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'Dear, Dear Diary'

November 13, 2008 By:
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Lily Koppel was a young reporter working at The New York Times and living at 98 Riverside Drive, when one morning in the fall of 2003 she found a large red Dumpster firmly planted outside her apartment house, brimming with old steamer trunks. Though Koppel was late for her job on the Metro desk, she was struck by an impulse that nothing else mattered but discovering what was inside the trunks. She assumed they wouldn't be around for long, so she pulled her hair back in a ponytail, hoisted herself up into the Dumpster and dove in.

She soon discovered why these "treasures" were being disposed of: The management at 98 Riverside Drive had decided to expand the bike room in the basement, and all unclaimed tenant storage, some of it dating back to the early years of the 20th century, was being ditched. Koppel rooted in that Dumpster until dusk began to settle around her.

But a singular treasure was waiting for her elsewhere, having already been plucked from these discards. One of the doormen had found a young woman's diary, which he knew the reporter would find interesting. Releasing its brass latch, Koppel saw the words: "This book belongs to ... Florence Wolfson." Those fateful words led to the writing of her first book, The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal, published by Harper.

Beyond the statement of the owner's name, Koppel found things she could never have imagined. "I flipped through the faded entries dense with girlish cursive. I could tell it had been cherished. I located the date Florence began writing: August 11, 1929. I had kept journals, but never like this. Not a single day was skipped in the diary's five years from 1929 to 1934. The book was fragile, but remarkably sturdy, considering it was three quarters of a century old. ...

"Its nearly 2,000 entries painted a portrait of a teenager obsessed with her appearance and the meaning of her existence. Meeting friends for tea at Schrafft's. Nightclubbing at El Morocco. Dancing at the Hotel Pennsylvania, the New Yorker Hotel and the Savoy Ballroom."

As Koppel soon discovered, observations about frivolous matters -- shopping, teenage gossip, fashions -- were interspersed with truly heartfelt reflections on the books that Florence had read, the plays she'd seen, the music she listened to. As Koppel writes, "The young woman who emerged from the diary's pages had huge ambitions, even if chasing them proved daunting. February 21, 1931. Went to the Museum of Modern Art and almost passed out from sheer jealousy -- I can't even paint an apple yet -- it's heartbreaking! January 16, 1932. I couldn't study today & went to the museum to pass a morning of agonizing beauty -- Blown glass, jade and exquisite embroideries. April 10, 1932. Wrote all day -- and my story is still incomplete. September 2, 1934. Planning a play on Wordsworth -- possibilities are infinite."

But what Florence longs for most is a grand passion. She needs someone to love, and till she finds this singular individual, she feels she'll remain incomplete.

Koppel was fascinated by the person behind the voice and decided that, before she continued, she had to discover if Wolfson was still alive. By way of a newspaper clipping that was tucked into the pages of the diary, she discovered the woman's address during the period.

But, for three years, Koppel simply wandered around New York City wondering about Wolfson. Then, one afternoon at work, she received a chance call from a lawyer, Charles Eric Gordon, who specialized in tracking down missing persons. Koppel discussed the diary with him. After a few weeks of investigation, Gordon found Florence. She was 90 years old, living with her longtime husband, Nathan Howitt, in Westport, Conn., where Koppel eventually met her. Her husband's name -- the ubiquitous Nat -- had appeared in many diary entries as one of Florence's assorted and ardent admirers.

Reading what she'd written -- it was begun when she was just 14 -- the elder Florence was amazed by the young girl she'd once been. She told Koppel that she'd brought back her life. And so, with the help of the original diarist, Koppel fleshed out Florence Wolfson's story until it became The Red Leather Dairy.

The book is filled with the surprise and wonder of stumbling upon another person's life -- one that was eventful and filled with detail. Even famous people pop up now and again. Koppel writes that "among those taken with the brainy and beautiful young woman was the poet Delmore Schwartz. James Atlas, in his biography of the poet, wrote of the 'salon' of Florence Wolfson, the daughter of a wealthy doctor who allowed her to entertain friends in their large apartment."

But Koppel's "expanded" version of Wolfson's diary is not an unqualified success. In trying to flesh out the story, the writer has overwritten a bit and has fallen into the trap of repetition. But the intrinsic interest that fills this tale -- the portrait of a young Jewish girl's life in the New York City of the 1930s and '40s -- trumps whatever drawbacks spring up.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the diary is its sexual frankness. As Koppel notes, "Although written at a time when sex was a subject discussed discreetly, the diary was studded with intimate details of relationships with both men and women. April 11, 1932. Slept with Pearl tonight -- it was beautiful. There is nothing so gratifying as physical intimacy with one you like. April 19, 1933. Dear God, I'm sick of this mess! What am I -- man or woman? Both?"

And Wolfson's discussion of the plays she went to see and the books she read are particularly impressive for one so young. Take these brief passages for example:

"Saw 'Mourning Becomes Electra' and took a rather maliced satisfaction in its gruesome tone -- a dynamic play, nevertheless.

"Saw 'Oedipus Rex' tonight and its marvelous passion triumphed easily over inferior acting and inferior directing -- and we pretend to write!

"Saw 'Dinner at Eight' -- a great hit -- written by an experienced dramatist -- and it was foolish, banal and empty -- very encouraging."

No matter its faults, what keeps you reading The Red Leather Diary is the mystery at the heart of Wolfson's life: How did this rambunctious young woman, filled with artistic passion -- and others, as well -- become the long-married, 90-year-old that the author eventually found? Koppel reveals some of the answers -- those she was able to unearth -- though not until the very end of the tale. But you'll just have to read about them yourself.

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