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.
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.