Artist and filmmaker William E. Jones reflects upon the complicated, seductive legacy of a legendary personality for Document's Spring/Summer 2017 issue.
Alexander Iolas lived in a very large house in the Athens suburb of Agia Paraskevi. It was on a wooded plot of land— a retreat from the congestion of the city. People have written about Villa Iolas, but as far as I can remember, I never called it that; it was simply Iolas’s house.
The first time I met Iolas, he was in bed. As I entered his room, I saw him rising and fixing his hair. A handsome young man was also in the bedroom. I assumed they had slept together. On either side of the bed were bronze horses wrapped in a fabric that matched the drapes in the room. There was a chandelier overhead. Behind the bed I saw a painting by Harold Stevenson depicting a man with his legs spread wide. In place of his penis there was a big, erect classical column. Iolas and his friend spoke to each other in Greek. When Iolas saw me, he looked me up and down and said “He is tall” in French. He continued to speak French; perhaps he assumed I understood, or he wanted me to understand nothing. Iolas was in his 70s at the time but looked younger. From a distance I could tell that he had had some work done on his face, and his hair was dyed a color that could not have been natural.
Iolas’s sister, Niki (my friend’s grandmother) came into the room and translated a bit of what was said. She introduced the other man as Iorgos and said he was Iolas’s chauffeur. Iolas had just come back to Athens from Milan, and he was tired. He approached and uttered the first words he ever spoke to me in English: “Do you know the poetry of Constantine Cavafy?” He looked at me intently and said, “He is one of us.”
“Iolas invented himself in defiance of convention. He lived his life as a performance.”
I found out later that when Iolas was a teenager, he had met Cavafy, who was then in his 60s and living above a brothel in the center of Alexandria. His family had come down in the world, and he had been employed as a clerk in the Third Circle of Irrigation of the Ministry of Public Works. He printed his poetry in small editions circulated among friends. Around 1911, he began writing frankly homosexual poems, which were in advance of anything written in Europe or America around that time. These poems attracted attention abroad, particularly in England, where he had lived for a few years as a child. Cavafy also wrote historical poems, some of them imbuing figures from antiquity with an eroticism that seemed contemporary. His foreign readers were struck by what they took to be his fatalism, without grasping that optimism and faith in human progress are the prerogatives of conquerors. Cavafy lived most of his life in Egypt, from which almost everything had been stolen except the looted Pyramids; he wrote poetry in Alexandria, where the greatest library the world had ever known burned to the ground. He understood that nothing— no empire, political system, or religion—was permanent.
Iolas asked Iorgos to take us on a trip to Delphi. He had something to attend to, and he would be available later. Iorgos drove us through the wonderful Greek countryside to the site where the sibyls delivered their prophesies in ancient times. Iorgos seemed to have little enthusiasm for the place. I got no sense of what he was like as a person, aside from the physical attractiveness in which he took obvious pride. Soon after we arrived at Delphi, Iorgos went off to the nearby public toilets. I suppose if I had followed him I would have learned a thing or two, but I had the ruins to see.
The second time I visited Iolas’s house, I met an older man who looked at me with distrust, clicked his tongue, and said “oxi”—no in Greek. I never found out what question he was answering in the negative. His entire function in Iolas’s household was to tell fortunes by reading coffee grounds. Iolas was afraid of being alone and craved entertainment. Niki perceived the men around Iolas as a bunch of parasites, and she said as much. Iolas paid no attention; he seemed to indulge more or less anyone as long as he was interesting company.
I also saw someone who called himself Maria Kallas— after the Greek-American soprano. Once Kallas was one of the most famous people in the world, but, by the time of her death, she had not sung for years. Rumor had it that her voice was in ruins. Somehow Iolas had acquired a collection of her dresses. These dresses fit the man to whom I spoke—I never saw him wear them. I have no picture of him, either. He was the one person in Iolas’s household who refused to be photographed. This “Maria Kallas” was a delicate young man with curly brown hair, pale skin, and freckles. He seemed to be constantly on the verge of fainting. He didn’t so much meet people as throw himself at them. I wasn’t exactly sure what game he was playing. His intentions became clear a couple of years later. He sold stories to a Greek tabloid about Iolas smuggling antiquities, dealing drugs, and holding orgies with underage boys. The articles ruined Iolas’s reputation, and, as a result, he became embroiled in a number of court cases.
Iolas was one of the first people in Greece to contract A.I.D.S., and he became an object of ridicule in the press. The tabloid that led the attack was controlled by P.A.S.O.K., the Greek Socialist Party that had governed Greece since the military dictatorship. Iolas, who was known as a right winger, took a position on the question of sex much more radical than the so called socialists. He took pride in his diagnosis, because A.I.D.S. was the proof that he had been sexually active well into his old age.
Iolas invented himself in defiance of convention. He lived his life as a performance, and a combination of eccentricity and cunning saw him through many trying times. He moved from North Africa to Europe during a period of economic hardship and political chaos. During his time in Germany, a group of young Nazis beat him up. He left for France, and arrived to see right wing thugs rioting in Paris. Iolas was vulnerable as a flamboyant gay man of Mediterranean descent. He spoke several languages, most of them imperfectly, and he had a name few could pronounce. He wasn’t the sort of person anyone would go out of his way to defend in a crisis. He was a dancer, but he didn’t have the kind of talent that made absolutely anything possible. As Iolas saw it, the surest way to save his skin was by emigrating to the United States. To this end, he sought the help of rich and influential Americans. He ingratiated himself with whomever he could, not by telling an earnest tale of woe, but by charming everyone in his path.
“He circulated at the very top and the very bottom of society…The middle May 1982—Athens never held any interest for him.”
I didn’t stay in Iolas’s house, but with Niki, who lived nearby, and I saw a lot of her during my trip to Greece. Niki had a habit of giving people nicknames, which were easier for her to remember than their actual names. I think she took an immediate liking to me; she called me Lord Byron. I gathered that, like Iolas, Niki was very good at making her way in the world, but there seemed to be resentments simmering between them due to things that happened long ago. Iolas spent most of World War II in New York, surrounded by gay artists, mainly dancers, and the aristocrats who loved them. Niki and her young daughter spent the war in Alexandria, which was under constant bombardment until 1942. After the war, Niki married Arthur Stifel, a rich industrialist from Wheeling, West Virginia. Stifel’s money came in handy some years later when Iolas’s galleries ran into financial difficulties.
I didn’t discuss politics with Niki, but she once asked me in all seriousness, “With the Socialists in power, do you think it’s safe for me to wear my jewelry in the street?” Niki had moved around quite a bit, not always under peaceful circumstances. She told a story of baking gold jewelry into kourabiedes, a dense Greek pastry, so it would not be found by thieves or customs officials—there was little distinction in her mind between the two. The latter gave Niki many more worries once she moved to Athens. She visited the United States often and did not come empty handed. I once saw her trying to scrape a museum number off an ancient Greek pot that she wanted to give away as a present. She was irrepressible, and her odd pronouncements disarmed the people she met. When Niki flew to the United States, her tactic upon arrival was to find a black customs inspector and to announce with a flourish, “I, too, am from Africa.”
Niki and Iolas were both naturalized American citizens. Neither of them saw Greece until they were adults, and they frequently complained about how the Greeks were ruining their country. The two spoke Greek as their native language, but they considered themselves part of no particular community. Although Niki and Iolas were at pains to cultivate their sense of uniqueness, their origins could most accurately be described as bourgeois. Their parents were members of a comfortable merchant class whose source of income was the cotton trade. This was the case with most foreigners living in Alexandria before World War I.
Iolas was evasive when discussing himself, probably because he wished to hide the less exotic aspects of his origins. Among the people he knew, it was desirable to be very poor (like the beautiful men in Cavafy’s poems) or aristocratic (like Cavafy’s homely but well bred mother). Iolas spoke often about his mother Persephone, a blonde whose seductiveness he sought to imitate, but rarely about his father, whose job was to evaluate the quality of cotton in the fields of Upper Egypt. To be the son of a businessman had no cachet.
Mr. Coutsoudis hoped in vain that his only son would take an interest in the family business and settle down in a sensible career; instead the boy changed his name and moved far away. He was drawn to Berlin and Paris, which were not only centers of classical music and dance, but also hotbeds of underground gay culture. He relied upon surreptitious handouts from his mother. All of this met with disapproval from the elder Coutsoudis, who could only guess how his effeminate young son was making ends meet. Eventually, Iolas founded his own business in New York. Less than 30 years after his departure from Alexandria, the rest of his family was compelled to leave Egypt and never return. In the end, Iolas might have been the one who made the most sensible decisions.
As an art dealer Iolas sought to attract aristocratic clients. He was notorious for snubbing collectors who had a lot of money but vulgar taste. He circulated at the very top and the very bottom of society; the former for business, the latter for pleasure. The middle never held any interest for him.
I asked Iolas if I could photograph his house while he was away, and he graciously said yes. More like a showroom than a private residence, the house was ideal for throwing parties and showing off a splendid combination of classical antiquities, Byzantine icons, Baroque furniture, and modern art. The collection was that of a dealer, not a collector. Iolas always saved the finest pieces for his clients, especially John and Dominique de Menil, the aristocratic patrons to whom he sold many artworks which are now on view in the museum that bears their name.
Iolas had offered to give his great-niece one piece of art from his collection. She didn’t know which one to choose and wanted my advice. After looking at the collection carefully and photographing it, I suggested that she ask for a painting by Giorgio de Chirico from 1916, before he repudiated the metaphysical style that made him famous.
Walking through Iolas’s deserted house while I took pictures, I thought of a fragment of prose by de Chirico: “There is a room whose shutters are always closed. In one corner there is a book no one has ever read. And there on the wall is a picture one cannot see without weeping.”
This text is an adaptation of William E. Jones’s script for “Fall into Ruin.” The photographs that appear beside it will be on view in exhibition alongside the film at The Modern Institute, Glasgow, in March 2017 and at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, in July 2017.