In Memoriam: Harry Mark Petrakis (June 5, 1923 – February 2, 2021)
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Harry Mark Petrakis, one of Chicago’s great literary figures, died, unofficially of old age, last Tuesday, Feb. 2, near his longtime home in Chestertown, Indiana. He was 97 years old.
Harry gained a reputation as a foremost Greek-American author, but anybody who's read him knows that his accomplishments defy such a narrow definition. Stuart Dybek, in a blurb for one of Harry’s later books, said it eloquently. “To be lost in a babble of voices is to be mute,” Stuart wrote. “Chicago writers--African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Irish, Jewish, Polish--have set themselves to transforming a turbulent city's port of entry babble into the mnemonic clarity of beauty of story and song. That is what Harry Mark Petrakis has done for the Greek community over a lifetime of empathetically powerful novels. That vision is the gift to America that he continues to give us all.”
Our sorrow at Harry's passing is personal and also selfish. We lost an honorable, generous and gifted man, and we lost the joy that any future literary outpourings would give to us.
Harry had already lived a remarkable and full life when the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame honored him with its second Fuller Award for lifetime achievement at the National Hellenic Museum on Oct. 4, 2014. He’d written a small library of incredible novels, short stories, and plays, many set in Chicago’s Greek Town. He’d seen his novel A Dream of Kings experience the height of literary success and translate to a big-time Hollywood movie with big-time stars.
His health, then, was okay, considering, but he had his troubles. Just before the big event, at which more than a hundred friends, family, and admirers were to turn out to give tribute, Harry called to say he was struggling with a bowel problem. He thought he would still make the ceremony. No guarantees.
Harry was the guest of honor. He was the reason so many people were putting on suits and nice dresses, bundling up their favorite books to have signed, getting in their cars on a chilly fall evening, circling New Greek Town for a precious, Saturday night parking spot. Rescheduling the event didn’t make sense. Nothing else did, either. We took our chances.
Harry did show up: the dictionary definition of intestinal fortitude. Medication and pure determination helped him make it to the museum, but he still ailed. Nobody else, other than perhaps those in his inner circle, would have known anything about this. I was anxious. We had a good number of speakers—Dan Mihalopoulos, John G. Manos, and Bill Brashler. Marco Benassi and Tim Clue planned to introduce then show their video tribute. John Petrakis would represent the family with a short speech. Judge Charles Kocoras was slated to present the statue. Dimitris Hatzis had agreed to play the Cretan laouto and Frank Savakis the Cretan lyra. Patrizia Lombardi Acerra volunteered to do a dramatic reading of Harry’s work; Robin and Liz Metz were driving up from Galesburg to do the same.
The tributes started. So many were eager to tell their Harry stories, wax nostalgic, recount the many ways that his literary talent and friendship had made our city and the whole of the cultural world an infinitely better place. These speeches, they were good. Great, even. The audience was laughing, some were crying.
To me, the ceremony was agonizing.
With each successive speaker, I rooted harder for brevity. Harry sat in a perfect posture, leaning on his cane, in the front row. He hardly stirred, a picture of concentration and appreciation. I almost called a bathroom break halfway through the hour and a half pageant. I refrained. We inched closer to the big moment: Harry’s acceptance speech. I grimaced. How would Harry, at his age, in his vulnerable and precarious condition, make it through a considerable speech before a fairly large crowd of intense listeners?
He stood. He rocked himself to the stage, slow but steady. Gallant, somehow. He positioned himself behind the lectern. Looked down, then up, scanning each and every person he faced. He closed his eyes, as if summoning a muse. Then, like a trained orator, he began.
For the next ten or so minutes, Harry delivered an absolutely delightful, heartfelt, humble speech—perfectly written and rendered. At the end, everybody stood. The applause was genuine, loud.
It was not Harry’s swan song—he wanted me to know that. I had spent most of a day at his house near the Indiana Dunes. I’d come to gather notes so I could write an extended profile for our commemorative program, and didn’t want to stay longer than necessary. He fixed me some tea and made me comfortable, all the while checking on and fussing over his sick wife Diana, who passed very early in 2019. He told me stories he had told many times. I know this because later, when I google searched my notes, the transcription matched, almost word for word, published accounts of his own or others.
Harry was like that. A perfectionist. The stories he told, especially those he wrote, were meticulously crafted. The dialogue jumps. The atmosphere buzzes with a kind of electricity both ancient and modern. The tension hums. The characters delight.
I did not have other opportunities to spend time in person with Harry, after that. There were a few phone calls and emails. But from that one afternoon in Indiana, what struck me was how easily Harry let you into his life. I showed up there a bit apprehensive, not wanting to intrude, given his age and his duties as care giver; I left as his friend. He made sure of that. He shared his stories, of course—that was my purpose there—but he also wanted to know mine. Everything he did epitomized a kind of graciousness and generosity.
At the National Hellenic Museum, it was easy to see that I was not alone among those who’d felt fellowship with Harry. There were of course people he’d known intimately—they were there. People with whom he’d worked or collaborated decades ago—they made the effort. The dedicated and talented National Hellenic Museum staff, and a contingent of people from the Greek community—they all made sure to be on hand. But there were also people he’d met only briefly, long ago, on whom he’d made an impression, and still more there that knew him only through his extraordinary literature. In the receiving line after the speech, as Harry signed books, I heard one woman, then a man, another woman, remind Harry of how they knew one another. Harry would look up from the book he was inscribing, stare the well-wisher in the eyes, and recite details of their relationship that showed, without a doubt, that he had internalized their time together.
News of Harry’s passing is sad. It’s hard to know how to honor such a giant of our literary community, or how to express the reasons he attained that status. The best way, maybe, is to read Harry’s work. I recommend starting with his breakthrough story, “Pericles on 31st Street.” In late 1956, The Atlantic magazine paid Harry, then 33 years old, $400 to publish that story. When he received the acceptance note, Harry, who had worked a series of grueling, blue collar jobs to support Diana and his three sons, wept. He later received a bonus of $750 when the story was recognized as the best of The Atlantic’s “first” stories for the year.
I’d then read “The Prison,” which won the O. Henry Award in 1966. While you’re at it, read the rest of the collection, Pericles on 31st Street. So many good stories in there. That book was nominated for a National Book Award for Fiction in 1966.
After that, you have to read A Dream of Kings, a nearly perfect novel that garnered Harry his second consecutive nomination for the National Book Award in Fiction and spent three months on the New York Times Best Seller list. When you’re done, watch the 1969 film adaptation starring Anthony Quinn.
From there, I’d read Nick the Greek (1979), one of the absolutely best gambling novels, period. That one will whet your appetite for Harry’s memoir Song of My Life (2014) in which he explores his own gambling addiction and so much else that reveals his character in the context of a literary life
Our Fuller Award recipients are selected with the same incredibly high standards and rigorous vetting as our induction candidates. We believe that the Fuller Award recipients need not undergo further voting in order to be considered worthy of our highest stature. And so, the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s board of directors has voted to add Harry to the upcoming class of official inductees. Via email, Harry's son John wrote, "My father was very proud of his roots in the Chicago literary scene, and I'm certain he would be honored to be inducted into your Hall of Fame."
Rest in peace, Harry, and thanks for all you’ve left behind.
Donald G. Evans is the Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. He is the author of a novel and short story collection, and editor of an anthology. His personal blog often explores Chicago literature, including a recent post about the Chicago writers of the WPA. He will be leading a seminar on the subject at the Newberry Library beginning Tuesday, February 16.