UB’s J. “Basil” Dannebohm had a chance to visit with Lily Koppel, author of “The Red Leather Diary.”
From Publisher’s Weekly …
Journalist Koppel found the inspiration for this book, based on her 2006 New York Times article, after discovering Florence Wolfson’s diary in a Manhattan dumpster. Koppel eventually locates Florence in Florida and surprises the 90-year-old with this artifact from her past, which reveals her views on growing up as an intelligent, ambitious and creative teenager on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1930s. Florence received the diary as a present on her 14th birthday. She recorded everything from her first kiss (with a boy) to her crush on actress Eva Le Galliene (which led her to question her sexuality) to her passion for writing and art. The diary acts as a window into a fascinating and privileged world, one that Koppel tries to recreate by writing in a novelistic way, using no more than snippets of text from Florence’s diary and, we can presume, multiple interviews as support. The result, which some readers may find frustrating and others rewarding, is that the original inspiration—the diary itself—becomes no more than a starting point for a much larger story: that of Florence’s life.
JD: How did you happen upon the diary in your dumpster?
LK: I was 22, late for work at The New York Times. Like all young people who move to the big city, I was looking for love and meaning in my life. At the time, I was reporting on the celebrity scene, but finding it unsatisfying on a personal level and as a writer looking for a life-changing story. One morning, I came out of my New York City apartment building on the Upper West Side to find a dumpster brimming with old steamer trunks. It was like a scene out of Titantic. I climbed in and started excavating. Among the flapper dresses, vintage clothes and old scalloped-edged black and white photographs was a crumbling red leather diary kept by a young woman named Florence Wolfson from 1929 to 1934.
JD: What prompted you to read the diary and not simply cast it aside as junk?
LK: The diary looked magical with gold-edged pages and a rusted brass latch. I held my breath as I tested it. The diary was unlocked. Little pieces of red leather sprinkled onto my bedspread. The diary was a portal into a young woman’s forgotten, glamorous 1930s world. She was a writer and an artist. Her life was full of theater, literature, music, salons, writers and poets, including the Italian count with whom she had a love affair when she sailed to Europe in 1936. I read the diary like a personal letter to me. Florence and I, although separated by three quarters of a century, were on the same path.
JD: Do you have any idea how the steamer trunk ended up in the dumpster?
LK: Florence and I lived I the same building, decades apart. Later I learned that when Florence and her husband moved out of 98 Riverside Drive, on 82 nd Street, they forgot to bring the trunk, which was in basement storage. In 2003, the basement decided to clear out the area and carted over 50 trunks to the waiting dumpster.
JD: After you started paging through the diary, describe your initial reaction. What lead you to say to yourself “This would make an outstanding book?”
LK: I read the diary like a novel. Florence became my guide to New York to searching for love and how to make a mark on the world. I still get goosebumps when I think about how I found the diary. Why me? Reality was stranger than fiction-in this case my life had become like a movie. I wanted other people to share with me the mystery and magic of the diary. From being headed for a dumpster, Florence’s mesmerizing story was revealed. The Red Leather Diary feels like a novel, but it is non-fiction, drawn from my original research and interviews with the diary’s owner, 90-year-old Florence Wolfson who I tracked down with the help of a private investigator. The original diary entries are interspersed throughout.
JD: If you had to pick your favorite entry in the diary, what would it be?
I have a few. “Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven-I feel like a ripe apricot-I’m dizzy with the exotic.” Who wouldn’t want to feel like a ripe apricot? “Five hours of tennis and glorious happiness-all I want is someone to love-I feel incomplete.” “Wrote all day-and my story is still incomplete,” because when I found the diary as a young writer I felt I picked up the story where Florence left off.
JD: When you finally made contact with Florence for the first time, what was her initial reaction?
LK: She was shocked that I would have cared about her story enough to search her out. She writes about her reaction eloquently in the book’s foreword: “What do you feel like when a forgotten chunk of your life is handed back to you?” It stopped my heart for a moment, she said. The diary has become a virtual fountain of youth for Florence, who was 90 when I met her, and turns 93 in August. She has gotten a laptop and is writing again.
JD: To turn the table a bit, what was your reaction when you finally met the author of your mystery diary face to face?
LK: After reading the diary, I thought I would be meeting an artist or a writer. Florence was a very interesting woman, but had taken a different path. She turned to me and said, “From reading about that young woman in the diary, how did I end up living this ordinary life?” She wondered why she didn’t pursue her career as a writer, but instead married and had two wonderful daughters. She has granddaughters and great-grandchildren. Florence’s words have come full circle. Her diary was her enduring work of art and her spirit to reveal her innermost thoughts to the world. “You brought back my life,” Florence said to me. “You brought back mine too,” I told her.
JD: Tell me about your relationship with Florence today.
LK: It is so unusual for a younger person to befriend someone in their nineties, if they are not related. Through the pages of her treasured diary, I got to know Florence intimately as a teenager and met her at 90. She is timeless to me. She is both my grandmother and best friend.
JD: How has your life changed since reading the diary and writing this book?
LK: The diary led me to write my first book. Florence has inspired me to never give up on my dream of pursuing my writing.
JD: If you could, compare the New York City of then to the New York City of today. What is similar and what has changed?
LK: New York City today is filled with Starbucks and Citibanks. Florence’s 1930s New York was filled with women wearing gloves and heels and men in Fedoras. She toasted the night at El Morocco. The coming together of our two New Yorks is electrifying, it brought back the romance of New York.
JD: If a reader could take one “lesson” away from your book, what do you hope that lesson would be?
LK: The diary was a gift for Florence’s 14th birthday in 1929. It was a gift to me when I found it when I was 22, searching for love and meaning in my life. It was a gift again to Florence at 90. The Red Leather Diary is a gift to everyone who connects with its message of finding the significance of all of our lives. Florence wasn’t a celebrity, but she is now, for expressing her authentic and genuine self. We appeared on The Today Show: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24159947/
JD: Who are some of your writing influences? What are you reading these days?
LK: Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Haruki Murakami. I am reading my mother’s diaries, which she started keeping as a teenager, research for my next book.
JD: What lies ahead for Lily Koppel? Are there any additional books in the pipeline?
LK: One of the most meaningful things to me about writing the book was Florence’s two daughters, who are both in their sixties, turning to me after they finished reading and telling me how much they learned about their mother from reading the book. They saw her for the first time as a young passionate woman searching for love. My next book is about my mother.
JD: Thank you for taking time to visit with me about The Red Leather Diary.
For more information visit the website: http://www.redleatherdiary.com
On March 8th, 2012, J. Basil Dannebohm received the following email from Lily Koppel:
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Florence Wolfson Howitt, the New Yorker who became known when her red leather diary, which she kept from the time she was 14 for five years in the 1930s, was unearthed, died this week at her home in Pompano Beach, Fla. The New York Times ran the obituary today, “Florence Wolfson Howitt, Famed for Rediscovered Diary, Dies at 96,” which spoke to a unique life which came full circle in such an unexpected way. As a young woman she had huge artistic ambitions. As a chronicler of her own life in Manhattan in over two thousand scrawled entries in her journal from 1929 to 1934, she lived some of her fullest years last.
Thanks to those of you who have been along for this amazing journey, which really proves you don’t have to be famous to have the world take notice. I will always treasure the magical way in which Florence and I were connected across time.
© 2013 Uniquely Basil. All Rights Reserved