Carol Ann Lincoff was born on July 28, 1938, in Pittsburgh. Her father, Escher, owned a jewelry store in suburban Braddock, Pa.; her mother, Jeanne (Katzive) Lincoff, was a travel agent.
As a teenager, Carol loved opera, Broadway musicals and old things. She studied English literature at Barnard College, and spent one summer as an au pair for the socialite Babe Paley (whose husband, William Paley, was a trustee of Columbia University). She took in Mrs. Paley’s cool and considered elegance — the cigarette holder, the white shirts.
She also sensed something wounded in her employer’s charm, as she wrote decades later in an essay for Town & Country magazine. Those manners, Ms. Prisant speculated, “might have been a substitute for life. For Babe’s primary role was one of gracious bestowal. She struggled with or denied unhappiness and complication.”
Ms. Prisant might have been writing about herself.
She had attempted suicide in college and was institutionalized — which irritated her mother, she wrote later, because of the tuition lost.
In 1958, she dropped out of college to marry Mr. Prisant, a physicist from Georgia, who was part of a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that designed and tested the Polaris missile. The couple lived near Cape Canaveral in Florida and in Boston before moving to Long Island in the early 1960s. Mr. Prisant loved his work and traveled often. Ms. Prisant, following the codes of her upbringing, became a homemaker, a role she suffered in.
She had anxious, perseverating thoughts about death and worried that she might kill her own child. When a driver drifted into her lane as she was in the car with her toddler son, she swerved and hit a tree, and her fears were nearly realized.