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.

16 comments:

Andi said...

I wanna read this one SO BAD! Gotta get it. Might even buy it.

Lisa said...

andi, I'm glad I read it. I didn't go into a great deal of detail about the diary entries, but they were really enlightening. I couldn't believe that this was coming from a 14-year old girl. She seemed so much older for her age -- nothing like me at that age or my kids at that age. She also knew just about anybody who was anybody during this time period in New York. I feel like Florence did more in those four years than I've done in my whole life for crying out loud!

Danielle said...

I can't wait to read this! It's in my pile. How she found the book and wrote it is indeed a good enough story of its own. I did read that the actual diary entries were rather skimpy, and she filled it in a lot. It's amazing that she found the diary owner and was able to talk with her!

Heather said...

OHhhhhhhhhhh to discover a treasure like this would be wonderful!

Lisa said...

danielle, the diary entries are quite short, but that's because of the way that the diary was set up. Each page contained entries for all five years for a specific day. For example, May 1st would be at the top of a page, and then the years 1929 - 1934 would be listed down the side with about four lines available for each year's entry (if that makes any sense). In other words, there wasn't much room to write each day. I would like to know more about Florence's life after the diary years, as well.

heather, I know. I dream of finding some treasure like this in an antique store or old second hand bookshop.

Gentle Reader said...

Wow, what a great story behind this book! I'm intrigued, it will have to go on my list :)

Lisa said...

gentle reader, the story behind it is pretty amazing. I wish I had that kind of luck.

Stephanie said...

Oh, how cool!! I haven't heard of this before, but now that it's on my radar, this may be one I have to read!

Eva said...

This sounds interesting! I've tagged you for a meme, if you have the time. The first one on this post: http://astripedarmchair.wordpress.com/2008/05/03/meme-catch-up/

Lisa said...

stephanie, it is quite interesting. I just wish there would have been more about Florence's life after the diary years.

eva, thanks for tagging me. :)

Tara said...

I have been so interested in this one since Danielle mentioned it so I especially appreciate your review. I just love the whole story behind it.

Lisa said...

tara, I think we'll be hearing a lot more about this one in the near future. I'll be anxious to know what you think of it if you read it. I had a hard time trying to explain my feelings about the book. I love the story behind it. I really liked the book, but I did feel that sometimes there was something missing. I can't really explain it. Maybe it was just me. But, it is well worth the time to read. It's fascinating.

Carl V. said...

Wow! This went immediately into my Amazon.com shopping cart. Great review, you have me intrigued!

Lisa said...

carl, I hope you enjoy it. It is really interesting to get a glimpse into a young woman's life and into the city itself at such a pivotal point in history.

Booklogged said...

What a neat story about finding the diary and meeting the lady.

Lisa said...

booklogged, it's really a cool story.