Lillian Jankelson, interior decorator and grande dame, dies at 101

In mid-February, a former client phoned Lillian Jankelson and mentioned that she’d just bought a new home.

Jankelson’s response was immediate: “How many square feet?” queried the longtime interior decorator — who was 101 years old at the time.

Sadly, Jankelson did not have the opportunity to decorate one last residence; she died Feb. 27 in the San Mateo apartment where she lived on her own.

“She was a perfectionist,” said Jankelson’s daughter, Suzanne Gerson of Walnut Creek.

“She was kind, caring about other people and gracious. And she loved children. She was [something of] a ‘grande dame’ type — she was sort of in charge of everything.”

Lillian Rubin was born in Cleveland and moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s and then to San Francisco when she married Marvin Jankelson. Before her recent move to her San Mateo apartment, she lived for 78 years in San Francisco and attended Congregation Emanu-El for eight decades (in recent years, when she had a hard time getting around, she gave her High Holy Day tickets to family and friends).

Jankelson attended several schools, including U.C. Berkeley from 1922-26, but did not join the workforce until she and Marvin divorced when she was 45.

“She felt she should go to work. In those days, you know, it was not very nice for her to get divorced. Her friends weren’t divorced,” recalled Gerson.

“She became an apprentice to a well-known decorator in San Francisco. Then her career took off and she became quite a well-known decorator and had her own office with another woman on Pacific Avenue.”

Jankelson maintained her membership, and her “resale number,” with the American Society of Interior Designers until her dying day.

Even before she became a professional designer, Jankelson — known as “Mimi” within her family — was known as a woman of exquisite taste, and this gift permeated her life beyond her professional calling.

“Mimi’s choice in presents was only an offshoot of her main talent. Haircuts, gifts, fashion, and décor — with our grandmother, everything came down to taste,” wrote granddaughter Anne Germanacos in her eulogy.

“Our grandmother had an eye for the right EVERYTHING, whether it was a gift for a great-grandchild … an outfit, a color scheme, or the way furniture was arranged in a living room.”

Jankelson worked as an interior decorator until she was nearly 90 years old, and continued consulting for friends and family.

“Her son-in-law, Claude, often used to joke that he wouldn’t mind if Lillian would have a drink or two with her dinner, but while we’d always heard that she’d been a flapper in the ’20s, we only ever saw our grandmother living a clean life. Clearly, it paid off,” wrote Germanacos.

Lillian Jankelson is survived by her sister, Lois Wolfberg of Santa Cruz, her two daughters, Suzanne Gerson of Walnut Creek and Louise Rosenberg of San Francisco; five granddaughters and seven great-grandchildren. The family suggests donations in her memory be sent to the charity of your choice.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.