Obituary: Phyllis Gordan
Monday 31 January 1994
ALL HER life Phyllis Gordan lived in a world of books. Her father, Howard Lehman Goodhart, was a renowned collector, the client and friend of antiquarian bookdealers on both sides of the Atlantic. Phyllis majored in Latin at Bryn Mawr college, and this led to an interest in the discovery of lost classical texts (and to her father's interest in acquiring 15th-century printed books) and to a lifelong concern with the Renaissance scholar Poggio Bracciolini. She collected, and elegantly translated, the correspondence of Poggio and Niccolo Niccoli - the two great 15th-century searchers after the lost manuscripts of the classics - in Two Renaissance Book Hunters (1974), the culmination of years of research in the libraries of Europe and the United States.
While working at Harvard in 1938, she met and married John Gordan, a charming and outgoing Virginian who was then working on Conrad. The following year they travelled to Borneo in search of the little state called Sambir in Conrad's Almayer's Folly (the story of that journey might itself have been told by Conrad). In 1939 John was appointed Curator of the Berg Collection of English and American literature in the New York Public Library. Every summer after the war the Gordans came to Europe - Phyllis in search of more information about Poggio and his friends, John tracking down letters and manuscripts of modern authors for the Berg.
Before he died in 1951 Howard Goodhart gave his collection of 15th-century books to the Bryn Mawr library; Phyllis Gordan added another 300 in memory of her mother, a Bryn Mawr alumna, who had died when Phyllis was a child. No wonder that in 1985 Bryn Mawr made her a special award for services to their library. The rare books that she still kept were housed in an office off 42nd Street which she made a perfect working base for the scholars she welcomed. In the Gordans' own library in their house on East 78th Street, Renaissance studies co-existed with a remarkable collection of 20th-century first editions. For John and Phyllis books were not precious relics to be kept behind glass, but were to be pulled from the shelves and enjoyed by themselves, their friends, scholars and bibliophiles from all over.
John Gordan brought colour, exuberance and a sense of adventure into their life together, and their four children enjoyed a freedom and fun that Phyllis had not known in her over-protected childhood. After John's untimely death in 1968, she kept up her scholarly and public activities. She served as President of the Renaissance Society of America, she was on the boards of the New York Public Library, Bryn Mawr, and the American Academy in Rome. She published many papers on Renaissance scholars, and in 1979 she organised an exhibition celebrating the bibliophile Jean Grolier for the Grolier Club (having been one of the first women to be admitted to that bastion of men- onlyness).
Afflicted with Parkinson's Disease in her last years, Phyllis rose magnificently above her disabilities - keeping up her scholarly interests, her hospitality, her generosity (her wealth, like her scholarship and her books, was there to be shared) and above all her friendships. One of my last memories is of pushing her in her wheelchair round an exhibition of Italian Renaissance manuscripts and printed books in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. She once said she wouldn't mind not growing very old, 'because so many of my friends had been dead for nearly 500 years when I met them'.
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