Ilias Chrissochoidis, a Greek composer and research associate at Stanford University, recently discovered a treasure trove of material – original documents, rare photographs and never before seen biographical notes dictated by Spyros P. Skouras, one of America’s most influential Greek immigrants
Originally from Thessaloniki, a curious Chrissochoidis spent all of last year digging through 86 boxes of papers that had been donated to the university by the Skouras family back in 1988.
Skouras was best known as the 20th century motion picture mogul who gave Marilyn Monroe her big break.
“It was out of curiosity that I went through all the boxes and discovered Skouras’ autobiographical notes,” says Chrissochoidis. “I looked through all 86 boxes. I went through several thousand pages. This is what I did for the past year.”
Now, all this information is available in a new book titled Spyros P. Skouras Memoirs (1893-1953) published by Chrissochoidis.
Impressed by the archive, the Greek America Foundation sponsored and funded Chrissochoidis’ research and is now hoping to use the book as the basis for the first-ever documentary project on Skouras’ life and achievements.
The making of the archive
The significance of the Skouras archive, a collection that is being preserved at Stanford University’s library, is difficult to overestimate.
“Skouras was trying to write a biography,” says Chrissochoidis. “This was in the 1950s – around the time he introduced cinemascope to the motion picture industry. There was a lot of interest in his life and career.”
Cinemascope was a special type of lens used for shooting wide-screen movies between 1953 and 1967. At a time when the advent of television had become prevalent in American homes, the innovation was seen as Hollywood’s savior, making movies larger than life and a much bigger experience than television could provide.
Skouras, a motion picture pioneer and movie executive who was the president of Twentieth Century Fox between 1942 and 1962, began dictating his memoirs back in 1953 and again in 1965, at which time he had become passionate about the idea of writing his autobiography.
“He was trying to dictate whatever he could remember about the early part of his life,” says Chrissochoidis. “The plan back then was for Skouras to provide as much primary sources and whatever else he could include from his life and somebody was to put everything into shape and publish it all as a biography. Everything was to be supervised by Skouras himself. Unfortunately this never happened.”
“But the book I just published contains all this information – information that most people do not know about Skouras,” he adds.
For the first time, Skouras’ story is told in his own words and in full detail, says Chrissochoidis. “This book is a valuable contribution to American and Greek Diaspora historiography that will inspire younger generations to pursue the intertwined ideals of business excellence and public service.”
March 28, 2014 marked the 120th anniversary of Skouras’ birthday.
What most people don’t know about Spyros Skouras
Chrissochoidis’ book is packed with photographs and information about how he and his brothers emigrated from the tiny Greek village of Skourochori in Pyrgos in the western part of the Peloponnese, and how Skouras managed to work his way up from busing tables at hotels in St. Louis to become one of the richest and most famous movie executives in America. By 1952, Skouras’ assets amounted to a whopping $108,000,000.
While most people, especially those in the film industry, know that Skouras served as the president of Twentieth Century Fox, few people are aware about how instrumental he was in actually creating it. He was the mastermind of the historic 1935 merger between Twentieth Century Pictures and Fox Film Corporation.
During his 20-year tenure, Skouras oversaw the production of such classics as Don’t Bother to Knock, The Seven Year Itch, The Hustler, The King and I, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Robe. One of his greatest achievements was his signing of a young model named Norma Jeane Baker to 20th Century Fox, who later changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.
Skouras also oversaw the production of such epics as Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor.
Bob Hope once joked about his Greek accent: “Spyros has been here twenty years but he still sounds as if he’s coming next week”.
Another fact that is not well known is Skouras’ effort to bring food and medicine to the people in war-ravaged Greece after World War II. He worked with numerous Greek organizations and the church and brought in celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland to help create one of the largest humanitarian relief campaigns ever in American history.
“His involvement with the Greek War Relief Association [which he chaired]is another important facet that is not well known,” says Chrissochoidis. “And Something else people may not know about Skouras is that he played the role of America’s cultural ambassador.”
“One of his responsibilities as president of Twentieth Century Fox was to visit the offices of the company abroad. So he was traveling 150,000 miles per year and was able to collect information and have an understanding of what America’s image was in the rest of the world. He would even send reports to President Eisenhower.”
A proud American
When Skouras immigrated to the United States, leaving behind a life of poverty in Greece, he had absolutely no intention of ever returning.
“This was the beginning of an epic in which Skouras evolved from a ruined farmer in an underdeveloped country to an outstanding figure that shaped Twentieth Century Fox and may well have nudged the course of 20th century history,” writes Chrissochoidis in his book. He also stresses the fact that Skouras had access to the White House under six different administrations, from Presidents Roosevelt to Nixon. Skouras was also a personal friend of Eisenhower.
In his book, Chrissochoidis also points out that, no matter how proud Skouras was of his Greek birth, he was “above all an American” who embraced the American way of life.
“He was one of the first immigrants in this country to immediately apply for citizenship,” says Chrissochoidis. “I stress this point in the book because it is something that Skouras himself had pointed out again and again. In one instance he explains that he is helping Greece, not as a Greek but as an American who wants to help other countries reach the same level.”
On August 16, 1971, Skouras died of a heart attack. He was 78. The New York Times described him as the “Colossal Optimist”.