Calling All Mothers, Daughters and Grandmothers to Journey Within the Pages of The Red Leather Diary
By Lily Koppel
When I first opened the red leather diary, I had no idea of the world that was about to unfold before me and change the course of my life and that of 90-year-old Florence Wolfson Howitt. One morning in 2003, I left my Manhattan apartment and encountered a Dumpster full of old steamer trunks. Unhesitatingly, I climbed up and into what felt like my own movie, a real life Titanic. Among old photographs, a collection of handbags, a flapper dress, and a stunning tangerine bouclé coat with an iridescent lining and single Bakelite button, I recovered the diary, discarded after years of languishing in my building’s storage unit, kept by a young woman in New York, from 1929 to 1934, between the ages of 14 and 19. “This book belongs to,” read the frontispiece, followed by “Florence Wolfson.”
Back in my room, holding my breath, I released the brass latch. Despite the rusted keyhole, the diary was unlocked. Little pieces of red leather sprinkled onto my white comforter. For five years, not a single day’s entry had been skipped. I was transported to a bygone New York—glamorous nights at El Morocco and elegant teas at Schrafft’s during the 1920s and ’30s—and of the headstrong, endearing teenager who filled its pages with her hopes, heartaches, and vivid recollections.
Florence loved Baudelaire, Central Park and men and women with equal abandon. What jumped out of the pages to me was how ahead of her time was (and has since been likened by reviewers to a “pre-war Carrie Bradshaw” from Sex and The City). Its nearly 2,000 entries, written in faded black ink, captured the passions and ambitious of an intensely creative young woman. The journal painted a vivid picture of horseback riding in Central Park, summer excursions to the Catskills and an obsession with a famous avant-garde actress, Eva Le Gallienne. Brief, breathless dispatches filled every page of the five-year chronicle, unfurling into a fairy tale.
“Mile Stones Five Year Diary” was written in gold letters across the book’s worn cover. Inside, a blue vine grew around the frontispiece, stamped with a zodiac wheel. The diary seemed to respond to being back in warm hands, its pages becoming unstuck and fanning out. I flipped through the entries, dense with girlish cursive. I could tell the journal had been cherished. I located the date that Florence began writing: August 11, 1929, the day she received the diary as a gift for her 14th birthday.
A brittle scrap of newsprint floated out of the pages. On it was Florence’s picture. But for her waved blonde hair, she appeared completely contemporary. Eerily, we looked alike. Her eyes were alert and intelligent. I could see myself in her face; we were both writers and painters. Florence appeared so alive, intensely internal and fully engaged with the world around her.
I read her entries as if they were personal letters to me. Florence and I had so much in common, the same longing for love, someone to understand us, the desire to carve out our own path. At the time, I was reporting for The New York Times celebrity column, traipsing nightly from red carpet movie premiere to party to after-party interviewing hundreds of boldfaced names. The diary took me far away from the ephemeral world of celebrity to the enduring story of a young woman in search of herself.
Florence and I shared so many of the same longings for love, and the desire to make our own way. I was drawn into Florence’s day-to-day existence, trips to the theater and escapes to the Museum of Modern Art, which opened in 1929. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, free and almost deserted during the week, was a temple that she wandered in, solitary and content, for hours without seeing a soul.
As a writer, Florence loved England and the Lake Country poets--Wordsworth and Coleridge. She sailed to Europe in 1936. She visited Oxford, where I studied, and embarked on her own romances along the way. She traveled alone from London to Paris to Rome, where she fell for an Italian Count, Filippo Caneletti Gaudenti da Sirola, who was a poet and pilot and composed love verses to her, which were published.
As I read, my lavender bedroom filled with an orange glow from the streetlamp outside my second-story windows. The diary was a portal into a lost world. I felt as if we were one, this young woman from the ’30s and I.
There is something so hopeful about a diary, a journal, a new notebook, which Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf both wrote about. In this age of Facebook and blogs, a journal is one of the last private spaces, where you are the solitary actor on your lone stage performing for your own audience. I have kept dozens of diaries over the years, which I keep on a high shelf in my West Village Manhattan loft, where I am writing this. Perhaps we all are waiting for someone to discover us. “Find me, find me,” Florence seemed to be saying.
I could already see the headlines in my mind, “Celebrity reporter finds a discarded 75-year-old diary, in it, the biggest story of her career.” But I couldn't help asking myself, because I genuinely cared about this story, who was Florence Wolfson? Her eyes wouldn’t let go.
Three years later, I received a chance phone call from a private investigator, with whom I shared the diary. Searching the city’s birth records, he found one Florence Wolfson, born in New York City on August 11, 1915, to a pair of immigrants from Russia, a doctor and his wife. He led me to Florence Howitt, a 90-year-old woman living with her husband of 67 years, with homes in Westport, Conn., and Pompano Beach, Fla.
One Sunday afternoon in April 2006, eagerly and a bit nervously, I dialed Florence’s Florida number on my cell. After two rings, a refined voice with the command of a stage actress answered. “Hello?” “Florence?”
I met Florence for the first time in May 2006 in Westport, where she lived with her 95-year-old husband, Nathan Howitt, a retired oral surgeon who was one of many admirers from her youth.
Florence hugged me. She was an ageless phenom, full of spunk. During weekly Sunday visits, we got to know each other. Reunited with her diary, Florence journeyed back to the girl she had been, rediscovering a lost self that had burned with creative fervor.
Florence was one of a generation of Depression-stamped young men and women who longed to cultivate a creative life. As a 19-year-old Columbia University graduate student, she hosted a literary salon in her parents’ apartment. Her friends, the young poets Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman, were members.
During our talks, Florence showed me old photographs. Scalloped-edged black-and-white images recreated the half-forgotten world of the sophisticated young Manhattanite who grew up on the Upper East Side. In the snapshots, Florence is outfitted in clothes designed by her mother, a couture dressmaker with a shop on Madison Avenue. Her mother had come to America alone as a teenager and worked her way up to being a respected business owner, a rare accomplishment in those days.
After Florence married, she drifted from her art and admitted that later in life she took on “a country club mentality.” As she fingered the pages of the leather-bound book crumbling in her hands, she reflected on the young woman brought to life so vividly in its pages.
“What made you do this, Lily?” Florence asked. I knew from the diary’s pages she had wanted to be a writer. “If I had remained true to myself, would I have ended up living this ordinary life?”
Last April, Florence’s husband died. I learned from her diary that they had met when she was 13 in the country at his parent’s hotel. I flew down to Florida to be with her. “Lily and her new grandmother,” Florence said, as we took a photo. “You’ve brought back my life.”
From being hidden inside a diary with a tiny key, Florence has been revealed in a book. How does Florence feel about that? She writes about her feelings in the forward to the book, as well as the death of her husband of 67 years last spring. Their first kiss, when Florence was 13, was also recorded in her diary.
Today, Florence and I gab like teenagers on the phone. She said, “My friends have to take me seriously now. I’m no longer an invisible older woman.”
Florence was a feminist even before she knew the word. She hopes she will inspire teenagers and young women today to reflect on their lives. Sixteen-year-old Florence wrote, on June 28, 1932, “Stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven--feel like a ripe apricot--am dizzy with the exotic.”
On April 10, 1932, Florence wrote: "Wrote all day -- and my story is still incomplete." What stood out about Florence was her fearless inward gaze and her commitment to carving out a path of her own. She was writing her story of who she was and would become while recording her daily entries. Although separated by three quarters of a century, I felt that this lovely ingénue and I were on parallel paths, both searching for love and meaning in our lives—a profound connection that readers feel as well.
“A movie star!” Florence exclaimed while sharing with me photos of her Italian Count in his white aviator’s jacket about to climb into his propeller plane.
What a journey! From diary to dumpster to a book, which is traveling the world. With the talk of the financial crisis and comparisons being made to The Great Depression, there is renewed interest in what life was really like in the 1930s as depicted in the diary.
Florence, who is unexpectedly glamorous at ninety-three, recently purchased a laptop and is writing again. In the foreword to The Red Leather Diary, where she asks, “How does it feel when a forgotten chunk of your life is handed back to you?” We are constantly emailing back and forth. The Red Leather Diary is a tribute to the tempestuous girl I came to know on paper and the older, more even-tempered woman I grew to love in real life. It’s a magical story about coming of age, following your dreams and discovering (or rediscovering) who you are, were and want to be. A world straight from the pages of a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Florence says without missing a beat that she would like Meryl Streep to play her older self in the movie. Scarlett Johansson would be perfect for the young Florence (and myself). We appeared together on The Today Show, where Florence turned to me and squeezed my hand and said, “This is a fairy tale.”
Thoroughly contemporary and timeless, the book offers a rare opportunity for mothers, daughters and grandmothers to read The Red Leather Diary together and share their own experiences at a cross-generational book club meeting with the reading group guide now available: http://www.harpercollins.com/author/authorExtra.aspx?authorID=32373&isbn13=9780061256776&displayType=readingGuide
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Posted by BookBitch at 2/14/2009 03:16:00 PM