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An Urban Life
In the open doorway of a high-ceilinged room, she stands a few feet from an unsmiling thirtyish man—Is he in the advertising department as well? Penciled on the back of the photograph is the date 1966.
When Mona Lourie first arrived at the Village Voice, the boundaries were in many ways more fluid. She eventually became the librarian. (Later on, it became the company’s policy never to promote anyone from advertising to editorial—no more proles getting in through the back door. An entry-level job in edit was almost always handed over to a young Ivy Leaguer from outside the paper.)
Thin and frail with long straight hair that was prematurely white, Mona was an unexpected presence, delicate, almost wraithlike, amid the bound volumes and periodicals at the paper’s office on Union Square in the 1980s, when I met her. Every article had to be cross-referenced on index cards—which she assembled, typed, and filed away in drawers–a process that one editor-in-chief–in a moment of weak humor—later dubbed “the Mona system.”
I’d occasionally spot her strolling around downtown before we became friends. She had the graceful, deliberate air of an actor—and also reminded me of someone who might have stepped out of a threadbare flat, an apparition from the Village of some former time; she viewed life with a wry pessimism, like a protagonist from the early newspaper fiction of Djuna Barnes.
She had no air-conditioner or TV, never cooked a meal–her refrigerator a temporary halfway house for half-eaten takeout and unwashed dishes. A prolific reader of 19th century prose, she could tell you the history of every nook and cranny in Lower Manhattan, where Melville walked, which buildings Edward Hopper painted–and somehow always found the money to take in a play or a dance performance. Residing her entire life in Washington Heights but living most of it in Lower Manhattan, Mona rarely left the borough for any reason. Never claiming to be one of them, she shared the solitary and energetic lifestyle of many of the free spirits who once made the Village their home.
Social life at a newspaper is pretty much a war of position–disseminating strategic gossip, and choosing sides. The Voice by the ‘90s had become a “young” paper–pitching to an affluent, younger, and mainly male readership–always attentive to the “hipness factor”—an assumption that beyond a certain age people lose their edge. Corporate life in the editorial department centered around boisterous foosball matches.
Standing above—or maybe below–the fray, Mona warily eyed the encroaching Internet; she found herself increasingly incapable of lifting the heavy bound volumes, and finally refused to do so. When union and management reached a termination arrangement allowing her to stay on for a year with her part-time hours cut by half, they saw it as a magnanimous gesture. “Don’t you make trouble,” she warned me, thinking she had arrived at a fair bargain.
I did speak with one of the shop stewards. But unlike the old days when their number included some seasoned fighters, they now seemed to be the youngest, greenist, most ambitious employees at the paper. Regarding Mona, this steward set me straight.
“You know, the union has been meeting with management for some time to make sure they dealt fairly with Mona and we won her an excellent offer. We worked hard to win this for Mona.”
“But she really wants to stay on at the paper in some capacity. She hadn’t planned to retire just yet. I know there’s a part-time opening in fact checking. Maybe you could talk to the head of fact checking?”
“No, Mona isn’t qualified for the job. She doesn’t have the cultural background.”
I calmly pointed out that she was up on every cultural event, had probably read every review of every play and movie that opened in the city for the last half century and seen most of them, knew of every current exhibit in every museum in the city and seen most of them. But words were beginning to fail me—and the steward probably felt she had let me rattle on for too long.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said.
After her retirement, Mona continued taking the long subway ride downtown every afternoon, attending concerts, plays, movies, and exhibits.
She came to our apartment one evening for dinner, but like typical New Yorkers we often met up in restaurants. She wasn’t one to be put off by the hauteur of some of the swanker places: against my better judgment I once found myself taking high tea with her at the Plaza—me with my shaggy hair and long skirt, Mona carrying her signature shopping bag. We were coldly received and virtually ignored by the wait staff.
In 2002, when we moved away from the city, to the east end of Long Island. I convinced her to come out to visit us, but at the last minute she called and canceled—she was reluctant to stay away from her apartment for so long. During our phone conversations she tended to steer the discussion away from herself—but did describe major dental work—multiple implants—and I shuddered. However everything seemed to go well. She said she’d dyed her hair red—again alarms went off—but when I saw her it was nicely done.
Despite her cheerful banter, I felt a deepening sense of dread. I did not know her exact age—and was sure she would never tell me—but clearly she was quite old. She had no living relatives in a system where family normally provides at least some sort of support in old age. Living on the margins—with little money–she lacked the connections most people take for granted: someone to keep track of her, someone to walk her to the emergency room, someone to ask how she was feeling, someone to call 911.
A genius of self-preservation nonetheless, she practiced Tai Chi, ate sparingly foods that were good for her, and avoided doctors for the most part. Whether or not she’d do better in assisted living was an irrelevant question because there was no chance she could afford it. Grasping at straws anyway, I called Jewish Family Services to see if they had any advice. (I was unsure of Mona’s ethnicity, but they’d assisted me years back with my mother who wasn’t Jewish.) They said she would have to call them herself. When I gave her their number she was noncommittal, and unfortunately I didn’t pursue the matter.
I last spoke to her in May. Signing off, she said, “Kathy, if I don’t speak to you, have a good summer.”
Then the inevitable happened—a returned card. The phone line disconnected.
I was able to track down the real estate firm that managed her building. “Oh, that lady who lived here a long time”—the office secretary had put down the phone for a moment and was conferring with someone. “She was hit by a car. She died last October. I will give you the name of her lawyer—It’s Erica Bell–the lawyer is a very nice lady; she will talk to you.”
In despair I called the lawyer—and left a slightly incoherent message. When she returned my call, Erica Bell said she was delighted that someone from the Voice had called her about Mona because Mona loved working there and it had meant a lot to her.
She told me that Mona collapsed on the street last summer—she was not hit by an automobile; she had been suffering from sepsis caused by a prolapsed uterus. Taken to Harlem Hospital and then a nursing home in the Bronx, she was put on antibiotics, rallied briefly, and seemed to be getting better—but refused all nourishment except for the coffee yogurt Bell brought her every day.
When a palliative nurse suggested she try a feeding tube to help build up her strength, Mona asked if it would help her get well enough to ride the subway.
“I have to be honest with you, I doubt it.”
“Then it really isn’t worth it to me.”
She died on August 16, at age 86.
In 2002 Erica Bell–referred to Mona by the New York Women’s Bar Association–had met with her briefly to draw up a will and discuss her wishes, and they didn’t see each other again until Mona’s illness 11 years later. At the hospital, no one noticed her phone number in Mona’s wallet for several weeks. She had the keys to Mona’s apartment, but the door lock malfunctioned and the super had to climb through the fire escape to let her in.
Through 1930 census records, Bell discovered that this was the same apartment Mona had once lived in with her parents. Her father died here when she was a small child. This was the same small place where her mother had lived for so long—from which Mona had to escape—to the stores and museums that were air-conditioned. The apartment was a place to sleep and to put the clothes she wasn’t wearing. It didn’t look so bad when she came home late at night. And this rent-controlled apartment made it possible for her to survive on a part-time salary from the Village Voice—and to subsist for 20 years after that on her meager Social Security benefit.
“ . . . What struck me hard was finding a large piece of cardboard propped up in the front room on which Mona had written in case of emergency to call me or my law partner . . . I think Mona expected that she would die in her apartment and wanted to make sure that when she was found the super would know who to call.”
The only names Bell found in Mona’s address book were for doctors, her accountant, and numerous locksmiths. That led her to believe she must not have any friends she should contact.
Because I was the only person to have contacted her, Bell asked if she could send me the photographs she found in the apartment.
They arrived in an album that began auspiciously with a portrait of a round infant wearing an elaborate bonnet . . . and four adults posing in front of a 1920s car. One of them, a woman resembling Mona, cuts up for the camera. Next to her, a man—Mona’s father?—looks stern and distant. His death may have occurred not long into the Depression.
Nonetheless, in undated childhood photos, Mona smiles pleasingly—the resemblance to the adult I knew is striking. Some are taken in a park-like setting. Cavorting with two older girls—her cousins?–she looks comfortable and confident—or is she merely putting a brave face on things? By the time of her school graduation she has blossomed into a gazelle-like beauty and allows a serious-looking boy to embrace her in a group shot in May of 1943.
A lengthy gap in the narrative follows. Then, in 1949, an unknown photographer takes multiple shots of Mona–wearing a chic coat in Central Park. She knows how to pose for a camera, and there is also a picture of her posing as a clothed figure model for a sculpture class. Later, an artist painstakingly sketched her portrait on a napkin—Mona saved it. Another nearly decade-long gap, and finally by the mid-‘60s a few office shots of a wearily attractive Mona working at the Voice.
I write a note to Erica Bell, thanking her, and she writes back telling me she is happy Mona is not forgotten. “I think a writer would want to write about Mona. You should write about how someone so sweet and kind could die alone like this.”
She tells me the workers at the hospital all became very fond of Mona–loved her, even—and they wept when she died. In her decades of experience, she had never seen the attendants crying. Mona’s death was peaceful. I find Erica Bell’s words consoling.
But then another email: “There is more I can tell you about what I found when I went into the apartment, but it is quite sad and I am not sure whether you would want to know it all.” I tell her that I should probably know about whatever it was she found. . . .
“ . . . After Mona died, I went to her apartment, expecting to find it full of books and art and interesting objects. What I found was a very sparse two room apartment that appeared not to have been painted or plastered in all the years she had lived there, which may have been most of her life. The curtains hanging in the front room (basically an eat-in kitchen) were so worn and dusty that it looked as if my hand would go through them if I touched them. There were chunks of fallen plaster everywhere . . . “
A few more details: Mona was born Minna Luria on October 13, 1926; she had legally changed her name. Her family was Jewish but she was nonobservant.
She always brought to mind the image of a carrousel horse—stately and frolicsome—of a happiness almost frozen in time. Until I googled her I had no idea she had ever written anything. But in 1957, her article “The Marvelous Merry-Go-Round” appeared in the American Mercury. H. L. Mencken’s once-venerable magazine had recently been bought out and transformed into a reactionary and anti-Semitic publication. It’s a bizarre place to come upon this charming essay by Mona, which is, coincidentally, a history of the carrousel horse.
Kathy Deacon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.