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"The Red Leather Diary," by Lily Koppel

Newspaper and MagazineJournalismMinority GroupsThe New York TimesDeathChicago TribuneEva Le Gallienne

Do teenagers keep diaries anymore? Clothbound journals secured with metal latches and miniature locks? Adolescents are always typing furiously on keyboards, but do they have blank slates on which to record their inner lives? As private repositories of grand hopes and crushing disappointments, of routine affairs and once-in-a-lifetime moments, diaries are windows into the soul. That's why discovering a long-abandoned diary can be an earth-moving experience: Who was this person, really?

Florence Wolfson was among the most diligent diarykeepers ever to hold a pen. On Aug. 11, 1929, she received a gift for her 14th birthday: a small journal, bound in scarlet leather, complete with a tiny gold key. That afternoon—and incredibly, every day thereafter for the next five years—Florence chronicled her activities, aspirations and deepest emotions. Born to assimilated Jewish immigrant parents, she grew up on the edge of New York's City's upper-class society. Her father, a physician, and her mother, the proprietor of an upscale couture dress shop, provided comforts and access to Manhattan's thriving cultural scene. Yet as parents they offered scant affection. So Florence made her diary her closest confidante.

After filling every gold-rimmed page, Florence forgot about the diary, tossing it into a storage trunk with some flapper dresses and other outmoded items. It rested there for nearly 70 years, until a young journalist named Lily Koppel rescued it from a city dumpster.

In "The Red Leather Diary," Koppel recounts the amazing story of Florence's discarded volume. One morning in October 2003, just outside her Riverside Drive apartment building, Koppel glimpsed an unusual sight: a red dumpster piled high with old steamer trunks. Already late for work as a news assistant at The New York Times, she took a closer look at the vintage chests headed for oblivion. Was this news? Undeterred by the garbage and grime, she climbed onto the dumpster and pried open one of the trunk's rusty latches. Inside was a treasure chest of vintage clothing and other items, "clues to how life was lived in Manhattan during the 1920s and '30s." But the 22-year-old reporter struck it rich when she discovered a small leather diary.

" 'This book belongs to . . . Florence Wolfson,' " proclaimed an inscription inside the front cover. Koppel was immediately captivated by the narrator's worldly persona. The diary was "a real-life time machine" from a lost metropolis teeming with "writers, painters, playwrights, and jazz." Here was a girl who played piano, painted landscapes, wrote poetry and read philosophy—sometimes in a single day. In one entry, she swooned, "Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven—I feel like a ripe apricot—I'm dizzy with the exotic." Another day she wondered, "There's so much to do—music, art, books, people—can one absorb it all?"

Florence was crazy about art, but she was also mad for love. She worshipped Eva Le Gallienne, the lesbian actress and founder of the avant-garde Civic Repertory Theatre. After enrolling at Hunter College at 16, Florence embarked on a string of intimate, often-sexual relationships with women as well as men, reeling from heart-struck infatuation to heartbreak to ardor once again. "What she craved most," Koppel realized, "was to be enveloped in a grand passion that would transform her life."

But Koppel didn't just find the diary. Three years later, she found Florence. With the help of a private investigator, Koppel tracked down the 90-year-old woman, now known by her married name of Florence Howitt. Flabbergasted to hear her diary had been found, she invited Koppel to her Connecticut home. Aided by her sharp memory and a trove of old photographs, she filled in the gaps of the diary's fragmentary record.

"The Red Leather Diary" emerged from their collaboration as well as interviews Koppel conducted with Florence's relatives and friends. Structured as a biography, it reads like a highbrow fairy tale that braids together three overlapping narratives: Florence Wolfson's youth; the elderly Florence Howitt's reflections on her past; and Koppel's own identity as a budding writer. Koppel's lively prose annotates scores of original journal entries, which resonate with "the literary equivalent of perfect pitch."

Much of the book's emotional power derives from the drama of an old woman reclaiming a past that was almost lost to her. As Florence writes in the book's foreword:

"How do you feel when a forgotten chunk of your life, full of adolescent angst and passion, is handed to you? How do you feel when you see your striving, feeling, immature self through your now elderly eyes? It stopped my heart for a moment. That was me?"

Once a maverick burning with artistic ambition and bisexual passion, Florence spent most of her life in the conventional roles of wife, mother and grandmother. At 24 she married Nat Howitt, an attractive suitor who became a successful oral surgeon. During the early years of her marriage in the 1940s, Florence wrote edgy articles for women's magazines, organized a local theater troupe and even sneaked in a few female flirtations. But by the 1950s, the heyday of the so-called feminine mystique, Florence's creative fervor gave way to perpetual rounds of tennis, bridge and cocktail parties. She and Nat were married 67 years, until he died, and she adored her extended family. But at 90, Florence writes, she was living "what can only be called a bland life."

Koppel writes with flair, but her narrative style is better suited to description than to probing analysis. Unfortunately, it's Florence who asks the searching questions about paths not taken:

" 'Where did all of that creativity go? . . . If I was true to myself, would I have ended up living this ordinary life?' "

Did Florence suppress authentic homosexual longings in the face of social pressure? Or were her romantic attachments just a passing phase during the last hurrah of the Jazz Age? We don't know—and probably, neither does Florence. In any case, her story suggests that for some people, the laws of sexual chemistry are fluid rather than fixed, subject to cultural forces beyond the self.

In a lifetime that spanned the lion's share of the 20th Century, Florence struck her own bargains between autonomy and security, between sexual freedom and familial obligations, between a literary career and a traditional lifestyle. In her conflicts and compromises, her successes and sacrifices, she is part of history.

Who is Florence Wolfson Howitt? She is, and has been, many selves. So have we all. I hope that in 70 years we'll still have plucky journalists who yearn to gaze behind the surface of our "ordinary" lives to find extraordinary stories within. And with any luck, tossed into storage with all the laptops, there will linger some old-fashioned diaries—inscribed with ballpoint ink—that disclose the private truths of who we were.

The Red Leather DiaryBy Lily KoppelHarperCollins, 321 pages, $23.95
Lily Koppel will be at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Book Fair, June 7 and 8. www.printersrowbookfair.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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