Back in 2019, the Greek American Heritage Society of Philadelphia, who I am a member of, held its annual Photo Tour and Exhibition. That year, the Photo Tour was entitled, “Axia – A Celebration of Extraordinary Greek American Women.” People submitted a photograph of a woman they admired together with a short biography, which included grandmothers taking care of their families to medical doctors taking care of patients, and everyone in between, but, all extraordinary women. It was a very successful event and showcased the unsung heroes of our community.
At the end of the affair when everything was finished, cleaned-up, and all left, my friend Artemis and I were the last to leave when a black 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom II pulled up in front of us. We both looked at each other and back to the car. We were stunned. It was dark out and there was not enough light to see inside the car, but a chauffeur, yes a real chauffeur dressed like the old days with a cap and all, got out and, in an aristocratic British accent asked, “Are you Mr. Karapalides from the Heritage Society?” I nodded yes. He then handed me an envelope that had written on the front, in calligraphy, ‘Axia.’ “We apologize in submitting this to you so late. We were unexpectedly delayed,” he added then nodded and got back into the Rolls and simply drove away.
We stared dumbfounded as the automobile disappeared into the night then I looked back at the envelope. I was perplexed, but decided to take the direct route of this mystery so I opened the envelope and pulled out a hand written biography of a name neither of us had ever heard of. The handwriting was simply perfect and almost seemed as if it was printed by a computer, but it wasn’t. The paper was of thick, expensive stock, and there was a slight perfumed smell that hit us. I looked at the name again, Argy K. Bowman. It did not ring a bell to either of us although we both know a lot of the Greek American community in the area.
After reading Ms. Bowman’s biography, we both said nothing because we were shocked and truly impressed. Argy’s story needed to be told and after almost two years of holding on to her biography and never telling anybody about it, it was time to tell the world and here it is:
ARGY K. BOWMAN
Argy K. Bowman was born, Argiro Kokoraverou, in 1910, the only child of Archileas and Evropia Kokoraveros, on the Island of Ithaka. In 1915 the family moved to Smyrna, where they were, unfortunately, caught in the Great Fire of Smyrna. Because of a close relationship between her father and George Horton, the United States General Consul in Smyrna, Argy was saved by the Americans and was secretly taken out and immigrated to the United States. Unfortunately, her parents did not survive the fire and the killings.
Upon her arrival to the United States at age twelve, Horton, arranged for a cousin and his wife, Arthur and Tabatha Bowman, living in Philadelphia and who had no children of their own, to adopt Argy. The Bowmans renamed her Argiro K. Bowman, but everyone just called her Argy. She was enrolled in the Philadelphia High School for Girls where she graduated in 1928, and thereafter attended Bryn Mawr College, graduating in 1932 with a degree in political science. She was fluent not only in English, but her native tongue of Greek, and also Turkish, French, Russian, Mandarin, and German. Although adoring her adopted parents, Argy never forgot her Greek roots and from the first day she set foot in Philadelphia, attended services at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, singing in the choir and helping to bake koulourakia for the holidays.
After graduation, and as a result of her friendship with George Horton, she was hired by the United States diplomatic corps, as a ‘secretary.’ For the next five years, she traveled back and forth to the American Embassy in Germany where it was rumored that she had meetings with high Nazis officials, including Herman Goring, and even attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. At the outbreak of war between the United States and Germany, the embassy ceased operations and all personnel, including Argy, were interned for five and half months in the Grand Hotel Jeschke at Bad Nauheim. Upon their release, Argy was sent to Great Britain.
Since Argy spoke perfect Greek and English, she was immediately dropped into Greece to be a liaison between the resistance and the Allies. She soon was leading guerilla raids against the Germans, first in the mountains of Macedonia, but eventually she fought her way to Athens and joined the King of Greece and his government’s evacuation to Crete where she helped in the defense of the island. She was evacuated to Egypt and back to Britain. Argy then became a member of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (“SHAEF”) for the European theater and was present at Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945 at SHAEF headquarters in Reims, France.
After the war, she was sent to the Soviet Union. It was rumored that she had several meetings with Soviet leaders, including Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD. She was known to have had many dinners with Josef Stalin especially when listening to his favorite pianist, Maria Yudina. Argy attended Stalin’s funeral and quickly left after the downfall of Beria.
Argy returned back to Philadelphia, opening a zaxaroplasteío at 12th and Locust Streets. The sweet shop, called “Ithaka Palace,” was very successful and she ran it for five years. Not only did the local Greek community support it, but many famous people came by to purchase her famous koulourakia, such as Clark Gable, Tony Curtis, Lucille Ball, and Grace Kelly. During this time, she still sang with the church choir.
Argy was recruited in 1960 by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. She was involved with the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 and was in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, even being on Air Force One when Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn-in as president. In 1964, she was sent to Vietnam and was on the USS Maddox when it was fired upon by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin, and later in 1967, was at the American Embassy in Saigon when it was attacked during the Tet Offensive. She is said to have picked up an AK-47 from a dead North Vietnamese regular and helped defend the embassy, killing ten enemy soldiers. She was made an honorary Marine.
She was slipped into Bolivia where she met with Che Guevara after his capture in October, 1967. It was thought that she was there to spirit him out since it was the United States government’s intention to take him to Panama for further interrogation. He was executed on October 9, 1967, and Argy left the country two days later and was back to the United States. From that date to 1974, her whereabouts were unknown.
In 1974, she appeared back in South Vietnam and was present at the fall of Saigon. Although Master Sergeant Juan Valdez was the last Marine to board the last helicopter to leave the roof of the U.S. Embassy during the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Argy was the last American civilian to leave the embassy. She refused to leave until everyone else left, taking her famous koulourakia with her. She made her way out of the building by a secret tunnel through the kitchen. But since she was CIA, the truth could not be told until years later. For her heroism in the defense of the embassy, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
She retired from the Agency in 1979, but was hired by the Regan Administration to assist in the backing of the Contra Rebels against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It was rumored that she was part of the Iran-Contra Affair with Lt. Colonel Oliver North, but she was never charged or indicted like North was in 1988.
In 1995 she quietly retired to her home in Bucks County, where she baked koulourakia for the local Christmas bazaars and read Greek mythology to underprivileged children. During her life, she became a pilot, raced sports cars, was a philanthropist, a painter, a skydiver, a scuba diver and sailor, a musician, and traveled the world. She never married and had no children. In 2000, at age ninety, concerned neighbors asked local police to go into her house since they hadn’t seen her for a while. When police arrived, they found the house to be normal, but there was no sign of Argy. Her Rolls Royce was in the garage and her cell phone was on the kitchen table next to a plate of koulourakia. Only her keys were missing. However, on her bed, there was a brochure of the Amazon River in Brazil. Argy was never seen again.
For those two years that we had held this secret we attempted to find out more about this extraordinary woman, but there was nothing. No photographs. No newspaper articles. No records whatsoever. We searched the records of the church she belong to; nothing. We even requested Freedom of Information from the government and received responses stating that there is no information on this person ever having worked for the United States. It’s as if she never existed. Or, if she did, she was simply erased after having served her entire life. You decide, but it makes for a great movie!
If you ever come across a 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom II, do me a favor. Take a look inside. Maybe Argy is in there laughing at it all.
This article is sponsored by Atlantis of Philadelphia. From contemporary to classic, their talents have captivated generations of Greek music lovers. Whether it's a wedding, dance or festival, your special affair deserve the best, Atlantis of Philadelphia. For more info please visit atlantisofpa.com or call 856-418-0404.