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Out of the Balkans

Part 1: Out of the Balkans

Chapter 5:
Lily and Jimmy: Love, Marriage and Trial

Lily and Jimmy's honeymoon was short lived.

On 1 March 1928, James Tsavalas filed suit in the Supreme Court of Kings County, New York, to have Lily's Annulment Decree and Judgment set aside. His sworn deposition attacked the factual bases for Lily's annulment. It made sweeping allegations about her character. His sudden appearance and legal action was a wrenching shock to the young couple, and to Eleni, Louie and elderly Vasiliki. They faced a family disaster if Tsavalas prevailed in court.

* * * * * * *

In 1927, Jimmy must have learned either through newspaper articles or through gossip in the Greek community that Lily had filed for an annulment of her marriage to Tsavalas. Jimmy courted her again.

In the context of the Greek Orthodox Church and the social customs of the Greek village, Lily was not a desirable mate for a young Greek man. The Church rarely granted a divorce (particularly if the action were brought by a woman) and treated a petitioner as a threat to the social order. Annulment was unknown even conceptually by Lily's contemporaries. A woman generally was regarded as the property of her father and then of her husband. Lily had not received an annulment or divorce from the church and it is virtually impossible that such would have been granted without the cooperation of her husband. It is unlikely that Eleni and Lily had any idea of how to go about obtaining dispensation from the church and apparently did not pursue it.

The Church barely tolerated second marriages even for widows and widowers. Until recent times the traditionally joyous marriage ceremony was for a second marriage a ceremony of contrition. The focus became weakness of the flesh, not love and a need for companionship.

Cultural forces became even more powerful in the adopted land of the immigrant Greeks than they had been in their villages. They needed them for support and security. Their language and food, church, rituals and customs sustained them and gave them an identity in the new world. They had entered the melting pot but resisted amalgamation.

When Jimmy courted Lily, he probably did so without the consent or support of his parents and family living in Greece. Moreover, he must have been subjected to some level of gossip and derision from the Greek community that had read all about the annulment proceedings in the newspapers. Eleni's devotion to Jimmy as her son-in-law may have stemmed from the fact that he disregarded public scandal, courted and married her daughter.

When they married in the Office of the City Clerk at Brooklyn's Borough Hall on 10 December 1927, Jimmy and Lily had no idea of the ordeal that lay before them. There was only one photograph (now lost) of the young couple on their honeymoon. It was taken on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, Lily wearing a silver fox jacket. Other photographs likely taken in 1927 and early 1928 show an affectionate, well-dressed couple enjoying their courtship and early marriage.

The honeymoon was short lived.

On 1 March 1928, James Tsavalas filed suit in the Supreme Court of Kings County, New York to have Lily's Annulment Decree and Judgment set aside. His sworn deposition attacked the factual bases for Lily's annulment and made sweeping allegations about her character. Tsavalas sudden appearance and legal action must have been a wrenching shock to the young couple and to Eleni, Louie and elderly Vasiliki. They faced a family disaster if Tsavalas prevailed in court.

Tsavalas' true reason for suing to quash the annulment of his marriage to Lily will never be known. Reasons given in the court records are difficult to accept. He claimed:

I am not interested, as I have stated before, of merely having the decree set aside so as to be left with a wife. And to be perfectly frank with this Court I would rather be single today, than married to one of her kind. But if to become single means that I must go through life with a blemish against my reputation, then I must of necessity remain married.

Tsavalas asked for no specific remedy other than:

that this Court grant me an order vacating and setting aside the judgment and Decree heretofore obtained by this plaintiff against me, and dismissing the proceedings and the plaintiff's complaint [. . .]

In his sworn deposition, Tsavalas substantially corroborated Lily's statements about his early meetings with her at parties and Greek dances. However, his version took a very different turn. Tsavalas asserted that Lily was aggressive in pursuing the early relationship, that she met him alone at a café, asked him for his picture, sent love letters to him, and gave him a farewell kiss when he left to start his new business in Detroit.

According to Tsavalas, he had warned Lily that he was just starting out in business and could not offer her any more than a basic life. He testified that she was willing to accept the condition. An engagement party was planned for 25 March, Lily's name day.(1) It never took place because according to Tsavalas his family cautioned him about Lily's questionable reputation.

He alleged that Lily on hearing the accusations against her tried to commit suicide by swallowing iodine. He said that later while in the hospital Lily telephoned him to tell him that if he did not marry her she would kill him and then herself.

Tsavalas claimed that he had decided not to marry Lily, that when he told her this at her home she had become hysterical tearing at her clothing, and that he left her home at two in the morning leaving her letters and a picture behind. He went on saying that while he was waiting for a train at the elevated station on Sixty-fifth Street,(2) she appeared and threatened to throw herself on the tracks if he would not commit to marrying her.

In his testimony, Tsavalas asserted that he "quieted her and took her home again." He went on, "I promised, because of sympathy, and in order to avoid my being the cause of committing some wreckless dead [sic] to herself, to marry her." He asserted that Lily's behavior after he returned to Detroit caused "grave concern to her mother" and that her mother wanted an immediate religious ceremony, "because people are talking." Tsavalas stated that he told Eleni that he was not in a financial position to return to New York and marry. Eleni, he alleged, "told me, that she would tide me over, but to come [. . .]" He also alleged that Eleni sent him two hundred dollars.

According to Tsavalas, "the religious ceremony was held on June 25, 1922, at the St. Eleftherios Church at West 24th Street." He claimed that they left immediately for Detroit, together found a furnished, two room flat at Jean d'Arc Street and lived there from early July through September 9, 1922. He also stated that Lily had worked in his store and had been instrumental in the arrest of a thief. He stated:

My wife and I did not get on well together, because her conduct was not all to my liking. She was friendly with certain men, and was carrying on in this same manner which caused people to talk about her back in New York City.

Tsavalas stated that Eleni had indeed come to Detroit and left with Lily in September of 1922, and that he had remained in Detroit until November of 1924 when he returned to New York. He claimed to have entered into a confectionery store and ice cream parlor business with his brothers at 26 Avenue B that failed after several months. He asserted that his wife's uncle visited him at the store and told him that Lily wanted to see him. He claimed to have visited her and that she asked him for a divorce on the grounds of his adultery, which he refused to do. He stated that he subsequently went to Lynn, Massachusetts where he opened a business and lived through March of 1927.

On 14 March 1928, Eleni's attorney, Nicholas Psaki, submitted responding affidavits to the Court from himself, Eleni and Lily. Psaki raised questions about Tsavalas' motivations and since Tsavalas admitted that he had learned of the annulment case at the end of 1927 wondered: "why did he not come into this Court then, before the final decree was entered, or before the plaintiff was remarried?"

Psaki defended the actions he took to locate Tsavalas and questioned the reasonableness of Tsavalas not having heard of the annulment proceedings much earlier, when the details were published in New York City newspapers and especially the widely read Greek language newspaper.

Psaki stated, "This case was based on two causes of action viz: Non-age and Fraud. The decree likewise enumerated both causes of action, but it is quite possible that the decree would have been granted [. . .] especially Non-age alone."

Affidavits from Lily and her mother accompanied that of Psaki.

Lily denied all of Tsavalas' allegations. Regarding the iodine incident, Lily stated that when she and her mother visited Tsavalas' sister, Sophie Drivas, in March of 1922, Mrs. Drivas' daughters and Lily went for a short walk for an ice cream. Lily had complained of a toothache which became worse after the cold dessert. When they returned to their home one of the sisters applied iodine to Lily's tooth, enough iodine according to Lily to have caused her to swallow some. She went to a hospital overnight for observation and left the next day with her mother.

Lily presented three pieces of correspondence the contents of which refuted Tsavalas' state of mind and relationship with Lily just after she left him in September1922. The first, a telegram from Tsavalas' brother, Petros, to Lily's stepfather, Louie Perna, stated: "James got killed."

In a second letter to his brother, Tsavalas wrote:

My brother Petro,

Nothing else is left for me in the world but to give an end to my life. Goodbye forever.

Don't inquire for me.

And finally, on 4 October 1922, Tsavalas wrote to Lily:

[. . .] But I ask you am I acceptable to return to live together with you? Even though I know that you will not consent to live anymore with your former tyrant but I deem it my duty to ask you.

Psaki argued credibly that Tsavalas actions and correspondence were inconsistent with the allegations he made about Lily's character, his marrying her out of pity, and her alleged suicide threats.

At the time, Tsavalas said, he was visited by Lily's uncle (there was no uncle) and asked to see her in Brooklyn. At the time when he claimed to have seen her next and been asked for a divorce, Lily was in Glens Falls, New York, with her mother and stepfather.

On 9 April 1928, the court denied Tsavalas motion to set aside the annulment, and the Appellate Division subsequently denied Tsavalas' appeal. Jimmy and Lily survived the threat to their marriage. Jimmy, Lily, Eleni and Louie must have suffered untold anguish during the months that the legal status of Lily's marriage was in doubt. Any information about the matter leaked to the Greek community would have caused more unwanted notoriety and scandal.

What motivated Tsavalas to attempt to quash the annulment of his marriage? He had played the role of a blind beggar (it is hard to imagine Eleni and Lily creating such a story). It is not hard to imagine that he would try to gain advantage out of the situation. The community thought Eleni financially well off. Perhaps Tsavalas sought a financial settlement.

There was great mutual respect and dedication in the marriage between Jimmy and Lily. Jimmy was a stalwart, responsible husband who in keeping with tradition left the home and its management to his wife. Lily was a traditional Greek homemaker who cooked, cleaned house, entertained, and raised children with pride and dedication.

The joining of Lily, the extroverted, enthusiastic, fun loving, dancing, leader of men and women, with Jimmy, a stoic, conservative, sober, unassuming, responsible gentleman was a merger of opposites. The early years of this romantic, affectionate couple are shown in a photograph of them together in 1927 and a photograph in 1928.[•*]

Life was good during the year that followed the end of their legal entanglements. Jimmy was successful at his business; Eleni and Louie were equally prosperous at their work in the garment industry. Lily kept house for them all and looked after her grandmother, Vasiliki.

On 10 December 1928, in celebration of their first anniversary, Jimmy and Lily attended a Metropolitan Opera performance of Puccini's Turandot.

The first signs of economic stress that preceded the Great Depression(3) appeared in the financial markets. The fur market felt the impact almost immediately, and Jimmy and Bill dissolved their partnership as friends.

Life was good for the family on Ovington Avenue in 1929. There was still hope that the financial crisis would pass and life would go on as before. A photograph shows the family at a picnic in the summer of 1929.[•**] They took every opportunity to be out of the city in environments that reminded them of their origins - by lakes, in forests and at the sea. Always with them were good food, and music from a bouzouki, mandolin or clarinet.

Lily hoped for a large family. In 1929, after suffering miscarriages she became pregnant and did not lose the child. A son named after Jimmy's father, Athanasios, was born on 20 February 1930. The joyful event of Athanasios' birth was followed six months later by the tragedy of his death. He contracted pneumonia and died in September 1930.

Jimmy's business failed in late 1930. Consistent with his ethics and the values he held throughout his life he refused to go bankrupt or, in the language of the fur market, "go boom." He signed notes for tens of thousands of dollars not knowing how or when he would be able to pay his creditors.

Lily's mother and stepfather took a trip to Greece and Italy in the spring and summer of 1931. Eleni needed time to rest after years of hard work and to recover from the loss of her grandson. She must have been aware that she had a chronic cardiac valve disease. Loss of a large part of her wealth early in the Depression added to her worry and distress.

Before leaving on her trip Eleni arranged for Lily's future. She visited her attorney to have the title to her house entered as a joint tenancy with Lily. Witness to the document was Rose Dimitroff Rusuli, Bill Rusuli's wife. Eleni's husband, Louis Perna, did not have his name on any of the recorded documents for the property at 260 Ovington Avenue.

Louie was completely devoted to Eleni and to Lily. He was as good a father-in-law and grandfather as anyone might be. Yet Eleni remained financially independent. Louis was generous to his grandchildren and in his later years was able to afford a home of his own and a comfortable retirement.

Eleni and Louis returned from Europe to their home in Brooklyn in time for the birth of their granddaughter on 13 September 1931. The baby's name was Eleni (Helene), after her grandmother.

The Great Depression intensified and work was hard to find. Jimmy matched and cut skins for several fur manufacturers two or three hours at a time, barely making ends meet. Eleni and Louie were both in and out of work, and Eleni had lost a fortune in the mad craze of currency speculation that enticed novice investors in the twenties.

In the winter of 1932-33, Jimmy and Lily's baby, Eleni, contracted pneumonia just as her deceased brother had. The family did not sleep for days as they nursed her and prayed. A new family doctor, Ettore J. De Tata, cared for Elenitsa.(4) He prescribed among other remedies, open windows.

So in the middle of winter the baby's room had its windows wide open, while to keep the house warm Jimmy and Louie shoveled coal into the jaws of the furnace in the basement. Three years later a modern oil-burning unit replaced the coal furnace and Leonardo converted the room that had held the coal storage bins into a space for wine barrels.

There were no antibiotics or sulfa drugs in the 1930's. Pneumonia was a common and frequently fatal disease for the weak, the very young and the very old. Diphtheria, scarlet fever, poliomyelitis, tuberculosis, whooping cough, chicken pox and measles were diseases that threatened early life. Tonsillitis, impetigo, pinkeye, ringworm and even head lice were common afflictions among the poor, immigrant populations. None was easily treated; home remedies were often the only therapies available. Among eastern Europeans, typical treatments for lung congestion and pneumonia were ventoozes, or cupping, and mustard plasters.

Cupping involved application of several inverted glasses on the patient's chest. A burning ball of cotton that had been soaked in alcohol or olive oil was held inside an inverted glass for several seconds. Each glass was quickly applied to the body establishing a seal, so the vacuum formed by the air cooling inside the glass pulled the patient's flesh up into the vessel. The participants believed that disease was sucked out of the chest. In reality the cups did no more than stimulate circulation, which may have been therapeutic. The care and fussing may have had a comforting psychological effect on the patient as well.

Mustard plasters were foul smelling tortures. Women of the family were expert at grinding mustard seeds and mixing the resulting powder with vinegar and hot water to form a horrid paste. This they spread on cotton towels and applied to a congested chest which had been primed with a bath of olive oil to prevent the patient's skin from burning and blistering. Once again heat provided by the hot compress and generated by the irritating poultice probably increased circulation to the area.

Board of Health quarantine signs and warning ribbons were common at the front doors of homes and apartments. If disease spread through a neighborhood, it meant calamity for all.

Helene survived and Dr. De Tata, called Eddie, and his wife, Anna, became life long friends to Jimmy and Lily.

Ettore J. De Tata was the son of a poor Italian immigrant family. They lived in the Italian neighborhood that surrounded Sixteenth Avenue between Sixty-fifth and Sixty-ninth Streets in Brooklyn. Young Ettore attended Kings County Medical School supported by his mother who took in laundry to make the money needed for books and tuition. Friends and neighbors who gave her laundry could ill afford the luxury but hoped to have a young, Italian speaking doctor of their own to take care of them. He did. Ettore went into practice at 1147 Sixty-fifth Street; in a basement office of the home he purchased with the good credit a local bank instantly afforded to a young doctor.

Eddie worked tirelessly for his patients all his life. He made house calls, delivered babies, performed general surgery, and kept office hours from ten in the morning until noon, returning at three in the afternoon and continuing until his last patient was seen. There were no appointments and no bills. Two dollars for an office visit and three dollars for a home visit were his fees; pay if you can, when you can. Mostly patients paid in cash. Sometimes they paid with home made wine and preserves, home grown vegetables or other specialties. Every patient revered and blessed him.

Dr. De Tata volunteered to serve in the Second World War immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He ran a field hospital on Guadalcanal, contracting malaria while there. Later he trained as a Plastic Surgeon and stayed on in the army a year longer than required to be sure that he completed surgeries for all his patients. When he returned to his practice in Brooklyn he had a bank account swollen by South Pacific poker winnings.

He invested conservatively becoming financially secure but never abandoning his patients in Brooklyn. Even years later after he retired, moved to New Jersey and purchased homes next to his own for his mother and unmarried sisters, he drove to Brooklyn twice weekly to care for his elderly patients.

More hardships followed Elenitsa's bout with pneumonia.

On 26 May 1933, Eleni died at the age of fifty-two after collapsing at home. The cause of death was, "chronic cardiac valve disease," with "gastro-enteritis" as a contributing factor. She apparently had suffered problems with her heart for five or six years before her death. The anguish of the loss of her husband during her expulsion from Bulgaria and the problems she had to face and overcome in the years that followed took their toll. The family's grief at their matriarch's passing was profound. She was remembered at every gathering by endless stories of her life.

At the depth of the Great Depression, a second son was born to Jimmy and Lily. Dr. De Tata ushered the boy into the world on 14 March 1934 at Shore Road Hospital, a converted estate that overlooked New York Bay in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The Birth Certificate shows Jason Dimitrios Mavrovitis arrived at 12:44 A.M.

Lily had a long and difficult labor, delivering Jason after some thirty hours. Jimmy, who read and enjoyed Greek mythology, decided on to name his son Jason, pronounced Yiason in Greek. In Kastoria a son often took his father's name as a middle name. Jimmy's was Athanasios. But Bill and Rose Rusuli, godparents to Jason, chose Constantine as his Christian name and the Birth Certificate was revised to reflect the change.

Jason Constantine and Nitsa (Eleni) came to share the same name day (21 May): dedicated to Saints Constantine and Eleni, the first Christian Emperor of Rome and his mother.

Eleni's mother, Vasiliki, died twenty-one months later, on 21 December 1935.

Just a day before her death, Yia-Yia Vasiliki quietly announced that her time had come. She asked that her burial clothing be prepared and the next afternoon requested that Lily bath her in preparation for her burial. That evening she seemed to drift into a coma. Lily revived her grandmother and telephoned Doctor DeTata to come at once. He came, examined Yia-Yia Vasiliki, and then told Lily not to interfere with her Yia-Yia's death. She was ready to leave life.

Lily did as Doctor DeTata told her and within a few hours Yia-Yia Vasiliki peacefully stopped breathing. At ninety-four years of age Vasiliki had outlived her husband, Hristodul, by twenty-seven years.

Yia-Yia Vasiliki's death was of the kind that Orthodox Christians pray for each week at liturgy: "That the end of our lives may be Christian, without pain, blameless and peaceful, and for a good account at the fearful judgment-seat of Christ, Let us ask of the Lord." The way of her passing was like that of countless others who in old age were prepared to leave this world and did so with grace, dignity and peaceful resignation.

Athanasios Mavrovitis, his grandmother, Eleni, and great-grandmother, Vasiliki are buried in the same grave at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Long Island.(5) Their gravesite, located in a vandalized section of the cemetery, had its plot marker and head stone missing or in fragments in 1992. The grave could not readily be located.

With her mother and grandmother both gone, Lily was now mistress in the house Eleni had left to her. She set about making it a home for her husband, two young children, and stepfather.

Life went on at 260 Ovington Avenue. Copies of a photograph taken in 1936 of Jimmy, Lily and their children were sent to Mavrovo and Kastoria. And family celebrations continued, like the Easter gathering of the same year.[•]

Lily was very busy in these years. Women worked hard to take care of their families. Conveniences taken for granted in the year 2001 did not exist in the 1930's.

As the Depression, family deaths, and financial worries burdened Jimmy, he lost weight, weakened, developed ulcers and contracted pneumonia, an illness that would revisit him in later years.

Doctor De Tata ordered him to take a long vacation whether he could afford to or not. So Jimmy borrowed money from Louie Dimitroff and took a cruise to the warmth of the Caribbean. Photographs of him in Jamaica are reminiscent of starved, gaunt refugees.

In the late 1930's, fear of war began to worry the people of Europe while "America First" became the cry of isolationist politicians in the New World. Jimmy found permanent work in 1938 as shop foreman in the firm of Fierstein & Fierstein on Seventh Avenue He began to recover physically, emotionally and financially. Little by little he paid his debts, joyfully fulfilling his obligations when he received a handsome bonus at Christmas in 1943.

On 29 January 1941, Demetrios ("Jimmy") A. Mavrovitis changed his, his wife's and his children's surname from Mavrovitis to Mavis, and his given name to James.

The reason for the name change is unclear. It is likely that Jimmy wanted to Anglicize it to benefit his children. He claimed to be tired of spelling it for people and of the difficulty in fitting it into small boxes on forms.


[Skip the Notes]

  1. The name day for Evangelia is the feast day of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, 25 March. Evangelia was Lily's proper name. [Return to the text at note 1.]
  2. This was at Third Avenue. It was subsequently demolished. [Return to the text at note 2.]
  1. The economic collapse known as the Great Depression began in October 1929, when the speculative bubble in the stock market burst and the "Roaring Twenties" came to an end. Recovery did not take hold until manufacture of armaments in anticipation of the Second World War stimulated the economy in 1939-40. During the Depression people saw their life savings evaporate, unemployment reach record levels, and soup kitchen lines form in every city.

    One of the famous songs of the day was: "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," by Gorney and Hamburg. A hit in 1932, it was recorded by both Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. The lyrics, quoted here in part, provide an eloquent description of the time. The references to "khaki suits" and "Half a million boots" are to veterans of the First World War who suffered in war and the Depression.

    Last two lines of the First Verse:

    Why should I be standing in line
    Just waiting for bread?


    Once I built a railroad.
    I made it run
    Made it race against time.
    Once I built a railroad.
    Now it's done.
    Brother, can you spare a dime?
    Once I built a tower up to the sun
    Brick and rivet and lime.
    Once I built a tower.
    Now it's done.
    Brother, can you spare a dime?

    Second Verse:

    Once in khaki suits
    Gee we looked swell,
    Full of that yankee doodle dee dum.
    Half a million boots went sloggin' through hell,
    And I was the kid with the drum!

    Final Chorus:

    Say don't you remember?
    They called me Al.
    It was Al all the time.
    Why don't you remember?
    I'm your pal.
    Say, buddy, can you spare a dime?

    [Return to the text at note 3.]
  1. My sister Helene's name in Greek was Eleni. "Elenitsa" uses the diminutive suffix "itsa." We called her "Nitsa," even when she was adult. [Return to the text at note 4.]
  2. Plot: Elmwood, Grave #543. [Return to the text at note 5.]

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