavored to help him out right away, so the great Byzantinist of the Academy of Sciences of Austria, Herbert Hunger, immediately arranged for him to have some lectures in Vienna, and get paid for them. And then, similarly, in Paris, Gilbert Dagron, who I believe must have known him. I had both Gilbert – Mr. Dagron – and Alexander and Musja to our house in Baltimore for dinner once, and I think they were reminiscing, because Mr. Dragon was a diplomat as well as a Byzantinist, and had been attached to the Moscow embassy and, I believe, had known Alexander from Moscow days. Anyhow, whether you knew him or not, you knew who he was; and Dagron immediately arranged for him to give lectures at the Collège de France so he could get some money. So, he gave what would become People and Power, I believe, as lectures in Vienna; and I know he gave them at Collège de France. A then-Bollandist – then later left the Bollandists, or was just leaving the Bollandists then – Jacques Noret. He was a little disappointed (he thought it was too obvious), but Jacques was a philologist and not a historian. I remember him telling me about them after he’s just come back from Paris. He went down to Paris to hear the great Kazhdan’s lectures. He found it interesting, but was a little disappointed – not enough philology for Jacques. Jacques’s a great Hellenist and a wonderful philologist. And Musja told me an amusing story that you can check with her. They were in Paris, they had money, and she had to go out to buy food. So, she goes to the butcher’s, and she says to the butcher, “I want to cook dinner. I want meat.” And the butcher says, “What kind of meat, Madame, would you like? Pork chops? Would you like steak? Would you like roast? What would you like?” And she says, “I want meat – to cook, to eat dinner.” And he says, “But ma’am, what kind of meat do you want?” And she got all excited and said, “I WANT MEAT!” There was never a need to specify; you just took whatever meat there was. And, she couldn’t understand what he was talking about, that she had to choose between fifteen kinds of meat. Ask Musja, she’ll tell you the story about meat. It’s an absolute scream.
CW: So, when you said, in the very beginning that, when you stepped into that interview room, it was like being in Europe again, was it because there were so many of these scholars who had come there from Europe? It seems like a lot of your memories are from these great European figures –
MM: It is, and the mentality at Dumbarton Oaks, the extremely high level of scholarship, of erudition – what in French is called erudition, not necessarily the synthetic knowledge, but the philology; the textual criticism; the sovereign command of technique, of all the most technical issues in analyzing the written testimony of the past; the values of scholarship – not sexy or trendy, but, you know, superb critical addition, an excellent stemma codicum; really the classical philological tradition of the nineteenth century with good solid historical values, but with a deep appreciation of consummate technical mastery. Consummate technical mastery was very much appreciated at Dumbarton Oaks, and this is what I had lived with in Louvain for almost ten years, and it was my way of doing work. It was the same: the kinds of conversations we had, the kinds of things we did and talked about, it was just second-nature to me. I mean, I went to Belgium, I was seventeen; I did my undergraduate as well as my graduate degrees there. So that Louvain philological tradition – Erasmus, etc. – was pretty –
CW: That’s where Ihor wrote his dissertation –
MM: That’s right, I believe Ihor and I were the only doctors of Louvain ever to have been professors at Harvard, to my knowledge. So, anyhow, yeah, I was very much at home there; and, of course, the languages – everybody was speaking French or German or Italian or Russian or what have you. It was like Louvain or Paris or Rome. It was very nice. I mean, for me it was very convenient.
ABF: So, in some ways it seems that your education must have actually been more similar to the European-trained scholars there, than the American-trained scholars.
MM: I was European-educated. It was – although I had the privilege of two years at the University of Toronto. I come from a small town. It’s called Tonawanda, which is where I went with Alexander and Musja to visit. It’s the western end of the Erie Canal. My brother went to undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto – the best Catholic colleges, real high quality Catholic colleges, close to Tonawanda were St. Michael’s College and the University of Toronto. So, my dad was sick and supposed to die, and I wanted to be close to home. So, I took a – I just left Louvain for two years – initially, for one year because he was supposed to die right away – I enrolled for a year at Toronto; but he didn’t die, so I stayed another year at Toronto. And then, he was fine, so I went back to Belgium; and then he died, of course. So, I had two years in the graduate program at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto; and that was fantastic. But, that was a big shock to my system; they’re very philological there, but they’re very different from the way it was Europe. So, that was a shock, and I learned a lot there. I guess Johns Hopkins would be a big shock for me too; it’s a completely different way of doing history, which was wonderful, and it was a big adjustment for me personally – and tremendously fertile, tremendously fertile. I mean, at Hopkins – this is little off-topic, I’ll get back to them – but Hopkins has a tradition of seminars. It was founded as a German university in the United States around four seminars: a seminar of Bible, a seminar of history, a seminar of classics, and I forget what the fourth seminar was. They still use the original seminar table that was given to them by the Kaiser on a visit to the little German university in America. Every Thursday, the Europeanists had a seminar and the graduate students and professors all had to give papers, which were pre-distributed, and then they would tear them apart in a group. And, I was told my first week, “You have to come to the seminar.” And I was shocked because, in Europe, the seminar – they were talking about African history, they were talking about Italian Renaissance history, nieteenth-century Germany, Third Reich history – what am I – I’m a medievalist, a Byzantinist, an ancient historian; I had no business going to that. But, I was told that I had to do it as a Junior Professor. It was part of life in the department. So, I went. I had to go – you say, “Yes, yes, yes,” until you’re inside the chateau, right? Wow, that was transforming. It was amazing. The papers were fantastic; the discussion was a very high level. All of a sudden I was learning about diseases in Africa and the construction industry in Renaissance Florence; and it dawned on me that I could do economic history, too. It was quite extraordinary. So, it was a very interesting counterpart to Dumbarton Oaks. I was very lucky to be able to tie into those two things. Alexander came and gave his seminar paper in the seminar there and made a great impression on people. And Dumbarton Oaks played an interesting role in my undergraduate teaching, which is an interesting aspect of Dumbarton Oaks history that might otherwise not be known. I organized – I was made Director of Undergraduate Studies and enrollment was flailing, we were having some problems. So, I devised a special course for the undergraduate concentrators in history, which would be to teach them how to do history by doing intense historical analysis of original primary sources; and we’d all do the same sources together. And what would we do? This was the Reagan years – we would do Pravda, because they had just starting bringing out an English edition of Pravda. So, for a couple of years, I ran a seminar in which the kids analyzed Pravda as if it’s the only source we have on the Soviet Union – you know, Gorbachev’s facial markings. The Chernobyl happened while we were doing this. So, they were able to – there was an American group using an exact facsimile in English, a week after. On Monday you would get the previous Monday’s Pravda in English, but with the photos all mocked up, like it was the original thing. So, the kids felt they were doing that, so it was great, and we had some wonderful things. Irene Vaslef – have you talked to Irene Vaslef? Oh, got to talk to Irene Vaslef. She will be very circumspect, but if you can get her to talk, she can tell you volumes. She was a librarian. I think Giles may have hired her. She was a fabulous intellectual presence, and her husband was the head of the Soviet desk at the Pentagon. And Nick – Colonel Vaslef – I would tell Nick what the students were finding and he got really excited. The students were actually discovering stuff. It was amazing; but, anyhow. So, at the end of all their work, when they’d done their little papers and their little analyses of how newspapers are done in the Soviet Union – they’d read the party manuals on doing newspapers and then try to get historical nuggets out of them – I would bring in a mystery eyewitness. And Alexander would come in and be the mystery eyewitness and give them, you know, a fifteen-minute take on his life in the Soviet Union, and then they had to ask him questions. It was extraordinary to see that, to put Alexander in front of the undergraduates and to see the vibes that happened. It was very, very moving – and also, intellectually, quite intense. So, he turned out to be a wonderful undergraduate teacher after all, in an unexpected way. Philip Grierson kindly volunteered to – I taught alternating courses in late Roman and Byzantine history (survey courses for undergraduates at Hopkins) – and Philip volunteered to take them into the vault and give them a course, a class on Byzantine numismatics, with the coins.
CW: Down in the basement of the museum?
MM: Yeah, yeah. So, I started organizing, once a semester, with my class, an expedition to Dumbarton Oaks on Saturday, in the morning, and take them all in. It’d be closed; and Philip would take us down to the vault and he would give them a wonderful presentation on Byzantine numismatics, because he loved young people. And, we would be down there for about an hour, two hours, looking at the coins. Unfortunately, for some reason, even though I told Philip always what we were doing, if I was teaching the late Roman course, he would give them the Middle Byzantine numismatics and if we were doing the Byzantine course, he would give them the late Roman numismatics – unfailingly. It was quite remarkable; but it didn’t matter, because Philip was wonderful. The coins were wonderful. They learned things. They got to hold these precious ancient objects. He taught them things, and it was just a fantastic intellectual and human experience. Then we would all go out in to the gardens – as long as it wasn’t raining, and we were usually lucky – by the pebble gardens, and have a picnic before we got in the car and drove back to the Baltimore. So, there’s a little unknown –
ABF: That’s sort of unusual for Dumbarton Oaks to have, like, a student seminar there.
MM: Well, actually, Giles, I think, and – I don’t know if Robert Thomson was encouraging in this respect – opened Dumbarton Oaks to other people so that scholars and Ph.D. students from the area could come and regularly use it as their library – because it was the best library. Undergraduates would come too. Sometimes they took books – at least one person took a book. Unfortunately for him, he was reading it on a bus in Baltimore when I got on the bus [laughing]. But we actually did have undergraduate seminars meeting over there, and classes. Thomas had classes from Georgetown over there. Yes, I’m pretty sure Frank Trombley did, and I had my class come at least once a semester, and then I would take them around the museum. Oh yeah. So, let’s see, back to Kazhdan. So, The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, he went ahead and did it; and it was incredible, absolutely incredible. It transformed the field, you know? I don’t think of myself as being a very selfish person about scholarship, but I blush to confess that it came out just as I was coming here; and Alexander was not happy I was coming here. In fact, it was a great debate. I was not eager to come here to Harvard either. I had a great job at Hopkins, thanks to advisers and particularly to Giles Constable, who has played an incredible, instrumental role – I wouldn’t be anywhere without him, for sure. He helped me understand just how burdensome a professorship at Harvard would be. So, I had a very clear idea of what I was getting into, and I realized that the administrative load, the teaching load, the freedom to do research was infinitely greater at Hopkins; and that I would probably write more books at Hopkins. And, this was really important to me, so I wasn’t really keen on coming. But I saw the advantages at Harvard, which are twofold: they are the library, absolutely, and the students, absolutely. Those are the two. Those are the two things that decided me, because they are without peer – and all of the rest of the BS is worth it for those, sometimes. Anyhow, Alexander had been debating this with me, as I sought counsel and went through this long process of many months, perhaps a year, of trying to figure it out. I finally came up and spent a semester to see what it was really like first hand, to see if I could stand it or not. I had wonderful meetings and got to know Bud Bailyn and Donald Fleming, who just passed away, and many dear friends and really remarkable intellects. Magda was up for it, so we said, “Okay, let’s do it.” It was quite late when we decided. It was spring, and the Medieval Academy or somebody was meeting at Princeton; and Alexander had come – yeah, I think it was the Medieval Academy – had come up to give a paper or something. And I told him on the couch, and he turned to me and said to me, “So, you are leaving me.” I said, “Yes, Sanya, I have to do this.” “You are leaving me.” [laughing] Okay. Yes. But that was far from the end of our friendship and our fellowship and our work together, although, unfortunately, from that time on we saw each other much less. So, we worked together quite intensively on the Dictionary of Byzantium and on many other things. I mean, I read many things – we did the Psellos seminar together, and I had the privilege to read many things. He read most everything I wrote, I think, and his reactions to things were quite typical. Let’s see, one chapter that he read of mine from Eternal Victory – I don’t remember now which one it was. It could have been the Visigoths, could have been one on organizing Byzantine triumph. He came up to talk to me about it before, whatever day we went to lunch together –Tuesday, I took an early lunch – and we sat down together; and he said to me, “I don’t like it.” He launched into this, like, twenty-five-minute, eviscerating critique. I mean, I knew Sanya, I loved him, I was used to him eviscerating. I was listening, and finally he was done. I took the thing and threw it in the wastebasket. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Sanya, it’s a piece of shit.” He said, “No, it is very good.” [laughing] And I was used to him! But he was wonderful. I remember I would give informal talks, pretty much every year, probably every year, because I was supposed to give an example for the younger people so they wouldn’t be afraid. I would sit at the end and Alexander would sit next to me, here in the studies, I mean – what do they call it? The old study – the room where we always had the informal talks, with the walnut paneling and the little pretend liquor, you know the little fake book thing where Mr. Bliss used to keep his liquor.
ABF: On the first floor of the Main House?
MM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now you can get to the Greenhouse or the Orangery through it. It’s where the Festschrifts used to be, or art history – I forget. Giles brought in informal talks, because the Junior Fellows were really freaking out about giving their paper to this illustrious group of scholars. And so, he tried to – he told me this and explained that he was trying to lessen the stakes, so it wouldn’t be so intimidating for the young people, particularly, or anyone. And especially in ’79, ’80, ’81, ’82, when American academia was in deep crisis and so many people were having to leave the field, there was a lot of intense criticism of papers and people kind of positioning and so forth. But Alexander was oblivious to this. He just bulldozed and blasted away at everything. Every single paper that I would give, he would be sitting there at the left and would just be wham, wham, wham, wham – would be hammering away, and I’d be hammering back. I remember – oh geez, a couple of things. I remember I gave a paper on the birth of the codex and the apostolic lifestyle. I had to write a review on Roberts and Skeat’s great book on the birth of the codex, and I had developed my own little theory based on their work; and that is that the early codex – you know, Marshall mentions it – this unusual format like this. And, my idea was that technological adaptation of a radical new technology in a conservative thing like book readership in the classical world probably was a complex, multifaceted, multi-phased thing. And it occurred to me that you had to get to know this new format before you could see. People were saying, “Oh, people adapted it because you could consult it and find – you know, you wouldn’t have to unroll the whole thing to find the letter ‘z’ for an encyclopedia. You could just flip open to the page.” You don’t know that if you’ve never held one in your hand, right? So I was looking for evidence of how people perceived the earliest codices; and I found some evidence that suggests to me that travelers used them because they were particularly convenient for travelling, at a time when the entire Roman Empire was on the road, because they pack twice as much text, because rolls are only written on one side; and the earliest codices are this format, like Michelin guides. You can pop them into your saddlebags. So, I developed a whole argument that travelers – and the Christians were the first to adopt the codex systematically as an ideological thing; and I argued that they did it because they would associate them with the apostles (the apostles were always traveling and they had books of the Bible, the Old Testament in codex format with them). Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Anyway, I gave that first as an informal talk at Dumbarton Oaks. Alexander went nuts. I was counting the papyri: how many were codices, and how many were scrolls. And he says, “And how can you be so stupid as to argue based on a piece of papyrus this big that it is a scroll and not a codex? No one could tell.” In one of the very rare moments of success in arguments with Alexander, at that point, I just looked at him and I said, “What did you say?” “How can you tell from a little piece?” I said, “Have you ever looked at any papyri?” “No.” I said, “Sanya, codices are written on both sides of the sheet; scrolls are only written on one side.” “Oh.” [laughing] And we laughed, we laughed like fools; because we always argued, but it was always in fun and good spirits. When I figured out this book, Origins of the European Economy, it started out to be – which is really a child of Dumbarton Oaks – it started out to be a very different book, about diplomatic exchange and how it served as a vehicle for cross-cultural exchange between the Byzantine court and the Carolingian court. I sat down to put it together, and it fell apart; or, it didn’t fall apart, but suddenly a new pattern emerged that I had never seen. It was based on my travelers, on my diplomats – I had sixty-four of them – and sixty-four pieces of evidence of trips between Constantinople and Aachen, or whatever. I worked it out. I thought I saw something really exciting. So, I said, “I’ve got to present this at D.O.” I was already at Hopkins full time; I had just been tenured there. I called up whoever I called up and said I wanted to give an informal talk. So, it was the summertime, and I went and gave an informal talk. David Jacoby was in the room and Sanya and I don’t remember who else – some young people. I laid out my argument. David Jacoby – David’s very critical and skeptical [unintelligible] but then said, “But maybe you are right.” Alexander went into this five-minute tirade about how this was completely wrong; and he concluded by saying, “I can’t believe you are arguing for a change in the European economy based on sixty-four pieces of evidence.” I said, “Sanya, when in your life have you ever seen sixty-four pieces of evidence for anything in Byzantine history?” [laughing] And we all laughed, laughed, laughed and went off and had a big lunch. We laughed an awful lot. We laughed an awful, awful lot. And so, blessedly, I was able to continue our friendship by going down to Dumbarton Oaks to see him from time to time; and always stayed with him. Went down there when Thomas was born to show them little baby Thomas, and Thomas crawled around on their rug. They came up here because David was here, so they came to visit him quite regularly – a couple times a year – and so they always came over here. David keeps a kosher household, and Musja loves bread, so they would come over here for surreptitious bread fixes [laughing]. Exactly, exactly, because they had come for the holidays.
CW: So, he was your main conduit at D.O. once you came up here?
MM: He wasn’t my conduit. By this time, it was just Alexander and me. By this time we talked on the phone regularly. I haven’t called Musja in a couple of months, but I talk to Musja on the phone regularly. He always wanted to write something with me. I didn’t want to do that, because I was told, early on, don’t co-author stuff in America. It’s death; you know, for tenure, you’ve got to have your own stuff – plus, I’m an ornery son-of-a-gun, you know. I could always help Sanya with the English, but I’m not sure we could see eye-to-eye. And then this court symposium came up at D.O. that Henry Maguire was organizing. He would come up and we have a nice, big lunch or dinner, and then would go for a long walk along the river, along the Charles. I suggested, “Let’s do a paper together.” He said, “Oh yes, let’s do a paper together.” We wound up doing that paper together. It was tremendous fun.
CW: In ’93?
MM: I don’t remember when it was. I lose track; something like that. We argued tremendously, over the phone. I don’t think we had email yet. He got into email. I probably have one or two emails from the very beginning of email in my life and his. We would always do it on the phone or see each other. Boy we had great fun fighting over that. He’d send up the sources: “This is what we’re going to write on”; then I’d send back mine. We’d do our interpretations; and we’d fight, fight, fight, fight, fight: “Oh, you can’t say this”; “Yes, you can say this.” It was just tremendous fun.
ABF: This was the Byzantine court as a social phenomenon?
MM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, one of the biggest fights we had, quite interestingly, was over the lives of Constantine and Methodius. He had never used them for his research, and was really not all too familiar with them. I had been struck, from my research working on origins, by what fantastic sources they were. I think they’re the best Byzantine hagiography of the ninth century, even if they survive in Old Church Slavonic. So, he agreed that we could use them; and we did use them. I think they were an important element in that particular paper. It was just great fun. We knew each other so well, and had done these seminars together for years, and drunk a lot of vodka together, and eaten and carried on, and driven five hundred miles in their car together – me driving, him, in the front, telling me the wrong way to go and Musja screaming in the back and pummeling him. I’m just calmly driving along, with this roaring argument going on – pa-ruski, ay yi yi [laughing]. Ah, they’re just so wonderful. They really are.
ABF: Now, from your semi-remove at Harvard, how has Dumbarton Oaks changed, if it has in your opinion, since you first came there in – ’78, I guess it was?
MM: ’79. Yeah, I think it was then. I got my dissertation in ’79 so I guess I first got there in August ’79. Well, I mean, that’s a long time in the life of institutions. It was going through big chances when I got there. I mean, there was a lot going on at D.O. – back to the institutional history of Dumbarton Oaks – a lot going on. I described for you earlier the rather difficult general circumstances for younger scholars, but in the life of Dumbarton Oaks a lot was going on. There had been some crises before that. As I understood it, what had happened was that it had been the plaything of the Blisses: they created it, they funded it, it was their house and their thing; and if there were problems that emerged, you could – some of the old-timers put it this way to me – you could always go to Mrs. Bliss and ask her for some money. And, she would give you some money, and you’d get it fixed. Well, they were gone, and it was – at least nominally – a part of Harvard University, but it was not really part of Harvard University, in terms of anything: in terms of the benefits, and the health plan, and accounting standards. There were physical problems: the roof was caving in when I was there; the Orangery was about to be condemned – there was a very serious problem with rot there, some kind of rot. The staff was a very mixed bag. I mean, you had a few survivors of the very old-style faculty: Bill Loerke was there and was not going anywhere. You had the housemen, who were still, at this point, the personal servants of the Blisses. They were a wonderful group. They’d be a wonderful group to talk to. They used to speak to each other in this incredible Mediterranean vernacular: so you had Portuguese, Spanish, French. Alex De Boeck, the art – we’ve got some of his work downstairs. He was in charge of the mail room, he was a very gifted artist. Alex De Boeck: D-E-B-O-E-C-K; and a sweet, sweet guy. He’s dead; died of cancer, terrible, lung cancer – he smoked too much. But anyhow, they all communicated in this kind of proto-Romance: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French; and they would somehow speak some kind of lingua franca among themselves. It was just an absolute scream to listen to, as they would talk to each other. And, they were accustomed to another world – to kind of an old world relationship with the great lord and lady, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss. It was not easy for them to transition to a more institutional sort of thing. I mean, I have a small memory of someone who was, for example, in accounting when I got there, and, boy, she was just not good at it. I mean, my paycheck got all screwed up. The level of kind of basic competency was not necessarily very impressive in some areas of the institution. It was not very institutionalized, really. What I have heard is that Joan Southcote-Aston, who became – I don’t know if she was curator of art, but certainly she was in charge of the concert series – started out as Mrs. Bliss’ maid; you know, and that doesn’t mean you don’t have great talent as a maid or as a manservant, but it’s just really not the role she played at the end. So, you have that kind of a personal entourage there, and people who still remembered the Blisses. I mean, Michael Hendy, who just passed away, was there right at the beginning when I first got there; and he used to talk about how Mrs. Bliss loved him because he was a Brit and how she would have hated me because I was an American. He would describe how wonderful it was to go and have tea with her, and to be pampered by her, and how she would cut all the lower-class types down to size. There were all kinds of complicated mental resonances that were there when I walked into it, to a world that was no longer there but that still continued to infuse the institution or the place. I think that a lot of the tensions that people perceived when Giles Constable was there were because he was trying to save it and to make it into an institution, so that it could survive; and that involved, you know, proper accounting procedures and [unintelligible] you know, fire alarms, climatization and fixing rotting roofs and what have you. So, that whole process of being transformed into a viable institution was one that was happening in the late ’70s and the ’80s. It was quite fascinating to see – what a diplomatic challenge, what an institutional challenge for Giles and, well, for all of us in many ways, you know, because the people who had been there forever were moving into a new, and, to them, unpleasant world; and those of us who had just arrived were in this strange place that was neither fish nor fowl, in institutional terms. Intellectually, it was incredible, absolutely incredible. The minds that would sit there at lunch: you know, Kurt Weitzmann, Ernst Kitzinger, Arnaldo Momigliano; it’s just incredible, the people that I had the privilege to have lunch – that everyone had the privilege of eating lunch with. The level of discussions were so incredibly high. It really was a whole other – I remember Momigliano talking about some seventeenth-century Italian translation of the Bible – or eighteenth-century – that he was fascinated with at that time. He just went on and on, and it was the most fascinating conversation I ever heard. I was just sitting there: “Ahh, yeah. I have to read this. This is great.” That was maybe not every lunch, but it was constantly so. I mean, Philip Grierson, my god, what a wonderful person to sit and talk with about anything: the etymology of salt cellars; you know, his childhood, seeing the Easter Rising as a child in Dublin, walking through the ruins of his father’s print shop after the shelling of the city; or constant, constant numismatic things. And, I mean, the questions you’d ask him; he’d had an incredible command of political history. We had the Psellos seminar. Kazhdan was world-class, obviously, and never afraid of asking hard questions of anyone. Constable was a remarkable intellect, a remarkable scholar. Ihor would show up once in a while when he was in a good mood, and was always stimulating, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So, while you had this very curious shift of the institution towards an institution, at the same time, there was this milieu – at least it appears in retrospect and it certainly felt that way then – I felt I was at the center of the intellectual world, in our little fields. Everybody came there. We all had lunch with us; we all had lunch with each other. I just learned, learned, learned. In a way, it was like Louvain or Paris on steroids. It was incredible, absolutely incredible. It was a great place for young people too, because Giles opened up things. I mean, I don’t know what it was like before, but he was pretty tolerant of our wildness, you know, because we were in our twenties, and you guys know what it’s like to be at Dumbarton Oaks in your twenties and be going crazy. We used to have parties. The garden was closed, in those days – so Giles, another bad thing Giles had done: he’d opened the gardens to the public daily, so that meant the staff couldn’t go swimming whenever you wanted (you could only go swimming until, I guess, 2:00 pm and then again at 5:30 pm or whenever they closed them – they were open to the public for the afternoon). But, two days a year, two days a summer, the gardens were closed – the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, right, maybe Labor Day too, but – so we started to have all-day parties, pool parties, that were very wild, that would start about 11:00 in the morning, bringing in cases and cases of beer, putting blocks of ice in the fountain by the pool, and barbequing; and then by 10:00 pm, staggering up to the Orangery [laughing], juicing up the old stereo and dancing to the Rolling Stones until midnight or 1:00 am [laughing]. Gary Vikan was the great organizer of that [laughing]. He had the stereo and he was into the Rolling Stones; I remember that. I remember once in the Orangery, we were danced away, the Rolling Stones are blasting out, and there’s a gaggle of Japanese tourists way down there at the gate looking up trying to figure out what was going on at this museum [laughing]. It was fantastic. Oh, we had a blast. You know, it was great for young people. It was wonderful. You know what it’s like – physically, it’s so beautiful, the pool is so great; and those were carefree days. This was pre-AIDS, and so on, so forth [laughing]. They were pretty wild times, and Dumbarton Oaks had a reputation for being a wild place anyways. It was a lot of fun, golly. Alexander was a great participant in fun. He was a great swimmer. As you know, he died in the pool.
CW: One or two Dumbarton Oaks Byzantinists have died in the pool, or so we’ve heard. Was it Vasiliev?
ABF: Or, it may have been in the gardens –
MM: I don’t know who died in the gardens.
CW: Vasiliev, I think?
MM: They died on the same day.
MM: Yes, the 29th of May. Is that right? The day of the Fall of Constantinople.
ABF and CW: Yes.
MM: Brrr. As Ovid said, “Day of Ill-Omen.” Yeah, Sanya was always in the pool. We swam a lot together, although he just swam so much, I’d let him do most of the swimming. I had some riotous episodes at the pool on his sixtieth birthday party, which was great. They had a – it was the entire Russian intelligentsia of Washington that came, yeah. It was incredible. Musja and Musja’s friend Maya – Maya is the mother of Sergey Brin – or grandmother, excuse me. Maya and Musja had been cooking, everybody had been cooking, all Musja’s friends had been cooking and making vodka all over the place. I think Alexander’s mother was still alive, too. They set up a table in that little house that started in the corner of the living room and ran all the way back to the kitchen. It was like fifty people in there, sixty people. We started eating and drinking in there. Ah, we just ate and drank, way too much, way too late. Kinds of crazy dancing – I can see Musja hanging onto Sanya’s back, trying to pull him off of whoever he was dancing with. And, at the end, a couple of crazy Byzantinists wound up down at the pool, skinny-dipping, drinking champagne. It was absolutely scandalous; absolutely horrible. Kazhdan was one of them, but I don’t remember who the other was – a good time, a good place. Great intellectual things went on, and it was a great place to be – absolutely fantastic. I don’t think it’s quite like that these days – I mean, I came up here and I was pretty tied up here. I was set to go back on a sabbatical. We had it all set up and I was going to have the other half of the house – Aleksandr and Musja had their half of the house and I was going to have the other half of the house, which had been the Assistant Director’s house and then, I don’t know, rotating visiting scholars. Someone – Angeliki, or whoever was the Director at that point – I think it was Angeliki, yeah – said I could have that house. It was great, because then we would have been together in the same house, and Musja said we could use the washing machine. Musja and Magda got along quite well. My children didn’t know them very well, because they would come for a couple hours two or three times a year, and, for small children, that’s not much. So, I was looking forward to that. Of course, we were supposed to come in the second semester of whatever year that was, maybe the spring semester of ’98; and, of course, Alexander died the preceding spring, so that never came to pass. That’s too bad; that would have been great fun. And, I must say, it was very strange to be there without him. Dumbarton Oaks has played a great role, if you look at it, not just in the history of Byzantium or the history of Byzantine art or the history of Pre-Columbian Studies or the history of Landscape Architecture, but in all kinds of studies and art. The number of artists – this is something that’s always fascinated me – the number of artists who find employ at Dumbarton Oaks, because it’s kind of an easy place to work where you can – well, it’s a beautiful place to work, and you can kind of do your art on the side with the salary you get. I don’t know who all is there now, but Joe – Joe Mills – is one great example. Alex de Boeck is another one; I can show you downstairs a couple of his paintings. That was great. When we got married – Magda worked at Dumbarton Oaks also. That’s how we met. She worked during the summer or something, in the library; and after she finished college, she went to work there, in the library. I was on the library committee or chairing the library committee or something – I was in charge of ordering books; and so Magda actually had to place the orders. I said, it’s the last time I’ve ever been able to give orders to my wife – then future wife. Book hoarders! [laughing] It was great. We were all friends, is what I want to say. She was very close to Alex de Boeck. They couldn’t come to the wedding – it was in Memphis. But, he and his wife, who was a dancer, wanted to take us out to dinner; and, after dinner, they took us to their house, took us up to his studio, and he showed us his 10 most fantastic paintings and he said, “Now, this is our present. Pick the painting that you like best.” Of course, neither of us can ever make up our mind, and we looked and looked and looked; and, of course, we couldn’t decide on the same picture. We liked two different pictures. And finally, he said, “Okay.” He went over and said, “I am giving you this one”; and he picked them up both and gave us both of them. I think only one is up now. Magda’s moved them, because we don’t have that big a house; but we’ve had both them up and we rotate them. You can see it. He was a wonderful guy, a very, very sweet person in the mailroom. There were many, many wonderful people like that. Gosh, the house men: Luis was so sweet and gentle; Tony was not sweet and gentle, but a very good man – a Portuguese fellow, Tony Pereira I guess – whose daughters went to college, and he wanted them to become doctors and lawyers but they were interested in art history or something like that. We used to say, “That’s okay, Tony, that’s okay” (and they went to Brown or Yale; it was fantastic). He was a very able guy, but started out low on the totem pole; but with lots of tremendous native ability – and the girls got it. There were just a lot of wonderful people, all around: scholars, housemen, administrators. People kind of grew to be together in a good way. You know, Seka Allen had a party for me – Seka and Irene had a reception I guess for our wedding at Dumbarton Oaks; because, I mean, Giles came to the wedding, but a lot of people couldn’t come to Memphis. Irfan and Mary Shahîd – we’ve been close for a long time. Irfan was the first person I met at Dumbarton Oaks since he was living in the Fellows’ Building when I first went to stay there. I found him hilarious and enjoyed him immensely. He finds a great bond between us because we are both married to Saracen women [laughing] (Magda’s of Lebanese origin). Irfan, you know, is typical of the kind of intellectual generosity that can be so characteristic of that place. I had found a reference in a scholarly work to an Arab traveler who was shipwrecked in Rome in the early Middle Ages, and I wanted Irfan to check the text for me (I don’t know Arabic). I gave Irfan the reference, and I didn’t want to press him on it because he’s got a lot to do. I came back, you know, like two days later, and he was reading the book – this huge book – that it was in. I said, “Irfan, what are you doing?” I said, “Is the translation okay?” He said, “No. The reference is wrong. It’s not what it says it is. I’m trying to find it.” I said, “Oh no, Irfan, it’s not worth it. Don’t bother yourself.” [laughing] He spent, I think, three days, reading through the whole goddamn huge geography to find the reference; and, when he did, he found that it had been completely mistranslated, the meaning was completely out there, and it really is one of the most important pieces of information we have on commerce in the early medieval Mediterranean that no one had ever used before; and that kind of – What else would you like me to cover?
ABF: I think you basically covered everything that we came up with.
CW: We cut you off in the middle of a story about Irfan.
MM: Well, the point of that was simply that here was this very distinguished scholar who, because I’d asked him a scholarly question and given him the reference, given him the photocopy of the article with the reference in it which proved to be wrong, he, simply as a collegial – as a natural, spontaneous, unreflected collegial thing – spent three days reading this multi-volume work to find the reference, the proper reference; did; translated it; found it had been utterly mistranslated; and so produced for all of us a wonderful gem of information about commerce and the traders sailing around the Mediterranean around 800. And, that’s the kind of thing that one becomes accustomed to at Dumbarton Oaks – or one, at least in my day, it was quite normal and natural. Robert Browning or John Callahan – I can’t say how many times they worked through Latin texts or Greek texts (John only with Greek texts, but Robert with Latin and Greek texts), with difficult, complicated things; Giles Constable, with questions of religious history, monastic history, medieval history in general; Alexander, obviously. I mean, you ask him any question, and within seconds he would have his miniature index cards out there and be sharing that information with you. He was just incredibly generous and open with his researching; as harsh as he could be in manner, in criticism – he expected other people to treat him that way; you know, no use wasting words – incredibly generous. Can you imagine being a young scholar at the beginning of your career and being dropped into this extraordinary milieu? I mean, what a privilege. That’s why, when we were setting up, I was saying to you that I owe an incalculable debt to Dumbarton Oaks and to Johns Hopkins, of course; but it was really just an extraordinary milieu and an extraordinary eight years – ten years, really, because I was there just as much when I was no longer on the salary. I mean, it was my library and I lived right around the corner in Glover Park. So, I was there at dawn – well, what passed for dawn in my life; so, 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning – and, it closes early now, but in those days it closed at midnight, and I was always the last out – or, one of the last, with Callahan or Trombley or something like that. Miscreants. It was a great place, a fantastic library. Irene Vaslef knocked herself out trying to get whatever we needed for us. Giles insisted that we had to build a library broadly; and did. Gosh, a great place.
ABF: Thank you so much.
MM: Thank you.
ABF: This was so much fun to hear, to hear your stories about Kazhdan.
CW: This was an intellectual biography of you and Kazhdan.
MM: Yeah. You know, I’ve been privileged. I really have been privileged. One of these days, you know, people are going to look back; and, people do this, these days – they write biographies of scholars – it’s a waste of time, but they do it – and they’re going to say, “This guy was born to be a scholar,” and have no idea what Tonawanda, NY was like; but I had the privilege of having extraordinary teachers in Belgium, in Toronto, and then at Dumbarton Oaks, between Kazhdan, Constable, Browning, Nicky Oikonomides, John Callahan.