Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 110
February 1997

Stella Patri: Two Stories

Editor's Note: With Stella Patri's 100th birthday last November, Don Glaister felt he wanted to recognize Stella's special place in the book world and has written the following tribute to her. I thought it was a good idea, so I too, have added my own remarks.

Don Glaister

When I first spoke to Stella Patri it was by telephone in 1972. I had a strange job, in a strange place, doing strange things to perfectly innocent books. I was told that Stella was the one to talk to if I wanted to learn to work on books correctly. I called. "Mrs. Patri, will you teach me book conservation?" "No," she said matter-of-factly, "learn bookbinding first. My bindery mate, Barbara Hiller, might teach you." (She did.)

What a no-nonsense woman, this Mrs. Patri! She used few words, but she didn't say them exactly, she sort of sang them. Any edge caused by her brevity was made soft by the music of her voice and made valuable by her obvious high regard for books and doing right by them.

Stella went to Florence after the flood in 1966 to help in the mammoth job of rescuing library and museum book collections from the mud and muck. After her return home to San Francisco, she privately taught book and paper conservation. I know these facts about her life, but I do not know her as a teacher (I never did get around to studying with her), nor as a conservator. I know her as a generous personal friend and a friend to bookmaking.

In 1981 I was president of the Hand Bookbinders of California, an organization Stella helped found in the 1970's. It was at this time that I learned that Stella Patri is an institution. Stella held no office in HBC at that time, but many board meeting were held at her house. It was a natural thing.

When binders and other book makers from out of town visited San Francisco, Stella was central to any social events planned to honor and entertain the guest. She was sharp and quick of wit, often, hilarious. She was a charmer to those lucky enough to know her and those meeting her for the first time. She was 85 years old and I never knew her to turn down an opportunity to party. She understood that paper grain and sewing structures and beautiful gardens and a good laugh and the love of her family and correct leather thickness and aperitifs with friends and linguini with clam sauce and healthy cats are important. She believed that life is good and worth doing well.

In 1984, Suzanne Moore and I moved from Palo Alto to Massachusetts, and in 1987 we decided to get married. I was in San Francisco a few months before the wedding date and I invited Stella to come. It was worth a try. She accepted, and agreed not to let Suzanne know. We would keep it a secret.

Stella was met at the airport by Bill Streeter and escorted to a wedding-eve dinner party. Upon her arrival, Stella triggered the hurricane of tears, laughter, hugs and kisses that one would expect. It was a great moment and nobody enjoyed it more than Mrs. Patri. The next day, in the midst of the usual wedding chaos, Stella brought a sense of stability and calm; a sense that life continues; that life is good.

The day after the wedding, Stella took an early bus to Boston to visit friends. The trip took about three hours. Mrs. Patri traveled alone; she had things to do. She was 90 years old.

Stella celebrated her one hundredth birthday on November 1. What an amazing thing! Life is good.

Margaret Johnson

Stella Patri - When did I first meet Stella? I remember the occasion, but it took a good deal of searching around to find out the exact date. It was May 1980, on the occasion of a meeting of AIC in San Francisco. A number of East coast binders went out for that meeting, among them Laura Young, past president of the Guild of Book Workers, with whom I was studying at the time.

In her capacity as president of GBW, and as a bookbinder, as well, Mrs. Young had had frequent correspondence with Stella, and with Margaret Lecky in Los Angeles. Both Stella and Peggy Lecky were at the meeting. Although they had written and called each other numerous times, Mrs. Young had never met either woman face-to-face. I was there when the meeting of the three women, all masters in their field, took place. Things were beginning to move in the book world at that time, after years of relative stagnation, and the sixteen years since have seen a phenomenal growth in all the book arts in America. These were all women who had a large part in that growth.

So, having met Stella (and been charmed by her), I usually looked her up when I had occasion to be in San Francisco - often having tea and 'rock' cakes with her.

I remember visiting Stella just after she had had a cataract operation, during the time she was living in the flat on Mason Street, with the sound of cable cars going by. In true Stella fashion, she was voicing her impatience with the doctors for not giving her new glasses quickly enough so she could get back to work.

Once, in 1988, when Stella was a mere 92, I met her at a bus stop downtown, where she had gone to get some Christmas shopping done. "Well, they don't like me to go down alone, but I can't wait around for someone to find the time to come with me," she said.

The next year, when I went out in October, three weeks after the Loma Prieta earthquake, I went to tea at Stella's and asked her if she had had any trouble. "Oh, no," she said, "I was just having my afternoon aperitif, when suddenly I found myself, still in my chair, across the room. But, I was alright!" Stella, of course, clearly remembered the 1906 earthquake and having to take the ferry to Oakland for safety.

It is a great pleasure and an honor to be counted among Stella's many friends. It isn't longevity that makes Stella so special, it's the interest and enthusiasm and intelligence with which she has approached life that makes her an inspiration to us all.