He was an author at the forefront of a movement in which America claimed its identity through its ethnic writers.
When Harry Mark Petrakis began his writing career imagining characters he later admitted knowing little about, he earned nothing for 10 years but rejection notes. But when he turned his eye to his community of immigrants in Chicago’s Greektown and wrote a short story about an old Greek hot dog vendor, he finally sold a story in 1956 to the Atlantic magazine.
The story, “Pericles on 31st Street,” launched a long career that made him one of Chicago’s best-known authors.
Mr. Petrakis, author of 24 books, most of them fiction, and numerous short stories, died Tuesday at his longtime home near Chesterton, Indiana, of what relatives said was old age. He was 97.
“He passed away imperceptibly, like the flutter of a sparrow’s wing, seemingly without struggle, with my brother and his wife by his bedside,” his son Mark Petrakis said.
Mr. Petrakis “was a major figure, certainly in 20th century Chicago literature,” said author Stuart Dybek. “He was part of a movement that was national at the time, with Chicago in the forefront, in which America claimed its identity through its ethnic writers.”
Mr. Petrakis, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest, was born in 1923 in St. Louis and grew up on Chicago’s South Side with five siblings in what he described as “a series of dingy, desolate, city apartments which seemed to me built to prevent any light or warmth from entering the cold, shadowed rooms.”
At age 11, he missed two years of school with tuberculosis and couldn’t even go out to play. He filled his time reading hundreds of books. He later said the authors of those classics gave him a joy of reading and a “compass for his life” that made him a writer.
His first novel, “Lion at My Heart,” was published in 1959 after Mr. Petrakis had scraped by financially for years. When the first copy arrived at his home, the Petrakis family marched through the house, as Mr. Petrakis’ older sons, then children, banged metal pots and Mr. Petrakis held the book above his head. His best-known book, the best-selling 1966 novel “A Dream of Kings,” was made into a 1969 movie starring Anthony Quinn.
Mr. Petrakis continued to polish his craft over his lifetime, working, as he said in a 2009 Chicago Sun-Times interview, “to hone and shape [his writing] and fashion it that so that it strikes harmoniously on the ear.” He won the annual short story O. Henry Award and the Chicago Public Library’s Carl Sandburg Award. He twice was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. He taught as a visiting lecturer and as a writer-in-residence in various universities, and held the Nikos Kazantzakis Chair in Modern Greek Studies at San Francisco State University. He was awarded honorary degrees from the American College of Greece, the University of Illinois, Roosevelt University, Hellenic College, Governors State University and Indiana University Northwest.
“Harry was among the most exuberant writers to walk the streets of Chicago,” said Henry Kisor, a retired book editor of the Sun-Times and author of 10 books. “He belongs right up there with Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Sandra Cisneros and others who showed how ordinary Chicagoans could be extraordinary Americans. He really should have been better known, although he was hardly a neglected author.”
“I view Harry Mark Petrakis as one of the greatest Chicago writers throughout our history,” said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and president of the Society of Midland Authors, of which Mr. Petrakis was a longtime member. “He gave a unique voice to the Greek community and to the entire human community.”
In his later years, Mr. Petrakis turned to writing occasional essays about his recollections for the Sun-Times’ Opinion section, many of them set in the 1930s and 1940s. Among his topics were a woman with a disfigured face who finally found her true love; young men waiting to see when they would be called to war; a passionate racetrack bettor; a story-telling high-school ROTC commander; his thoughts of suicide when he mistakenly believed he had ALS; his youthful gambling addition, and his various early jobs, including hauling 400-pound blocks of ice and owning a small diner called “Art’s Lunch” (a name he didn’t change because he couldn’t afford a new sign). His final Sun-Times essay appeared in October.
“He wrote such vivid, life-affirming stories. Every story felt like a celebration — of belonging, of being alive,” said Sun-Times Editorial Page Editor Tom McNamee.
In one of his essays, Mr. Petrakis recalled lively family discussions in a cramped Depression-era apartment over meals of rice pilaf, a slice of bread and a glass of milk. “Only when I, the last of the 10 who sat at that table still alive, only after death finally claims me, will those buoyant and contentious voices fall silent, settling to rest beside me for eternity,” he wrote.
Mr. Petrakis’ wife of 73 years, Diana Petrakis, died in 2018. He is also survived by sons John and Dean Petrakis, four grandchildren and a great grandchild.
A small private church service is planned.