Carol Prisant, elegant design writer, dies at 82

Carol Prisant with her dogs in New York, November 16, 2008. (Photo: NYTimes)
Carol Prisant, an elegant design writer who was the New York editor of the idiosyncratic British magazine The World of Interiors, died April 9 at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 82.اضافة اعلان

Her son, Barden Prisant, said the cause was lung cancer.

Prisant was a former antiques dealer with no editorial experience in 1989 when she wrote to Min Hogg, the autocratic editor of The World of Interiors, a magazine she revered, inquiring about a position there as an antiques editor. It took her a week to craft the letter, with just the right tone: deferential but charming. There was no such position, but Hogg, famously spontaneous, wrote her back anyway, and offered her a job as a writer. Prisant was 51.

On her first assignment, she forgot to bring batteries for her tape recorder. Her third assignment was to write about Bill Blass. He told her she looked like Claudette Colbert. She remarked on his very “doggy” upholstery. (It was a compliment; she liked dogs.) She would go to write about the wealthy and the eccentric, and those who helped them nest.

But she never got the memo, as the longtime American magazine editor Stephen Drucker put it, that you weren’t supposed to write what you really felt in a decorating magazine.

“She told the truth, but always with subtlety and lashings of wit,” Rupert Thomas, Hogg’s successor at the magazine, said by phone, “and managed to be clever and learned without taking herself — or her interviewees — too seriously. She extracted humanity from the grandest collector and the most self-regarding decorator. And she made it look effortless.

“People think writing about interiors is easy and possibly rather pointless,” he continued. “It’s neither. She did it brilliantly.”

In her final article for the magazine, published in the November 2020 issue, she wrote about the Manhattan apartment of designer and artist Nan Swid and noted how Swid’s designer, Kazem Naderi, kept futzing with the place: “He’s impatient with the obvious and stale in the relationships between furniture and art and carpet and floors, and the ultimate effect of his aesthetic process is something like Turner dropping in on a gallery where his latest seascape is already hanging and, with a small brush, confidently adding a scarlet buoy to the waves.”

Prisant could always spot the scarlet buoy in the waves.

Drucker recalled reading an early Prisant piece in The World of Interiors and cold-calling her. “I thought, ‘Who is this woman?’ I was working at Travel & Leisure, and I said, ‘I will send you anywhere you want and pay you really well and give you a big expense account.’ And she said, ‘No thank you. I hate to travel.’ ”

Prisant was terrified of flying. She was indifferent to food. She loved pale pink — declaring, Diana Vreeland-like, that the hue was a neutral — and she wore touches of it always (pink cashmere hoodies, pink glasses.)

Her homes were as singular and precise as her writing. With her husband, Millard Prisant, she restored a decrepit fairy-tale Victorian Gothic house in Roslyn Harbor, New York, on Long Island, that she painted a “bitter gray,” as she put it. It was so fanciful that birdhouses had been designed from its plans.

Prisant read a book on faux finishes and simulated wallpaper on its walls. There was a fountain on its Olmsted Brothers landscape and, on the wraparound porch, clotted with pink climbing roses, a curlicued cast-iron coffee table that Prisant had made from a Victorian stand for a child’s coffin.

Carol Ann Lincoff was born July 28, 1938, in Pittsburgh. Her father, Escher, owned a jewelry store in suburban Braddock, Pennsylvania; her mother, Jeanne (Katzive) Lincoff, was a travel agent.

As a teenager, Carol loved opera, Broadway musicals and old things. She studied English literature at Barnard College, and spent one summer as an au pair for socialite Babe Paley (whose husband, William Paley, was a trustee of Columbia University). She took in Paley’s cool and considered elegance — the cigarette holder, the white shirts.

She also sensed something wounded in her employer’s charm, as she wrote decades later in an essay for Town & Country magazine. Those manners, Prisant speculated, “might have been a substitute for life. For Babe’s primary role was one of gracious bestowal. She struggled with or denied unhappiness and complication.”

Prisant might have been writing about herself.

She had attempted suicide in college and was institutionalized — which irritated her mother, she wrote later, because of the tuition lost.

In 1958, she dropped out of college to marry Millard Prisant, a physicist from Georgia, who was part of a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that designed and tested the Polaris missile. The couple lived near Cape Canaveral in Florida and in Boston before moving to Long Island in the early 1960s. Millard Prisant loved his work and traveled often. Carol Prisant, following the codes of her upbringing, became a homemaker, a role she suffered in.

For decades, as Prisant wrote in her last book, “7 Shrinks: 60 Years in an Undiagnosed Altered State,” published earlier this year, she veered between terror and disassociation. She could put a cigarette out on the back of her hand without feeling it. And for decades she was treated with the blunt instruments of old-school psychiatry — the tropes of Freud, electroshock therapy — before receiving a diagnosis only a few years ago of depersonalization disorder, a response to trauma in which the sufferer loses her sense of self.

It’s a harrowing memoir, Kate Chopin by way of Sylvia Plath. The “underbook,” as Prisant would say, to her carefully curated life.

In 2000, Millard Prisant died suddenly of pancreatic cancer. Carol Prisant left Long Island and moved to a grand apartment on East End Avenue in Manhattan. It was a half-timbered showplace she camped up by painting the living room walls bubble-gum pink. The dining room was purple.

Her smaller next apartment, where she lived until her death, was very pale — and very still, as she often said — decorated in an extravagantly neo-Classical style, like a set from one of the 1930s-era films she loved.

In addition to her son, Prisant is survived by a brother, Richard Lincoff, and a granddaughter.