Saddened to read this week of the death of Lucette Lagnado, senior investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal and chronicler of a lost cosmopolitan age of Cairo. Her The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is one of the most wonderful of memoirs. It is largely the biography of her father, Leon Lagnado, a Syrian Jew relocated to Cairo, where he ran an import-export business of indeterminate nature. He was a pious Jew by day and playboy by night, gadding about town in his trademark suit, frequenting the city’s hotels and nightclubs.
The family home was on Sharia Malaka Nazli, now Sharia Ramses, just north of Midan Ramses. This was the world inhabited by Leon’s much-younger, bookish wife Edith, and daughter Lucette (Loulou) and her cat PousPous. Lagnado’s book mixes accounts of home life – the daily routines, the neighbours, the world seen from her balcony – with the dashing, glamorous, almost fantasy life of her father.
It all comes to an end in 1962 when almost overnight the family are compelled to leave, with just $212 to their name, moving first to Paris and then on to Brooklyn. Lucette was only six at the time of this upheaval but her memories of early life in Cairo are so vivid and poignant. The book is suffused with a longing to return, to reverse the exodus, and she does eventually go back in 2005, but only to visit.
She went back to Egypt on a number of occasions after that, and a few years ago we exchanged a few emails and said that we must meet up next time we were both in Egypt. Sadly, it never happened.
Lucette Lagnado once wrote that she left Cairo an Egyptian and returned an American. That was Egypt’s loss. She died on 10 July in New York. She was 62.