This is the first of a now-and-then series celebrating the lives of Remodelista design heroes. For our first installment, Gardenista founder and Wall Street Journal columnist Michelle Slatalla reminiscences about her friendship with the remarkable Doris LaPorte Fingerhood.
The first time I saw Doris LaPorte Fingerhood’s apartment was at one of her famous pre-Thanksgiving parties. Jazz was wafting into the living room from the piano in her foyer. Friends and family and flowers filled her sprawling prewar rooms-with-a-view. And the nighttime scene outside her picture window was spectacular: under the glare of floodlights, nine stories below on West 77th Street, a giant, inflatable Snoopy balloon slowly filled with helium in preparation for Macy’s annual holiday parade the next morning.
But the best view on Thanksgiving Eve was always indoors, where Doris held court in a statement necklace and her favorite spot on her sofa. “She had an intimate, cultivated, lightly accented voice, which I can still hear,” said Remodelista founder Julie Carlson. “She was the kind of grande dame—without the airs—that we love.”
Doris, who died at home on December 9th at the age of 92, was my personal design hero. She had a gift for creating interiors that reflected their owners’ personalities, perhaps because she’d spent so much of her own childhood as a refugee from Nazi Germany, seeking comfort in strangers’ houses.
Consider this an homage to Doris, in my words, with photographs of her beautiful New York City apartment, by Matthew Williams.
Doris was born in 1928 in Hamelin, Germany (“where the Pied Piper comes from, but we moved to Berlin by the time I was a year old,” she later told an interviewer from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). In August of 1939, her parents, Leo and Rosetta Cohn, managed to secure spots for her and her younger sister, Hanna, on one of the last Kindertransport trains to leave the country, where the soon-to-be orphans would be relocated with foreign hosts in safe havens. The sisters were among the 10,000 children spirited out of Nazi-controlled Europe.
She spent the rest of the war shuttling from cottage to cottage in the English countryside before arriving in New York and into her Aunt Berta’s arms in 1946. A teenager, she immediately set to work fixing up her aunt and uncle’s Brooklyn basement on a budget of $12; “I knew I had found my calling,” she told me once.
In 1943, a final letter from the girls’ parents made it to England, smuggled out of Germany by a family friend: “Loving dolls,” their mother wrote to Doris and Hanna. “The main thing is you are well. My dearest wish is to be together again. All the best, kisses, and remember us. Father and Mother.”
Betrayed while they were in hiding in Berlin, Rosetta and Leo Cohn were deported to Auschwitz, where they died in 1944.
You would never know from meeting Doris that such harrowing and despicable things happened to her and to her family. She did not talk often about the war. “She didn’t want to be seen as a victim, and she didn’t believe it was constructive to dwell on the past,” said Olivia Fingerhood, the eldest of Doris’s three granddaughters.
“Doris was a person who lived in the present and looked to the future,” said her lifelong friend Kurt Roberg, a fellow German refugee whose book, A Visa or Your Life!, chronicled his own wartime escape. “She knew a lot more about my background than I did about hers.”