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Christopher Jones

Oral History Interview with Christopher Jones, undertaken by Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent on July 13, 2009, at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. At Dumbarton Oaks, Christopher Jones was a Senior Fellow of Byzantine Studies (1993–1999).

JNSL: We are here this morning – my name is Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent. We are here July 13, 2009, with Professor Christopher Jones at the Institute for Advanced Study. Good morning, sir.

CJ: Good morning.

JNSL: I am very delighted to speak with you today about your memories of Dumbarton Oaks and your first impressions and your relationships through the years to Dumbarton Oaks and the people whom you’ve met there.

CJ: Thank you.

JNSL: Anything you would like to share.

CJ: I am going to give you a brief account of my connection with Dumbarton Oaks, which actually came to me as something of a surprise. Obviously, I’d known about Dumbarton Oaks for a very long time. My own thesis director at Harvard, Herbert Bloch, had I believe been in the first class of Fellows elected, though I believe in fact he had postponed his membership for a year. You’ll need to verify that. In short, of course, I knew of Dumbarton Oaks from way back. I was a graduate student from Harvard; then I taught at Toronto for a long time, came to Harvard in 1992. And I say surprised, pleasantly surprised, because it was quite soon after I’d arrived that Angeliki Laiou gave me the very honorable invitation to join as one of the Senior Fellows in Byzantine Studies, on which, if I remember right, I served for a total of six years, something like 93-99, possibly 94 to 2000. I chaired the board for about one year, maybe longer. In the end, and I am sorry to be vague about details, Ned Keenan came in as Director I think about my last year. Surprised because although I have interests in Late Antiquity and in fact a book that I had, with Glen Bowersock, helped to complete in the mid-90s was actually published by Dumbarton Oaks, though actually that was after I had become, or gone on the board. I didn’t consider myself at that time particularly a Late Antique person. I think Angeliki wanted a balance of people who were thorough-going Byzantinists to somebody like myself whose interests are certainly in later Greek, Roman history of the so-called imperial period. All my – or a large part – of my publications has been in authors of shall we say, the first, second, and third centuries. So, I think Angeliki wanted to bring in a slightly earlier person possibly to add to the mix. It was a very happy time, however, the years that I served. What did we do? Obviously we met, again I am searching my memory, but I think it was a twice a year, we would have a meeting in the fall, and I think another meeting in January, and then there would the symposium in April/May. As I remember, in my last year or so Angeliki didn’t call the Fall meeting, but only the January one, the January one being special for the election of next year’s Fellows.

JNSL: How would characterize the leadership under Prof. Laiou and the tone that she brought to Dumbarton Oaks?

CJ: It was very good. She was very good in interviews, very fair. She was, as you probably know, a slightly formidable person to meet, I didn’t find her formidable to meet. But I think she had this tremendous style, she always dressed beautifully. She often smoked, if I remember rightly, using a cigarette holder, if I am not mistaken, which had become very unusual by the 1990s. I remember that the room in which we interviewed sometimes had the smell of cigarette smoke and she would sometimes open the window, even though it could be very cold in Washington in January, but I was always grateful for it. I had the impression that she ran things extremely well. I never sensed any problems with the staff, except on just one occasion. It doesn’t really have to do with Angeliki actually, it was as I recall, and it may have been immense, it came up because there was a proposal in some way to amalgamate or rearrange the library holdings. I don’t now remember the details, but if I’m not mistaken the librarian concerned with Byzantine purchases or books, I think her name was Irene Vaslef, spoke to me for some half and hour asking in some way if I could prevent the envisaged change from taking place. I didn’t see any reason why the change should be prevented. It seemed to me it was one that tended towards organization. It seemed to me that it was probably some kind of turf struggle, and therefore I did nothing about it. But I don’t think that is actually a sign of any fault in Angeliki’s administration. It’s simply somebody worried about her own turf and tried to defend it. I always thought that, as far as I could tell, the people working there, also the people working more directly for her in the director’s house – you may remember that the director’s house is where I believe now is part of the new library, though I haven’t seen Dumbarton Oaks since the changes were made – they all seemed very nice, very efficient. I must say the lunches we used to have after a long morning’s deliberations were part of the, for me, part of the most enjoyable time. The food was good, the wine was excellent. To be candid, I sometimes felt at the lunches that even the Fellows were slightly afraid of Angeliki, at any rate I would often go and sit myself right next to Angeliki, having the sense that no one wanted to take the immediately adjacent chair. That’s possibly a false inference on my part. Because she was a formidable person in the fullest sense of “formidable.” Let me say about Angeliki that, of course, she was my colleague in the History Department as well. She was very good in meetings of the History Department. I co-taught a course with her for a couple of years, History 10, and I thought she was so good at lecturing, although it was a team- taught course, I attended all her lectures out of admiration for her teaching and trying to pick up a few tips about teaching from the way she taught. She was very firm, this is outside the business of D.O., in the meetings of the History Department. I remember one time we were discussing a question and I rashly said, “Oh, the answer to this question seems to me a No Brainer.” And Angeliki said, “Do you think we don’t have brains, Christopher?” (laughing) But seriously, she was a lovely person, and I had the impression that the place was extremely well-run. I used to love my visits because when I was there I would always ask permission to be let into the garden. I loved the gardens in D.O. I also greatly loved and admired the Philip Johnson little Pre-Columbian sort of pavilion, which I think is very good, with a lovely collection. Of course I also greatly admired the Byzantine Collection. But in some ways I think that inevitably that very elegant round Philip Johnson Building is perhaps the loveliest part architecturally of Dumbarton Oaks. Whenever I was there I would always take the opportunity to visit it.

JNSL: Very nice. Did you ever hear any stories about Mrs. Bliss herself from other people or what she was like?

CJ: No, no I didn’t. I’ve just been reading about her as a matter of fact in a new book of letters of the British professor, though born in Latvia, Isaiah Berlin, who remembered Washington from the forties when Mrs. Bliss was one of the great society hostesses. But no, I had no direct contact with her. I’m not sure I even knew anybody who knew her, although if I did, I never talked with them about her.

JNSL: Would you mind commenting, in your view, about the relationship between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks as you saw it, and what your thoughts were between the two?

CJ: Yes. I – you probably already talked about Professor Ševčenko’s migration, translation to the Classics department, which I think was very good for Classics, giving it, you know, an absolute star in the field of medieval Greek, in Byzantine Greek. I think that was a loss to Dumbarton Oaks, but whatever Ihor’s motives for the move are entirely up to him. I understand that he wanted to teach and knew that he wouldn’t be able to do that at D.O., and therefore asked to be transferred. You’ve probably talked about that with other people. The aspect – well let me put it this way – I never felt that the relation between Dumbarton Oaks and the Hellenic Center were as close as they really should be. The two institutions sit facing one another, as you probably know, across a gully, which can be traversed on foot, though I wouldn’t advise anyone to do that either at night or in rainy weather, but you can do it. Otherwise you have to drive a long way round to get from one to the other. I felt that there should be more collaboration, and I think that Gregory Nagy, the current Director of the Hellenic Center, who has a very strong interest in medieval and modern Greek, has made some attempts to improve – or at any rate, not to improve because they were not bad, they were simply not there – to tighten the relations between the two institutions. I remember this particularly because Greg from six years ago set up an epigraphy committee to consider Greek inscriptions, of which I was an early member. And Alice-Mary was invited over and came to the first meeting. I thought that was a very good initiative because it seemed to me that this was a way in which the two institutions could report together. To my knowledge, however, this initiative is rather spotted out. Whether there are now connections between D.O. and the Center of other kinds, I don’t know. As for Harvard, you probably have talked to the present Director, I think with the ever-growing financial difficulties at Harvard which are not likely to go away. I have the impression that the central administration would like, as it were, how should I put this delicately, to claw back, I think that is the technical expression, more of the funds of Dumbarton Oaks, and I think that that makes life a little difficult for Jan.

JNSL: Right, certainly. Do you have any memories from the symposia or special distinct events that stand out?

CJ: No, no,  I – none in particular. I remember quite early on the great scholar Hans Belting – great scholar, I believe, of Byzantine art and images – giving a talk I think at a symposium saying, “I wrote the book on this subject.” I don’t have any other clear memory of other ones, I do remember presiding with great pleasure when Olivia Constable, Giles’ daughter, gave a paper. I thought that that was a very pleasing, as it were, handing on to the next generation of interests that went back to her father. As you probably know, Olivia, more familiarly known as Remie, is really more an Islamic historian more than a Byzantine one. Otherwise, no, I don’t have any memories that particularly stand out. I do remember meeting certain people with particular pleasure. I much enjoyed talking to Cécile Morrisson. I remember having a very nice conversation with Philip Grierson back in the Fellows Building. He must have by then been very old, but he was very alert. I liked him very much indeed. I remember with affection the meetings of the Fellows. Those were always friendly, and I was very fond, for example, of Ioli. Ioli and I travelled, of course, together from Cambridge down to Washington, and I remember well once, as Ioli does, flying back with her from Washington to Boston. As we’d gone out from National Airport, I think it’s now called Reagan, there had been lightning flashing on every side, and nevertheless we got on the plane, the plane took off, lightning was still flashing everywhere. The plane was shaking like anything. I was panicked, grasping the seat. Ioli slept right through it. That is one of my most vivid memories of Dumbarton Oaks that didn’t actually take place at Dumbarton Oaks. But Ioli is an old friend and I treasure meetings with her present, with John Duffy of course because he also chaired in my time. I had great respect for George Dennis, Father Dennis, I don’t know whether or not he is still alive. He was an expert on Byzantine texts concerning fortification, artillery, of which there was a lot, because of course the Byzantines were very interested in the techniques of war. You can well imagine. I believe that that was Father Dennis’s specialty. He was a very sweet person from Georgetown. Intellectually, perhaps, the most impressive person I remember on those meetings, apart of course from Angeliki herself, was Father Taft, a Jesuit I think, who lived in Rome, again I don’t know whether he is still alive.

JNSL: He is going strong.

CJ: Yes, I assumed so because he gave the impression of great vigor. And he is probably quite a bit younger than I am for that matter. He was very impressive, I thought. I just had the impression that I was in the presence of a great scholar. He, I believe, was an expert on liturgy. Those are the memories that come immediately to the surface. I should mention that after I had left the board, Ned Keenan very kindly invited me to lecture. How are we doing?

JNSL: We have four minutes and I can switch it over to the next side.

CJ: Well, I should just say is Ned’s inviting me down to give a lecture some time I think around 2000, it might have been later. By that time the institution bought Elizabeth Taylor’s house close the Fellows Building.

JNSL: Ah!! (laughter)

CJ: I had been impressed by Ned as a wonderful host, but I have forgotten off hand what the subject of my lecture was.

JNSL: I was just about to ask you (laughing).

CJ: But I remember having a thoroughly good time, a good audience, and naturally I was very honored by and grateful for the invitation.

JNSL: Wonderful, thank you.

CJ: You’re welcome.