Obituary: Phyllis Gordan

Phyllis Walter Goodhart, Renaissance scholar and benefactor: born New York City 4 October 1913; Trustee, New York Public Library 1974-85; married 1938 John Gordan (died 1968; one son, three daughters); died New York City 24 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'.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup