The author, Rafael Alvarez, with Lois Feinblatt in 2019. (credit: Jennifer Bishop)

For more than three years,  beginning in February 2016, I arrived at Lois Feinblatt’s apartment near Johns Hopkins University to poke into every corner of her long and fascinating life. No question was considered too impertinent. Not that she answered all of them.

“I don’t see why that’s important,” she’d say as I took notes at the kitchen table.

Born a Hoffberger – the indelibly Baltimore family of ice, heating oil, beer and baseball – Lois died at home on April 15, a month before her 101st birthday. Vibrant nearly to the end, she confided to her intimates (of which there were dozens, many believing they were in closer orbit than was the case) that making it to 101 was not imperative.

At 99, Lois would allow that she didn’t want to be 100 – much less a century plus one – if she was no longer her true self. And oh, what a self: witty, generous and more than a little mischievous, an ebullient driving wheel for the common good.

Services were held at Beth Am Synagogue on Eutaw Place, just south of Druid Park Lake and her early childhood home at 2408 Eutaw Place. The wake was at the Colonnade, walking distance from her apartment at The Warrington on North Charles Street. When folks rose to tell stories about the “Lo” they knew, someone recalled that she’d attended several “Death with Dignity” meetings in preparation for the inevitable.

The meetings were on Saturday. One friend (she could have had lunch and dinner every day of the month without repeating a dining partner) called on a Saturday asking Lois to brunch. To which she replied, “Well… since I am not planning on dying this week, I guess I can miss my meeting.”

As if Lois needed a meeting to comport with dignity. Like public education, Democratic politics and the evolving field of adoption (she was a social services caseworker during the Eisenhower Administration), her mortality was simply one more thing in which she was interested.

Life is all about love

From the days she argued about politics with her father – Democratic party fundraiser Samuel H. Hoffberger (1888-1961) who once called her “a Bolshevik” – Lois was always interested. Always learning.  Always asking someone – friend or stranger – what they thought of an idea she found important or puzzling.

The most important topic when it was all said and done?  “Now that I’m old,” she said more than once, “I think life is really all about love…”

Love – Lois’ first true love – is the door through which I entered her life after circling her family for years. In 1998, I wrote a Baltimore Sun obituary for her second husband – attorney and political advisor Eugene M. Feinblatt. A year later, I did the same for her big brother Jerold C. “Jerry” Hoffberger of Orioles World Series fame. In the family, he was “Chuck.”

A young Lois Feinblatt.

I met Lois through my wife, Phoebe Stein, whose father Julian had been friendly with the Hoffbergers for many years. Once, we attended a party and Lois was there. Leaning in for a hug, she said – with the greatest of twinkles in her blue eyes – that I was “adorable.” I would later discover that this was not an exclusive club. She could dish and she could flirt and she made the best brisket in Baltimore.

I became familiar with most (but far from all) things Lois after spending New Year’s Eve with her in 2015. It was just the two of us as Phoebe had to fly out of town to be with a relative who’d taken ill. I kept our date at The Warrington: crab cakes, roasted potatoes, green beans in tomato sauce and Greek salad. I brought the meal from Ikaros near my house on the eastside, ground zero for Baltimore’s Jewish population where the Hoffbergers got their start selling wood, ice and coal from a horse and wagon not long after the Civil War.

We had ice cream with chocolate sauce for dessert and, as midnight approached, Lois asked if I would read some old letters to her. She retired to a recliner to elevate a foot that would not heal (eventually it did), and directed me to a pile of envelopes on her desk.

Enter that long-ago, once-in-a-lifetime love: Irv Blum (1915-1973), the violin-playing Hopkins student from Chauncey Avenue. “The smartest boy I’d ever met,” said Lois. “I fell in love with him the minute I met him.”

The letters were written by a very young Lois – still a teenager when the correspondence begins in 1941 – and Irv, six years her senior and an employee in his father’s Gay Street department store. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Irv was about to be made a captain in the Army.

I picked one at random, the handwriting elegant, envelopes burnished by age and fingertips, the stamps bright shades of blue, red and – on 8-cent, first class postage – an olive green military transport plane. 

1,400 letters, untouched for 70 years

Lois closed her eyes and listened intently, spirited back to her days as an American Red Cross volunteer, newlywed and young mother of a boy named Larry. As for me, H.G. Wells’ could not have done a better job of taking me to days I’d never known.

On Rosh Hashanah – September, 17, 1944 – a week after the U.S. Army liberated Luxembourg, Lois writes about how lonely she is, how hard it is to see other women embrace their husbands after High Holiday services at the old Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on Madison Avenue in West Baltimore

“…how good it was to have you kiss me that first year you went there with me. We weren’t married then, I don’t think…I get homesick for that kiss after each service.”

Half typewritten (with notes in the margins) and half hand-written, the letter was one of some 1,400 missives, divided equally from Lois to Irv and vice-versa as the Allies marched across Europe from D-Day prep to the long-hoped-for fall of Berlin. A few months before our meal, Lois had rediscovered the cache in the Warrington’s basement. First-person source material about a subject that scholars have nearly picked clean, the letters had not been touched for nearly seven decades.  

The following February, while chasing work in Los Angeles, I got a call from Lois and Irv’s daughter Carolyn “Patty” Blum. Would I be interested in writing a history of World War II through the lens of the letters? It sure beat taking a job on some inane cop show. Soon, I was arriving at The Warrington several times a week.

The result was “Somewhere: The Story of Irv, Lois and a World at War,” published privately in 2019. The title comes from words Irv wrote across the top of each letter to stay on the right side of the censors: Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Belgium, Somewhere in Germany.

One of his letters was emblazoned with a swastika on stationary left behind by fleeing Nazi troops. One of Lois’ had a big hole scissored out of the middle as she performed a pre-computer “cut and paste” editing job.

The sandwich can now be shared

Local arts advocate Scott Burkholder (Fells Point by-way-of Minnesota) provided tech savvy in cataloging the letters and a young set of eyes to read more than a dozen binders of material. Patty was dogged in tracking down historical context not included in the letters.  And Lois patiently answered hundreds of questions, inviting me to lunch around the same kitchen table where we’d dined on New Year’s Eve.

Lunch was often tuna fish or chicken salad from Eddie’s on Roland Avenue, sometimes gourmet leftovers from one of her many dinner parties, as close to a Parisian “Lost Generation” salon as I’ve yet to attend.

One midday meal repeated itself more than the others, a favorite repast of Lois’ since Coolidge was president. She would not, however, let me put it in the book, one of her few editorial prohibitions. She was adamant that her family’s wealth – well-known for generations – not be mentioned, which I took as a request for modesty. But a sandwich?

I hope her ghost (which surely sparkles in the world to come as brightly as she did) will forgive me: Lois Hoffberger Blum Feinblatt was crazy for chopped green olive and cream cheese on rye bread.

I’m enjoying one now to honor one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever known.

The cover of Lois Feinblatt’s privately published book of letters.