Young Manhattanite’s diary of old is new again


In New York, even our trash is full of treasure.

One fall morning in 2003, Lily Koppel left her Riverside Drive apartment building, a bit late for work at The New York Times, and was struck by the sight of a large dumpster outside the entranceway. Piled high were about 50 old steamer trunks plastered with vintage labels of stylish hotels and cruise lines. When her curiosity drove her to climb right into the dumpster, passersby didn’t seem to notice, but her doorman warned her to get down. But she instead tried prying open the trunks, and soon was excavating a flapper outfit, beaded evening purses, a psychoanalyst’s files, matchboxes from Schrafft’s, a gold tube of lipstick in “Bachelor’s Carnation,” an official Mah Jongg card — clues to life among a certain set in the 1920s and 30s.

Koppel pulled out what she could, called The Times to send a photographer and then tried contacting the New York Historical Society, aware that trash collectors would soon be coming for this unburied treasure. Then she climbed back in and hunted some more.

She learned that her building was expanding its bike room and had cleaned out an area where these trunks, whose owners had moved on, had sat unopened for decades. Amid the chaos, a building porter told her that he had found a young girl’s diary and gave her the small book with its crackling leather cover and chrome lock. None of her scavenged items affected her like the diary; the young girl’s voice transported her to another era, yet was strangely familiar.

The diary sat on Koppel’s night table for several years, and she’d read it often. The diarist, whose name, Florence Wolfson, was inscribed inside, received the book on her 14th birthday, and wrote a few lines in it every day from 1929 to 1934. To Koppel, Wolfson seemed more sophisticated than her years, overflowing with passion, daring and intense feelings; full of literary ambition and craving adventure and romance. This potent whiff of another life reminded the young Chicago-born reporter of her own experiences in getting to know New York. Both women were painters as well as writers who felt the need to create beauty while trying to carve out their own paths.

“I felt like we almost could have been the same person, separated by 75 years,” Koppel says in an interview.

The only clues Koppel had to the identity of her doppelganger was a newspaper clipping tucked inside announcing that Wolfson had won a state scholarship at age 15. Through an encounter with a private investigator who contacted Koppel after a story of hers appeared in The Times, she was able to trace the writer, through birth records and telephone books, to her winter residence in Florida. Three years after she first climbed into the dumpster, Koppel called Florence Wolfson Howitt and told her that she thought she had some things that belonged to her. Howitt was astounded that this reporter had tracked her down and that she had the red leather diary she had long forgotten about.

After they met, Koppel wrote a story about the diary for The Times, which generated much attention, including calls from literary agents and editors who suggested that Koppel write a book. Working with the diary entries and long interviews with Howitt, Koppel has crafted a textured and intimate coming-of-age story and a very uptown portrait of Jewish life, “The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal” (Harper).

Some of the diarist’s entries have the feel of a writer with the expectation of a future reader — that she wrote these sometimes-cryptic notes to herself but also hoped to share her dreams and inner life.

Florence’s prose “possessed the literary equivalent of perfect pitch,” Koppel writes.

The book presents a meeting of selves between the young Florence and the woman she would become. The daughter of immigrant parents — her father became a prominent doctor, her mother a sought-after dressmaker, the beautiful and independent Florence went to lunch and tea at Schrafft’s and dancing at the El Morocco and the Hotel Pennsylvania. She rode horseback in Central Park, summered in the Catskills (her arrival at the Spring Lake Hotel caused a stir, as though a movie star had arrived), wandered for hours at the Metropolitan Museum, attended Hunter College, where she served as editor-in-chief of the prestigious publication, “The Echo,” and hosted a literary salon in her parents’ apartment. After receiving her master’s degree, she sailed to Europe, where she had a romance with an Italian count, among others.

While she rebelled against her parents’ expectations — they wanted her to marry a nice Jewish doctor — she did end up fulfilling many of their wishes. In fact, she eloped with her husband just as he finished dental school. They first met when she was 13 and on summer vacation in the Catskills, where he was working. His father, a rabbi, came from her mother’s village in Europe. Their first kiss is mentioned in the diary.

“Florence’s metropolis was a vast theater, like one of the lost wonders of the world. It was alive with writers, painters, playwrights and jazz. Ideas and art mattered. People rushed to the city because the mere thought of it burned a hole in their souls. My New York seemed out of tune, on its way to become a strip mall filled with Paris Hilton look-alikes,” Koppel writes.

When Koppel first visited Florence in her Westport, Conn., home, she found her “unexpectedly glamorous.” Florence greeted her and soon sat down to reread her words, pausing to read out loud lines like “Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven — I feel like a ripe apricot — I’m dizzy with the exotic.”

“You’ve brought back my life,” Florence told Koppel, and then wondered how she had led an ordinary life, rather than the creative endeavors she imagined.

These days, the two women get together every few weeks and have done appearances together in connection with the book, including the “Today” show. Koppel now sees Florence as a best friend, confidant, guide, the Jewish grandmother she never had.

Koppel asks, “How often do you get to know someone as a young woman and then meet them at 90?”

When I met Koppel in her lower Manhattan loft — she left the Upper West Side several years ago — she quoted lines from the diary with ease. A reclaimed trunk from the dumpster serves as a coffee table and two others are piled against a wall. She brings out the actual diary, a hand-sized book whose leather cover is peeling, its brass lock still in place. The pages — with five entries for each of five years on each page — speak of adventures, and now, represent a deep connection between two writers.

The diarist has outlived all the friends and lovers in the pages. Her husband died two years ago.

Florence wrote a lot for magazines early in her marriage and contributed the foreword to the book. There, she answers the question that immediately arises for readers: How does she feel, at 92, about having her intimate thoughts, once under lock and key, exposed to the public?

“Young Florence would have agreed that this is a positive. She would have said, ‘Go for it.’ It has been fun, it has added zest to my life, it has brought back some of the passions of my youth and made me feel more alive than I have in years. I am probably one of the most excited old women in the world.”

In a telephone interview, she said that when she first saw the diary again, she could hardly believe that she wrote it. Now, she really appreciates the respect she is garnering.

Before I left Koppel’s apartment, she pulled out a tangerine bouclĂ© coat with a flared skirt and a single Bakelite button, its Bergdorf Goodman label still intact, and slips it on. This vintage find from the dumpster looks brand new and fits as though it were made for her.

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

Local Team Solves Ancient Mystery


In 1979 two tiny pieces of cracked and deteriorated silver found in a tomb outside of the Old City of Jerusalem proved to be one of the most important archeological discoveries of the century.

The silver strips had Hebrew writing on them — albeit a very different-looking Hebrew to the one we know today — and the words spelled out the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord make his countenance shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his countenance to you and grant you peace.”

The strips, which were initially dated from the seventh or sixth century B.C.E., contained the earliest known citation of a text that is also found in the Bible (in this case, Numbers 6: 24-26).

But for years, researchers doubted whether the “Ketef Hinnom amulets” — named for the place where they were discovered — were actually from that period, which would make them 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. They believed that the silver strips could have been written not in an archaic script, but an archaistic script — in other words, written in a way that made them look older than they actually were. The rest of the writing on the strips had corroded away with the silver, so scholars couldn’t read it clearly. And they weren’t even sure if the strips were amulets, which were usually worn as a sort of spiritual protection, or something else. Those scholars dated the silver as coming from the third or fourth century B.C.E. If that were the case, the strips would have been a less-important discovery in establishing the ancientness of the Bible’s language.

Recently, a team of Southern California researchers from the USC School of Religion-affiliated West Semitic Research Project (WSRP), an organization that photographs ancient artifacts so that scholars all over the world can study them, rephotographed the amulets using innovative lighting techniques that revealed more of the writing on them. Then, using computer imagery to analyze the writing on the strips and compare it with other writings of the period, proved that they are archaic, not archaistic, and the oldest-known citation of a biblical text. The scholars dated the strips as coming from the period just before the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C.E., reestablishing the strips as, in words of one scholar, the “heavyweight champions of the [archeological] world.”

“We initially tried to photograph the objects conventionally, but it was clear that it was not going to work,” said Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, a professor of Semitic languages at USC, who is the project leader at WSRP.

Zuckerman explained that markings on the amulets were too small too be decipherable to the naked eye, which is why many photographs taken from different angles were needed to properly study them.

“We took picture in contrasting lights, then we would match them and superimpose them one on top of the other,” he said, referring to the way that some of the letters were visible from one angle, but not from another.

Zuckerman and his colleagues, Dr. Marilyn Lundberg of the WSRP and Dr. Andrew Vaughn, a biblical historian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, also used a computer imaging technique they called “patching,” which took a piece of the writing that had been misaligned by the cracked silver and “patched” it into the place it was meant to be. They also studied similar writings from the period, which enabled them to recognize letters that were no longer whole, due to the age of the silver.

The team was able to decipher the preamble to the priestly blessing on the amulets, which read: “May he [or she] be blessed by God, the rescuer and the rebuker of evil.”

“It tells you without question that you are dealing with an amulet,” Zuckerman said. “And we were able to do a close comparison with equivalent inscriptions from that period and from the later periods. Basically, we believe that we decisively proved that what had originally been proposed was correct, these are the earliest citation of a biblical text. It reestablishes them as the heavyweight champions of the world.”

The scholars also worked with Dr. Gabriel Barkay, the archeologist at Bar Ilan University in Israel who discovered the amulets. Together they published their research in a CD form, in The Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research. Academic articles are traditionally published in paper journals, but the CD, which was published with the assistance of the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC, enabled the scholars to publish the photographs they took, as well as the digital imaging techniques, so that other scholars could assess them.

“It is really important to me that our common Jewish heritage is more fully explored — and when I say our common Jewish heritage, I don’t mean just for Jews,” Zuckerman said. “The Jewish heritage lies at the base of the great religions, and when one makes a small discovery like this, we’re doing something to further clarify the origins of the great religions.”

For more information on the project, visit www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/wsrp.

+