John “Blackjack” Jerome’s villa stands in a completely remote spot, without a hint of a road, between Leonidio and Monemvasia, on the Myrtoan Sea coast. When he returned from Αmerica to Harakas in 1933, he built this luxury villa and it is rumored that he was planning some big investment, though these plans were never realized. Jerome’s villa stands as a testament to his enduring connection to Greece and the enigmatic allure of his life story.
How many stories have we heard of human legends? People who did so many different things in their lives, who won fame and money, but their tracks were lost over time, at least until the right “digger” came along? John “Blackjack” Jerome is one such cinematic figure, an immigrant from the poor mud village of Charakas in the Peloponnese who left for the United States in the early 1900s. Today, poet, songwriter and researcher Fondas Ladis is ready to reintroduce him to the public. , after a decade of research for a book about the legendary figure.
Sixteen-year-old Yiannis Petrolekas arrived in San Francisco with a group of compatriots in 1905. His early years were typical of a Greek immigrant to the US: odd jobs, endless hours washing pots and pans in restaurants and learning English on the job. Unlike many others, he didn’t stop there. After taking a job with a streetcar company in San Francisco, he began to expand his circle of acquaintances and gain experiences that would prove invaluable later.
At the beginning of 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 the employ of others, in 1913 he secured the backing of six financiers and opened the San Francisco-Oakland Aerial Ferry Company, the first company to offer short-distance seaplane travel in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lekas (as he had shortened his name) spent the next two 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, there is tons of documentation about Jerome. The media from that time alone has over 700 articles about his exploits. Going through the archives of different San Francisco newspapers, both online and during a trip I took there last year, I found reports that can also be cross-referenced with other living testimonies. Everyone seems to know something about him. it’s just that nobody sat down to write a complete autobiography,” says Landis as he talks about this adventurer’s American dream.
In 1917 he officially changed his name to John Jerome. That same year, he founded the Jerome Detective Agency, with offices in Los Angeles and other California cities. But spying on people wasn’t what he wanted,” Landis explains. “His tenure in the tram industry, which was a major area of conflict between the companies and the extremely powerful unions, had taught him that the real money had to come elsewhere. His detective was actually an anti-union sabotage agency: he recruited hundreds of students, unemployed men, etc., looking for day wages, and used them to break picket lines during the 1920s. He made literally millions from this job. It also earned him the nickname ‘Blackjack’ because of a club he carried during strike breaks.”
For a short time, one of Jerome’s employees in the detective agency was the famous American detective writer Dashiell Hammett. It is said that the author of “The Maltese Falcon” became one of the greatest defenders of the working masses after he was disgusted by his experience in places like Jerome’s company.
But Jerome continued to dream big, using the money he made as a freelancer to enter the real estate market, buying and selling properties all over the West Coast. Like many other businessmen at the time, the recession had a huge impact on his finances, but for this resourceful Greek it also revealed new opportunities: Sensing the gambling frenzy that tends to flourish in times of crisis, Jerome dabbled in horses and dogs – racing in 1932, he built his own 3,000-seat dog track in El Cerrito, California, while also operating dozens of betting shops. However, the fact that he was constantly in trouble with the law led him to close the business one night in 1939 after a “friendly” tip from the local district attorney.
The other part of Jerome’s story concerns his relationship with Greece. He may have been careful to hide his roots from his American acquaintances, but the events of his life prove that his love for his homeland never wavered.
He returned to Harakas in 1933 and built a luxurious villa, which still exists today, in a completely remote spot, without a road, between Leonidio and Monemvasia, on the coast of Myrtoou Pelagos,” says Ladis. “He came back there in the late 1940s and it seems he was planning some big investment. Testimonies we managed to collect from residents mention a huge project that included the construction of a casino, cable car, helipad, etc., which was to be included in the Marshall Plan, which provided for a 100% tax write-off for large-scale investments. in Greece and Cyprus.
“Hieronymus died before any of this happened, though,” says Landis, who traveled to the village and villa for his research.
Hieronymos and his second wife, Daisy Oikonomaki (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 selected a boy and a girl from an orphanage in the Peloponnese and then returned to America, leaving his wife to handle the final details.
After another trip to Greece with Daisy in 1953, Jerome suffered a heart attack and was found dead in his office in San Francisco. His funeral was a huge affair, attended by over 1,000 mourners, including many local dignitaries and important figures. His funeral was postponed for 18 days due to the reactions of the undertakers’ union: They were angry that “Blackjack” had broken a strike of theirs.
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 a Democrat, Jerome’s orphans were allowed to travel to the US where they were greeted at the White House by none other than Vice President Richard Nixon.
Landis, whose fascination with Jerome began about a decade ago, is almost finished writing his book on the life and times of this man whose legend has more or less faded with time. The author hopes to publish simultaneously in Greek and English (in the US), following the example of Greek-American author Zisi Papanikolas, who wrote a similar work about the also legendary Louis Tikas.
Overall Distance: 23 NM
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Anastasia (Viking 50C)
Elisavet (Pershing 37)
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