Part III: THE ESCAPE



[From Elia Kazan's "A LIFE" (Knopf, 1988), pp. 733-735.]



In the morning I telephoned my relatives and got a wonderful surprise. My cousin Stellio had succeeded in moving his family to Athens, had even set up a business, manufacturing inexpensive shoes and exporting them to America. We met immediately, and on the days when I was in Athens, I tried to spend as much time with him as I could. I noticed a miraculous change in his character. In Greece, he'd become bold, outspoken, argued with me freely and confidently, saying what it pleased him to say in an unmuffled voice. He had lost that circumspect and timid manner I'd remarked on in Istanbul; he wheeled boldly and freely around the streets. He was another man. I was thrilled by what had happened to him. This one man exemplified for me the two different kinds of Greeks, those from Greece itself and those from Turkey, who'd lived under the Turk and learned what it was necessary to do to survive. The native Greeks were less sensitive, on the whole, less intelligent, but independent, fearless, and outspoken. Those who'd escaped from the Turk, particularly those who'd fled from Smyrna in 1922, when the Turks had burned the Greek and Armenian neighborhoods of the city, considered themselves lucky to be alive and were quite in contrast to the natives; they'd become anxious and manipulative, sometimes to the point of being craven and tricky. They got along by pleasing others and by making themselves, as my cousin Stellio had been, as nearly invisible as possible. My father had been one of this number. I recalled how he'd say "I know nothing" when confronted with a difficult stand. If he was asked his opinion and believed he might be held to it, he'd shrug and say, "It's not my business." Compare the Yankee who, when challenged, says, "Mind your business!" How admirable that blunt response is!

I'd observed all this before, but now I saw the connection to my own life. I did not separate myself from my cousin Stellio, who'd once walked close to the edge of buildings and was now free. I was made of the same stuff. I saw that my background had made me ideal for show business, where the basic interest is to please others--the audience, the critics, the moneymen, the playwrights, and the producers. It was perfectly natural for me to obey these cardinal laws: Please those who pay. Don't say what will offend those in power. The native Greeks were not as shrewd as those of us who'd come from Anatolia; we were the clever ones, and our cunning taught us to be servile to the strong. Those born in Greece, particularly those who'd been there for generations, had a fearlessness close to arrogance, which I envied.

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Stellio's story has an unhappy ending. One day, some years later, careless in his new freedom, he was struck by a taxi that climbed up over the curb where he was standing off guard, talking to a friend. Stellio was thrown against a lamppost, then taken to a hospital, where he died ten days later. His new freedom had cost him his life; he'd never been off guard in a street in Istanbul.