Assessment / Ephemera / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice

Tour Guide

Although it’s easy to get the impression that Van Nice’s time in Istanbul was all work and no play, as part of the ex-pat social scene in Istanbul during the 1940’s and 50’s, he had his fair share of cocktail parties to make appearances at and wives of travelling diplomats to entertain with tours of Hagia Sophia.  His correspondence files for the months he spent in Istanbul are brimming with calling cards and short notes begging him to show another foreign prince or governor around, and invitations to parties at various embassies and consulates.

Invitations to various events. Robert L. Van Nice Collection.

Calling cards, with please and thank yous for tours. Robert L. Van Nice Collection.

One of my favorite invitations in the collection is an intricate one–with a hand-drawn map on the front, and an amazing poem on the back, which begins,“If you’re feeling just great at a quarter to eight/On the ninth of September, a Friday ; /Come up to the Binnses and knock on their gate, /Though it’s awfully far from the highway. /But nevertheless ’twill be well worth the climb /For a housewarming evening is ready, /Consisting of methods for passing the time /In an atmosphere lightsome and heady.” (see the rest below:)

I’m wishing I was invited.

Most of Van Nice’s contacts were either in some kind of foreign service, or had a connection to academia.  I’ve been researching a few names here and there, and have discovered a couple of interesting, well-known figures among his correspondents and hosts.

One of these men with whom Van  Nice was in contact was Mr. Winthrop W. Aldrich, an American banker who once served as the Ambassador to the U.K.  I found a photograph of him from LIFE’s archives chatting up Marilyn Monroe, here.

Mr. Charles S. Whitehouse, American Foreign Service Officer and father of Sheldon Whitehouse (current senator for Rhode Island), was another acquaintance of Van Nice’s in Istanbul. He served as the Ambassador to Thailand and to Laos in the 1970s.

The visit of Mrs. Jaqueline Kennedy in 1963 left a strong impression on Van Nice, in part because it was only weeks later that her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated.  In a letter to the then director of Hagia Sophia, Van Nice wrote:

“This country has been shattered by the senseless assassination of the President Kennedy. For everyone it was not only a national tragedy but, also, a very personal one.  I could not help recalling your invitation to Mrs. Kennedy to come to the Aysofya again so that she could see the mosaics of the gallery, and she said she would indeed come–but only when her husband was no longer president.  Who could then have foreseen that he had only five weeks to live.  This is a tragedy beyond words.”

Researchers are fortunate to have all of these small notes, invites, and calling cards to round out the picture of Van Nice’s life in Istanbul.  They are evocative of the fascinating little community of which he was a part, and the ways that those people and events shaped his life and work.

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