Spyros Payiatakis, a cosmopolitan journalist, long-time theater critic for Kathimerini, foreign correspondent and pioneer of digital reporting, died in Athens on Wednesday.
He was 79 and had been in frail health for several years.
Born in Thessaloniki on April 1, 1939, Payiatakis studied at the city’s Anatolia College before leaving to study architecture in Berlin.
There he quickly fell in love with the theater and for some years was an assistant director at the Berliner Ensemble, working with Bertolt Brecht’s widow, the actress Helene Weigel. At the height of the Cold War, he would cross between West and East Berlin on an almost daily basis.
His mother was Aristi Payiataki, a doctor and tuberculosis specialist. As Payiatakis reminisced, his mother won Thessaloniki’s 1951 mayoral elections, but, because of a lack of clarity as to whether women could hold office, the runner-up, a man, was named mayor.
Dr Payiataki, was, however, the first woman to drive a car in Thessaloniki. Spyros’s father, Nikos, was a brigadier general in the gendarmerie.
Payiatakis became a journalist by chance – as he said – when a mutual friend introduced him to the film director Nikos Koundouros, saying that Spyros was an expert on theater and film and culture.
Koundouros immediately contacted a journal in Athens and arranged that Payiatakis write for it, before beginning to dictate the fledgling journalist’s first report.
Payiatakis, of course, wrote his own criticism and, with his deep general knowledge and fluency in German, Italian, French and English, soon distinguished himself in all forms of journalism.
For many years he was a foreign correspondent for Apogevmatini, when the now defunct Athens daily topped the mass circulation figures.
He traveled the world for the paper, from the Middle East, through Africa, to the US West Coast. For years he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle.
When Kathimerini’s English Edition was founded in March 1998, Payiatakis began a weekly column (“Letter from Thessaloniki”), which ran until 2009, illustrating his immense range of interests, humor and deep knowledge of the arts and international developments.
The same applied in his theater criticism for the Greek edition.
During the 1967-74 dictatorship in Greece, Payiatakis lived in Rome and worked for state broadcaster RAI and Unitelefilm.
After the restoration of democracy, he returned to Greece and, through a series of chance events, was appointed head of cultural programs at the state-run EIRT broadcaster.
Later, as head of television programming, he was fired when the board of directors found that the broadcaster’s commemorations of the October 28, 1941 anniversary had not had “the mandatory national exuberance.”
Payiatakis had decided to commemorate the day that Greece entered World War II by showing a video of left-wing and right-wing guerrillas singing along to the same tune but with different words.
Wherever he went, Spyros Payiatakis forged lasting friendships. He had many friends in Turkish journalism and business long before formal efforts were made to encourage relations between the two sides.
All across the Balkans and the rest of Europe, he knew people in the corridors of power and in the street, as well as the secret charms of every city, long before the internet put such knowledge in everyone’s hands.
At the same time, close to the end of his career, he could turn up in a war zone, on his own, with a digital camera, producing standup reports for ANT1 television.
He was an executive for the private broadcaster for some years. As he said, he had proposed to shipowner Minos Kyriakou to invest in a private radio station in 1989, the start of the ANT1 group.
Payiatakis’s funeral will be held on Thursday, at 2 p.m. at the Zografou Cemetery in Athens. He is survived by a niece and nephew.