The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 21, Number 4
Nov 1997


Polly Lada-Mocarski Dies at 94

"The Immortal Polly"

Polly Lada-Mocarski, enthusiastic hand bookbinding patron, mentor, fundraiser, and inventor of the PolyCase, died in Arden House, Hamden, Connecticut on September 5, 1997. For Polly's many friends it seemed she would just go on living right into the next millennium. However, after a hip operation she experienced more pain and disability, and the quality of life deteriorated for her. In the last year she said, "It was just too much pain for the insignificant amount of gain."

Polly had a life that was extraordinary by any standard. She was born at the beginning of the new century in 1902, into an era when Czar Nicholas ruled Russia and there were more horses than cars in Manhattan. Polly (or Laura) Lada-Mocarski was born into the upper middle class, her father being a prosperous silk mill owner with a penchant for racing his team of horses down Riverside Drive in New York City. She had a long eventful life, which has already been documented in a fine article by George Cook in CAN No. 40, 1990. In this tribute to her, I would like to mention some of the qualities that made her such an exceptional human being and a wonderful friend.

I first met Polly in 1982 at the Connecticut Limousine station in New Haven. Polly strode across the floor to the gate, introduced herself without hesitation, and removing her long white glove, she shook my hand. My first impression of New Haven, which was to become my home, was her disarming open smile. I'd flown from San Francisco that day to teach a workshop in her new bindery at the Creative Arts Workshop. This meeting was to begin our 15-year friendship. She carried her tall erect frame with a dancer's grace that gave her a great physical presence. She had a long rapid stride which required stamina for others to keep up with, but suited me at 6 feet 8 inches. We would often walk to lunch from her 18th floor apartment on 123 York St. to Chapel Street or to Yale five blocks away.

She was beyond a doubt the best dressed lady, in an Eleanor Roosevelt fashion, I've ever known. Not only were her dresses from Saks Fifth Avenue and other fashionable New York stores, but she refused to be seen in any other way but her best. Polly's hair was done biweekly, her tailored clothes professionally cared for, and on at least one occasion I accompanied her to the bank to exchange rumpled money for fresh new crisp bills which did not stain her gloves. It would be easy to say that she was the product of her generation and social class, a curious relic of a bygone era. However, she was much more vital, in that she had the ability to reinvent herself.

Again and again I would witness her embracing a new idea, project, or book-related cause. Once she was convinced of the correctness of her direction, she would plunge in, ignoring the critics. She embraced Buckminster Fuller's ideas, reading all his works, after we met him at Atticus after a book signing. In her work in the 50s and 60s on the Craft Council and Craft Horizons magazine, she helped promote the resurgence of crafts in America. In tune with the Women's Movement of the 1980s, she often corrected my use of the pronouns he and she, instead of the nongender-specific "hir" word. She learned to handle some of her own finances, write checks, and drive an automobile after her husband died in 1971. She became a phenomenal fundraiser for the Creative Arts Workshop (CAW), raising some $50,000 to build and equip the bindery and install a bookbinder to teach classes.

For those projects or people she became involved with, she could and did work transformations time and again. On the occasions when I disagreed with her, I could protest, argue, or refuse, but in the end, through her enthusiasm, cajoling, pleading, or badgering, she would prevail. For example, she convinced me to move to New Haven from San Francisco, take a Dale Carnegie course, volunteer at the Yale Conservation Studio with Gisela Noack, and ultimately go through the Cooperstown Graduate Conservation Program. She was a nurturing influence for a number of gifted book people including Jane Greenfield, Gisela Noack, Mindy Dubansky, Richard Minsky, and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, to name a few. Many new institutions benefitted from her tireless fundraising, including the Yale Conservation Studio, CAW Bindery, the New York Center for the Book and the North Bennet Street School in Boston. She also raised funds to assist individual bookbinders and artists.

In the years 1982-85, I was her dinner companion and she was my supervisor at the CAW Lada-Mocarski Bindery. I heard many stories from her over dinner and wine, and learned many anecdotes about her from others in New Haven. Polly was a tremendous resource since she had met and known practically everyone in the bookbinding field including Edith Diehl (1876-1953), Laura Young, Hope Weil, and in Europe Douglas Cockerell (1870-1945), Sydney Cockerell, Roger Powell (1896-1990), Paul Bonet (1899-1972), Pierre Legrain (1889-1929), and Ignatz Wiemeler (1895-1952), to name only a few.

In 1987, we celebrated at the English Bay Cafe, Vancouver, with Janet English following an AIC meeting. We had lunch in November that year at Clare's, and coffee at Atticus. Yale students who knew her by sight would come up to our table and say hello. She was always gracious about these interruptions. Her love for the company of young people stayed constant.

She still retained her trademark erect carriage though she moved more slowly now, which enhanced her grace and added an air of authority. During lunch at Atticus in 1991 we discussed what life was like at 89. She never shied away from the dreadful or painful in life. Since we had walked to lunch I suggested we drive back in my truck. A problem arose when we discovered the step up to the truck cab was too high for her. I walked around and easily picked her up, lifting her onto the passenger seat. She laughed so wholeheartedly at this that I joined her, although I quietly dreaded her weight loss and what it meant. Polly could be quite stubborn and had refused to learn how to cook. She never cooked a meal in her life, as she told me. She always depended on her maid/cook to prepare her meals. I was concerned that she had stopped eating.

The last time I saw Polly was Saturday, March 30, 1996 at the Whitney Convalescence Center following her hip operation. She looked fragile and uncomfortable, confined to a chair and weighing scarcely 100 pounds. However, for more than an hour she brightened up, sparkling once again while she fussed with the flowers I brought. She examined with great interest a goat skin I'd bought the day before from TALAS and we discussed bookbinding leather, a topic familiar to us both. Afterward, I told her she was every inch the best dressed woman in the center, which pleased her. She wore a wool suit with a white silk blouse, brown "sensible" high heels, and coiffed hair. A sharp contrast and harbinger of things to come was a silent pajama-clad patient on the other side of the room. As I left her room, saying my farewell that wintery afternoon, I watched her face lose the strong focus of her personality and go slack. She had the courage to be ruthless with despair and failing health even in illness and pain that afternoon. I believe she wanted me to see and remember her always as strong.

The memorial service at St. John's Episcopal Church in New Haven October third was a gathering of her friends, including Jane Greenfield, Greer and Sue Allen, Theresa Fairbanks, and Jerilyn Davis. Moving tributes were given by Mindy Dubansky, Ann Lehman and others. In a real sense Polly achieved immortality in the sense that those we hold most dear never truly leave us. Polly was one in a million and I wouldn't have missed her for anything.

Lage Carlson, Washington, DC, 1997
With thanks to Thomas Albro, Acting Conservation Officer, Library of Congress

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