Wednesday, April 30, 2008
The Red Leather Diary
The story of how this book came to be is almost better than the book itself. Lilly Koppel, a twenty-something writer for the New York Times found a red leather diary in an old steamer trunk in front of her building one afternoon. Having decided it was time to finally clear out the basement, the building management put a bunch of trunks and other items out at the curb to be thrown away. Many of the items had been languishing in the basement for over 70 years. Seeing this mountain of old trunks, Lily's curiosity got the better of her, and she literally went dumpster diving. She came away with the diary, a vintage coat, a telegram and a few other odds and ends. As soon as she opened the diary and began reading, she was hooked. Lily read the diary and was fascinated by the young Florence Wolfson who had written the diary from 1929 to 1934. Florence had written an entry in the diary every day for five years from the ages of 14 to 19. Once again her curiosity wouldn't let her rest, and Lilly began to do some research on some of the people and places in the diary. Through a chance meeting, she teamed up with a private investigator who later found Florence Wolfson Howitt. Lilly contacted and met Florence who is now in her 90s and splits her time between Connecticut and Florida. Florence is thrilled to have her diary back and loves reading about the young girl she once was.
Lilly begins visiting Florence on a regular basis and develops a friendship with Florence. She also interviews many of Florence's family and friends, as well. With Florence's permission and the help of the interviews, Lilly turns the diary into the book, The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal. It would be an understatement of monumental proportion to say that this book is interesting. I was amazed at how 'modern' Florence was as a teen in the early 30s. She lived life to the fullest. She wanted to experience everything that life had to offer. She loved writing, drawing, painting and photography. She was also very emotional and enjoyed multiple relationships with both men and women. At times, Florence seems fearless, and at other times she seems like a frightened little girl. In many ways, Florence was ahead of her time, and she felt that she didn't really fit in anywhere.
As I said earlier, I love the premise behind this book. I love the way the project began. I loved reading about Florence and New York of the early 1930s. I loved discovering this unique woman who flouted convention and didn't want to marry a man and settle down simply because that's what society said she should do. My one complaint about the book is the fact that the writing sometimes felt disjointed. Koppel used the diary entries and filled in with background information she received from Florence and others. This led to choppiness and a writing style that didn't really flow that well sometimes. However, this is just a small quibble. This is a fascinating look into a time that has long since been lost. My only regret is that Florence didn't become a writer herself.