When major international media shamed Greece about the financial crisis, the Greek-American novelist and short-story writer Jeffrey Eugenides aptly said, “the land of your grandparents is like your favorite football team. It has a special place in your heart. You do not want to see it get thrashed.”
The truth is that after the 2004 Olympics, Greek Americans ricocheted from triumph to humiliation. Now, following Greece’s success in managing the coronavirus pandemic, that sense of pride has returned to the community. Some Greek Americans, like George Lois, described as the Golden Greek of Madison Avenue, never lost their admiration for the motherland.
Lois was behind some of the most memorable campaigns for MTV and Xerox and designed some of the most iconic covers for Esquire magazine in the 1960s and 70s. He was also the ad man behind the most successful campaign in the history of the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO). Back in 1985, US President Ronald Reagan suggested that US airlines stop flying to Athens Airport, criticizing Greek security after the hijacking of TWA Flight 847. It was feared that the warning would have a huge economic impact on Greece. It was then that officials in Athens turned to the charismatic Greek American for help. And Lois worked his miracle.
He got 37 celebrities with foreign ancestry – including Hungarian-born Zsa Zsa Gabor and Neil Sedaka, a Sephardic Jew of Lebanese descent – to stand in front of the camera, say a few words about their predecessors and add: “And now I’m going home… to Greece.”
“It did not matter if someone came from Italy, Spain or Hungary. Greece is where all of them came from, the place they all feel at home because this is where Western civilization was born. The campaign was immensely successful. It was as if we were spitting in the face of the American president,” Lois told me in an interview back in 2010.
As we start to enter the bizarrest summer of our lives, I reached out to Lois. Now in his late 80s, he lives at his home in New York, which is very different from the city he grew up in. Born in the Bronx in 1931, Lois got used to fighting his corner in his all-Irish neighborhood where everyone treated the Greek kid with disrespect. He experienced the rise and the fall of the Big Apple in 2001 and in 2008. However, nothing compares to what we are experiencing today.
“To see my beloved New York City reduced to an empty shell is traumatic. But considering the horrific loss of life, we all need to hold fast and continue to shelter in place until this pandemic is under control. I am among the lucky ones, having my lovely wife Rosemary, and my son Luke and his family nearby in Greenwich Village, where we have lived for over 50 years,” he says.
“Obviously, this pandemic has altered every aspect of New Yorkers’ daily lives. But we are strong and fortunate to live in a city and a country that has always found a way to persevere and thrive through adversity. I believe our democracy and our core values will overcome this pandemic.”
Lois has not lost his optimism.
“When I listen to leaders such as Governor [Andrew] Cuomo, and listen from my window every evening at 7 p.m. as the people cheer first responders, it gives hope that we will not only survive but be better on the other side,” he says.
“And it is refreshing to hear the voices of reason as opposed to that of our narcissistic, bully-in-chief, Donald Trump, who is fast losing his popularity.”
Lois tells me he is proud of the Greeks’ response to the pandemic and he adds: “I have always been proud to be Greek. Over the years, I have known multiple Greeks who changed their names and hid the fact that they were Greek in order to achieve success. I have always embraced my heritage and been proud of it,” he says.
He believes that Greece’s management of the crisis has changed the image of the country and this is something that must be cherished in the future.
“Stay the course. Be proud of who you are. Greeks have been the shining light of democracy for 2,000 years. There are always highs and lows, but the Greek people will eventually show their strength and resilience.”
I could not resist the temptation. I ask him what sort of campaign he would design for this summer, as the season is at risk because of coronavirus, if he had the chance?
“I would resurrect the sensational campaign I designed in 1985, when… instead of recruiting famous Hellenic Americans such as Telly Savalas or Olympia Dukakis, I made a 180-degree turn from the obvious and enlisted Americans of non-Greek ancestry who were ‘going home to Greece, the birthplace of democracy, where it all began.’ We offered free flights to the celebrities and their families on empty planes, free hotel stays in empty hotels, and free cruises on empty cruise ships. My commercials in America were picked up by the television networks and aired gratis as news breaks. It was unbelievable how Greece was fighting terrorism, how Americans would not kowtow to the terrorists. Olympic and TWA flights filled to capacity. And the Greek economy enjoyed a landslide tourist season, their most glorious ever,” he says.
“Currently there’s no tourism anywhere. But once life begins to return to normal, I assure you a campaign enlisting some of the most famous American celebrities, all going home to Greece, would immediately revive the Greek economy.”