Wilmette’s Leanne Star remembered as ‘a true renaissance woman’
Leanne Star was a woman of many parts, all of them earnestly attended: accomplished writer and editor; committed progressive and environmentalist; sought-after docent; competitive puzzler; dedicated to the Jewish faith; fearless world traveler; well-versed in the arts; loving parent, sibling and friend.
“With her dizzying array of interests, Leanne was a true renaissance woman,” said a close friend, Sherry Medwin, of Leanne, 72, who died suddenly Jan. 23 at her home in Wilmette.
“Leanne’s life was a continuous, glorious adventure,” she added. “She exercised her imagination and courage in ways that made impediments crumble before her. Audrey Hepburn’s aphorism comes to mind: ‘Nothing is impossible.’ The word itself says, ‘I’m possible!’ Leanne corralled ‘the possible’ to create a remarkable life for herself and for everyone she touched.”
Star grew up in Park Forest, the second of five siblings. Early on, she enjoyed and taught ballet, reading and French. The summer before entering college, she interned for Esther Pauline “Eppie” Lederer, better known by the pen name Ann Landers, the syndicated newspaper advice columnist and nationwide media celebrity.
“I opened the mail for Ann Landers,” wrote Leanne in a blog post. “It sounded like a glamorous job. The syndicated advice columnist had the name recognition of a movie star, with 90 million readers turning to her for guidance in 12,000 newspapers around the world. I thought myself sophisticated. My summer reading included Nathanael West’s noir novella ‘Miss Lonelyhearts.’ Here I was, seeing the real pleas for help even before they reached Ann Landers.”
Star attended the University of Chicago (class of ‘69) and the University of California, Berkeley, where she received bachelors and masters degrees in comparative literature. She later taught literature and writing at Beloit College in Wisconsin, Colby College in Maine, and then followed her professor husband to China, babies in tow.
In China, she navigated the language, geography and culture, taught at a college for future diplomats, bartered with fishmongers, and rode the Trans Siberian railway with her toddlers.
Returning to Chicago, she became a freelance writer for Northwestern University and numerous other organizations. Most recently, she managed a blog called “Star Gazing for Chicago Now,” and authored play reviews for various publications.
As Star’s family noted in her obituary, “she would have been the first person to read this over and offer her edits.”
Indeed, in one of her “Star Gazing” reports, she commented: “Even in the best of times, I’m a curmudgeon, bristling with pet peeves. Want to annoy me? Slaughter the English language. In fact, that category is so broad that I’ll have to save it for a multi-part post.”
In 1998, Star made her first attempt at fiction writing since college and promptly won a “Top Four” award in the inaugural Pioneer Press North Shore Fiction Contest. Soon, she and four others who were a part of the contest formed a writing group, the Salonistas. For several years they wined and dined at each others homes, critiqued each other’s recent work, and discussed their new writing projects.
“Leanne and I became instant friends and trusted readers of each other’s work from our very first meeting of the Salonistas,” author Kathy Stevenson said. “She saw humor and irony in so many things (including the name of our writing group), was a keen observer of people, and over the years we shared our own writing, book recommendations, and news about family and friends. I already miss her.”
A committed environmentalist, she had read about a mechanical genius who built solar-heated houses in the northeast, so she attended his seminars and then designed her own fully solar home in Maine. Decades later, she designed her own environmentally-friendly house in Wilmette.
Star’s passion for architecture led her to become a highly-regarded docent for the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) for their popular river tour. She also took great pride in having created new tours and training incoming docents.
Writing for CAC, she eloquently described one of those tours. It begins:
“In Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Oberon, King of the Fairies, sends the sprite Puck to an enchanted garden to craft a love potion: ‘I know a place where the wild thyme blows; where ox-lips and the nodding violet grows.’”
“That enchanted garden exists on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus, replete with wild thyme and some 50 varieties of plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s work. A double wall of hawthorn hedges shelters the plantings to create the effect of a secret garden in the midst of campus.”
During the pandemic, she extended her tour of volunteer duty by creating online walking tours and literary tours of Chicago writers’ residences.
Star was not religious when growing up, but became so. When the Passover Holiday in China was approaching, she was determined to find Matzoh, so she researched Chinese bakeries until she found one in a small province that would make unleavened bread under her direction.
As an adult, she learned to read Hebrew and became a bat mitzvah at the age of 57 along with a similarly middle-aged group of women. Prior to COVID, she would host a regular minyan for her synagogue, Congregation Hakafa, at her house and volunteered at A Just Harvest. She also sang in the choir. Star made a tasty matzah ball soup, too, which she always made of point of bringing to sick friends.
Progressive causes were always close to Star’s heart.
“When she and I marched in women’s rallies, sometimes under heavy rain, she modeled for other women the illusion of the glass ceiling,” Medwin said.
Her blog posts were routinely political in nature.
Star was a competitive puzzler and Scrabble player, and routinely hit “Queen Bee” status doing the New York Times Spelling Bee. She loved to travel, particularly to Iceland and Israel, and could frequently be found on the North Shore trying new fitness classes and walking her dogs.
And then there was her “can-do” spirit.
“‘It’s not that hard. I’ll show you how’ was her mantra,” Medwin said. “Someone once said that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage. When I asked her once about her willingness to take risks, Leanne said ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’”
Known as “Gaga” or “Grandma Leanne,” the loving grandmother of six designed and sewed personalized quilts for each of them, celebrated their birthdays with homemade cookies, and was their favorite babysitter.
“Almost everyone who enters her circle is uplifted, emboldened, cheered on by her faith in the possibilities of life. Her three exceptional daughters are proof,” Medwin said.
Star is survived by her fiancé John D’Asto; her three daughters Maia Feigon (Michael Conti), Brooke Feigon (Gautam Chinta), and Gera Feigon (Joseph Rosenberg); her siblings Amy Star (Robert Falanga), Merrie Star (Gregory Scheuer), Natalie Star (Peter Kimball), and Vincent Star (Diane Stroing); her six grandchildren Avinash Feigon, Emilia Rosenberg, Henry Rosenberg, Naveen Feigon, Eleanor Conti, and Lucille Conti; her niece Rebecca Falanga and nephew Aaron Kimball. She was preceded in death by her parents Jack and Dorothy Star.
A memorial will be made available via Chicago Jewish Funerals, followed by Zoom Shiva daily (times to be announced) Tuesday-Monday Jan. 26-Feb. 1.
Alan P. Henry
Alan P. Henry is a New York Times bestselling author, six-time national fiction contest prize winner, and 35-year newspaper veteran with the Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, 22nd Century Media and The Record.