Elias Basil Michael Kulukundis
London, July 23, 1937 – Syros, July 3, 2020

The journey has been central to my life

Elias Kulukundis passing Cape Horn on his back from Antarctica, 2012

Elias Kulukundis passing Cape Horn on his back from Antarctica, 2012

1937: Elias Kulukundis was born in London of Greek parents. He traveled to Greece when he was six months old and then emigrated to America when he was three at the outbreak of World War II. Nevertheless, he feels that he grew up in a Greek world. The Greek language was spoken, Greek food was on the table and Greek people gathered in the evening after an hour’s drive from New York City. “Greece was downstairs in my house…”, Elias Kulukundis wrote in his first non-fiction book The Feasts of Memory, “while upstairs, in America, I answered questions in my workbook before going to bed.”

Innovative Teaching methods

His uncle, Manuel Kulukundis, felt that the more innovative teaching methods at Phillips Exeter Academy would suit his nephew’s inquisitive character. The open-style classroom where students and teacher sat at a round table and conversed freely on the subject under study were the best training for problem solving and “thinking on your feet”. Both attributes would serve Elias Kulukundis in his diverse pursuits.  Elias continued his studies in Harvard University where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Literature and a Master of Arts in Teaching.

People who know me sometimes say I’m a hybrid like my writing

British by birth, Greek by parentage, and American by education, Elias Kulukundis is a hybrid like his writing. As a writer of non-fiction books, he is equally at home describing sophisticated Greek expatriates around a dinner table in exile or delving into the motivating passions of the Greek islands, some of them, in the words of The New Yorker Magazine, “as savage as Homer’s.”

I suppose you would say I’m multi-lingual

Elias Kulukundis claims to have two mother tongues. He learned Greek from his mother and English from his father and his English nanny who wanted to get him ready for school in America.  His third language is French, which he studied in the standard academic method taught in American schools. Elias actually learned it and put his knowledge to the test when he traveled on a yacht to rescue a prisoner from the Greek dictatorship in the late 1960’s. He was in company with five Italians who for the most part could only speak to him in French. This story led later on to his second non-fiction narrative book The Amorgos Conspiracy. Asked what was most difficult about that clandestine journey, he answered without hesitation:  “Speaking French.” His fourth language is Russian, which he studied in a course he took at night in Cambridge, Mass., after graduating from Harvard.

A dissident capitalist

Elias Kulukundis

Elias Kulukundis

1962: A little more than a year after starting Russian, Elias Kulukundis translated Both Sides of the Ocean. It is the Soviet novelist Viktor Nekrasov’s account of his travels in America and Italy. Translating that book gave him his first encounter with a powerful authority. He traveled to the Soviet Union to meet secretly with Nekrasov who was then under attack by Khrushchev for “bourgeois objectivism.” Elias Kulukundis had no sympathy with the Soviet repression of intellectuals.  He must have seen the dissident Nekrasov as symbolic of his own dissent from the society of his parents. He felt his parents’ community had fixed ideas about the way one was supposed to live his life. As Kulukundis said about himself, he too was a dissident—“a dissident capitalist.”

Confronting authority was the keynote of much of my early life

1967: Confronting authority was the keynote of much of Elias Kulukundis early life.  Once a counselor to draft resisters fleeing the U.S. to Canada during the Vietnam War, after April 1967, he turned his political passions to opposing the actions of the Greek junta. By going to meetings and gatherings to protest against the Greek dictatorship, he met his first wife Eleni Mylonas. Eleni was the daughter of a Greek politician, George Mylonas, a minister in the last freely elected Greek government before the military took over in 1967.  When the colonels arrested Mylonas and exiled him to the Aegean island of Amorgos, Elias organized a daring small boat raid to rescue him from captivity and spirit him off to neighboring Turkey.  An account of the rescue is the subject of his second true story book The Amorgos Conspiracy.

Documenting the Cyprus Crisis

1974: In 1974, when the Greek military government staged a coup against the independent government of Cyprus, Elias Kulukundis traveled to Cyprus and made a film about the crisis and the ensuing Turkish invasion that drove hundreds of thousands of Cypriots from their homes. The film, entitled Cyprus: Anatomy of a Crisis was distributed by Cinema 5, and remains one of the few historical films about the Cyprus War.

I knew that I would never be much of a writer if I did not understand my heritage

1980: In the early 1980’s, already in his forties, Elias Kulukundis finally turned his attention to the shipping business. He likes to quote Andre Malraux, who said, “A heritage cannot be acquired.  It must be conquered.”  Elias Kulukundis has been criticized (by Nicholas Gage) for going into shipping when he could have been writing more books. “He made himself richer but made us poorer” Gage said while presenting The Feasts of Memory to a New York audience. But Kulukundis responded, that “I had to go into shipping because I knew I would never be much of a writer if I did not understand my heritage.” In this effort, the major assistance came from his late wife Lucy Platt, a young Englishwoman from Chichester on the South Coast of England, who was a practicing accountant before Elias met her. With a certain tongue-in-cheek irony, Elias credits Lucy with giving him the idea to go into his family business.

Doing it my way

1999: Doing it his way once again, Elias Kulukundis founded Kulukundis Shipping Investments, Inc. (KSI). He developed a strategy for playing the volatile cycles of the shipping market that made KSI synonymous with successful asset playing in shipping investments.  In 1999, his decision to order two oil tankers at a Korean yard that was in receivership, giving him a price just barely above their cost, led to selling the tankers for more than 100% per cent profit in less than a year.  The transaction was heralded as “a textbook case” of how to make a profitable shipping investment. Elias Kulukundis believes that the fact that he was also a writer had a lot to do with his success in shipping. Since Kulukundis needed to have time to write, he had to make his hours in the office count and tried to own ships only when the prices were going up and not stay in when the roller-coaster began to go down again. “The way I tell it, you would think I planned it that way from the beginning, but in fact, it was a matter of making decisions as they came along and hoping for the best.”

I needed to do something to keep my mind off work: A play started

Elias Kulukundis reading his play, Three brides for Kasos, at the Kouros Gallery, New York, March 2002.

Elias Kulukundis reading his play, Three brides for Kasos, at the Kouros Gallery, New York, March 2002.

1999: In 1999, over thirty years after the true story book The Feasts of Memory was published, while building the two oil tankers in Korea, Kulukundis needed to do something at night to keep his mind off work. It was then when he started a play based on one of the stories in The Feasts of Memory.

Three Brides for Kasos tells the story of a honey-tongued bachelor named Dr. Nikolakis on the Greek island of Kasos at the end of the nineteenth century, who becomes engaged to two women on the same day.  The official review of the play at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival of 2005 said “Although the story line has elements of farce it is ultimately a classic Greek tragedy.”

Do both

2012: At the same time, Elias has not neglected his shipping career. He bought a supramax bulk carrier in April, 2012 followed by a second in February, 2013. Resistant to being pigeon-holed as either a writer or a businessman, Kulukundis have finally acknowledged the sense of the advice his mother gave him many decades ago. In his twenties, when he was trying to decide between two apparently opposing ways of life, writing and shipping, his mother had a simple answer—“Do both,” she said.

It took me several decades to understand what she was saying, but even the Delphic Oracle left you to discover some things on your own.