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OBITUARY for John Freely by Barnaby Rogerson

The Daily Telegraph, June 21st 2017


John Freely - historian, physicist and travel-writer - died just a week after returning from the New York launch of his autobiographical memoir, The Art of Exile. He was 90 with a shelf of 50 books to his name. Two of his works, the discursive guidebook, Strolling Through Istanbul (written with Hilary Sumner-Boyd and first published in 1972) and Stamboul Sketches ( first published in 1974) have long since achieved cult status as travel books.

John Freely was an Irish-American who, for most of his working life, was based in Istanbul, in the village of Bebek that overlooks the fast-flowing waters of the Bosphorus. He wrote with equal enthusiasm about the history of science (Aladdin’s Lamp, 2009, Light from the East, 2010, Before Galileo,2012) and the Ottoman Empire, as well as researching dozens of guide-books to different provinces, cities and islands within Greece and Turkey. But all this was just for the crack of it. His salaried job was as Professor of Physics at Roberts College, an old American missionary school which was nationalized and renamed Bosphorus University.

John had a legendary capacity for befriending his students, talking to strangers, hosting parties (the family bath would be filled with ice and turned into a giant cocktail basin) dancing, walking his way to a full knowledge of a landscape and for squashing an incipient hangover with a dawn swim. He left behind a trail of laughter, stories and exhausted hosts. Bars in Venice, Athens, Naxos, Beirut and whole streets in Istanbul still mourn the day he left town. He relished his outsider status as a free-speaking, free-thinking Irishman, free of any political, ethnic, sexual or religious prejudice. He was a charismatic presence at any bar, both the holy fool, the scholar gypsy and the pied piper. The writer Jason Goodwin confessed that "John Freely has made me laugh harder than any man I know", while historian Philip Mansel acknowledged that "no one knew Istanbul better" and the Turkish painter Omer Uluc told him, "he was the memory of the city". The African-American writer and activist James Baldwin also relished his company. Not all his drinking friends were so reputable. In Athens John befriended Gust Avrakotos, the CIA officer who had told the Colonels that "my official instructions are to tell you to free Andreas Papandreou. My personal advice is to shoot the bastard."

John's impartiality, neither a partisan for Greek or for Turk, for the Byzantine or the Ottoman Empire informed his writing and gave it a refreshing freedom from nationalist slant. This was also reflected in the subjects of his biographies: Jem, the Ottoman Sultan who spent most of his life as a prisoner-guest in Christendom; Sabbati Sevi, the charismatic Jewish mystic who was believed to be the Messiah but ended up a Muslim; Evliya Celebi, the 17th-century Ottoman travel writer who has been compared to Pepys, Puck and Orhan Pamuk. He also wrote a perceptive biography of the multi-cultural influences that shaped Mehmet the Conqueror.

John was always a triumphantly enthusiastic traveler. He crossed the Atlantic fourteen times by ship and could make a cats-cradle of any chart of the Mediterranean, having taken every conceivable ferry across the inner sea these last fifty years. These cultural expeditions doubled as family holidays for his three children, who also accompanied him on his Saturday walks through the streets, history and bars of Istanbul. In most other ways, his children were left to free-range for the children of lover can be orphans. John’s beloved wife "Toots" totally shared his lifelong wanderlust, while acting as his agent, manager and enabler.

John was born into an Irish-American family with a childhood divided between lodging houses in Brooklyn and peat-scented ancestral cottages on County Kerry’s Dingle peninsular. For his mother (Peg Murphy) twice took John to live with her parents in Ireland. In one typically funny but painful aside, John remembered asking his mother if the family were working class, to be told that "they could be" if his father could only stay sober enough to hold down a job (by turns tram driver, gardener and grave-digger).

John was expelled from his Brooklyn high school (scoring 0% in all subjects except for the humanities in which he scored 100%) and seem destined to become cannon fodder. He enlisted in the US Navy and served in their Commando Unit. On his 19th birthday, he was in a gun nest in the South Pacific, shooting up at Japanese planes. From there he sailed across the Indian Ocean to Calcutta and then journeyed up through the Burmese mountains arriving in South West China as the Second World War ended and the Chinese civil war began.

Fortunately the Catholic priest on board his US warship introduced him to a list of 100 classic books of the world from Homer to Joyce as recommended by St John’s College, Annapolis. He read them all. Once ignited his intellect was never dampened, and the G.I. charter guaranteed him a place at university. He chose to study Physics ( first at Iona college run by the Christian Brothers) then a doctorate at New York University, from where he was recruited to work at the Forrestal Nuclear Research Centre at Princeton.

In 1947 he married 'Toots' (Dolores Stanley) his college sweet-heart who had made him promise to take her travelling. They experimented by living in a rat-infested river-boat, but in 1960 they achieved their shared dream when John got a post to teach theoretical physics at Robert College.

He continues to cavort as the central male character in two novels written by his daughter, Maureen Freely, Sailing Through Byzantium and The Life of the Party. He was always that.

His last recorded words were, "I am going to find where the words come from." John Freely, born 26 June 1926, died 20 April 2017. John is survived by three children, his daughters Maureen and Eileen and son Brendan.

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