Polly Friedlander

Oysterville’s Polly Friedlander was a complex but admirable figure in the Peninsula’s cultural life.

As I remember, Polly …

My usual beat is local shipwreck history, but just now I find myself in a reflective mood. That might have something to do with weathering several episodes of attention-demanding physical frailty.

When last in this memorial mode, I wrote about my time in Oysterville. I’m there again.

My neighbor/friend/sometime-enemy/one-time-employer Polly Friedlander was a singular woman. She’d built a national-class art gallery in Seattle — the word on the street said that she gave Dale Chihuly his first show — but that word also said that the gallery had gone broke, owing another nationally known artist a whole lot of money.

Not too long after Polly arrived in the hamlet of Oysterville at the end of the remote Long Beach Peninsula, rumors began to swirl upward from her name like sparks from a campfire.

She was rumored by business locals to be high-demand, very-slow-pay; her jobs were said to be accompanied by frequent telephonic interruptions and changes of the mind. I should say that Polly always paid me promptly, perhaps because I could be a wolverine. I was grateful.

Positively Polly

Amidst recollections of the sturm und drang, two positive memories of Polly float up: one, where she helped me exactly; the other where her activity introduced me to a series of astonishing, life-changing experiences.

The first time came about when the woman whose house I was sharing got unexpectedly sick — kidney failure. Gwen Newton was a pediatrician from the Midwest via Salem, Oregon, who’d retired to Oysterville because, as she always said, she once read an article by Willard Espy in a back issue of American Heritage. (There’s more to that story, but we don’t need to go there now.)

Gwen had survived and even thrived on 1) growing up during the Depression; 2) taking nurses’ training at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago during World War II; 3) serving in Army hospitals in Italy, also in the War; 4) taking pre-med at The Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu; and 5) earning her MD at Washington University in St. Louis. She was a healthy, hardy soul. When her kidneys all of a sudden failed her, we were both shocked.

Later, while Gwen revived at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland, I exchanged bedrooms with her, moving her quarters down to the main floor. I carried many, many things upstairs and down, but could not figure out how to handle the mattresses and springs myself. For some reason, Polly and I were talking and I mentioned my dilemma. Her response was, "Would you like me to buy an hour of my gardening crew’s time to help you?" Oh, yes!

It was exactly what I needed and was so different from the usual interaction with her, where her requests were stacked up and circling like planes over O’Hare, that I was again shocked. Soon, however, I was much relieved. I remain grateful for her insight and action.

Notable guests

The other memory concerns the Willard R. Espy Literary Foundation, which Polly founded and served as president. In those days it was a going concern. I served it as book appraiser, library organizer and inventorist, and, once, less successfully, as bookkeeper and office person.

Three times a year the foundation brought gifted but not necessarily well-established writers to the village for a month’s residency. One year, Polly also invited a widely published writer on the arts to spend a residency here. The village was abuzz.

That writer, Ellie by name, flew out from Manhattan with Louise Espy, Willard’s widow. One evening they arrived on our front porch for dinner to which Gwen had invited them. As I went to the door to welcome our beloved friend and her unknown guest, I was surprised to see Louise sprint off into the darkness for her cottage, saying she’d forgotten something. Next, a pleasant lady stepped forward and smoothly put out her hand saying, “Hi, I’m Ellie.”

(It turned out that Louise had accepted a second dinner invitation and had forgotten it. This dear and intellectual lady had the misfortune to have developed the family Alzheimer’s disease; it was busy manifesting its ugly self in her singular, complex mind.)

So, there’s Ellie, who was a nationally known, many-times-published art critic, writer, historian, and editor, smoothing over a significant social gaffe. I returned her introduction, invited her in, and we mentioned something about Louise’s abrupt departure. I said without thinking, “It’s your fault.” She asked why. “Because you’re famous…” Her response was something like, “Oh, pooh,” and we went off to meet Gwen.

Now, Gwen was a sterling hostess, a great and creative cook, a master of putting people at ease with her fine wit, and she set a designer-worthy table where nothing matched and everything looked perfect. But this night Gwen was off her game and I couldn’t figure out why. We’d been to the doctor that afternoon and she, who never met a cup of coffee she didn’t like, had been unable to produce a urine specimen.

Soon Louise came back, explained the dinner invitation problem — there may have been a hint that our invitation had been trumped by another — and we ushered them to the door. I don’t remember if they stayed long enough for hors d’oeuvres. What I do remember was the socially adept Dr. Newton later looking quite put out. That was not typical.

Later that night, a friend suggested that Gwen should be seen at emergency; we went to Ilwaco where the hospital diagnosed her kidney failure and sent her off to Portland in an ambulance.

The next thing I remember of this story line is Ellie calling to see if she could drop by. (Gwen was still in Portland.) She arrived with Laughing Cow cheese and perhaps we had some of Gwen’s blue cheese biscuits, while we chatted. I showed her over a house full of books, American antiques, and artwork, including some of mine.

At some point during her month-long residency, Ellie asked me if I ever got to New York, and I said, “No...” Sometime later, I thought, “And why not?” I called her and reported that change of heart. She promptly invited me to visit.

O’ville to Manhattan

That’s how this Idaho-wheat-farm-raised, self-taught Peninsula artist found herself in Manhattan’s Upper East Side museum district, having some of the best adventures of her life.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Polly Friedlander, 84, a dedicated supporter of Northwest artists and writers, historic preservationist, and founder of Espy Foundation, passed away peacefully on Oct. 28, 2013, in Friday Harbor, where she moved in 2011 to be closer to her daughter.

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