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Remembering Weekend Edition's Classics Commentator, Elaine Fantham


Before the summer goes, we want to pause to note the passing - (imitating Elaine Fantham) no, Scott, I can hear her reproach me, (imitating Elaine Fantham) say death - of Elaine Fantham - Lady Fantham, as we called her around here. Elaine, who was professor emerita of classics at Princeton University and at the University of Toronto before that, was our classics commentator. Now, news shows usually don't have a classics commentator, but Elaine dazzled and charmed us one day when we needed someone with Oxford cred to explain things classical, like how Nero played music even though it was thought to be beneath an emperor.


ELAINE FANTHAM, BYLINE: When he reached the age where he shaved his very first beard, the clippings were preserved, as they were with anybody who thought highly of themselves, like, you know, bronzed baby booties. But he held a set of games called the Juvenilia, and he performed at those. But that was semi-private, so it didn't scandalize people too much.

SIMON: Lady Fantham enriched our show for 14 years. She died July 11 at the age of 83. John Allemang of The Globe and Mail was one of her students at the University of Toronto. John, thanks for being with us.

JOHN ALLEMANG: Oh, it's great to be here and great to have a chance to talk about Elaine.

SIMON: What was she like?

ALLEMANG: Well, I'll tell you what she was like when I had her as a student because that's the formative image in my head. And she created who I am. 1970, I dropped out of a class on the poems of Catullus, which I thought was all going to be about love and eroticism, and instead I was taught by this man who was precise and fastidious and bloodless. So I said, I've got to get out of here, so I took the next course I could find. It was on Cicero, and I had no interest in Cicero. And he had a reputation for being a bore. So I walked into this cause not knowing what I was going to get. And here was this apparition, this woman who had a leather miniskirt hitched up her thigh, she was smoking these black, I don't know, Turkish, Russian cigarettes...

SIMON: ...Balkan Sobranie, I believe.

ALLEMANG: Thank you. That's what they were.

SIMON: Yeah.

ALLEMANG: Blonde hair kind of up - piled up high, in this rich what I soon learned was an Oxford accent, totally outrageous, talking about the speeches of Cicero. So I - this was like, OK, I want to do this.

SIMON: What do you think drew her to the classics?

ALLEMANG: Oh, it's hard to say because she started doing that at the age of 9, so in a sense she was drawn already. I mean, I read this story that she saw a picture - was it a bar of soap or something? Like, I can't remember. Or some sort of English commodity of this beautiful young man from ancient times, from Greece, and he was just so beautiful. She said, I want more of that. And as you know from your show, she was always going on about the pecs and abs of Brad Pitt in "Troy."

SIMON: (Laughter) Yes.

ALLEMANG: I mean, I think in her mind it was the...

SIMON: ...And Harry Hamlin, Jr., too...

ALLEMANG: That's right, yeah.

SIMON: ...In a - some terrible, you know, B-movie of a classic that she saw because Harry Hamlin had good pecs in those days.

ALLEMANG: So for her, there was always a sexy element. And she maintained this to the end of her days, still quoting the filthiest poems of Catullus to her students. And, you know, she liked to shock. She was outrageous. And that was part of her repertoire. I think it was a way of fighting back against some of the stuffy, conservative, male-dominated classics hierarchy that she had to rise in.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, we have an example, actually.


FANTHAM: What happened was that they were so in love with each other that they actually made love in front of the statue of the great mother goddess Cybele in her shrine. And she was absolutely outraged, of course, and turned them both into lions and forced them to become the lions that brought her chariot. So it's a sad story in the end.

SIMON: I can see why they have no-fault divorce laws now.

FANTHAM: (Laughter).

SIMON: It's a lot easier than this chariot-pulling stuff, isn't it?

FANTHAM: Well, you really do have to be careful where you make love. I think this is the other message.


SIMON: So I guess Elaine reminded us that the classics, in the end, are stories about life, aren't they?

ALLEMANG: Well, real life. And that was her great gift because I think there was a tendency certainly in her time to, you know, kind of elevate this stuff. And just, you know, it was the subject matter of gentlemen, and it was how you became a better person. And these were the greats - you know, the classical writers, the canon. And you learned, you know, the highest forms, all the high ideals. And she said, well, this is - you know, there's - that's an element, but this is nonsense at the same time because they were much like us and in many ways worse. And she kind of connected Roman society with Roman literature and said these things are inseparable.

SIMON: Well, we sure miss Elaine. John Allemang of The Globe and Mail - you too, huh (ph)?

ALLEMANG: Oh, I miss her every day. And, you know, I - her death caused me to look at myself and wonder how much of me was the result of her. I mean, this is what teachers do.

SIMON: Yeah. John Allemang of The Globe and Mail. Elaine Fantham died this summer at the age of 83. She made classics lyrical for us.


FANTHAM: They even had a song. And the splendid thing about this song - the Romans kept the words, and they themselves said, well, we don't know what this means. And you can read them. And when we were undergraduates, we sort of had drinking parties. We used to chant this thing.

SIMON: Well, please, professor, can you do the song for us now?

FANTHAM: Well, it's really primitive, right?

SIMON: Not the way...

FANTHAM: ...(Foreign language spoken). It goes on three times and then it moves on to the next step.

SIMON: Could we get those...

FANTHAM: ...(Foreign language spoken). As I say, the lovely thing is it's like abracadabra. We don't know what it's about.


SIMON: Lady Fantham, Elaine Fantham, speaking on this show in 1998. She died last month in Toronto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.