KINGSTON — Lillian Lenovitz Cahn, a graduate of GAR High School and founder of Coach Leatherware Co., died March 4 in Manhattan. She was 89.
She was the sister of Louis Lenart, who is known as “The Hero of Tel Aviv.” Lenart, who lives in Israel, is an ex-Marine and Israeli Air Force fighter pilot who played a key role in protecting Israel from an attack by Egypt in 1948.
Lenart changed his last name from Lenovitz. He said his sister was “beautiful and a wonderful woman.”
“I talked to her a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “She built Coach up from nothing to become an international company.”
Attorney Joseph Savitz of Kingston was a classmate of Lenart’s and knew the entire Lenovitz family.
“They were a great family,” he said. “They had their struggles, but they came through it.”
In a story in August 2010 in The Times Leader, Lenart said his family was poor. Savitz said the Lenarts — Rose and Benjamin — owned a small store on East Market Street in the years after the Depression.
“Mrs. Lenart made homemade noodles,” Savitz said in the 2010 story. “Lou and his father would walk around and sell them door to door.”
According to the obituary printed in The New York Times on Saturday, Cahn and her husband, Miles, founded Coach in a Manhattan loft in 1961. The obituary states Mrs. Cahn designed the first successful Coach bag — a tote modeled after a type of paper bag she had used as a girl in Wilkes-Barre that was used to deliver her parents’ homemade noodles to customers. The bag became a classic for the company.
The Cahns sold Coach to Sara Lee Corp. in 1985 for a reported $30 million, according to The Times obituary. Coach reported net sales of $4 billion in 2012.
On their 600-acre farm in Pine Plains, N.Y., the Cahns made goat cheese. They sold the farm about five years ago and returned to live in Manhattan, according to the obituary.
From the New York Times obituary:
“Lillian Lenovitz was born on Dec. 11, 1923, in the town of Satorauljaujhely, Hungary, one of four children of Benjamin and Rose Lenovitz, who eventually opened a candy store, among other businesses. Her father immigrated to the United States in 1928 and settled in Wilkes-Barre before sending for the rest of the family in 1933 to join him there. Lillian was valedictorian of her high school class.
“Besides her husband, she is survived by daughters, Julie and Susan; son, David; sister, Judy Miller; brother, Louis Lenart; and five grandchildren.”
In the obituary, her husband said his wife had taught him most of what he knew about the dual roles of fashion and function in women’s handbags. It was she, he said, who explained the logic of pockets and helped to pick colors and decide where zippers should and should not go.
The obituary said men’s leather wallets and billfolds were the company’s original line of business.
“At Mrs. Cahn’s suggestion, her husband began producing a line of women’s handbags in the early 1960s at their small West 34th Street factory, working with a thicker yet flexible kind of cowhide often used in making baseball gloves,” it reads.
Mr. Cahn went on to create the dozen other handbag designs that became the first generation of the Coach line. Mrs. Cahn became the company’s showroom impresario and media agent, according to the obituary.