The Red Leather Diary
As an avid treasure hunter, I can't wait to lay my hands on Lily Koppel's The Red Leather Diary, a fascinating book due out next week. The story surrounding the story begins with Koppel's discovery of a young woman's diary, kept in New York in the 1930s, and its return to Florence Wolfson Howitt, its owner, at 90. Says Koppel:
Recovered from a steamer trunk in a dumpster outside of my apartment building on the Upper West Side, the journal painted a vivid picture of 1930s New York—horseback riding in Central Park, summer excursions to the Catskills, and an obsession with a famous avant-garde actress. Its nearly two thousand entries, written in faded black ink, captured the passions and ambitions of an intensely creative young woman interested in carving out a place for herself. From 1929 to 1934, not a single day's entry had been skipped. Brief, breathless dispatches filled every page of the five-year chronicle, unfurling into a Manhattan fairy tale.
As a 19-year-old Columbia graduate student, Florence hosted a salon in her parents' apartment, whose members included the poets Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman. 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."
Compelled by the hopes and heartaches captured in the pages, I set out to find the diary's owner, my only clue the inscription on the frontispiece—"This book belongs to…Florence Wolfson." A chance phone call from a private investigator led me to Florence, a 90-year-old woman living with her husband of 67 years. Reunited with her diary, Florence journeyed back to the girl she had been, rediscovering a lost self that had burned with artistic fervor.
I made a much less dramatic but still moving discovery of a similar sort a few weeks ago when Gary and I bought the sight-unseen contents of a storage unit at an auction. More about that tomorrow.