November 15, 2019

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 bouclé 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.