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Jul 18, 2019 2:32 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Celebrated Journalist And Writer Lucette Lagnado Dies At 62

Lucette Lagnado reclines in her favorite chair at Canio's Books in sag Harbor.
Jul 22, 2019 12:36 PM

Lucette Lagnado, an award-winning author and longtime journalist at The Wall Street Journal, died on Wednesday, July 10, in New York. She was 62 years old.

The part-time Sag Harbor resident covered health care, Jewish culture and immigration for the Journal in the close to 25 years she spent at the publication as a reporter and eventually as a senior special writer.

Ms. Lagnado—known as Lou Lou to those close to her—was born in Egypt and raised in Brooklyn. A graduate of Vassar College, she began her career as a reporter at The Brooklyn Spectator, a community weekly, in 1977. She would also write for The New York Post, was a columnist for The Village Voice, the executive editor of The Forward, before finding a home at The Wall Street Journal in 1996.

“Lucette brought a unique and powerful voice to the Journal, combining a relentless curiosity with a big heart and deep empathy,” Editor-in-Chief Matt Murray said in an obituary by Brenda Cronin, published in the Journal on July 11. “Readers knew she would bring a wealth of knowledge and humanity to everything she wrote.”

Ms. Lagnado was also a celebrated author. Her memoir, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World,” chronicled her father, Leon, and mother, Edith, as they fled the Nasser dictatorship with their family. “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, “possibly the greatest honor Lucette ever received,” said Ms. Lagnado’s husband, Douglas Feiden, during her funeral service at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel on the Upper West Side on Friday.

She was also the co-author of “Children of Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz,” published in 1990, and a second memoir, “The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn,” published in 2011.

She married Mr. Feiden, a former reporter at The New York Daily News and The Sag Harbor Express, who currently reports for the New York Press weekly newspapers in Manhattan, in 1995. They met as reporters in the storied old City Room of the New York Post on South Street in Lower Manhattan in 1987, remembered Mr. Feiden, and called the city home. Sag Harbor also became home to the couple—a haven they discovered shortly before September 11, 2001, the events of which inspired them to make the village a second home.

“Lucette and I were downtown that morning, we were caught up in the collapse of the twin towers, caked in ash and dust, and evacuated to Jersey City on an NYPD Harbor launch, and all we wanted to do was flee the city,” Mr. Feiden recalls. “We sought a place of refuge, a place of solace, a place that would welcome and might even rejuvenate a pair of damaged souls.

“We had come in August on a day trip, our first trip to the village as a couple, made the left turn on the turnpike from Bridgehampton, like John Steinbeck and countless thousands of others, came to the dead end at the water’s edge of the Long Wharf, and were beguiled and smitten by the world at our feet,” he added. “With the city seemingly in ashes, we looked at each other, and we each had the same thought: ‘Sag Harbor. Let’s go back to Sag Harbor.’”

And that’s what they did. They literally moved in to the Sag Harbor Inn, Room 119, or as the superstitious Ms. Lagnado would frame it, “9/11 spelled backward.” A year later, they moved into the Harbor Close condo complex on Bridge Street.

It felt like home, Mr. Feiden said, and they never looked back.

The couple soon found a house of worship, said Mr. Feiden, critical for the devout and prayerful Ms. Lagnado, who was raised in the Orthodox Jewish tradition of her parents, and who Mr. Feiden said was “always in quest for the perfect synagogue that would remind her of the shuls in which she prayed in Cairo and Paris and Brooklyn.”

Shortly after September 11, the couple stumbled upon the Chabad Southampton Jewish Center on Hill Street, listened as Rabbi Rafe Konikov spoke about the Valley of Dry Bones, which pretty much reminded them of what they had seen in downtown Manhattan that day, and basically stayed on for the next 18 years.

But Ms. Lagnado’s love for Sag Harbor was connected to more than her faith, it was also rooted in friendship, traditions found in a life on a small town Main Street, and food.

“Lucette adored the Dover sole at the American Hotel,” said Mr. Feiden “But she also took great pleasure in picking up the little discount books at the Variety Store and asking Linda, the sales clerk, for the best deals on tissues and notepads.

“She had a passion for the finest cheeses from Cavaniola’s—but also exulted in the $1 Red Thread Good Coffee at Sylvester’s,” he added.

“Her North Star was the Romany Kramoris Gallery, where she would settle into the rolling chair at the desk up front with her great friend the proprietress, and she and Ms. Kramoris would talk up a storm as cash-paying customers queued up,” said Mr. Feiden. Sometimes, they were impatient, he noted. Much more often, they simply joined the conversation.

As for her South Star? That would have to be Canio’s Books. “You’ll notice that chairs were a great theme of her life in Sag Harbor because few places provided greater comfort or afforded more happiness than the plush burgundy ‘Nelson Algren Chair’ that is the centerpiece of Canio’s,” he said.

Co-owners Maryann Calendrille, the writer, and Kathryn Szoka, the photographer, would beckon toward the chair. Not that Ms. Lagnado needed much prodding. She would plop into it, talk to her dear friends, hold court, buy books—and sometimes, she’d pick up a dozen copies of a favorite postcard: “She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain,” the caption said.

“Perhaps it’s my imagination,” Mr. Feiden said. “But I always thought that the brunette woman featured on the postcard bore a striking resemblance to Lou Lou, as we all called Lucette.”

Some of Ms. Lagnado’s most joyous—“actually, rapturous is the far better word,” said Mr. Feiden—book events took place at the two shops, he said. And it was Ms. Szoka who took the iconic author’s photos of Ms. Lagnado as she moves about Sag Harbor that went around the world, graced the cover of “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” and were used in close to a dozen foreign-language editions of her best-selling memoir.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Main Street, Ms. Kramoris hosted multiple book events in her gallery, packed in more than 100 people in her cozy, railroad-car space, and for authenticity, stocked the room with Middle Eastern delicacies and libations like the Levantine favorite Arak. Once, to celebrate the publication of her second Egyptian family memoir, “The Arrogant Years” in 2011, she brought in the provocative East Hampton belly dancer Tina Georgopoulos to enthrall the crowd and re-create the Cairene nightlife that Ms. Lagnado enshrined in her books.

In 1973, at the age of 17, Ms. Lagnado had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Mr. Feiden attributed his wife’s death to the long-term effects of treatment for the illness, saying that the radiation that saved her life came with consequences, scarring her lungs and abdominal region and weakening her systems.

Ms. Kramoris, like some 200-plus other mourners, was in attendance at her funeral on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and passersby will observe the oversized poster of “The Arrogant Years” that she placed in the big glass window on Main Street once she heard the news.

“Now we had the village we love, the home we love, the shul we love, the Dover sole we love, and Lucette had found solace and was finally at peace,” Mr. Feiden said. And he lamented, “Then, one day, I woke up and it all seemed to be gone.”

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