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Out of the Balkans

Part 1: Out of the Balkans

Chapter 3:
Madame Helen, Louie and Lily:
New York, New York

In the spring of 1916, Eleni, now claiming to be thirty-one years of age but likely thirty-six,(1) married Leonardo Perna who was twenty-six. The newly weds moved with Evangelia to New York City in May. There, Eleni became Madame Helen, Leonardo - Louie, and Evangelia - Lily.

Eleni (never called Helen by family), Louie and Lily lived at several locations on Manhattan's West Side. At various times they had flats at West Twenty-first, Thirty-eighth and Fortieth Streets, at the edge of what was known as "Hell's Kitchen." The city was teeming with immigrants who had brought its total population in 1910 to 2.3 million. It declined thereafter, numbering approximately 1.5 million in 1990.

Eleni's last address in Manhattan was 250 West Thirty-eighth Street.(2) By the early twentieth century, the district of multi-story coldwater flats between Seventh and Tenth Avenues housed thousands of immigrant families who worked at garment and fur manufacturers, in slaughter houses and warehouses, and at the docks. Often Greeks, Irish, Italians, Germans, middle European Slavs and Jews segregated themselves by street.

Greeks who toiled in the garment industry clustered together close to their workplaces, seeking community and safety for their families. They lived in small two or three room flats heated by coal fired kitchen ovens, and, if they could afford it, by portable kerosene heaters. Gaslight illuminated their rooms after dark. On hot, humid New York summer nights they gathered on rooftops, sleeping on mattresses in makeshift family groups. Only in the best of circumstances did a flat have its own flush toilette and a tub where a bath could be taken with water heated in the kitchen. Yet compared to the refugee camps in Greece this was luxury.

The garment district was the center of clothing design, manufacture, and sales in the United States. It occupied eighteen square blocks of buildings between Thirty-fourth and Fortieth Streets, and Sixth and Ninth Avenues, and included the millinery industry within its boundaries. The fur market was nearby, just to the south between Twenty-seventh and Thirty-third streets. In lofts between Fourteenth and Twenty-sixth Streets, men's clothing manufacturers prospered. To the west of Tenth Avenue were slaughterhouses that fouled the air of the city and the water of the Hudson River. Along the river wharfs accommodated the coming and going of merchant and passenger ships.

Lining Eighth and Tenth Avenues were vegetable, meat, poultry and fish markets that catered to the ethnic groups of the neighborhood. Delicatessens provided cured meats, salted fish, cheeses, herbs and spices for the immigrants' tables. For Greeks there were containers of their favorite cheeses ~ feta, kasseri, medsithra, manuri and kefaloteri ~ and olives from Amfissa and Kalamata. Baskets filled with vourvi, a small, purple wild onion, might sit next to a pile of salt cod (baccalao) that looked like a cord of stacked wood. Salt and smoke cured herring (renga) and smelt (tsiri) hung from hooks above the counter next to bouquets of dried herbs ~ oregano, bay leaves, dill, mint and thyme ~ (rigani, dafnofilia, anithos, thiosmos, thimari). Below there were containers of spices ~ cinnamon, cloves, coriander, and cumin ~ (kanela, moskokarfi, koriandron, kimino). Large open cans of sardines, anchovies (both identified as sardeles), and tunny (lakerda) were displayed behind glass in the cooler. A mountain of sesame seed covered loaves of bread was piled high on a table or crowned a counter. Jars contained more herbs and spices, even the rare mahlepi(3) that was used to flavor and scent traditional holiday breads.

Butcher shop windows displayed pyramids of fresh lamb heads ready to be split, bathed in olive oil and lemon juice, rubbed with salt, pepper, garlic and oregano and roasted with potatoes to a crispy brown. At Christmas huge pigs heads hung above pyramids of hocks and feet, inviting shoppers to prepare a traditional Balkan winter soup and headcheese (patsa or pichti). As late as the 1980's there were still meat markets on Tenth Avenue that hung suckling pigs, whole lambs and goats in their windows.

Fish stores featured black mussels, crustaceans of all kinds, fresh anchovies and sardines, bass and cod and every other variety of fish available from the east coast of the United States. Unlike the modern marketplace, fish heads, livers and roe were prized. The skilled hands of shoppers would transform heads and skeletal remains of fish into robust chowders. Livers and roes provided tasty appetizers (mezedes) to accompany chilled tumblers of raki or ouzo during conversation before dinner.

Green grocers offered fresh dandelion greens, okra, dill, oregano, and other vegetables and herbs common to the cuisine of the Balkans and the Middle East.

Even in Manhattan, immigrant women canned and jarred fresh tomatoes, apricots and peaches, and put up preserves that included black cherries, rinds of oranges and grapefruit, and rose-petals. They made and dried sausage; and pickled cucumbers, carrots, green tomatoes, celery, cauliflower and cabbage, filling their larders as they would have in their villages in anticipation of a long winter or in preparation for bad times.

Central to the immigrants' social and spiritual life was St. Eleftherios Greek Orthodox Church at 359 West Twenty-fourth Street. It met the religious needs of many of the first flood of Orthodox immigrants who lived and labored on the West Side in New York City.

Church, language, culture, and food: transplanted, these ingredients of home and life in the cities and villages of the eastern Mediterranean made an immigrant's life bearable in Manhattan. They made possible celebration of religious holidays and family events, and gave the immigrant identity and pride in the Babel that was America.

Between 1916 and 1920, many photographs of the family, especially of Lily with her cousins, were taken at Central Studio on Eighth Avenue.[•*] The studio no longer exists. The formal photograph of Eleni and Louie is the equivalent of a wedding portrait. Eleni, a formidable woman, is clothed in a black, fur trimmed silk dress and a veiled velvet hat. Louie, smaller and younger than his bride is in a vested suit and wearing a hat.

Taken in 1917-1921, another photograph is of Lily with two of her cousins, and another photograph is of Lily prepared to attend a costume party. Photographs recorded the arrival of family members to America, and were sent to family that remained behind in the Balkans. They disclose a growing prosperity and assimilation, and reveal immigrants striving to raise their economic and social status. For this family, fashion provided bread for the table so it was natural for them to dress well. They struck the poses of those they sought to emulate.

Another photograph shows Lily as a sophisticate, wearing a fur trimmed jacket, a silk cloche hat, and carrying a black fur muff. With her are her cousins, Hariclea and Zenovios Capidaglis.

Members of the family all worked in the garment district. Lily was trained as a milliner. She made elegant hats, delivering them to the wealthy on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, being directed to the 'tradesmen's entrance.' Eleni was a fine seamstress and dressmaker, and Louie a tailor, designer and dressmaker.

Lily recalled many family members arriving from Europe and living with her, her mother and Louie in their west side flats. Eleni brought her relatives to America from France and Greece and helped them to find work in the garment industry. Once they were employed and able to earn, she sent them off to lead their own lives. In 1920 Eleni made plans to bring her mother, Vasiliki, and sister, Sophia, to America; but not to a flat on the West Side of Manhattan.

In October of 1920 Eleni purchased a three-story brownstone house(4) on Ovington Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn for $9,500.(5) She had title to the property in her name alone, perhaps as a means to assert her independence and assure herself and her daughter security. Still, Eleni and Louis had a loving relationship and were devoted to each other. They are an affectionate couple as shown in a photograph.[•**]

Eleni decided to buy the house the day that she first saw it. She and Lily had taken the Brooklyn Rapid Transit System (the BRT, in later years to become the BMT) from Manhattan to the last stop. In 1920 the BRT ended service at Sixty-ninth Street and Fourth Avenue. It was a short walk to the house. Eleni examined it and strolled through the rustic twenty by fifty foot garden. When rose bush thorns snagged the sleeve of her dress, she decided it was a sign that the house wanted her.

* * * * * * *

Greece was on war footing in 1919 as it sought to bring to realization the "Great Idea" of a reconstituted Greek Empire. Premier Venizelos' political rhetoric and Greek nationalist fervor led to a war against the Turks to restore a Byzantine Empire to include Crete, Thessaly, Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace (to the coast of the Black Sea), the Aegean Islands, Cyprus, the Dodecanese, the Ionian coastlands of Asia Minor, and the Pontus of the Black Sea.[6] By 1922, Greece lost all and had to make room in its economically ravaged society for one million refugees. Those unfortunates were part of the population exchange that eliminated most Greeks from modern Turkey.

On 8 January1921, thirteen years after her husband Hristodul's death, Eleni's mother, Vasiliki Zissis, arrived in America on the S.S. Alexander accompanied by Fotios Demas' mother, Sofia. Both Vasiliki and Sofia listed 250 West Thirty-eighth Street, New York City as the address to which they were going; Vasiliki to her daughter, Eleni; and Sofia to her son, Fotios. Vasiliki had lived in Kalithea, Athens with her daughter, Sofia Capidaglis, for several years.

Many Greek immigrants remembered the S.S. Alexander as the ship on which they arrived, and the ship that brought Greek delicacies to them on its every return trip. Ralis Pierides, son of Sofia Capidaglis' daughter, Theano, recalled his grandfather Constantinos talking about his expeditions to the S.S. Alexander when it came to port in New York City. There he would purchase tziri and lakerda and other specialties from the Black Sea for his family table.

Eleni, Louie, Lily and Vasiliki moved into their new home in Brooklyn. It must have been a momentous event for Eleni, who in fifteen years had been three times married and twice widowed, given birth to a daughter, survived as a refugee, and immigrated to a foreign land. Daughter, mother and grandmother are shown together in a photograph.[•]

The brownstone on Ovington Avenue (Seventieth Street) was at the very edge of housing development at the time. Eleni's home was located between Third Avenue and Ridge Boulevard. Third Avenue provided the retail and food shopping establishments for the community of Italian, Irish, Greek, and Jewish immigrants that lived in what was then a suburb.

Concentrations of German, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish families were on the other side of Third Avenue between Fiftieth and Seventy-fifth Streets. A bit further away were communities of Italian, Jewish and Finnish immigrants. Brooklyn provided a richly diverse cultural and ethnic setting, with each group desperately clinging to its language, customs and religion while at the same time encouraging its children to excel at school and become part of the fabric of America. The children and children's children of one group would meet and marry those of the other groups and, over time, lose their identities and become part of the ethnic alloy formed in America's great melting pot.

Victorian homes, farms and open space occupied the land all the way from Ovington Avenue to Fort Hamilton, which guarded the entrance to lower-New York Bay at the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. Within a very few years Bay Ridge developed new housing and greatly expanded its population. The city demolished the elevated section of the transit system,(7) and extended the subterranean railroad (the Subway) from Sixty-ninth Street to Eighty-sixth Street and beyond. In those years uniformed police escorted Lily home from the subway station in the evening. It was a service provided to all women who were without escort.

Remarkably Eleni not only purchased a home just eight short years after arriving in the United States, but she furnished it and made it the center of the world for an extended immigrant family from Sozopolis.

On 1 September 1921, Eleni's sister, Sophia arrived in New York on the S.S. Alexander. She was accompanied by her husband, Constantinos Kapidaglis,(8) her daughter, Kalypso,(9) and Chrysoula Kapidaglis. Chrysoula was Constantinos' niece by his brother, Menas. They were welcomed into Eleni's home in Brooklyn, which on holidays, was filled with old and young ~ grandparents, newly wedded and their children.

Lily's millinery career was short lived. She disliked working outside of the home, preferring housekeeping and cooking to business. The bargain struck was that she would keep house and take care of her grandmother while Louie and Eleni worked and earned. Her attendance at school was not considered necessary; probably not considered at all. Lily stayed at home and did the cleaning and washing, shopping and cooking.

Lily was proud of her mother's work as a dress designer and manufacturer. Eleni, known as 'Madame Helen' managed offices on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and factories in Little Falls, New York. She was an effective manager, one of the few liberated women of her day. She certainly was unique among Greek immigrant women.

Eleni led the family as matriarch. She had a dominant personality that embraced family and friends. Both men and women spoke of her with reverence and love, and referred to her in Greek as Kryria (Lady) Eleni, a formal and respectful form of address. They submitted to her judgment and direction as they found their way in America.

Lily enjoyed telling how her mother concealed that she could neither read nor write, but for her signature. These were skills considered unnecessary for most women in a small Balkan town. Eleni wore non-prescription glasses as a ruse, conveniently finding then misplaced when it was necessary to read a paper or sign a document. She also affected the air of a woman too busy to be bothered with reading menus, street signs, newspapers and the like. She had others cater to her every need when traveling, ordering at a restaurant, or signing business papers. Her secretary learned the truth only at Eleni's funeral.

At seventeen Lily was eager to marry and make her own home. Her wish to marry may in part have been driven by a resentment of her stepfather, Louie Perna. Already having lost a father and a step-father she was probably reluctant to bond closely with this new man in her mother's life. Perhaps she saw him as a rival for her mother's affection. Nonetheless, Louie adored Lily, even if her relationship with him was sometimes cool and guarded.

In February of 1922, Lily met a young man named James (Demetrios) Tsavalas at a party give by a friend. He asked for her address, and within the week came courting. He visited Lily at home four or five times, finally asking Eleni for permission to marry her daughter.

Lily wanted to marry and had a set of three suitors from which to select a husband: Demetrios Tsavalas, twenty-four, who was from Corinth claimed to be a well to do candy manufacturer in Detroit; Demetrios Mavrovitis, twenty-one, a young furrier from a village near Kastoria, Greece working in New York; and another Greek man whose name and place of origin are unknown. Eleni inquired about Tsavalas' business situation and on learning from him that he was a successful confectioner with several employees she gave her permission for the marriage.

James Tsavalas and Lily had a civil marriage performed on 20 April 1922. However they did not live together until after 25 June 1922, the date that Father Macaronis, the priest at St. Eleftherios Greek Orthodox Church on West Twenty-fourth Street, solemnized their union. One of her failed suitors, the young Kastorian furrier, attended the wedding. Lily's cousin Toto Capidaglis remembered Demetrios Mavrovitis sitting at the back of the church in tears. He had met Lily at a dance in New York City in 1921 and fallen in love with her.

After the wedding ceremony, James left for Detroit leaving Lily behind to complete her trousseau and to prepare for her departure from Brooklyn. He came for her in late July and they left together for Detroit. To her surprise he took her to a modest, furnished, two-room, fourth floor apartment in a boarding house at 2304 Jean D'Arc Street. A woman named Mrs. Johnson ran it.

Lily was a virtual prisoner. Her husband left each morning requiring her to remain in the flat until his return. She evidently made no friends and became despondent.

After three or four weeks her landlady began to make disparaging comments to Lily about her 'grand' husband. Either in an act of revenge toward the man, or in sympathy for Lily, the landlady took her to a busy downtown Detroit street where Lily found her husband acting the role of a blind beggar. He was a panhandler.

Lily spent that night with Mrs. Johnson, and telephoned her mother the next day, Friday, 1 September 1922. Eleni immediately boarded a train and arrived in Detroit mid-morning on Saturday. She accompanied Mrs. Johnson and Lily to the downtown district to find Lily's husband dressed in a shabby Panama suit, wearing dark glasses and begging. They confronted him. Satisfied that the beggar was indeed James Tsavalas they left for Brooklyn at once.

Lily took up her life again living with her mother and stepfather. She managed the household, cooked and cared for her grandmother.

In the early twentieth century, the social life of a young Greek woman separated from her husband was very limited. Lily and Eleni's primary concern was to avoid scandal in the Greek community. Lily had no hope of receiving a divorce decree from the paternalistic Greek Orthodox Church and therefore no hope for a married life.

In the years between 1922 and 1926, Eleni and Louie worked energetically and successfully in the garment industry. The economy was raging and opportunity appeared limitless for talented and ambitious workers. America seemed to offer realization of all the dreams an immigrant might have had while huddled in the steerage of a ship crossing the Atlantic. In 1922, Eleni became an executive for Kurzrok & Company, a women's clothing manufacturer.

Eleni's growing responsibilities required her to live in Glens Falls, New York from 21 February 1923 through 23 December 1925. Louie worked with her as a production foreman. Lily moved with them and was forelady of a 'finishing department' where workers sewed linings and labels into garments. Their years in Glens Falls appear to have been happy. A photograph is one of many that capture the close relationship between mother and daughter.[•††]

In these three years Eleni, Louie and Lily spent very few days at their home in Brooklyn. Eleni's sister, Sofia Capidaglis and her husband Constantinos with their young daughter, Toto(10) lived in Eleni's home. Constantinos was already in his early sixties so he and Sofia were largely dependent on their children for financial support. Sofia took care of her elderly mother, Vasiliki.

Louie welcomed his Italian family from Monteleone to Little Falls where he was able to offer them immediate employment in the dress factory. They, their children and grandchildren prospered there.

The years Eleni spent in Glens Falls must have been very profitable. In late 1926 Eleni retained Nicholas Psaki, a Greek attorney with offices on West Forty-second Street in New York City. She required his services to retire the mortgage on her home and to prepare her Last Will and Testament. As he gathered personal information from Eleni, Mr. Psaki learned about Lily and her marriage to James Tsavalas. He advised Eleni that the facts presented to him supported an action for an annulment based on non-age and fraud. These were legal concepts outside of Eleni's experience, but her quick mind grasped that in them was an opportunity for her daughter to reclaim her life.

On 3 January 1927, Lily filed an Action for Annulment of Marriage as Plaintiff against her husband, James Tsavalas, as Defendant.

The Action asserted:

The court issued a summons to James Tsavalas ordering him to answer Lily's complaint. Not receiving a response from Tsavalas, the court ordered on 1 March 1927 that the summons be published in newspapers in Brooklyn, New York and Detroit, Michigan, and that the complaint be mailed to Tsavalas last known address. Tsavalas still did not appear and could not be found.

Having complied with the court order, Eleni's attorney filed the appropriate affidavit with the court on 8 August 1927. The Superior Court, Kings County, Brooklyn held an inquest on 10 August 1927. Lily and Eleni testified before Judge Charles J. Druhan, confirming the information they had provided in earlier depositions.

Immediately following the inquest newspapers reported the details of the case for the world to see. On 11 August 1927, the New York American ran the byline:

On the same day in a lengthier article, The New York Times recounted Lily's entire testimony with the byline:

The most scandalous report was in the American Weekly, a tabloid newspaper with 21½ by 16½ inch pages. The byline of the full-page article read:

A drawing was published of an artist's conceptions of James Tsavalas as a handsome and distinguished man in a top hat. A photo was published of the "Attractive Home" on Ovington Avenue. These were the least humiliating of the graphics published.[•]

The American Weekly, true to the tabloid ethic, greatly exaggerated and distorted the facts. For example, it reported: When Mrs. Ellen Perma, who comes of an aristocratic Greek family with considerable money...

Nothing could have been further from the truth! However, this article and those in the New York American and The New York Times made Lily's personal tragedy public to the entire Greek community.

Newspapers of the time made much of scandal stories, especially if they involved prominent members of New York's society. The New York Times was no exception. "All the News That's Fit To Print" included sensational accounts of people's private lives as revealed in court proceedings. Lily and her family were hardly "society" but Lily's experience was sufficiently bizarre to attract attention and readership.

The American Weekly full page article made the most of the moment-of-truth when Eleni and Lily tore the smoked glasses from Tsavalas revealing him as a beggar on the streets. Dominating the page were an artist's conception of that fateful event and a beautifully photographed portrait of Lily.[•‡‡]

Lily and her family would hardly have wanted to see their shame receive such attention. Who gave her photograph to the press?

Finally, with publication of her annulment proceedings in The National Herald, a Greek language newspaper with large circulation in New York and throughout the United States, Lily's public humiliation was complete.


[Skip the Notes]

  1. Eleni's Death Certificate gives her age as 47 on May 26, 1933. The Manifest of the S.S. Macedonia, the ship that brought her and her daughter to America, shows her age to be 32 on July 31, 1912, which would have made her 53 at the time of her death. Her photographs lend credence to her having been born in 1880. She may have hidden her age because of her marriage to a much younger man in Chicago in 1916. (Explained earlier in this text also, at Chapter 1, note 45.)
    Soon after Eleni left Greece for America her sister Sofia's stepsons, Zenovios and Stavros (Constantinos Capidaglis' sons by his first marriage), made their way to Paris where they lived, worked and married: Zenovios to a Belgian, Leonie Bergmann; and Stavros to a Parisian, Yvonne Girault.
    Christos Capidaglis was in New York City in January 1916 living at 321 West Twenty-ninth Street. Zenovios and Leonie immigrated to the United States in 1915; then immigrated to Argentina, returning to the United States in 1919. Stavros arrived in the United States in January of 1921 and lived with his brother and sister-in-law at 520 West 144 Street in New York City. His wife, Yvonne and young son Guy joined him in April of the same year. Their sister, Hariclea, arrived in August of 1916 at the age of twenty-one. In about 1921 she married Fotios Demas, who she may have known in Greece. He came from Glyfáda, a coastal town near Athens.
    Eleni's sister, Sultana, married Ioannis Thoma in Sozopolis and lived in Piraeus after 1906. Their son Thomas arrived in New York in February of 1917, listing his destination address as his cousin Eleni's flat on West Thirty-eighth Street. He was eighteen years old. His sister, Ioanna, immigrated in January of 1921 at the age of seventeen.
    [Return to the text at note 1.]
  2. website is an excellent source to locate New York addresses. [Return to the text at note 2.]
  3. Mahlepi is the kernel of the pit of the native Persian Cherry Tree. It is ground into a fine powder to flavor and make aromatic traditional holiday breads: especially Vasilopita. [Return to the text at note 3.]
  1. A type of sandstone quarried in Connecticut and New Jersey that was fashionable for the homes of the urban middle class from the 1830's to the end of the 19th century. See: Tracie Rozhon, Brownstone (the Real Thing) Comes Back, NY TIMES, 7/4/2000, p.1. [Return to the text at note 4.]
  2. In 2002, the brownstone's value was approximately $450,000. [Return to the text at note 5.]
  1. Go to the graphical version for the map of Greater Greece, 1920. [Return to the straight text.]
  1. It ran from downtown Brooklyn along Fifth Avenue to Thirty-eighth Street where it branched south to Third Avenue, then continued on to Sixty-fifth Street. [Return to the text at note 7.]
  2. Readers who research Ellis Island records may find the surname of Constantinos Kapidaglis misspelled as Kanadaglis. The misspelling was reported to Ellis Island in the year 2001 with hope that it would be corrected. [Return to the text at note 8.]
  3. Kalypso took the name "Joyce" in the United States. Her pet name was "Toto." [Return to the text at note 9.]
  1. Lily's cousin Toto (Calypso), Sofia Capidaglis' youngest child, was a, beautiful, blond woman when she married one Panaiotis (Pete) Protopappas. She divorced soon after her marriage and lived an independent life in New York City until she married a second time to Louie Tumola, a prominent news photographer. Toto, a bubbly, gossipy woman who loved scandalous stories, was alive at the age of ninety in 2001. She lived widowed and alone in a decaying home at Far Pond in South Hampton, Long Island. Eccentric and rigid, she had alienated most friends and relatives. [Return to the text at note 10.]
  2. Perna was misspelled "Perma" in the article. In fact, Lily never used the name Perna. She used Athenas or Athanas as a maiden name. [Return to the text at note 11.]

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