Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 115
December 1997

Reports: Obituary: Laura K. "Polly" Lada-Mocarski, 1902-1997

by Mindell Dubansky

Polly Lada-Mocarski was a bookbinder, inventor, and treasured member of the Guild of Book Workers since 1933, serving as President from 1954 through 1956. She died on Friday, September 5, in New Haven, Connecticut. Everyone who knew Polly knew that, first and foremost, she was a fighter, but at the age of 94, after complications from a fall last year, she experienced a steady decline in health and finally succumbed to her age. Polly was buried next to her beloved husband at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, N.Y. A memorial service was held in New Haven, at St. John's Episcopal Church, on Friday, October 3 and tributes were delivered by friends and recipients of Polly's many contributions to the book arts - Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Paul Conway from Yale University; Ann Lehman from New Haven's Creative Arts Workshop; James Harrington who collaborated on Polly's invention, PolyCase; and I who represented the many bookbinders Polly mentored over the years.

A Memorial

Polly Lada-Mocarski was possessed by a particular brand of bibliomania known as bookbinding - and, in fact, it is our shared love of books that has guided many of us over the years to Polly for guidance and support. For many, the bookbinding fever strikes in one magic instant, leaving its victim dazed and possessed with an all-encompassing, life-long passion for making books. Polly had a particularly strong dose of the bookbinding bug. It would not let her just contentedly work at home in her studio restoring Valla's collection and designing the occasional fine binding. This joyful passion drove her out into the world to proselytize to all who would listen about the thrill of making books.

With "Bookbinding is the cement of civilization" as her creed, Polly had been a champion for the book arts for nearly seventy years. She worked tirelessly on behalf of our craft, and constantly utilized her substantial and imposing personal charms, as well as her imagination, intelligence, and leadership skills to promote, revitalize and develop the crafts of traditional hand and fine design binding and book conservation. Her generosity and talent, as well as her financial support, have been a motivating force to innumerable makers and lovers of books; and she was responsible, at least partially, for the success of many of our cherished organizations devoted to the arts of the book - including the Grolier Club, the Guild of Book Workers, the Center for Book Arts, the book conservation labs at the University of Texas in Austin and Yale's Sterling Library, and the bookbinding programs at New Haven's Creative Arts Workshop and the North Bennet Street School.

Polly made time for anyone who was interested in books - from the novice student who walked in the door to professionals involved in the highest level of the craft. She listened and she helped. Some fortunate individuals, like myself and Lage Carlson, were the recipients of a great amount of Polly's attention, and gratifyingly, her love. We were both amazed by her power to pluck us out of our worlds, and influence us to do things that we never even knew we wanted to do (like go to England to learn how to make scroll cases, or move from San Francisco to New Haven) - but Polly did want us to do these things and for some reason we had unquestioning, unwavering faith in her ideas. In one fell swoop Polly planted her idea - inspiration came - checks appeared in the mail - and the next thing we knew we were on airplanes taking us to make books in strange places. I can still hear her saying, "Don't worry my dear, you won't regret it"!

Polly's Personal History

Polly Lada-Mocarski (born Laura Klots) was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to a family of prosperous silk manufacturers from New York. She was educated in boarding schools in Washington, D.C. and Paris. It was in Paris, in 1919, that Polly met her future husband, Valerian (Valla) Lada-Mocarski, the brother of her schoolmate and son of a Czarist general who had escaped from Russia on the eve of the Revolution. After their marriage, in 1924, Valerian, began to develop his notable collection of rare books on Russian Alaska and early Russian Travel books published before 1868 (now at the Beinecke Library at Yale University and the Rasmussen Library at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks). Polly decided to cultivate her skills as a bookbinder to learn how to preserve and repair his collection. Polly went with Valerian to Berlin, where he worked for the U.S. government, and later as an international banker. She received an education in bookbinding at the State Academy of Graphic Arts in Leipzig with Ignatz Wiemeler, one of the great binders of the twentieth century. Later, Polly continued her studies with English binder Douglas Cockerell at his studio in Letchworth and for many years continued traveling with her husband throughout Europe, always taking the opportunity to study bookbinding and conservation with specialists in the field.

After becoming fully immersed in hand bookbinding and restoration, Polly began to envision new educational opportunities for American bookbinders and dreamed of establishing a school of hand binding in the United States. For the rest of her life, she labored tirelessly and enthusiastically towards fulfilling this dream. In the 1960's she became involved in both the American and the World Crafts Councils, representing American craft at conferences and serving as a writer and bookbinding editor for Crafts Horizons magazine. She wrote two articles that I know of on the subjects of fine design bookbinding and contemporary artists' books. Modern French Book Art (Craft Horizons January/February 1964) was an illustrated review of an exhibition of French fine bindings made by members of the Sociéte de la Reliure Originale, which Polly arranged to be brought to the former Museum of Contemporary Crafts. The other article, Book of the Century: Fuller's Tetrascroll (October 1977) describes this remarkable book and the elaborate binding structure designed and built by Richard Minsky and Peter Seidler. N.B. Barbara Kretzmann has run across another article written by Polly, in Craft Horizons, entitled "Bookbinding: the Art of Mary Reynolds" by Polly and Mary Lyon in January/February 1961, pp. 10-13.

In 1960, Polly and Valla retired to New Haven to be near Yale and its libraries. There, Valla completed his book, Bibliography of Books on Alaska Published Before 1868, published by Yale University Press in 1969. In New Haven, Polly served as a catalyst for movement in the bookbinding, book arts, and graphic design fields. She was employed by Yale to teach bookbinding to students of graphic design by the Graphic Arts Department, where she was the first female faculty member. After Valla died in 1971, Polly devoted her attention to the establishment of the Book Conservation Studio at Yale's Sterling Library, which was the first of its kind in the United States. She donated her binding tools and equipment to the Conservation Studio and worked there for a number of years on personal projects.

Polly continued to promote hand bookbinding, book conservation and the emerging field of artists' books on a national level. In 1980, she fulfilled her dream of creating a school of bookbinding, by designing, furnishing and raising funds for the establishment of a book binding training program at the Creative Arts Workshop, in New Haven, which continues to offer regular bookbinding classes today. In 1990, the Creative Arts Workshop sponsored an exhibition in honor of the bindery's 10th anniversary, entitled Book Arts Exhibition 1990 - Polychrome - Polytechnique, for which there is a beautifully illustrated catalogue with a printed pop-up endleaf reading "cosmoPolitan/cataLytic/indoMitable" - the three adjectives which most described Polly.

In New York, Polly was an active member of the Grolier Club, and enhanced their collection with a beautiful Paul Bonet binding, as well as other valuable artifacts. She was a founding board member of the Center for Book Arts (established in 1974), where she contributed her vision and attracted substantial funding to the Center for many years. I met Polly while I was working as an apprentice there, and in 1979, she became determined that I should study bookbinding at the Camberwell School of Arts and Craft in London and personally raised the funds and made the connections which made it possible for me to study there.

Few young bookbinders have ever met Polly, but most of them have been, and will continue to be, beneficiaries of her efforts to promote bookbinding and conservation in the United States. In addition to the activities I have already mentioned, these efforts include the establishment of the Guild's Study Opportunities booklet and her work on major Guild exhibitions; her gift of a large collection of 19th and 20th century books about bookbinding and related subjects to the North Bennet Street School; and her instrumental role in establishing the book conservation department at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin and selecting Don Etherington as its first Head of Conservation.

In 1982, Polly designed, patented and manufactured the PolyCase, an elegant, lightweight, demountable Lucite exhibition case which she designed to address the problems involved in the exhibition of books. The sides of the Polycase were slotted and held together with stainless steel posts; it came in a padded packing case which served as its home when it was not in use. The PolyCase was a perfect solution for traveling exhibitions, as the cases could be sent along with the books without incurring damage and when they were not in use they could be stored flat.

Throughout her years of travel abroad, Polly created a substantial collection of mostly European decorative papers which were purchased several years ago by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The collection includes approximately 650 papers including Dutch-gilt, marbled, paste, printed, glazed colors and embossed papers. The majority of the collection was purchased in 1945 by Polly and Valla from Mr. Amori, a bookbinder who lived near Lake Como, in Italy. This coming Summer, the Folger Library will be having an exhibition of historic decorative papers, which will feature Polly's collection. It is being arranged by Frank Mowery and Linda Hohneke and will be on display from July 13th through late October 1998.

If you want to know more about Polly, I recommend reading the article that George W. Cooke wrote about her in Conservation Administration News; No. 40, January 1990. Since then, two oral histories have been made of Polly. She had a wonderful voice and it would be worth hearing her story in her own words. One was made recently by the Folger Shakespeare Library, focusing on the history of her paper collection. The other was made in 1991 by Richard Polsky, at Columbia University, as part of a series of oral histories on American craftspeople which included interviews with Dan Kelm and Richard Minsky. The tapes and the transcript for Polly's interview are missing at this time, but the staff at Columbia are actively pressing it.