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Richard Nelson Frye

Oral History Interview with Richard Nelson Frye, undertaken by Anna Bonnell-Freiden and Clem Wood at the Dumbarton Oaks Guest House (Fellows Building) on August 8, 2008. At Dumbarton Oaks, Richard Frye served as a member of the Board of Scholars (1953–1959). Richard Frye died in 2014.

RF: What I want to talk about is the origins of Dumbarton Oaks, and I think that other people may have different ideas about it, that is, Ihor Ševčenko, Irfan Shahîd, and people who came along much later. I will start with the beginnings of it. And that was my professor of Byzantine History at Harvard University in 1939, called Robert Pierpont Blake. And he was a Professor, as I said, of Byzantine History. Unfortunately, other people carried out some of the discussions with the Blisses, but it is really important to remember that Blake was the first person who made contact with them and told them about Byzantine history. Tell you something about Blake himself, his wife was a Cossack, they named her Nadia. He originally went to St. Petersburg University to study with Nicolai Marr, and then with the coming of the revolution he went to Tbilisi. And in Tbilisi he taught English and German at the University in Tbilisi, but he also spent his time collecting manuscripts, Georgian manuscripts of the Old Testament and the New Testament. And we have a fabulous collection at Harvard University of ancient Georgian manuscripts, so Blake, even though he was a professor of Byzantine history, was mainly interested in Georgian and Armenian – very rare in this country as a matter of fact. So, he was the first person that I remember in 1939 or ’40 coming down to Dumbarton Oaks and talking with the Blisses, getting this all underway. Of course, as I say, there were other people. He wasn’t the only one, as I say, but I remember it, because when I came to Harvard in 1939, it was as a graduate student and he was my mentor, Blake, Robert Blake. So, I want to emphasize that Blake was a person who, by virtue of the fact that he was professor of Byzantine history, who got the Blisses interested in this, and as I say there were other people who were concerned, but he was the one. Now, I return to Dumbarton Oaks in 1941 – that was before Pearl Harbor – coming down in the early Fall of 1941. It’s quite interesting, because at that time I remember that Blake was here and I was introduced to the Blisses for the first time at that time – 1941. And it is quite interesting, because if I am not mistaken, the first two Fellows of Dumbarton Oaks were in, of all things, Islamic Art History. One of them was Mary Crane and the other was Florence Day. Florence Day had studied with an Azerbaijani by the name of Aga-Oglu at the University of Michigan. And I don’t know how exactly she was appointed here. Mary Crane was with the School of Fine Arts of New York University. So, the two of them here were, I think, the first two Fellows who started, or who were appointed. There may have been somebody else whom I skipped or have forgotten, but these were the two who I remember. And they were especially interested, as I said, in Islamic art. Florence Day mainly concerned with Arab art, if you will, because she was born and brought up in Beirut, American University of Beirut, whereas Mary Crane was more interested in Persian miniatures and the life, which was more unusual for Dumbarton Oaks to start off that way. Now, as I say, I don’t remember anyone else from that – much more from that time, because of course afterwards things fell apart with Pearl Harbor, and I went off to the wars and the Middle East and didn’t come back until 1945. But I remember, and if I recall, there was a tennis court that we had and a swimming pool. I know the swimming pool existed, but I am not sure if it is the same swimming pool that they had. But I remember using the swimming pool right next to the tennis court which existed. Now, the first thing that I remember is the beautiful high tea that Mrs. Bliss carried out for everybody, as a Fellow and later as a member of the Board of Trustees of Dumbarton Oaks. Now unfortunately, Blake died in 1950, and it was in 1950 that I became the Assistant Professor of History, Linguistics, and Comparative Philology, and also the Department of Semitic Languages. I should say that at that time – you must remember what kind of a world we lived in. The Russian language was taught in the German department by one person. And when you studied language, you didn’t study how to speak a language. I remember that I studied Chinese because it was the only place at Harvard that was different from Arabic, and Semitic language – Hebrew, and Aramaic and Syriac – because it was the same all over this country, there was nothing else, it was for missionaries. And I dealt with Chinese because I was interested in Central Asia, Iran and this whole area, so I said, “Why not?” Chinese would have a lot of interesting information, and so I studied Chinese. And I remember that after about a week in class one of the students raised his hand and said, “Sir, when do we learn to speak the language?” – “Speak? Speak? We don’t speak a language here, we only read Classics! If you want to learn to speak the language you go to the Berlitz school!” And this was the same for German, French, Spanish, or Italian; that’s all they had! And as I say, Russian was a subject that was given in the German department. And it was given once in while, just one course in Russian. And I remember that. But it was a completely different world that we had. And I remember coming down to Dumbarton Oaks, because Mrs. Bliss was rather punctual, rather careful about protocol, and everything was done with white covers on the tables, and everything was done in a very proper way. And as I say, one of the great features which we had with Mrs. Bliss was these high teas that we had, and the Fellows were always invited over late afternoon, 4:30 or 5:00 tea. And it was a great way to meet – but unfortunately I wasn’t here after 1942; I went overseas and didn’t come back until late 1945, and I didn’t have any connection with Dumbarton Oaks at that time. So, when I came back, it was as a member of the Board of Overseers of Dumbarton Oaks, and it was about 1952-3, and the chairman at that time was Albert Friend, and he was from Princeton University. And he was especially interested not especially in Byzantine art but in medieval art, western medieval art. And Albert Friend brought along his friend Kurt Weitzmann. And at that time, I remember, it was a much smaller guesthouse. There were Fellows on two floors, and it was much smaller than this. And I remember sitting with people like Kantorowicz and Dvornik from Czechoslovakia. I remember one time talking with them. Kantorowicz was quite a jovial character, to put it mildly, and I was trying to explain to him what kind of Semitic ideograms they had in Old Persian language. So, for example, you have a Semitic, that is, an Aramaic word like malk, or malka, and when you read it, you didn’t pronounce it malka, you said shah, the Persian word for king. And I had to explain this as a kind of changing of the syllable, and I explained this to him, to Kantorowicz, and Kantorowicz thought he had heard a “mouse” in this, and he said, “Ah! Malek the Mouse! That’s who it is!” And from that time on he called me “Malek the Mouse.” And this is one of the little anecdotes that we have here. Father Dvornik was from Czechoslovakia, you know, and – let me think. I can’t remember the Russian man – I don’t think he was a fellow here – he did Byzantine art at the University of Wisconsin – Vasiliev! That’s it. And there was a great influx of Russian, even Vernadsky came down to visit. I remember meeting him here and also then at Yale. And then Rostovtzeff. Poor Rostovtzeff of course lost his mind at the end, after – in the time of the war. So anyhow, Father Dvornik was kind of an interesting life of the party. He was telling people how things were in Prague and Czechoslovakia and the like, before he came here. And we used to have constant visitors and different people. And there was this pastor, I forgot his name again, who was the Russian orthodox priest at the Divinity School, but unfortunately there was a lot of dissatisfaction at Dumbarton Oaks about the fact that they didn’t have any students and were sort of isolated here. One was Glanville Downey and the other was Milton Anastos, two whom I know very well. Eventually Glanville Downey went to Indiana and Milton Anastos to UCLA, but I remember that was one of the problems that Bert Friend had. And then there was a lack of communication between the people who were Fellows here and lived here, who didn’t find enough students to talk to, and didn’t seem to feel that they had any continuation. They worked in the library or the main building there, but they – and I remember Glanville and Milton Anastos were constantly complaining how things were not so good. Now the one thing that I remember we did, was that there was a list of cards from Byzantinische Zeitschrift, and I remember copying them continually and bringing them down here to Dumbarton Oaks. I don’t know if there are still here, but if they are, it would be like going on the internet now or something. But I remember bringing them down from Harvard, these cards of Byzantinische Zeitschrift, with all of the articles in it. And I remember using it as a kind of reference, like in the present day, looking up Google, or looking it up in the Harvard Catalogue of Hollis. Here we have this Byzantinische Zeitschrift, not just with books but with articles. And as I was explaining, it was one of the big projects we had here for Dumbarton Oaks, and as I say, I don’t know what happened to them, because Blake was the one who initiated that, and he brought them down from the Byzantine History course. Now, I was later. Irfan Shahîd at Georgetown became associated with Dumbarton Oaks, Ihor Ševčenko eventually became Professor of Byzantine History here, at Dumbarton Oaks. Not at Harvard, but at Dumbarton Oaks. And I think both of these people should be consulted about the later development, because what I am giving you is a short resume of how things got started and how they developed, even when we had Igor Stravinsky – when he named his famous Dumbarton Oaks Suite – it was over there in that very room where it was performed. It used to have columns and it is a museum now. Everything now has changed, and I would have to reconstruct what happened. I think I’d better hold off and try to recover some more things, but those are things that I remember. So, do you have any questions or anything that you were interested in?

AB: What were your first impressions of Robert and Mildred Bliss when you came here?

RF: Mr. Bliss was reserved and was retired by that time completely, and Mrs. Bliss was the person who really – and of course she outlived him – and she was the one who conducted everything more or less as far as impressions are concerned. Mr. Bliss was definitely retired, but Mrs. Bliss was very outward, very open and very conscious of the fact of what she did. She was conscious that she do things properly, according to the proper way of handling tea, setting up a proper dinner, and so on. And as a matter of fact one time we did have dinner. I can’t remember but there was a person who was a caretaker, I can’t remember his name, but he was the person who took charge of the whole thing. He sort of ran things on behalf of Mr. Bliss. Mr. Bliss would sort of watch and was very present, and I had the impression that he was handled by this person.

AB: Do you remember whether there were concerts in the Music Room when you were here?

RF: I wasn’t at the concerts myself, I was in the war, but Stravinsky came here a number of times. When there was the Dumbarton Oaks Suite. I met Vasiliev, and he was here, and then I think he died – Rostovtzeff, who died during the war and lost his mind, too. But Vasiliev was a rather powerful – his collection at Dumbarton Oaks – I knew Kantorowicz and Kurt, I knew all these people. And it was rather strange, you know. I mean, here you have two people in Islamic Art, and Princeton University, which was a center at that time of Islamic studies, never had anybody in Islamic art. It was Kurt Weiztmann who sort of dropped it, who didn’t want any Islamic art, because it wasn’t, I don’t know, proper. Anyhow, that’s an interesting thing. I am really not sure what more I can add to this. As I said, it was the beginning of what I experienced, and what came afterward, as I say, was Paul Underwood, and, oh, I must tell you another thing! Yes! One person who was very interesting here and in Istanbul – and I had been in Istanbul during the war, 1944–5 – Whittemore, he did all of the work around the Kariye Djami.

CW: Whittemore died in 1950, and then Paul Underwood took over? And then Paul Underwood took over as director?

RF: Yes, Underwood took over for Whittemore, and I spent a lot of time over there visiting. With all of the subterranean places, it really was a wonderful city at that time. I remember going out to the Greek monasteries on the islands where they had all these old Greek manuscripts. I remember going out there and people were studying there.

AB: While Underwood was there, there was a very big Dumbarton Oaks contingent in Istanbul?

RF: There might have been people working there, this is during the war in ’44–’45, but I don’t remember a large contingent at the Kariye Camii. It must have been later in the ’50s that they came through. I was there in ’44–’45, during the war period. You know I’ve really sort of shut my bolt, I am afraid I can’t remember any more anecdotes. Do you have any other questions?

CW: I guess one question, since you have been at Harvard so many years, is your view of the relationship between Dumbarton Oaks and Harvard through the years? Because we saw in the Archives that you were writing a memo at one point to Thacher about Near-Eastern studies at Harvard and Byzantine studies at Dumbarton Oaks and the possibility of integrating it.

RF: The problem at Harvard, you see, was that the only thing that they had were these Semitic languages, which taught missionaries in Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac. And many people joined the Divinity School, who wanted nothing to do with the Divinity School, but just because it was cheaper. You see, tuition was four hundred dollars a year in those days, an enormous amount, and the Divinity School was $125.00, so people naturally went to the Divinity School. It was almost ready, you know, to be eliminated, because Conant followed Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, who said, “The trouble in the Middle East is that there is too much emotion and religion, and not enough reason and science. The problem today is that we’ve gone back to emotion and religion and abandoned reason.” So, as far as the development of everything at Harvard was concerned, my God, yes, it took a terrible fight to start the Department of Near Eastern Studies and even – well, what has happened to Byzantine Studies? Is there anyone teaching Byzantine Studies now at Harvard? I don’t think so. I mean, Ševčenko is retired. Who else is there?

AB: John Duffy.

RF: Is he there?

AB: Yes.

RF: Does he do Byzantine History?

AB: Yes, he is also chair of the Classics Department now.

RF: Are you sure he does Byzantine history, or is it Middle Greek? Well, you know, Dumbarton Oaks was always here, and some people had this idea that this was going to reflect upon Harvard itself, and I don’t think it ever did. People came down here, and did there work here, but then as I said, that’s why Milton Anastos and Glanville Downey were so unhappy, because they felt that somehow or another they were cut out and didn’t have any continuity. Yeah, I am afraid that everything has changed now and people’s interests have changed now. Another thing, another thing; Dumbarton Oaks is famous not just for humanistic studies but also for art and art studies, and I don’t know if that’s continued or not. But of course they have the Garden and the Pre-Columbian Studies, and those weren’t important in those days. Now they have become much more important. Consequently, interest in the Garden and pre-Columbian art has gone up, but people aren’t interested in Byzantine. [laughing] You know, in those days people would come from Germany and France and every place else, constantly coming and going all the time, but I have a feeling they got this American attitude of God-knows-what American attitude – Women’s Studies or whatever – where is humanism, you know? The discussions that we had are all gone! We had a wonderful Religion Club at Harvard, and it’s all gone. Disappeared. I don’t know. Maybe it is because people don’t have time or are more interested in making money. It’s a different world.

CW: In those first twenty years – let’s say, twenty to forty years after Dumbarton Oaks was given to Harvard – would you say that there was a very European atmosphere here?

RF: Absolutely! It certainly was. Mostly European. That’s exactly what it was. And somehow or other – well, you know, we always had visitors from Frankfurt, from London, from Paris, from Stockholm, from everywhere. Are they still coming here? I don’t think so, it doesn’t seem to be – I’m not saying it’s good or bad, that’s the way the world is. That’s what’s happening. There is really a very different outlook. But then, there’s really a very different outlook. Well, when I was appointed professor of Iranian Studies, the administration wanted to turn it into Oil Economics! My God, I mean you have to have some respect! I had a terrible fight with the old man to make sure that he didn’t put it into Oil Economics and the like. And look what’s happening now in the Divinity School! You would think that the Divinity School would go back to some of the texts like Georgian and Armenian, but now it’s just thousands of dollars flowing into Muslim Studies – simply because of the things in terrorism, and so on. I’d like to get back to the days when people understood each other. Now, it’s all gone. Gone everywhere; it’s gone in Germany, too. I mean, people don’t want to talk to each other anymore.

CW: You were working on a Georgian Manuscript that Robert Blake had?

RF: Armenian, as a matter of fact, he never had any students in Georgian. He would have loved to have had them, but Armenian, yes, we did have. We founded a National Association of Armenian Studies and Research and brought a chair to Harvard. There are thirteen chairs of Armenian all over the country. But no Georgian; they should have more Georgian. Well, you know Ossetian – these languages are disappearing! It’s a southern dialect called the Digor dialect, of Ossetian, and the people are vanishing. It is the original people who lived there! The Digors! They should make a country called Digor. We tried to tell this in 1991 to the President of Georgia, but it didn’t work out, nothing worked out. Everybody is just fighting each other. We are living in an economic world now. It is nice to have worldwide things, but we need to preserve local customs, local dialects.

AB: Do you have any memory of serving on the Board of Scholars here?

RF: The Board of Scholars came from all over, not just Harvard. They came from all over, from New York University, from Princeton, from Yale – and I had a good friend, who was it who became the head of – ? I forget his name now.

AB: Was it Kitzinger?

RF: Kitzinger, yea, Kitzinger. He must be dead by now. I must say, there was a very great Russian class, so to speak, at Harvard – it was a happy time. We brought over Aliya from Azerbaijian to teach Persian here, and everybody was so happy because somebody has come over from the Soviet Union, nobody ever does that. And we contacted [unintelligible] who was head Orientalist of the Soviet Union and a close friend of mine, and everyone went wild over him, all these people were really excited about having someone from the Soviet Union come over, to teach them! Can you imagine – to teach at Harvard University! We had a wonderful time. My god, I remember one time he was so drunk and I put him in a car and left the window open, but he thought he’d been arrested by the CIA or whatever, and he was howling, and I said, “Take it easy!” [laughing] Somehow, people are more sedate now.

CW: Do you have any memories of the Symposia here?

RF: Oh yes! Many memories, but you see, I haven’t been in contact with Dumbarton Oaks in almost twenty years. That’s the problem; it’s all changed. Everything has completely changed. In fact, it’s over twenty years. Twenty-five years ago, at least. I’ve been retired myself for eighteen years.

AB: Do you remember Giles Constable?

RF: Giles! Of course! Giles Constable, of course he’s now at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Oh my God, yes! I’m a fencer, we fenced together!

AB: And Oleg Grabar?

RF: He was my student. Yes, I sent him to Princeton. And I remember his father! Yes, his father.

CW: From Strasbourg.

RF: As a matter of fact I don’t think he was – he visited. Whether or not he was actually a Fellow here, I am not sure.

CW: André Grabar was a visiting Byzantine –

RF: Yeah, but was he here just for a short time or for a whole year or – ?

AB: He was here intermittently in the ’50s. The last time he came was 1961.

RF: Oh my, yeah.

AB: But then Oleg Grabar was here in ’64, and he was on the Board of Scholars, which then became the Senior Fellows. He was there intermittently through the early ’80s.

RF: You see, by that time I was already – my god, it’s – as I said, I’ve been retired now eighteen, nineteen years and even before that – that’s why I say I can’t tell you anything about that time when everything changed here and the like. The last person who showed up was – what was his name? From Leningrad. You know, the Russian fellow who was here, just before Jan. You know –

AB: Ned Keenan?

RF: Yeah, Ned Keenan, right! Yeah, you see, I never – first time I came was 1995, I was on the plane going from Helsinki to the landing yard I joked with – the Americans thought I was crazy, so I joked with the Russian pilots, and I said, “You know what, I’m a [unintelligible].” “What do you mean by that?” “I’m a [unintelligible], don’t you know?” They said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I’m a Swede! I’m 100% Swedish.” My father changed my name to Frye from Freij. You know, the Finns called the Swedes gwortzi, and you know what they called the Russians? Vennen. And you know what the Latvians called the Russians? Gredeci. At that time they were having a big discussion about whether they were Norsemen or Russians.

CW: So, were you here when Constable became Director?

RF: Giles Constable? No. When Giles Constable became Director I was still not here. I remember him, but I didn’t really contact him at that time. I think the important thing to remember is that Blake was the person who influenced the Blisses as far as Byzantine history. This is the important thing, in which other people have sort of glossed over. But I think it’s a mistake, because Blake – he was a great, you know, and he always had all of these people over. His wife was the daughter of a Cossack.

CW: Do you know how Blake came to know the Blisses?

RF: Not exactly, I think what happened was – his official title, in addition to being a librarian, was “Professor of Byzantine History,” and he did the Armenian and the Georgian on the side. He only had one student in Armenian, and I took Armenian too after the war. And you can see in the bibliography that I worked on an Armenian text with Blake. But how did he come to know the Blisses? I think it is because he was a professor of Byzantine History, and this was before I came in 1939. But how did he come to know the Blisses? I think it is because he was a professor of Byzantine history, and this is before I came, that he had come down to Washington, I think because – I think it was when the Blisses were beginning to be interested in “what should we do with what we have here.” There was – who was this fellow? Conant – who worked in art, who was interested in French art, but who was also interested in Byzantine art for some reason. He was also connected; he came down also. Byzantine art! Who is interested in doing Byzantine art nowadays, except people in Germany and the like? I don’t know. But I think that’s how he became acquainted, because he was the person they naturally turned to, after they made contact with the authorities at Harvard – because it was already underway in 1939–1940. I am glad that you brought that up, because I really need to be reminded of certain things – I do know about this, and I don’t know about that, and so on.

AB: Did Blake also have a social relationship with the Blisses?

RF: Yes, well in a sense that’s right, he did. He would take the train down. Blake was a lovely person, from a lovely San Francisco family, and he was a person who had many contacts, like Cardinal Tisserant – I remember meeting Cardinal Tisserant up in Cambridge. It seems to me that Cardinal Tisserant came down in 1939 to Dumbarton Oaks and met the Blisses. People like that – you know Tisserant, who he was? He was head of the Oriental section of the Vatican, and he was a distinguished French Orientalist as well as a Vatican counselor on Eastern affairs. It was people like that who showed up and really gave this place the kind of flavor that it had. There were always people who would stop by, and I will tell you one thing, Blake acted as a kind of conduit for the Blisses by introducing people. Blake had all these connections in Belgium and different places, you know. I remember he wrote “Byzantine History” on the board, and then he wrote some bibliography and said, “You should read this, it’s in Italian.” A student raised his hand and said, “Sir, I don’t read Italian.” “Well, learn it!” [laughing] That was the kind of world in which we lived. Today people behave like robots! What has happened to this world?

AB: Speaking of Blake, what was your understanding of what Dumbarton Oaks was like before that 1940?

RF: Before that time, Dumbarton Oaks was – well, they had the garden, and the Blisses invited people, musicians and the like, to come and play. I don’t think that the Byzantine side was all that much emphasized. It was more – social, if you will. It was more like diplomats and the like who were being invited. It was my impression that the Blisses thought, “We gotta do something about this – we are getting old, we should leave it to Dumbarton Oaks.” You know, Mr. Bliss had this double interest in pre-Columbian art and Byzantine studies, so that was the two things that he developed. That still exists, right? – this pavilion that they built for the pre-Columbian art? They haven’t changed that; I remember that. There was somebody else here, who was working on the mosaics of Dumbarton Oaks. Another thing was that at Dumbarton Oaks there were a lot of people working on projects, like of Kariye Camii, I remember Robert somebody who was – Robert Van Nice working on the drawings of Hagia Sophia, architecturally and then artistically. But everything changes – what are you going to do? I think that in the beginning people were brought in. They were interested in projects, like Whittemore with the various things that he did. People were interested in the technical side of things. So, it was a combination of technical as well as a humanistic side of things. It worked very well. Didn’t they produce a great volume on Hagia Sophia?  

CW: Yes, and then one also of the Kariye Camii.

RF: But I think that they were doing their technical work without knowing where it was leading to, and it sort of petered away I guess. It was a world in which people were making these wonderful drawings and pictures as well as the people who were interested in literature and the like, and they interacted. I think that this is really what has happened. I think that maybe this is the last refuge, not just of Byzantine studies but of humanistic studies. I wonder, what’s happening down there? Everybody comes down and does their own work and then goes back to the University of Indiana or wherever?

CW: They take Fellows and people come for a year and work on a project, there are lunches every day –

RF: Before they came not just for one year, but Ihor Ševčenko was here for years and years! For four or five years! And that was the same with all these people, I mean, with Anastos and with Kantorowicz, that came here for not one year, but four or five or six years, and all these people who came here.

AB: There was a faculty at Dumbarton Oaks. Can you point to that as the time in which things really changed?  

RF: Yes, and I think that that was the problem that people objected to. They thought, you know, that something’s wrong. Maybe the thing is, I remember when the Center was first established, they said, maybe what they did was to change things in a different way. They didn’t come down and have a faculty – maybe that was the case here, too. Yes, that is an important point that you brought in. This idea of a permanent faculty was perhaps not suitable. I think that’s why they abolished it. They don’t have any students or any continuation. I remember there was a fellow over there at Boston University who just retired, brilliant student of mine. He is all in Near Eastern languages, and stuff like that. Here’s another problem. In those days, one looked at religion objectively. You wanted to study religion, but you did it objectively, so to speak. Whereas, in the case of present-day, everybody is more concerned, you know, with what we do.