Smear Campaign

Decades after the death of a great doctor, a pair of jet setters claims his legacy

A portrait of a mysterious man hangs on a white wall in the Cornell Museum of Art in Delray Beach. You likely couldn't name him if your life depended on it, but if you're a woman, in a way, it does.

The man is Dr. George Papanicolaou, inventor of the Pap smear, a cervical exam that has made it possible to detect several kinds of cancer. The picture was painted by Papanicolaou's grandniece, Olga Stamatiou, who, with her husband, Rocky Zappia, and a merry band of hangers-on, has embarked on a project in the physician's honor. It is a mission as fantastic as a Greek myth, except that it's real.

More or less.

Near their RV at Kozy Kampers Kampground, Olga (with Rocky) paints to the strains of Strauss or Leonard Cohen. "I work a lot," she says.
Joshua Prezant
Near their RV at Kozy Kampers Kampground, Olga (with Rocky) paints to the strains of Strauss or Leonard Cohen. "I work a lot," she says.
Olga's work: the product of painting while on a patch of grass under a tent
Olga's work: the product of painting while on a patch of grass under a tent
Over the years Dr. Pap perfected his now-ubiquitous test using a single, special subject: his wife Mary
Over the years Dr. Pap perfected his now-ubiquitous test using a single, special subject: his wife Mary
Matthew Tibet Zappia spent several years estranged from his father, Rocky. When they reunited, Matt had a new stepmother. "Right off the bat, I felt that Olga was just this little girl," Matt recalls.
Joshua Prezant
Matthew Tibet Zappia spent several years estranged from his father, Rocky. When they reunited, Matt had a new stepmother. "Right off the bat, I felt that Olga was just this little girl," Matt recalls.

As far-flung as it is far-fetched, Rocky and Olga's tale takes them from whitewashed Greek villages to white-walled American galleries, aboard a motor home in Fort Lauderdale and a yacht in Monaco, through hallowed halls of elite hospitals and within the thin walls of the Ocean Mile Motor Lodge.

Meet these soi-disant artistes as they pursue their own Greek-American dream: freedom, poetic justice, and specula for everyone!

First, however, a fable.


Once upon a time, there was a man who lived among a coterie of carefree bohemians. One day he met a beautiful girl who displayed neither talent nor guile. Using his powers of hypnosis, Svengali transformed Trilby into an opera star. She rose to fame and brought great wealth to Svengali, without whose manipulation she could not perform.

Named for the woman-child, George du Maurier's 1894 novel, Trilby, coined the term Svengali.


It is the 1950s in the Greek-American community of Douglaston, Long Island, and the sounds of Beethoven blare from the phonograph. Olga and Kathy Stamatiou, itchy in their little-girl dresses, are trying to sit still and listen. They are at the home of their great-uncle, George Papanicolaou. Their parents, Evangelos and Mary, are like children to the doctor and his wife Mary, so such Sunday family get-togethers are routine. Although the sisters are aware of Dr. Pap's passion for classical music, his skill playing the violin, and his rigid schedule, they know little of his work. "We knew he went to the laboratory every day," Kathy shrugs, half a century later.

Today George Papanicolaou's face is on Greece's largest bill -- the 10,000 drachma note -- but to many his story is obscure. Olga, now in her fifties, would like to change that. In September she and Rocky founded Prevention and Protection (PAP), a nonprofit organization, to fund projects that, among other things, would restore the great man's name. She came up with the idea while visiting Pap's childhood home in Kymi, Greece. Rocky considers Pap's legacy his wife's birthright. "Olga and Kathy are the nieces," he points out, "and that gives us a certain position."

Rocky's position is harder to discern. His long, curly ponytail is streaked with gray. He speaks with the accent of his native New York in words that spill forth with nervous urgency, as if bottled up too long. He describes Dr. Pap with great familiarity: how he'd bring his lunch to work rather than waste time in line at the hospital cafeteria, how he'd plan his day down to the second. It is the familiarity of a fable, of course. Rocky Zappia never met the man.

As he speaks Rocky sits beside Olga in a bare upstairs room of the Cornell Museum. She is trim, her short white-blond hair is carefully styled, and her T-shirt and jeans appear crisp and carefully chosen. Ordinarily soft-spoken, Olga is especially quiet when Rocky is present. She looks at him, wide-eyed, and a smile of adoration crosses her face.

Rocky wears a crumpled white linen shirt and jeans and a tooled leather belt with a large silver buckle, adorned by a loaf of bread, that reads, "Farming, everyone's bread and butter." The belt looks like something he's had for years, maybe since that fateful day in small-town Maine when he met Olga as she rode by, Mary Poppins­style, on her bicycle. Olga had traveled north after finishing her M.F.A. at Boston University. "I just decided I'd take the car and see where I wanted to go," Olga recalls, smiling serenely, "so I landed in this magical place, Kennebunkport."

When she met the man she calls her soul mate, Olga was planning to travel to New Mexico with friends. She needed a truck for her trip. Rocky was good at fixing old cars and trucks. Was it fate? she wonders now. She and Rocky spent the next nine months together. Even as Olga was preparing to leave New England, she had misgivings. "He wasn't saying, "I want you to stay,'" she remembers.

"I didn't want to hold her back," Rocky explains apologetically, with a sidelong glance toward his wife that suggests they've discussed this before. For the record Olga finally asked Rocky whether he wanted her to stay. He said yes. That was ten years ago. They haven't spent a day apart since.

For Svengali would not allow her to sing without him; nor, indeed, would he be parted from her for a minute, or trust her out of sight.


It is a week before PAP's first benefit exhibition, "The Man Behind the Test." The show is the culmination of two years' worth of letters and transatlantic phone calls by Rocky. Olga's bright paintings share wall space with squares of sunlight shining through picture windows. The show (which opened September 21 and runs through November 12 at the Cornell Museum) includes artwork from an array of Olga and Rocky's artist friends; nearly all of it is unrelated to George Papanicolaou, gynecology, or Greece. Upstairs, workers are preparing a display of personal items from Dr. Pap, some books, some letters in Greek.

The paintings are done in realistic style, with bright colors and bold geometric shapes. There's a painting of Pap and Mary in tones so soft and light they seem to disappear, as if the portrait were not of the couple but of their ghosts. Another painting is a closeup, larger-than-life portrait of Rocky in hat and sunglasses, sipping an enormous cup of coffee at an outdoor café. The cup is nearly as big as his head, but it doesn't seem to be for effect; rather it appears amateurish.

"This isn't the traveling exhibit," Rocky points out. "This is just to raise funds for the traveling exhibit."

PAP, Rocky hopes, will become a threefold tribute: a traveling multimedia exhibit stopping at college campuses ("a really hip venue"), a documentary about the good doctor, and Papmobiles that roam the streets, giving free exams to the poor. While they are at it, Rocky and Olga wouldn't mind selling a few of Olga's paintings. "I call it my hand-grenade theory," Rocky says. "Just throw it out there and see what people are interested in."

Olga praises her husband's organizational skills, but Rocky demurs. He wouldn't call himself a manager. Rather he's "more of a visionary," he says. "I can visualize how things are tied together."


To Eleanor Kalvin, Rocky's vision is blurry at best. An otherwise bubbly, Bette Midler­ esque woman with neatly coifed hair and tinted, gold-framed glasses, Kalvin hardens at the mention of Olga's companion. "He's a dreamer," she says dismissively. "He's trying to get in using the Papanicolaou name." As president of Papanicolaou Women's Corps For Cancer Research, Inc., she too has a stake in the Papanicolaou name. And she doesn't like Rocky using it: "He's a dreamer and has wonderful ideas, but he hasn't got the authorization, and he hasn't got the money."

The Papanicolaou Women's Corps has both the money and the name recognition that Rocky and Olga's foundation lacks. Founded in 1952 under the aegis of Dr. Pap, the Hollywood-based nonprofit is one of South Florida's oldest charitable organizations. Its members reside in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties but are concentrated in south Palm Beach enclaves like Boca Raton, Delray Beach, and West Palm Beach; many of them are cancer survivors.

More than 1100 bejeweled, pastel-suited matrons turned out for a celebratory luncheon in May at the posh Boca Raton Resort and Club. The corps presented a giant cardboard check to Dr. Jerry Goodman, medical director of the University of Miami/Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Research Center; made out for the sum of $1.35 million, its size was hardly hyperbole.

In fact the fluffy, feminine image of the Papanicolaou Women's Corps belies its power and history. Dr. Pap spent the year before his death in Miami as director of the then-brand-new Papanicolaou Research Institute, which was dedicated on his 79th birthday, May 13, 1962. A handful of the corps' most senior members met the man before his death later that year of coronary heart failure.

The center was later renamed and eventually became part of the University of Miami. Although there is still a Papanicolaou Research Building on campus, the 10,000-member, 30-chapter corps is largely responsible for keeping Pap's memory alive. Each chapter hosts activities, like dinners, luncheons, raffles, and golf tournaments. The corps is UM/Sylvester Cancer Center's largest donor. "They're an enigma in the world of volunteering," says Victoria Rogers, executive director of development for Sylvester. "When most groups are dwindling, they continue to grow."

Rogers' office is down a long, Creamsicle-color corridor in Sylvester's opulent coral compound on the UM campus. It's the end of the day at the end of the week, and she distractedly runs her hand through her spiky salt-and-pepper hair. Though invited to Rocky and Olga's gala in Delray Beach, Rogers didn't attend, because, she says, she had to go to another function. A thick, shrink-wrapped stack of postcards promoting the exhibit sits near her desk, unopened. She chooses her words carefully when discussing PAP: "To my knowledge they have not yet acquired a not-for-profit status."

"I can do more good by lying than by telling the truth, and make more deserving people happy, including myself and the sweetest girl alive -- the end shall justify the means!"

Had Rogers gone to the gala, she might have noticed that Rocky and Olga listed her name alongside Eleanor Kalvin's on the dedication page of a glossy, 40-page catalog. (New Times is also thanked.) Rocky and Olga had 1000 copies printed for the show, which cost them about $7000. "Anything that's being done to heighten awareness of cervical cancer is a service," Rogers says evenly.

Kalvin is less circumspect. She turned down a chance to speak at the event and snubbed Rocky's invitation. When he tried to convince the corps president to auction some of Olga's artwork, Kalvin says, "nothing came of it. We got stuck with a couple of paintings."

She suspects Rocky is attempting to mislead potential donors by implying an affiliation with the corps. "If he makes money, we may be looking at a lawsuit," Kalvin continues, her voice rising in anger. "He's using us, and he's trying to use other people."


The story of Rocky and Olga is rooted in the ancestral tale of Dr. Pap. Although in the 1920s he developed a test that would save untold lives, Pap was a headstrong child whose energy, though considerable, was splintered among his many interests. He was fascinated by music, art, and inquiry.

Physically Pap was bold: Sometimes he'd ignore his elders' warnings and row the roiling Aegean merely to test his mettle. He tried to join the Greek navy but was rejected in a clear case of age discrimination -- he was 13 years old.

Eventually Pap followed in his father's footsteps and became an army doctor. After completing his service, Pap returned to start a private practice in Kymi, a tiny seaport on the island of Euboea. His stay lasted only a year, and his patients were few, mostly lepers neglected by local townsfolk. This left plenty of time for long walks through the island's olive groves, where he pondered great ideas. There was much to consider: Darwin had recently published his theory of evolution, which challenged Christian dogma. Then there were Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche.

Soon wanderlust struck, and Dr. Pap traveled to Germany with the idea of combining his interests and studying the philosophy of biological sciences. But he was disappointed by the program at the University of Jena, so he enrolled at the University of Munich. After receiving his doctorate, Pap returned to Greece and defied his father by refusing a marriage that had been arranged for him. Instead he proposed to the daughter of a general, Mary Mavroyeni. He wed her in a small ceremony; his family did not attend. When Greece fought Turkey in the Balkan Wars, Papanicolaou served his country once again. Though he saw the horrors of war, he also learned from Greek-American soldiers of opportunities in America. With first-class tickets paid for by Mary's father and despite both families' strong reservations, the couple set sail for America. With little more than the $250 minimum required to enter the United States, they abandoned Greece and a life of affluence for a new, unknown world. It was New York, October 19, 1913.

Pap and Mary both found work at Gimbel's department store -- she doing alterations, he selling carpets. On the second day at his new job, he was called to show a rug to a woman he'd met on the first-class cruise. It was too humbling. He quit.

Eventually Pap landed a job in the Anatomy Department of Cornell University, and Mary was later hired as his assistant, which would become her lifelong role. Pap continued work he had begun in Munich. His study of guinea pigs was stymied by the difficulty of observing ovulation. He surmised that, like other female animals, rodents must have a menstrual period, even if it was not evident. No one had bothered to document the menstrual cycles of guinea pigs, so Pap purchased a nasal speculum and took samples himself. Eureka! Turns out guinea pigs have menstrual cycles, too. Pap's technique was soon used on other mammals.

By the 1920s Pap began extrapolating his findings to women. For his best guinea pig, he didn't have to look far from home. He studied his wife for 21 years, an unbroken body of research made possible by their childlessness. "That woman probably had more Pap smears than any woman in history," laughs Dr. R. Wallace Lind, a gynecologist who, with his gynecologist wife, Heide, has written about Dr. Pap.

Papanicolaou's innovation formed the foundation for what is called exfoliative cytology, the study of cells that have been scraped from an organism. After documenting normal cells, Dr. Pap turned his attention to cell pathology, revealing the test's utility in the field of cancer research. The Pap smear has since saved untold women's lives by helping doctors to detect cancers.

Pap never received the Nobel Prize, a fact Carol Ann Armenti, executive director of the New Jersey­ based Center For Cervical Health and a cervical cancer survivor, considers an injustice. "It's a denial of [Dr. Pap's] contribution as a human person," she says. In 1998 Armenti successfully lobbied Congress to designate January as National Cervical Health Month and also helped launch a project that sends vans to perform Pap smears on the needy, a program much like the Papmobiles Rocky and Olga envision.

Armenti says a vaccine for cervical cancer is on the way, which would make it "the first cancer we can all but eliminate." This could happen within the next two years, which, Armenti admits, would make more Papmobiles moot: "It would take that long to get vans donated." Nonetheless, when Rocky and Olga wrote to tell her about PAP earlier this year, she was delighted and quickly agreed to be the keynote speaker at the Cornell Museum show.


Nobody knew where Svengali lived, and few knew how or why.

Dusk descends on Kozy Kampers RV Park on Commercial Boulevard in Lauderdale Lakes; the campers are cozy in their Winnebagos, their folding lawn chairs empty save two near space number ten. A string of icicle lights twinkles in the newborn night, illuminating the green-and-white­ striped awning like a circus' big top on Christmas Eve.

"We're like gypsies," Olga says, and indeed, after meeting in Maine, they did nine-month stints in Miller's Falls, Massachusetts, and Charleston, South Carolina, and three years in Sarasota, Florida.Ach! What an existence! what travels! what triumphs! what adventures! Things to fill a book -- a dozen books! Those five happy years -- with those two Trilbys!

Their rolling home, a metal camper towed by a red 1961 milkman's truck, is chock full of the detritus of everyday life. Plastic dinnerware and bottles of wine clutter the kitchen; tubes of Tom's of Maine toothpaste and boxes of L'Oréal hair color spill out of the tiny bathroom's crowded cabinets. By day the shaded area provided by the awning doubles as Olga's studio. "It's very cozy, and I love it," she says gaily. "It's like being in a big bubble."

An artist's life should be away from the world above all that meanness and paltriness... all in his work.

Tonight they are having dinner for a few friends and family, who have assembled for the show. At the stove, peering into a mass of macrobiotic rice, is Olga's sister Kathy, an interior designer who lives in London. With ten different grains (Rocky's recipe), she's unsure how long to cook it.

There's Hillary, a photographer and friend of Olga's for more than 20 years, who has photos in the show. Today, as often, she is wearing black; her long dark ringlets stretch to the middle of her back. With Hillary is her husband, Fritz, a bearded, bespectacled German who spent a career making public-television documentaries.

At dinner, between passing bowls of salad and plates of grilled fish, Hillary tells the story of how she met Fritz at a wine bar in Cologne. He was married. "It was unfortunate," she deadpans. Everyone laughs. She shrugs and pours more wine.

This is Olga and Rocky's inner circle; it is small by design. "[Although] we have a lot of acquaintances," Olga says, "mostly we just like to be together."

Olga pulls her knees to her chest and hunkers down over a laptop, frustrated. She doesn't know how much to charge for her artwork, nor can she line up the numbers on the screen. The prices are arbitrary, Olga admits, and one piece, her painting of a woman holding an umbrella, is not for sale.

Like an amateur, in short -- a distinguished amateur who is too proud to sell his pictures, but willingly gives one away now and then to some highly-valued and much-admiring friend.

She says she'll donate the proceeds from her work to PAP. Taped near the stove is a photocopy of a document from the state of New Jersey regarding their nonprofit corporation application. Olga finally settles on a range of $3000 to $6500 for her paintings. She says she sold eight of them at her last show in Greece. Rocky, however, will not say how many paintings they have peddled. "We sell enough to live on" is his only comment.


Nikes propped against the door jamb, his large frame folded in a mauve-and­wood-grained chair, Matt Zappia is trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid breaking a rule. Room 106 of the Ocean Mile Motor Lodge is nonsmoking, thus he's hovering, lit cigarette in hand, on the threshold. When the ocean breeze blows through the door, smoke curls inside the room anyway. Matt just laughs. He wears corduroy shorts the color of rippling wheat and an orange T-shirt with a flowery, psychedelic print on the chest that reads, in tiny letters, Polo. His hair is short and brown; a few days later it shows a rakish patch of bleach, as if the Florida sun has gone to his head.

At 23 years old, Matt is at once self-assured and painfully self-aware. His stop-start relationship with his father, Rocky, gives him an usually fresh perspective on the man he calls "Pop." Matt gestures toward standard-issue motel tables piled with an artillery of not-so-standard equipment: a digital video-editing console, monitors, and a keyboard, all worth at least $20,000. Rocky bought it and it belongs to PAP. Rocky has always been an entrepreneur. Even in 1979, when he moved from New York to a commune in Gill, Massachusetts, he was making what those around him constantly refer to as his "connections."

"Forty people in the woods eating turnips," Rocky says, chuckling at the memory of communal life. "I convinced everyone to go out and make $1000 and buy the land from a farmer." He learned organic farming and met friends who would later become his business partners in a Maine company that produced wooden storage units for videocassettes. For the most part, though, he says the commune was simply a place to crash when he wasn't traveling the country as a roadie for rockers like Joe Cocker.

The commune also happened to be Matt's birthplace, a fact Matt tosses out with practiced indifference. Apropos of his origins, Matt was given Tibet as his first name but now goes by his middle name. Rocky, Matt, and Matt's mother, Wendy, lived on the commune until Matt was three or four years old, "just long enough," he says, "for me to get my complexes down." In 1988, when Matt was 11 years old, his parents divorced. Torn between the two, Matt eventually cut off contact with his dad. "I was trying to get my home shit figured out," he says. "I was living in a dual world. I didn't know where I was fitting in."

The ensuing estrangement would last through his high-school years and his first year at the Maine College of Art. When Matt decided to end their silence, he had no problem getting his father's phone number from a friend. "I made one phone call, and that was it."

On Christmas Day 1996, he dialed Sarasota, Florida. An unfamiliar female voice answered the phone, choked with tears. It was Olga. "He had told her about me," Matt says. "It was very emotional." But then his dad came on the line, and Matt was characteristically nonchalant: "I just said, "Dad, what's up?'"

At the time Rocky and Olga were making plans to marry and go to Greece, where Olga's father was ailing. He died just after they had arranged to ship their truck across the Atlantic, but they went anyway. Olga had inherited her father's apartment in the Athens suburb of Aegina.

Several months after that fateful call, father and son were reunited in the dingy, smoke-yellowed terminal of the old Athens airport. They spent two weeks together. The next year Matt returned for six weeks, gradually learning the language and customs. He also became reacquainted with his father. "It just felt time," Matt remembers. "He was at the point where they were starting something new, and I felt I was ready."

After graduation Matt returned to Greece and spent a year there, working on PAP projects and traveling through Europe. During the day Olga would paint while Rocky and Matt worked on the computer. Sometimes Matt would work with Olga, helping her with perspective, a skill she readily admits has troubled her through 20 years of painting. At night they'd eat outside, under the Aegean sky, with lots of wine and conversation about music, art, and ideas.

But like a CD with a skip in it, Matt's relationship with his father has gaps. One is chronological, the other, generational.

Matt plays new music for Rocky and Olga, and though they say they like it, Matt isn't sure they understand. While he respects Olga's work, the still-lifes, portraits, and realistic renderings of pigeons on rooftops are too literal -- not really his kind of thing.

Still, he speaks with admiration about his father's old-fashioned people skills. He describes Rocky as an "über-networker," always planning. "He's a workaholic."

Even as Matt speaks, the synthesized sounds of French DJ Alex Gopher waft from unseen speakers, a disembodied voice of Generation Y. Along with an art-school buddy, Jona Rice, he is putting the finishing touches on a biographical video of Dr. Pap. The Cornell Museum show is less than a week away, but Jona and Matt have yet to put up posters for it. They'll have time, Matt laughs, when it's over.


Since it is housed at a museum and not a private gallery, the PAP exhibit is, in Rocky's words, "a very soft sell." Olga has dressed up for the occasion anyway. She wears an iridescent lilac taffeta bustier, the same bruised shade as the twilight sky outside. Her skirt is long and black with a slit that reveals a silky white lining inside. A soft white scarf is draped around her pale shoulders like the flourish atop an Ionic column.

Tonight Matt Zappia's first impression of Olga seems especially fitting: "Right off the bat, I felt that Olga was just this little girl," he says. "She's so sweet and nice. She can't stand stresses, but she does through [Rocky]. He takes the brunt. There is a dependency," he adds soberly. "Once you meet them, you realize they can't be apart."

Tonight as ever, their joint efforts are ultimately entrepreneurial. "Be your own boss," Matt says, "that's the American dream." It's a dream that, paradoxically, may be lived abroad: "If we can get money here, we can travel back [to Greece]. There's no money there for things like this."

On this night the money is here, piled high in heels that clack on the museum's hardwood floor, traipse silently outside over the soft green carpet of grass, champagne in hand, to a parking lot that purrs with cash wrapped in the chassis of Jags and Benzes. Palm Beach County's stealth wealth is here, soft-spoken and big-haired, but what, if anything, will they spend?

Voices rise and faces redden in the heady swirl of red wine. Olga cannot tell if the event is going well. Track lighting casts a golden glow on her paintings. Standing next to them, with their vibrant tones and larger-than-life still-life subjects, she seems especially small and pale, Trilbyesque. She smiles uncertainly.

I know very well I can't sing well enough to sing in a place like that! What a fool I was! It all seems like a bad dream! What was it about? Was it a dream, I wonder!

Days after the show, Rocky reluctantly reveals that not a single piece of art was sold.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Loading...