The 20th Century Spartan: A Greek Myth for Modern Times

Photo mirror art of boat in Greece on the aegean sea in Milos

The LOGOS series is a space for free expression: essays, art, music and more can be shared. This first piece is an essay by Jesse Van Mouwerik

With an American passport and a Dutch last name, the roots of my Hellenic heritage are tangled, to say the least.  Then again, this is arguably the case for nearly all Greeks.  Millennia of conquest, political change and mass migration from the Persians of the past to the multiethnic migrants of the present make even today’s Greek citizens often unsure of their lineage. Little besides language offers solace that everyone really is fully descended from the beings depicted in those ancient granite statues that so powerfully imprinted their aura upon the West.    

But if Greek blood is a mystery, Greek myth is a certainty.  Whether nestled atop the columns of the Acropolis or embedded within the streets of Detroit, Greek culture pulsates most powerfully in the form of its magnificent stories and surreal legends.  This is at least where I feel my own treasured sliver of Greekness to be most meaningful.  It is not comprised of a detailed cultural connection, but a simple story — albeit a very compelling one.

The story of Mitchel Copulus, my great grandfather, comes to me in Odyssey form from my Honolulu-born grandmother Diana, the product of a Portuguese mother and a Spartan father.  The tale, as she tells it, describes a man whose life was weaved by the extraordinary circumstances of fate. But as is the case with any good Spartan story, the fates had to weave extra quickly if they intended to keep up with Mitchel.     

Born Michael Leonidas Katsicopulos in 1891, my great grandfather felt he had a Spartan soul from an early age.  My grandmother recalls that as a young girl, his favorite story to tell her was about how the ancient Spartans would leave their newborn babies exposed on a hill overnight. Only if they were strong enough to survive the elements (and perhaps lucky enough not to be eaten) would these ultra-tough babies be accepted by the family as one of their own.  This famous and slightly gruesome story is retold somewhat nostalgically my grandmother, whose tendency to spin black widow humor through a light-hearted lens has thankfully also somewhat rubbed off onto me.

After a stint in Crete, my great grandfather arrived in America with his family as a boy, where he became Mitchel Copulus (you can imagine how happy my Grandmother was to give up her maiden name, which to her ears sometimes sounded a little too much like the word copulate).  Mitchel came of age in Chicago, where he spent his days learning how to make candy and playing pool — lots of pool. 

His brother Constantine (though everyone called him Gus) actually went on to have a pretty successful professional career with the game, having pioneered a few shooting techniques and supposedly beating the then world champion one night in an unofficial game. It was during one of these nights in Chicago pool halls that Al Capone supposedly borrowed five bucks from Mitchel. Though it’s fair to say nearly anyone of interest at that time in Chicago certainly had a good Al Capone story — or at least were smart enough to come up with one.   

Though I cannot confirm his dealings with Capone, one part of this Greek legend I can be sure of is that if it weren’t for Mitchel, one of the most famous sitcom stars in US history would never have happened. For a long time, Mitchel dated who would later become the mother of Lucille Ball, star of the hit show I Love Lucy.  Though Mitchel is not Lucy’s father, he did financially support her mother for a solid stretch of time until they eventually broke up.  My grandma even recalls a very pleasant visit to Los Angeles in the 1940s where she met Lucy right when her career was really taking off.  Apparently, she was a very kind, gracious, and thankful person.  Mitchel truly did support her mother a great deal. That is until fate had other things in mind for the man.

As is the case with all Spartan legends, sooner or later there is a battlefield. My great-grandfather entered the “Hot Gates” so to speak, as a US army soldier during the First World War.  Under circumstances that I am not totally sure of, he filled the spot of someone who had been drafted in exchange for US citizenship, assuming he safely returned. Supposedly, Mitchel felt fit to the task. I’m told that he was absurdly strong, having once won a bet that he could walk up several flights of stairs on nothing but his hands.    

Mitchel’s Spartan-ness, be it genetic or cultural, served him well in the trenches of France, where quick wits and perhaps a “fight in the shade” attitude ultimately let him survive major harm besides some shrapnel in his leg and probably more than a few moments of horror. By war’s end, he had relatives in both Chicago and Detroit.  ven so, he ended up moving to Hawaii after recently acquired lung problems (possibly due to mustard gas) worsened from the cold weather in the Midwest.  It also helped that a contact of his, possibly a cousin, had a restaurant in Honolulu. It was there that his candy making skills from years earlier could be put to full use.

Mitchel worked long hours and eventually went on to open his own malt shop in Honolulu on Kalakaua blvd, where he served Pork loin on a Hamburger bun with chips and a pickle. It was called “Mitchel’s Malts.” It’s said that a very famous surfer and swimmer of the era, The Duke, loved to eat there. Also at this time, Mitchel married my great grandmother (known to me as “Great Vovo”) who was the secretary at his old job. Ahead of her time in many ways, my great grandmother was instrumental in encouraging my grandmother to attend college, which brought on an even longer chain events that eventually contributed to my dubious existence.

It was among the backdrop of Honolulu in the 30s that my Grandmother experienced her childhood of beach days and hula lessons after school; while her Spartan father and Azores-born mother usually went to work hours before she was even awake. But then, just like that, fate struck again.

The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, which led to a sudden plunge in Hawaiian tourism, and a much more militarized Honolulu where the demand for malt shops deflated. My grandmother and her siblings then went back and fourth between Long Beach and Detroit where Mitchel had moved in search of work from Greek family connections. Eventually, my great grandfather and my great grandmother split up, and my grandma Diana decided in her teens that she would rather live in sunny Long Beach for high school than live out dark winters in Detroit.

From here, my knowledge of what Mitchel did next somewhat unravels. I vaguely know that he remained in Detroit, but cannot be sure. An avid smoker since childhood, among perhaps other vices, longevity didn’t seem to be in the cards. Even so, Mitchel died in 1969 in his seventies, an extraordinarily long time given how intensely he lived life. Having been flung from shore to shore in an existence where any sort of certainty proved as elusive as the shores of Ithaca, it was his unique set of circumstances and the bold ways in which he responded to them that that I most admire about this storied man I never had the chance to meet.

Though I myself am always a mere paper cut away from losing most of my Greek blood, I thank my grandmother for the real-life myth of Mitchel.  At least for me, his story is where the meaning of Greek heritage most vividly lives. It is from this meaning that I can construct my own metaphysical place of sentiment.  Within such a world, shaped as much by legend as by logos, I feel vividness from the past, comradely with the present and a trust that whatever the future holds, I have 300 Spartan shields at my back.

Jesse Van Mouwerik is an Berlin-based creative strategist from Portland, Oregon. He designs a wide range of visuals and commercial texts for artists, entrepreneurs and established businesses specializing in everything from agriculture to electronic music.