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Resurrecting the legend of John ‘Blackjack’ Jerome

John Jerome with Daisy Economakis in 1927, 10 years before they were married, with Daisy's mother, Pauline, standing to her left.

TAGS: History

How many stories have we heard of human legends? People who did so many different things in life, who gained glory and money, but whose traces were lost with time, at least until the right “excavator” came along? John “Blackjack” Jerome is one such filmic figure, an immigrant from the dirt-poor village of Harakas in the Peloponnese who struck out for the United States in the early 1900s. Today, poet, songwriter and researcher Fontas Ladis is ready to reintroduce him to the public, following a decade of research for a book on the legendary figure.

Sixteen-year-old Yiannis Petrolekas reached San Francisco with a group of fellow countrymen in 1905. His first few years were typical of a Greek immigrant to the US: odd jobs, endless hours scrubbing pots and pans at restaurants, and learning English on the job. Unlike so many others, he did not stop there. After getting a job with a San Francisco tram company he started expanding his circle of acquaintances and gaining experiences that were to prove priceless later.

Early in the second decade of the 20th century, he moved to San Diego for his debut in the then-pioneering field of aviation. Never intending to remain in others' employ, in 1913 he secured the backing of six financiers and opened the San Francisco-Oakland Aerial Ferry Company, the first firm to offer short-distance hydroplane trips around the San Francisco Bay area. Lekas (as he'd shortened his name to) spent the next couple of years in competition with three other aviators, with experimental flights, several accidents and deals that were widely reported in the local media.

How did Ladis find all this information? “The truth is that there's tons of documentation about Jerome. Just the media from that time has over 700 articles on his feats. Going through the archives of different San Francisco newspapers, both online and during a trip I took there last year, I found references that can also be cross-checked with other live testimonies. Everyone seems to know something about him; it's just that no one sat down to write a comprehensive autobiography,” says Ladis as he talks about this adventurer's American dream.

“In 1917, he officially changed his name to John Jerome. During that same year, he founded the Jerome Detective Agency, with branches in Los Angeles and other Californian towns. But spying on people was not what he was after,” explains Ladis. “His stint in the tram industry, which was a major field of conflict between the companies and the extremely powerful unions, had taught him that the real money was to be made elsewhere. His detective agency was in fact an office for organizing sabotage against the unions: He would hire hundreds of students, unemployed men etc, who were looking for a day's wage, and use them to break through the picket lines throughout the 1920s. He literally made millions from this line of work. It also earned him the nickname ‘Blackjack’ because of a club he carried during the strike breaks.”

For a short period, one of Jerome's employees at the detective agency was the famed American hard-boiled detective writer Dashiell Hammett. It is said that the writer of “The Maltese Falcon” became one of the biggest defenders of the working masses after being disgusted by his experience in places like Jerome's firm.

But Jerome kept dreaming big, using the money he made as a strikebreaker to enter the real estate market, buying and selling properties all across the West Coast. Like so many other businessmen at the time, the Depression took a huge toll on his finances, but for this resourceful Greek it also revealed new opportunities: Sensing the gambling mania that tends to flourish in times of crisis, Jerome got into horse- and dog-racing in 1932, building his own 3,000-seat dog track in El Cerrito, California, while also running dozens of betting shops. However, the fact that he was constantly in trouble with the law led him to shut the enterprise down one night in 1939 after a “friendly” tip-off from the local prosecutor.

The other part of Jerome's story regards his relationship with Greece. He may have been careful about hiding his roots from his American acquaintances, but the events of his life prove that his love for his homeland never waned.

“He returned to Harakas in 1933 and built a luxury villa, which is still there today, in a completely remote spot, without a hint of a road, between Leonidio and Monemvasia, on the Myrtoan Sea coast,” says Ladis. “He returned there in the late 1940s and it seems that he was planning some big investment. Testimonies we managed to collect from residents point to a huge project that included the construction of a casino, funicular, helipad etc, that was to be included in the Marshall Plan, which provided for a 100 percent tax write-off for large-scale investments in Greece and Cyprus.

“Jerome died before any of this could happen, though,” says Ladis, who traveled to the village and the villa for his on-site research.

Jerome and his second wife, Daisy Economakis (they had married in a lavish ceremony in 1937), came to Greece in 1952 and decided to adopt two children as they were unable to have their own. He chose a boy and a girl from an orphanage in the Peloponnese and then returned to America, leaving his wife to take care of the final details.

After yet another trip to Greece with Daisy in 1953, Jerome suffered a heart attack and was found dead in his San Francisco office. His funeral was a huge affair, attended by over 1,000 mourners, among whom were many local officials and important personalities. His funeral was postponed for 18 days because of reactions from the union of undertakers: They were angry because “Blackjack” had broken one of their strikes.

His sudden death, however, created legal problems for his wife to return to the US with the children. But even after death, Jerome got his way: After a special amendment introduced in Congress by a Republican and Democrat, Jerome's orphans were allowed to travel to the US where they were welcomed at the White House by none other than Vice President Richard Nixon.

Ladis, whose fascination with Jerome began about a decade ago, is almost done writing his book on the life and times of this man whose legend has more or less faded with time. The writer hopes to publish simultaneously in Greek and English (in the US), following the example of Greek-American writer Zissis Papanikolas, who wrote a similar work on the also legendary Louis Tikas.

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