Charming, elegant, and uncommonly generous of spirit, Parker Ladd was a walking advertisement for the literary lifestyle. A lifelong bookworm from small-town Vermont, he read nonstop, often holding a book and a newspaper in his hands at the same time. And, according to his close friend, Michael Selleck, executive v-p for sales and marketing at Simon & Schuster, if a volume was too heavy to carry around, Ladd would cut it in half.
Ladd’s status was far from the lives of the thousands of adults he helped at Literacy Partners—many of them impoverished and undocumented. But he knew that low literacy among adults was a hidden epidemic in New York City. Jane Friedman, former global CEO of HarperCollins and founder of OpenRoad Integrated Media, served with Ladd on the Literacy Partners board. To him, she says, reading was the definition of “civilization”; it changed people’s lives.
Ladd was instrumental in helping the organization fulfill its mission right up to his death on November 14. The literary world and his many friends bade him farewell just two days after the death of his dear friend and fellow Literacy Partners champion, celebrity columnist Liz Smith.
Ladd launched his 35-year publishing career as a sales rep for Charles Scribner’s Sons college division in Los Angeles. Promoted to the New York office, he rose in the ranks before joining the American Association of Publishers, eventually becoming its director.
Through it all, he was known for his ease in drawing people together, which served him well, Selleck recalls, when it fell to Ladd to convince publishers to adopt a computer program allowing bookstores to place orders electronically. PubNet was thus born at a time—1987—when editors were more likely to have ashtrays on their desks than personal computers. “It was the start of modernizing the industry,” Selleck says.
Sharing in Ladd’s love of reading was his husband, Arnold Scaasi, the acclaimed couture designer who was already famous (for designing dresses worn by Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, and first ladies from Mamie Eisenhower to Barbara Bush) when the two met in 1962. Life partners, Ladd and Scaasi married in 2011, at the ages of 82 and 80, respectively. (Although Scaasi insisted to the press that he was only 75.)
As regulars on the social scene, Ladd and Scaasi met Smith in 1969, and the trio became fast friends. By 1986, Smith was deeply involved in Literacy Partners and she enlisted Ladd and Scaasi’s support in growing the fledging organization.
Together, Smith, Ladd, and Scaasi created the Literacy Partners Evening of Readings in 1986, which to this day generates more than $1 million each year. Smith brought the star power and Scaasi the persuasive personality; Ladd did much of the work behind the scenes, securing the involvement of some of the most important authors of the day.
The first year’s event featured Jimmy Breslin, Nora Ephron, William Kennedy, and Jay McInerney. Subsequent years included Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, and Maya Angelou, among others. Parker also had the insight to feature a student from Literacy Partners reading from his or her own writing to the packed ballroom, proof of the organization’s success.
“Arnold and Liz had bigger and more public personalities,” Friedman recalls. “But Parker was the glue who held them together. When they talked about Literacy Partners, they spoke with one voice, with one goal.” Their combined efforts yielded more than $37 million for Literacy Partners over the years and helped more than 25,000 adults learn to read.
“Parker brought light and enthusiasm to all things,” according to Gina Centrello, president and publisher of Random House, who also served on the Literacy Partners board of directors. “He was a treasure to the literary community and beyond.”
Upon Scaasi’s death in 2015, Parker established the Scaasi-Ladd Book Fund at Literacy Partners. Says Friedman: “Parker’s dedication to this organization was completely intense and all-inclusive. He really loved his life, and he wanted other people to live the better life as well.”
Anthony Tassi is the CEO of Literacy Partners, a New York City–based organization that strengthens families through adult literacy.