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George Majeska

Oral History Interview with George Majeska, undertaken by Anna Bonnell-Freidin and Clem Wood in the Dumbarton Oaks Guest House (Fellows Building) on August 18, 2008. At Dumbarton Oaks, George Majeska was a Junior Fellow (1965–1967), a Visiting Fellow (1976–1977), and a Fellow (1988–1989) of Byzantine Studies.

CW: We are Anna Bonnell-Freidin and Clem Wood and we have the pleasure of interviewing George Majeska in the Fellows Building at Dumbarton Oaks on August 18, 2008. So, our first question is how you first came to apply for a junior fellowship at D.O.

GM: Well, my advisor at Indiana, George Soulis, had previously been the librarian at Dumbarton Oaks and really thought this was the only place I could do the dissertation we agreed on together. And I had the strange experience of applying from Leningrad, since I was on an exchange program there and I obviously got letters from my advisor here, but I thought it would also be wise to have a letter from my advisor in the Soviet Union, who was Georgij Kurbatov in Leningrad. And he knew what Dumbarton Oaks was. Eventually he came here as a Summer Fellow, I think. A wonderful bon mot: I asked him if he would write a recommendation, and he said, “Yes,” immediately. And I said, “A positive recommendation?” And he said, “Did you ask for a de-recommendation?,” which I thought was pretty good for this. And apparently, he did write a positive one. And I ended up here. I think an amusing insight, which you might not have from too many other people, is that I was married at the time. My wife was teaching at State College in Indiana, probably now “University.” And she came to Washington to look for a job, once I got the fellowship. And she got a job teaching at Hood College in Frederick. And just on the off chance that she might be able to see it, she stopped in at Dumbarton Oaks and asked the Director about the housing availability. And she was told that, yes, there was a nice double room in the Fellows Building with a shared bathroom. And my wife, who had her own apartment for years, was sort of horrified and realized that she had a lot of work to do for her job. It would be sort of difficult to do this in a one-room shared-bath situation. So, she suggested that perhaps they could rent an apartment and we would pay for it since she would have a regular salary, and the Director was sort of nonplussed. I mean, what more could people want than a room in the Fellows Building? But apparently at the same time he got a letter from Sysse Engberg, who was coming the same year, saying that she could not conceive of herself and her husband living in one room, and if they would rent an apartment, she would pay the rent. And so, all of a sudden, the tradition of renting apartments for Dumbarton Oaks Fellows started. And as a sort of footnote to this, an earlier Fellow – apparently in the old Fellows Building which had paper-thin walls – managed to get his wife pregnant, which was a source of much amusement to everyone. “Wow, how did you do this?” and, “We didn’t know!” – sort of thing. But while his wife was in the hospital delivering, he was told that they had to move out. There were no facilities. This was supposed to be a monastic scholarly foundation. And so he had to – well, in these days it was much easier because Georgetown hadn’t become the trendy spot it later became – so they rented a little apartment above a tailor’s shop on Wisconsin Avenue for the rest of his fellowship. Anyway, that’s my insight.

CW: Your experience was under Thacher?

GM: Yeah, yeah. And then later, with Thomson, and then Constable. So yeah, Thacher was an interesting director – sort of the last of the Bliss protégés. He had the job because he was – I think he was the godson or godfather of Mrs. Bliss? He had some personal relationship with the Blisses. I guess the Blisses had been his godparents or something like that.

CW: That was William Tyler.

GM: Oh, okay, you’re right. He was just a friend, a good friend.

ABF: So, how was it to come here straight out of the U.S.S.R.?

GM: Well, we did have three months traveling around Europe. My wife flew over and met me and I sort of decompressed there. But when I did come – it was nice to have the apartment, 2702 was a marvelous place back then because you could look out our window and watch planes landing at national airport. Then they put up the Soviet embassy there and – that’s the end of FM reception, I’m sure. But – how did I find it here? It was a very sort of esoteric life. It was a scholarly monastery here, though – some very non-monastic things went on also. But really, at that point, for instance, there were only Byzantine Fellows, and we all ate together and it was really quite formal. The eldest lady present sat at the head of one table and the second eldest sat at another. The eldest – you could tell she was the senior because she had a little silver bell to ring when it was time for the next course to be served. And the courses were served then. And the conversation was marvelous. I think most of the Junior Fellows ended up learning as much from the conversations at the lunch table as the library. I remember an excited discussion because Ihor Ševčenko had just seen a palimpsest copy of a Constantine [unintelligible] document and, you know, sort of shared this with everyone at the lunch table, which was just fascinating – you know, there at the creation. This sort of thing went on all the time back then. Later on, staff started coming and the conversation tended to become more general so that no one would feel left out. You’d talk about movies you’d seen and things like that – quite a different thing. And then when you had to serve for yourself – ah! People took large helpings! – the freshman fourteen pounds for graduate students.

ABF: Who were the scholars who stood out to you when you came here?

GM: I’m sorry, what?

ABF: Who stood out to you?

GM: Well, Ihor Ševčenko, because we share the field. He does medieval Slavic and Byzantine also. So, he was very special and my advisor died while I was writing my dissertation – George Soulis. And Ihor stepped in very generously and essentially was my advisor on the spot, though he refused an invitation to come to the defense at Indiana because there was some sort of bad blood between him and Glanville Downey, who was at Indiana. So, he just sort of sent me off there to defend by myself which was no problem. As I tell my graduate students, if you don’t know more about your dissertation topic than anyone on that committee, then you don’t deserve the degree. And that was true in my case. It was just an impressive group that was here. Cyril Mango was here part of the time – another person who does some Slavic; Ernst Kitzinger, of course; and Romilly Jenkins who sort of was the house conservative, politically. It was the best introduction you can get to the Byzantine field. And one of the nice things about being in the Washington area is of course you meet all the Byzantinists from around the world who troop through here regularly. This has been really very, very pleasant and beneficial. In fact, that’s why I moved to Maryland from SUNY Buffalo. I got actually a postcard from the director of graduate placement at Indiana saying, “There’s an opening at Maryland that might fit you. I think that’s close to Dumbarton Oaks,” question mark, question mark. He knew damn well it was! “Would you like me to recommend you?” And I said, “absolutely.” And I enjoyed being here. The kind of research I do would be very difficult without a library like Dumbarton Oaks’ – just so many different sources that I need at any given moment. So, I’m very happy to be here.

CW: So, you’ve been able to come and use the library even in the time when you don’t have a fellowship?

GM: Oh, yeah, it was a little easier when there was parking and I could essentially come in for the day, which I often did on days I wasn’t teaching. Now it’s a little more difficult with the two hours street parking being the only thing around. I suppose I could carry my laptop from Dupont Circle – not a big problem. In fact, I sometimes do.

ABF: So, to go back, so Soulis was here as a librarian. Did you know him in the capacity of the Dumbarton Oaks librarian?

GM: No, no. He had gone from there to Indiana and in fact I – a strange story how I ended up doing Byzantine: I was really admitted to graduate school in Russian literature but I was also doing an inter-disciplinary program in Russian area studies and the director of the program was a professor of Russian history who had been very active in bringing Soulis to Indiana and really thought that the best way to keep him happy was to get him some graduate students. And since I knew Russian and he realized that I had studied Greek in high school (good Jesuit education), he thought, “Aha! Here’s a possibility.” So, he essentially invited me to quit the Russian language and literature program and join history and work with Soulis. And this was just perfect – with the Slavic and Byzantine both. And he was a marvelous person to work with – very giving, very willing to share in just about everything. He came to my wedding – we still have a set of salad bowls he gave us as a wedding present. And he, of course, was a good entrée to Dumbarton Oaks since everyone knew him. And as far as I can tell, everyone liked him very much. I can’t imagine anyone not liking George Soulis – a special person.

ABF: Alice-Mary told me that he was the first professional librarian at Dumbarton Oaks. So did he bring back – ?

GM: Yes. He was the first professor – trained scholar. He wasn’t a trained librarian, actually. He had a Ph.D. in history from Harvard. But I think before that, the library had been haphazard. They hired someone who might not know the field at all. It might have been a librarian but had no background. And Soulis was linguistically just marvelously gifted, and I think he is responsible for the strengths of the Slavic collection here, for instance, since he worked on Slavic – for which Ned Keenan is eminently grateful since it made it possible for him to do his work here too. But I never knew him as the librarian here. Merlin Packard was the librarian here at one point when I was here and then Carl Kraeling who was actually a classical archeologist was the librarian. But I think it had become by that time a sort of administrative position – overseeing the library.

CW: How have you found the experience of the new library as compared to the old one? 

GM: Cold. It’s freezing. And they won’t let you wear outside clothing inside. And so you have to bring a sweater. You can’t wear your coat. That’s my chief complaint – really my only complaint. Otherwise I think it’s a marvelous building. I know some people don’t like it. I do. I think it’s bright and for those of us who’ve been here forty years, thinking of the heat of the attic in the original building and working up there in the summer – you appreciate the new library very much.

ABF: Going back to the issue of the Slavic question. How was it to come here at that point as somebody who did have this very strong background in Slavic studies as opposed to the primarily Byzantine focus of the scholars?

GM: Well, I never felt completely at home with the pure Byzantinists. I mean, my Greek was not up to par. It was useable and that was about it – literally, useable. On the other hand, they sort of stood in awe of me speaking fluent Russian – a “wow” kind of thing. I think the thing – the scholarly realm that most impressed me was of course having the open stacks system here after being in Leningrad where there was not even a card catalogue. You filled out a request for a book, thinking they might have it. The librarians were wonderful – they could find it. There was a service catalogue apparently, but it was not available to the public because they might have access to the wrong things. So, the difference between that and checking out a seventeenth-century edition to your carrel was pretty impressive.

ABF: So, your first two years here as a Junior Fellow you used to complete your dissertation?

GM: Almost completed – I didn’t quite. That was a problem with the sort of automatic second year for Junior Fellows – or almost automatic second year – that you really indulged yourself in a lot of broad background reading that really wasn’t necessary or necessarily efficient. That was also part of the problem with having a full-time faculty here. I mean, they had no deadlines other than ones they set up for themselves. So, they did super work, but it might take them a year to write a good article, which is probably not par for the course.

ABF: This is something you must have watched happen. My next question was going to be: you came back basically a decade later when things were really beginning to change – there was this disintegration of the faculty, you know, this “diaspora.”

GM: This was also the time of the founding of the alumni association, which was not an old boy’s club. It was really a lobbying organization to make sure Dumbarton Oaks stayed Dumbarton Oaks and stayed in Washington. There’s good reason to believe that among the trustees at Harvard, the thought of closing Dumbarton Oaks or closing the research part of it and moving it all to Cambridge was very actively discussed to the extent of measuring the bookshelves to see if they could absorb the collection easily. This bothered a lot of people – a number of them Harvard Ph.D.s, by the way, thinking that the country needed not fewer Byzantine research centers, but more and that was the genesis of the alumni association which actually fought pretty strongly and apparently won. It’s still here. But it did not look very bright – the future did not look very bright for a while there. And there have been repercussions from this among some of the scholars who were most active in the fight.

CW: Were you at that – was it a congress at Columbia in the late seventies when there was this famous protest scene?

GM: I was part of it.

CW: You were part of that?

GM: Yeah. The highlight of that, though, I have to say, is Giles Constable who was the Director then, was at the meeting and so was Angeliki Laiou who was one of the trustees for Dumbarton Oaks and on the governing board – whatever it was called at that point. And I remember a particularly passionate presentation being made about keeping Dumbarton Oaks open and in Washington. And Constable who was taking all of this in sort of responded and said, “I really don’t know what to make of all this. I look out into the audience and some people are shaking their heads, ‘yes’ [he shakes his head up and down] and some people are shaking their heads, ‘no’ [he shakes his head side to side].” And – you know what’s behind this? And Angeliki Laiou got up and said maybe they’re saying the same thing, of course, because Greeks shake their heads [he shakes his head side to side], “yes.”

ABF: Speaking of Constable, since you were here at the University of Maryland, you watched this turnover from Thacher to Tyler to Constable. And well, we’ll deal with the other ones later. So, what were your impressions of how the institution changed as the directorship changed?

GM: Well, I think the only one who had an agenda of pushing change, and I’m not sure he was completely clear on what the changes should be, was Constable. I think Tyler just sort of slid into the job and thought it was running fine and sort of wrote his books. Constable was the first Harvard professor quote-unquote “sent down” to direct Dumbarton Oaks and, I think, assumed that he was supposed to make some revisions in the place. I’m not sure he was quite clear what it was. I mean, one of them was the possibility of packing it up and moving it to Cambridge, and to possibly do that was getting rid of the tenured permanent faculty who, as Constable noted and everyone agreed, are not faculty in the normal sense of the word. They do not teach! This, as a matter of fact, in the organizing principles of Dumbarton Oaks from the Blisses – there is to be no instruction. You cut corners on this. We can all use some tutorials in Greek. That happens even today. But I think how much of this was Giles’ decision or how much of it was Giles’ representing the board of fellows at Harvard – whatever it’s called – the big problem was tenured faculty here. They were afraid of AAUP. The problem was solved most easily by moving several of them up to Cambridge and giving them tenure there which meant there was no residual faculty here, and then began the rotating Director of Studies system. And I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. If you had top-notch people, this was marvelous for the visiting Fellows – particularly the younger ones, the Junior Fellows. And it’s almost not fair to have just one person like Alice-Mary charged with this, though she does a superb job. I’m really impressed with how well she’s handled it. So, that’s what I saw most in the changes. Now, of course, with Keenan it was marvelous because we spoke Russian. What more could you want? But just going back to these earlier days, were you here and were you aware of – well, looking back on it – what must have been a sea-change year which was 1969 when Paul Underwood died, Mrs. Bliss died, Romilly Jenkins also died, and John Thacher retired. So, you know, one could even think of that year as even marking the end of an era –

ABF: Or at least, the end of the Bliss era, you know. And Constable initiated all those changes subsequently –

GM: It went from – what most of us noticed was Harvard started to play a much stronger role. Previously it was like I Tattiit had its own budget, it handled its own affairs: “God be with them, down there in Washington.” Once they started appointing directors from Harvard, I think, Harvard probably, correctly, asked, “What’s in it for us?” and wondered how to handle the actual administration of the place which they hadn’t really worried about before, as far as I can see it. It took care of itself. I don’t think they would have cared to hassle Mrs. Bliss. She would not be hassled with, very clearly. So, the scholarly mission, as such, stayed pretty much the same, and that is what most of us were interested in. But there was a lot of worry that it was going to be absorbed by Harvard. But other than that, they kept buying books, I kept reading them and that’s the name of the game.

ABF: What are your memories of Mrs. Bliss?

GM: She was a charming aristocrat – a very European-style aristocrat in America just as Dumbarton Oaks is a very European research center plopped into America where it is pretty unique. The first years I was here she still came to tea. We had a formal high tea – it wasn’t very high but it was formal – I think, every day and usually once a week. I don’t remember – Tuesday or Wednesday, Mrs. Bliss often came and chatted with the Fellows and it was very formal, very British. I think one of my favorite stories about Mrs. Bliss, which in fact is from an earlier time – John Teall told this story – that among the first Fellows, every Christmas Mrs. Bliss bought each of them a Christmas present. And knew them all, and she continued to try to know the Fellows and was very active and – particularly with acquisitions for the museum. She, and then after her, Thacher, had the Georgetown connections that they could call up someone and say, “There’s this wonderful gold solidus from an Emperor whom we’ve never had represented in our collection. Do you think you could buy it and donate it?” “Yes.” So, it was very nice having her around for that. She was a charming woman and very much an aristocrat in her bearing.

ABF: Now going back to the Constable period of change. You said that you didn’t think that the intellectual mission of the institution changed –

GM: I think Constable enunciated a lot of potential changes in this that never really happened and weren’t as serious as they sounded. There was much talking of making Dumbarton Oaks more available to people – of our mission. And indeed Dumbarton Oaks under Constable did start a tradition, which later died, of the Dumbarton Oaks professors at various universities where Dumbarton Oaks would half-fund someone, and that’s something I think was very successful. It was not massively successful, unfortunately. A number of these people did not get tenure simply because the university thought it was nice to have them for five or six years at half pay, but committing the other half of the pay made it a little more problematic. But that was certainly one of the real changes and that was Dumbarton Oaks in conjunction with the Byzantine studies conference who had suggested something like this and Dumbarton Oaks picked it up. Usefully, sometimes put off the inevitable drain out of the field of young people for a few years at least – some did move on and one of them now is a Dumbarton Oaks Professor at Harvard, John Duffy, who was originally a Dumbarton Oaks appointment at Maryland and then actually became a full professor at Maryland and got whisked away to Harvard.

CW: Do you remember these seminars that John Duffy and others would have been in – the kind of Greek reading Seminars at Dumbarton Oaks?  

GM: I never did any of the Greek reading seminars because my Greek was useless. One interesting thing that developed was that when Ihor Ševčenko was Byzantine Director of Studies he used to turn in a pretty much weekly seminar where all of the Fellows, juniors and seniors, gave a sort of in progress report of their research; which was a marvelous genuine informal seminar there. And other Fellows and other faculty would comment, make contributions and this was very, very useful, I thought – useful for my work. Eventually, however it deteriorated, and I think that’s the appropriate word, into a formal presentation so that it was really not much interested in the feedback any more; it was a kind of test, particularly as it became less common for Junior Fellows to come back a second year. So, it was a kind of test that you had to pass to get a second year fellowship, and it’s now become a very formal sort of thing, which is fine, but it destroyed the original purpose. And I don’t think anything replaced its original purpose of getting feedback – and that is sort of sad but it was amusing to watch it evolve into something very, very formal.

ABF: And were you aware of the trouble that kind of went on when Constable sort of abolished the position of the Director of Byzantine Studies? There was a gap, and different people stepped in – John Meyendorff was acting head of studies for a while – what was the impression?

GM: I think it was sort of chaotic and it wasn’t really working, I [unintelligible], and I think it was sort of demoralizing to me and to the institution. It destroyed a lot of continuity symbolized by re-painting the director of studies office every year when the new director would come in and say “I want wood paneling!” and they would put in wood paneling when it could just be painted over. Much time and trouble went into things like that. Yeah I think this was part of the floating that was going on under Constable’s administration where neither he nor the trustees were quite sure of the mission because they didn’t appoint a long-term director of studies because that would have cemented Dumbarton Oaks being in Washington, so I think still keeping their options open and moving it to the center for centers.

ABF: And it was just around the same time that you got a travelling grant from Dumbarton Oaks, 1977 –

GM: Which was what got me to check all the things I hadn’t checked before and that were questionable in my notes and also to see some new material that had surfaced while I was away. So, that was really very useful. I think that might be a good program that Dumbarton Oaks could keep going because the normal agencies that go for travel programs like that are normally not too excited about Byzantine things, so it could help the field a lot more people with tenure could get research trips occasionally

ABF: And so the next we travel to the Thompson period and you were a Byzantine Fellow ’88–’89. So, that was the tail end of Thompson’s tenure as Director. What were your impressions?

GM: Well I think the place was operating again, Thompson was very much like Tyler and Thacher and they just put people in and let them run it. And it was good to have someone who was really close to the field. That made him very aware of the problems of Byzantine studies – nothing special to remember except he was an awfully nice person. We all liked him.

ABF: And what were you working on?

GM: I was working on a Russian description of Constantinople by Anthony of Novgrod which is still not finished, but Anthony of Novgroud left a description of Constantinople from forty years before the Latin sack – so, the end of one era and the beginning of a different one. Then it was using the marvelous resources here from the department, of Constantinople.

CW: Do you have any particular memories of a significant time in the gardens here? Did you ever write papers there?

GM: [laughs] I will put that in the category with where I planned my lectures while swimming laps. It’s true but nobody believes it. Actually the first two years I was here it was almost a tradition that after lunch, if it were not raining, one would take a turn through the gardens, and so lunch conversation would continue during that time. It’s one of my fondest memories.

ABF: After ’89 you haven’t held a fellowship but I imagine you’ve been very involved in watching the institution.

GM: Oh of course, for many years I was here one or two days a week every week teaching – in summer even more. And so I watched the changes. If you’re here every week they come very slowly, but if you come back after a year there’s a new library building, there’s no parking, there’s pluses and minuses, and you need a badge to use the men’s room. But, I think in general the move had been possible catching up with the twentieth century; it was a holding operation against computerization? A lot of us were ambiguous about – I was one of the people who insisted that the University of Maryland not disband its current catalogue and this has proved very useful since a computerized catalogue has holes in it now you could actually flick through cards and we were pushing that for Dumbarton Oaks – but it seems to be working out. I’m happy with where Dumbarton Oaks is at the moment. The next director of Byzantine Studies –

ABF: Are there entire, particular symposia you have been involved with?

GM: An embarrassing number, as it turns out. The symposia have I think been the lifeblood of Dumbarton Oaks in two ways: one) creating a collection of scholarship on a topic; number two being a time when Byzantinists around the country and many from abroad come back and share ideas. I am sorry that the Music Room now takes fewer people than it did before renovations.

ABF: And do you have any thoughts about the general social and intellectual environment and how it has changed since you first came?

GM: I think the most noticeable thing is that you have Fellows from different centers and staff all meeting together which changes the conversation, though I notice some new things that has worked itself out, that the pre-Columbian and garden Fellows tend to eat at one time and the Byzantine Fellows at a later time. So, we’re getting more of the old kind of interchange on the field and with it, in fact, we should push for Byzantine Fellows going to Garden Fellows’ seminars and vice-versa. Well, if you’re working on Byzantine gardens that could be very useful. If you’re working on pre-Columbian oddities in Byzantine gardens, even more spectacular. But this doesn’t seem to happen. But I don’t think that does too much to raise the intellectual level of the –

CW: But now the talks of the Fellows are given in front of the three areas, so do you think there there’s a change in the talks?

GM: Right, or put another way, you have to water it down more. As my wife says, “If I can’t understand something, you cretin, then you’ve got a problem,” but she’s not a Byzantine historian. I think there’s something to be said about it. But look, they’re more formal, the informal talks disappeared. I’m really not sure; I haven’t been that much in the institutional life. Last time I was a Fellow – now there are people who are happy to be fellows. Harvard fellows have complained that that they really don’t have that much interest in pre-Columbian archaeology. I do. [laughs]

ABF: Do you have anything we haven’t asked that you’d like to tell us?

GM: Is there any deep dark secret that I harbor? Not that I care to share.

ABF: Or any anecdotes? Ideas? Musings?

GM: Now that it has been saved, I’m reasonably comfortable. I just admit that for a while I was quite sure it was going to become a Harvard conference center and a Harvard-in-Washington lobbying place, and the library and scholarship would all go to Cambridge. But I have no complaints; I bet Harvard has. I’m looking forward to the future, and there is a future for Dumbarton Oaks and for Byzantine studies. You’re congenial interviewers.

CW: Thank you.

ABF: You’ve been a congenial interviewee! Thank you.

GM: Before I give up the mic I will share one marvelous vignette – Francis Dvornik, who was on the faculty for many years and who was a Czech church historian and theologian, etcetera, and who had won the legion d'honneur back in France during World War II – Whenever the clip-on microphone was being put on at the music room for a lecture he would say, “Just don’t kiss me on two cheeks. This is not the gens au bonheur.”