George Soter Memoirs (2)

The Soter family, Christmas 2007The Soter family, Christmas 2007

These memories were written in 2007-2008 for the publication BOOKNOTES.

Booknotes Memories (1): Childhood


My mother grew up in Vresthena a Peloponnesus mountain village where they had lots of chestnuts, pine nuts, and currents (rarely turkeys, but lots of chickens, ducks, and geese to stuff), so her traditional stuffing included her Hellenic standbys. In Chicago, where she early on wound up, her Chicago Vresthena cousin Andonia (who’d been carried to Ameriki as an infant, her accent and cuisine reflected her pre-Chicago upbringing in Boston) made her traditional stuffing with oysters (as rare in 1920’s Chicago as turkeys in Vresthena). Thea Andonia’s annual Thanksgiving search and resultant stuffing featured the bi-valves; my mother’s continued to star chestnuts, pine nuts, and currents (all almost as rare in Chicago, then, as oysters).

These little culinary histories led each year to respective family turn-downs of Thanksgiving invitations (“Who ever heard of oysters! Po, po, po!” “Chestnuts are so old country! Phooey!”) These annual November arguments reigned among my cousins and me, so that we never had extended-family feasts on the great American family-feasting holiday. I now love raw oysters but still prefer chestnut stuffing in our big bird. But oddly, I miss those noisy, endless, pointless, excited, loving arguments over chestnuts vs. oysters. Lots of other memory stuffings to miss, too.

Booknotes Memories (2): The War Years

George Soter, 1940sGeorge Soter, 1940s UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES


These memories were written by George in 2008.

Unintended Consequences (UCs): Key component of every war. UCs are usually bad; but sometimes surprisingly not. For instance, early on in WWII, the compulsory draft too quickly overstocked US army ranks (“Hey! What do we do with all these guys?” “Keep ’em marchin’ and drillin’!”), while simultaneously thoroughly depleting US college and university campuses. (“Where are all the guys?”)

But, in a seemingly rare creative moment, the US Army came up with a plan to attack both these UCs at once: it was called ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program) and the U.S. Army was soon running the single biggest college education program in the nation's history––sending more than 200,000 soldiers off to some 227 colleges for highly sped-up courses in various branches of engineering, medicine, dentistry, personnel psychology, and 34 different foreign languages! Less marching, less empty campuses. (Among the eventually most celebrated of these GIs were Henry Kissinger and Ed Koch; among the least celebrated was the present writer, then PFC George Soter.)

I was one of twenty Greek-Americans (and one hapless Serb, victim of an army snafu—“We have no Serbian Area & Language Program…but Serbia’s right next to Greece, so let’s put him in the Greek one.”), all of whom in the wartime winter of ’43 ended up in Worcester, Massachusetts, members of Clark University’s ASTP Greek A&L unit. We were, for a while, far from the shooting war over there––and hey! back thisaway, too.

The 20 “Greeks”represented coast-to-coast Greek-American enclaves including interior ones, Idaho to Pennsylvania. We attended daily classes in spoken and written Greek, in Greek and Balkan geography/history. (Teacher, speaking in English, “All Balkan countries are culturally similar in diets, dances, customs…But,” lapsing into politically incorrect Greek, “never trust those bastard Bulgarians!”) We soon infiltrated the welcoming Worcester Greek community’s families (and their many restaurants), even though most of the East coast Greeks––unlike our Stamatopoulos, Constantinides, and Kapenekas guys––had had their too-Greek names arbitrarily anglicized into often totally unrelated “Yankee” ones, i.e., “Kotsilibas” became “Davis” and who knows whence the Patterson and Anderson Greek surnames sprang from?

In addition to daily classes, we also took part in an original ASTP musical “Wearin’ Brown” that we wrote and appeared in; and established life-long friendships and relationships including the to-this-day partnership of Effie Hartocollis, Clark student from Athens, and ASTPer George, Peter’s mom-and-pop. Talk about your very UCs.

Did we ever get to soldier in Greece? Thanks to the UCs of a Churchill/Roosevelt agreement, which kept Greece on the Brit side of the post-war ledger, “No.”

Our Army-sponsored college ASTP days ended as precipitously as they had begun. Now, we were off to the War. From Worcester, we trained west to Camp Crowder, Mo., where, to our relief, we became part of the Signal Corps (not the Infantry) and, then, back east where we were crammed onto The Nieuw Amsterdam, a “leased” Dutch luxury liner, to cross the U-boat-infested Atlantic. (Lots of on-deck bridge games). First stop, Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire, England, where we waited and waited (more bridge games) for the Battle of the Bulge to end so we could move on to our destination, Antwerp, Belgium. Our job there: to run the Army Message Center of the Allies’ busiest port––a kind of 24/7 duty entailing shifts of 8 hours on, 24 off––mostly supervising staffs of local civilians and army cryptographers. Happily, those many hours off led to many indulgences, like French lessons, and local tourism in Antwerp and, more often, in nearby big city Brussels, a 40-minute train ride away, all enjoying the happy absence of their recent occupiers. The only “war-action” times came with the self-propelled and unnerving V-1 and V-2 bombs the Germans, still in Holland, were lobbing at London and our port’s way day and night mostly with guesswork aim. (The closest they got to our ‘barracks’––an ornate Fifth-Avenue-like mansion––was several blocks away. Yet still unnerving.)

A note on the bulletin board of the Brussels Red Cross Service center, made all those ASTP Greek conversation hours seem prescient. A Greek-Belgian family invited U.S. soldiers of Greek descent to call on them. (A way for the Klimis family to establish thankful contact with the GIs and to overcome any language barriers.) I promptly made the call––and for the next year, I was a frequent commuter from Antwerp to the haute bourgeois, Greco-Belge extended family at 14 Square de l’Aviation. The many Klimises there, sharing a five-story townhouse atop their wholesale sponge business, included three related families (one with a sister and brother of my age), governed over by the oldest matriarch widow (a combination Anna Magnani and Jane Darwell). Each family had an elegantly furnished separate floor-through apartment. Most of the males and the matriarch took care of the sponge business (their natal Greek island of Kalymnos was known for its sponges––this was still the era long before cellulose sponges). My commute quickly grew to encompass weekly family dinners (to this day rich Belgian chocolate mousse acts on me like Proust’s cookie––visions of the elaborately carved sideboard and the crowded polyglot table); some overnight stays; trips to the Knock-Le-Zoute seashore; Greek church Sundays; outings in Brussels (many French films without English subtitles); and a lot of Greek talk. Once, even, on a week’s leave to London, I got to be a paid personal deliverer via a sponge-stuffed duffel bag for some of their pre-war UK customers. (So, Irving, sponging, of all kinds, is the army, too.)

Part II
It’s 1945, Our War is over! But the GI Grand Tour of Europe (for some) continues. With Paris, London, Belgium, and their assorted hinterlands covered, some remaining highlights include:

1. Berlin. After the Greek-Belgique moments, next stop is the ruins of the German capital. (Next time it’s on TCM catch the Billy Wilder, Dietrich, Jean Arthur movie, A Foreign Affair, for true-to-life local color.) Our job there is to oversee (Was is das?) a former Zeiss-Ikon warehouse; we’re housed in Queens-like apartments complete with cleaning-frau services (Das ist der Army, Herr Irving?) in a Queens-like part of Berlin whose subway stop is––hold on!––unforgettably, Oncle Tom’s Hutte, a paradoxical remnant of the anti-US international success of Stowe’s anti-US-slavery 1800’s novel. / With an oversupply of GIs and an undersupply of troop ship transports heading home, many GIs are offered simultaneous army releases and US Army jobs in Berlin. A kind of college campus culture takes over, with almost nightly frat-like parties in those Queens-like Berliner apartments, and their intermingling of GI, WAC, Brit, French ––even a rare Russian or two––and ex-GI members of Berlin’s occupying forces. / With the black-market value ($125.00) of a carton of Camels (PX price, $2.50), caviar and champagne as well as arts and antiques are suddenly homey GI events. (If you were ever bowled over by the Paul Klee watercolor or the third-century small Hellenistic marble head in a Soter Manhattan apartment, this was their provenance.) / Berlin was also the provenance of the life-long friendship with Tom and Dorothy Wellington and the assorted Wellington offspring that continues to this day. In Belgium, 1945.In Belgium, 1945.

2. Edinburgh. As the seemingly stalled troop repatriations go on and on and on, Army creativity came to the fore again, making available to Europe-stranded GIs some unique educational opportunities. In addition to selected courses at French and British universities, the army also promoted on-the-job training opportunities, If you had worked, say, as a butcher in Topeka, Kansas, or an antiques dealer in Sarasota, Florida, wouldn’t it be educational and very “peaceful hands across the sea” if you could work for some weeks in a butcher shop in Lyons or an antique shop in Liverpool? I remembered that pre-draft, while a student, I had worked at Chicago’s Marshall Field department store with some admittedly too-few hours in the book department; so I applied for a “Book Store Placement.” Quicker than you’d expect, I was on my way to James Thin Booksellers (“established 1824”) in the Scottish capital. For the weeks ahead, a discreet italic notice among the books in their window display reported that a member of the helpful US forces would be serving them. The managers very quickly saw that my “serving” expertise was best described by the founder’s surname, and so they spent many of my “on-duty” hours guiding my own reading towards the then current (and now classic) English authorial heights––Forster, Huxley, Woolf, Shaw, et al. Whoopee! My recreational reading went on in Edinburgh, an esteemed UK cultural center, far from the depressing Berlin ruins! Take that and that, you Nazi rats!

(Next month: Out of uniform and lo! here’s the future-saving GI Bill to see to it that life continues to march on, as mysteriously and serendipitously as ever––even in Chicago!)

Booknotes Memories (3): The Advertising Years

Pampuzac and Soter, 1970s.Pampuzac and Soter, 1970s.MY OWN FRENCH CONNECTION

Wherein My Advertising Success with the Renault Dauphine Car Soon Involved Me with a Number of Other French Products, Promotions, and People, Particularly with French Ad Man Marc Pampuzac


These memories were written by George in 2008.

It was early ’60s Madison Avenue––and no, there was no such phony appellation as the current TV’s “Mad Men” in use then. During our ad agency presentation to prospective French client Renault, my name-dropping of Proust (“Who the hell is Prowst?” had asked the account executive), as well as some dollops of well-pronounced high school French phrases may have been what turned the trick, and I was seen as the “savior” of an important new account in an era when small European cars were transforming U.S. city streets and highways.

The New York Art Directors Club selected the resulting Renault ad campaign as the gold medal winner of 1961 and, before you could blurt sacre bleu, in the coming decades I was involved in a series of French accounts: Air France, Peugeot, Royal Air Maroc, Parfums Stern, Gauloises Cigarettes, even repeated jury membership on the Cannes and Venice Commercial/TV Film Festivals. Whee! Oui!

Most importantly, I formed a lasting business-partnership/ friendship with Renault’s Marc Pampuzac, a unique etoile de la publicite at a momentarily arid moment in the French advertising world. Marc who had spent some time in a US ad agency felt about New York (“Eets where good Frenchmen go when they die.”) as Wilde had famously said good Americans (me?) felt about Paris.

During the next decade our business-friendship thrived, particularly after Marc emigrated to Manhattan. We became a kind of extended famille with assorted children and respective wives part of the intercontinental mix. Francine, Marc’s wife soon became a French advertising star in her own right, heading a French offshoot of the American Wunderman agency, pioneering direct mail techniques in France.

Through the years, we all exchanged visiting rites (“No hotel. We have extra room.”), enjoyed a Greek Island private yacht holiday, were indeed an intercontinental intergenerational family. And tempus, in its often nasty way, fugited on. In the next decades, Marc, died prematurely, and our advertising careers, as is their wont, slowly melted away. Yet we remained an even closer extended family with regular visits here and there.

What’s the point of all this? Peter Soter, trying to keep his retired Dad busy, asked me to concoct a monthly morningside booknotes newsletter a sample of which you are now reading. When an e-mailed copy went off to Francine in Paris––quelle coincidence!––it turned out that her daughter, had almost simultaneously inveigled Francine, also retired, to do a monthly newsletter for the bookstore of a friend! (Le Bleu du Ciel in Ariège in the South of France.) For our Francophone readers, we attach her review from their December 2007 issue, mostly because Julius and Isaac, its two LA heroes, are both cinéastes et communistes––a rare enough juxtaposition to bear some noting.

From Francine Pampuzac’s review: “Julius et Isaac by Patrick Besson–Le 4 Septembre 1959, des amis demandent à Roger Launay d’aller à Orly chercher Isaac Wirkowski. Il vient assister à une réunion du parti communiste. Et cet Isaac n’est pas banal. Il va raconter sa vie avec un humour terrible. Cinéaste et communiste à Los Angelès, McCarthy ne va pas le rater. Son ami Julius, lui aussi communiste et cinéaste mènera sa barque différemment. Voilà un très bon bouquin. Le style est vif, le personnage d’Isaac très attachant. Ecrit en ’92, il est réédité régulièrement.”

Booknotes Memories (4): Wife and Family

Effie SoterEffie SoterALL ABOUT EFFIE


Reading Anna Cornwell’s Only the Birds Are Free brought my wife Effie’s personal World War II saga to mind. In the early ’30s, her father had deposited his wife and four children in Greece (to preserve their Greekness of language and morals) while he worked away in Brooklyn, N.Y., sending checks and showing up for short periodic visits at their outpost in Athens. (This Greek immigrant pattern even gave birth to a common Greek identifier Μπρουκλις, “Brooklys” that summed up the phenomenon, even when the absentee father was really in Chicago, Boise, or Grand Rapids.)

Upon being graduated from her Athens “gymnasio” (high school) in 1939, the 18-year old Effie was gifted with a visit to America to see her father. Shortly after her arrival here, Hitler forces overran Greece, and Effie’s mother, sister and two brothers were stranded there for the next five years. Her mother and siblings were all U.S. citizens— Effie was the only one Greek-born—and, thanks to the Red Cross, this helped them survive during the occupation. In America, after visiting with her father, she spent the next five years in Worcester, Mass., with her mother’s sister, Aunt Xanthe who was married to a successful restaurant owner there. What to do? First off, from Aunt Xanthe learning how to dress American style and, then, how to make superior pastichio and kourambiedes—two techniques that remained alive through the years. Naturally, also continue more formal schooling, to become conversant in English (French had been the common Athenian bourgeois second language choice); and then on to college—in Worcester that meant Clark University—where I was an ASTP Army trainee, and where our divergent life paths serendipitously crossed. And stayed entwined up to the present moment. To the Greek-American me (almost all Greek-Americans had village roots), a “girl from Athens” had a bit of the aura that “a girl from Paris” held for almost anyone else: sophisticated, worldly, soigné, wow! When I was shipped off to my relatively un-bellicose tour in Europe, our romance continued by mail. Effie, a dedicated student, went on, after Clark, to achieve a Master’s Degree in Social Work at New York’s Columbia. At the War’s end, there were serial emotional reunions with her mother, sister, and brothers, as they each arrived in America and settled temporarily in Brooklyn.

Effie worked off her scholarship agreement with a Social Work agency in Cincinnati, and then joined me in Chicago where I was a student; and we enjoyed a Midwestern bit of la vie boheme. Soon, we were married, had three sons, one of whom is the Peter of this operation. The other two are Nick, a San Francisco lawyer, and Tom, a writer/editor and Improv Theater teacher and impresario. Oh yes, Effie and I are still here, too.

When the Chicago ad agency I worked for transferred me to New York in the early ’50s, I had to find an apartment for my wife and our infant Nick (and another in the hopper) and I wanted to replicate our Chicago Hyde Park (pre-Obama) environment: near a university, and a body of water, and, for affordability, also near a ghetto. A study of Manhattan neighborhoods, pointed to Morningside Heights, and always having found our Chicago apartments, through walkabouts, I continued the practice in New York and spent weekends walking into every building on Riverside Drive from West 72nd Street to 120th Street asking doormen, supers, and emerging residents, “Are there any apartments available here?” I hit the jackpot at 114th Street with a classic two-bedroom, full dining room, eat-in kitchen, views! at slightly more rent than our Chicago apartment, even though it was one floor above the lobby (not an ideal New York location).

And that was our first Manhattan home; four years later, we moved in the same building up to a seventh floor three-bedroom where my retired and ailing parents moved in with us (and the one out of the hopper, our second son Tom, was now toddling around, and there was another one in the hopper, Peter to-be!), and the views were much more enticing.George and Effie in 404 Riverside apartment, 1998.George and Effie in 404 Riverside apartment, 1998.

During the next decades, our walkabouts brought us to our final two Drive apartments, a bit more upscale, a bit larger, and a bit more wonderful (one was even featured in the Sunday New York Times Magazine section and later played a significant role in Nora Ephron’s movie You’ve Got Mail, appearing as Jean Stapleton's apartment).

Time Marches On, and we’re now a block and a half from the Drive—but, happily, with a backyard garden to weed and hoe come spring. On October 1, I went through a residential move that found me in a West Harlem “below grade” one-bedroom apartment—thanks to an offer that couldn’t be refused from niece Anemona and Josh, her husband, who had eight years previously bought and moved into a West Harlem townhouse with a finished below grade apartment, which they had been using as an “attic” dumping ground. The offer included The apartment at 404 Riverside Drive.The apartment at 404 Riverside Drive.welcome access to a garden, and, the move, alas, created many dozens of mysterious cardboard boxes encasing almost half a century of family and career memorabilia—photos, term papers, letters from early departed co-workers, friends, relatives, et al., phew!

As for the recent election, if it hadn’t interfered with my typing, we’d have kept our fingers perpetually crossed. But, with the wonderfully welcome results, here’s wishing all of us the best of all our hopes! There indeed was a Lincoln, young, inexperienced, oratoricaly blessed; and there really was an FDR and a JFK—how more elite could you get? And now, there really is a Barack Obama. Hooray, America!