Monday, April 14th, 2008
Four years ago, Lily Koppel, a young reporter for the New York TimesMetro desk, walked out of her Upper West Side apartment building to find a Dumpster on the curb. The Dumpster overflowed with at least fifty old steamer trunks—detritus from the building’s basement, waiting to be carted away by city workers. The promise of found treasure was irresistible, and Koppel climbed inside. Among the clothes and shoes and photographs, she found the key to her first book, The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal.
Nestled inside one of the trunks was a crumbling diary. Koppel opened it and entered the world of a Manhattan teenage girl. For five years, from her 14th birthday in 1929 until 1934, Florence Wolfson diligently recorded her life: her fierce desire to become a writer and artist; her seemingly endless fascination with New York, art, music and ideas; her quest for love and understanding from both women and men.
Three years after Koppel found Florence Wolfson’s diary, she found Wolfson herself, now a 90-year-old grandmother. Koppel returned the diary, sparking an intense friendship, a New York Times City section piece, and now, a gorgeous book, The Red Leather Diary. Alongside Wolfson’s short entries—amazing artifacts from a lost New York by themselves; Wolfson is a complex and fascinatingly independent and ambitious woman—Koppel recreates Wolfson’s life as a young woman in search of herself. (Read an excerpt here.)
The book is such an incredible account of everyday life in upper class 1930’s New York, but what’s more incredible is Florence: her intellectual curiosity, artistic pursuits and desire to break the rules. Her entries beautifully capture that adolescent and post-adolescent feeling of knowing you’re so full of promise—the layered experience of knowing you’re capable of creating something wonderful, immediately followed by a slight anxiety and regret that you haven’t yet. And at the time that you found the diary, you were grappling with the same kind of thing as a young New York Times reporter.
Yes. Just to stumble into a dumpster full of old steamer trunks and to climb in and feel like you’re entering into this woman’s life, this message in a bottle – it would’ve been fascinating to me no matter what, just because I love that kind of thing. But then to have the content completely relate to your own life as a young writer living in New York, someone who has ambitions to create something lasting and of beauty. It was spooky, even, and miraculous in its own way. I’m still sometimes flabbergasted by it: How did I end up with this?
What was your emotional reaction when you first read her diary?
It was almost like I was in love with her, in a platonic way. I thought, this is an absolutely amazing woman. The nature of writing in a diary is that you really feel like you are, almost, that person. You enter into their most personal emotions.
Florence has an entry: “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!” That was something I could relate to—being overwhelmed by art and inspired to create something of your own.
From the beginning I really thought of the diary as a work of art, something that deserved not to be hidden, but revealed to the world.
You found the steamer trunks, wrote the first Times piece, and then put the diary aside for three years?
I read it the night that I got it, but I didn’t really put it aside. It was this magical thing that I’d found, and I felt like it was my little piece of an older New York, one that we all romanticize when we move to this city, with this Holly Golightly element.
I never lost enthusiasm for it; I just didn’t know how to go about finding Florence. I’d done Nexis searches and made several calls, but it never went anywhere. A few years later—I had this beat where I covered the old characters of New York—I received this chance call from a private investigator, also a lover of old New York, and we ended up meeting at a steakhouse. I showed him the diary, and he was just as intrigued with Florence. He ended up finding her.
What was the process of turning the article into a book?
When I first found her, I was just planning on returning the diary to her. But she was so excited when I first called her. One of the first things she said was, “You know, I was a writer, too.” We both kind of came up with the idea that it would be a great article. After it ran, I had so much material: this three-ring-binder of information. And I had Florence herself, and she had shoeboxes of photos and is so eloquent – it wasn’t hard to think that this would be a great book.
The diary itself won’t last forever; it’s a bit like an hourglass, and the sand is disappearing. Every time you open the diary, a little piece crumbles off.
The bulk of the book is the diary itself—entries that are then followed by your reportage. Why did you choose that method, rather than stringing them together in some kind of cohesive narrative?
I was very intrigued by the whole notion of what a diary is. It’s very much in the spirit of SMITH Magazine: everybody has a story to tell. I wanted that spirit to be conveyed through the writing of the book, to start with me finding this object, and being drawn into Florence’s world.
You meet Florence as this lovely young woman and she grows more and more complex. I tried to tell the story behind the entries, but to really allow her own voice to give meaning to her life and her story.
Your reportage is full of minute detail: someone arches an eyebrow or shifts in their seat. How did you recreate these stories?
Florence and I talked in-depth about her life: Florence picked out entries that she thought were significant and we’d talk about them. All last summer I went to her home in Westport, where she lives in the summer, and usually had my tape recorder on for some of the afternoon. We’d talk for about 5 hours or so. At the beginning she’d say, “How do you expect me to remember this?” But it was just like warming up —with the entries, a tremendous amount came back to her. I also got in touch with all of the surviving family members of friends of hers—none of her friends were still living.
One of the other similarities between me and Florence is that we’re both writes and painters, and I think we have a real visual sensibility. Images and color are very important to me. Unless I can see it, I almost can’t write it. We relied on photos. I’d say, “What exactly did your childhood bedroom look like?” And she’d say, “You can’t expect me to remember that!” I’d say, “Well, was the bedspread a certain color?” Then I’d find a photo of her bedroom.
As teenagers we grapple with these conflicting and equally strong impulses, both to connect, to be accepted, and to express ourselves. Florence had no qualms about that—she wore riding clothes to school, had relationships with women, wandered around New York on her own. So it’s a bit shocking to the reader when we realize that she ends up with a more conventional life than she had as a teenager. When you found her, were you disappointed that she didn’t turn out to be an influential writer or artist?
Not really, although I thought that I was going to meet an artist: I had this scenario in my mind of going to some woman’s studio on the Upper West Side. And Florence did have a career as a writer in the 1940s, writing these feminist-tinged articles.
I think she harbors regrets about her life. She’s said, How did I end up living this ordinary life? It’s something she’s repeated throughout our time knowing each other. But in the end, I felt that the diary was a real work of art and a testament to her power as a writer. Just the very feeling of wanting to create something—it was depicted so beautifully in her diary that, in a way, that becomes her lasting work.
It’s not that she totally gave up on her younger self: I think that part of her is still there and has been reawakened by being reunited with her diary. But I think the atmosphere at the time—it was just very difficult to resist getting married and living the life that her parents expected of her with every cell of their bodies, why they had come to America and worked so hard.
Florence is having a renaissance, almost: she’s coming to New York in April, and we’re speaking at the National Arts Club and the library, and they’re doing a panel at Hunter, and she’s so excited. That sentiment—How did I end up leading such an ordinary life?—is going to be overturned somewhat. It’s a really redemptive story in a way. Here’s this young woman, recording her life from 1929 to 1934, and she has no idea that someone’s going to come along 75 years later and see her for who she is and who she wanted to become.