“Mile Stones Five Year Diary” was written in gold letters across the book’s worn cover. 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. “This book belongs to…Florence Wolfson.” – from The Red Leather Diary, page 13 –
In 2003, journalist Lily Koppel exited her apartment at 98 Riverside Drive in New York and was surprised to see more than fifty trunks and valises from a bygone era piled high in a red dumpster. Intrigued, she climbed up and began excavating. Amid relics from the 1920s and 30s, stored within the confines of a forgotten trunk, was a small red leather diary written by a young girl. This discovery would not only change the course of Koppel’s life, but would open up the long forgotten world of Florence Wolfson – a precocious and passionate young woman who dreamed of a literary life and sought love while growing up in New York City. Born in 1915, Florence Wolfson came of age during Prohibition, the Depression and WWII. She was raised by Jewish immigrant parents who worked their way up to Manhattan’s fashionable neighborhoods. Florence’s voice within the pages of her diary drew Koppel to her. Here was a young girl who was highly intelligent, ahead of her time and driven to live life to its fullest.
The Red Leather Diary combines diary entries with narrative developed from interviews Koppel had with ninety year old Florence…who she located with help from a private investigator three years after discovering the diary. The book gives the reader a glimpse into the thoughts and dreams of a privileged girl who excelled in music, art and writing. It is also filled with teenage passion and drama as Florence discovers love with both boys and girls. Florence Wolfson started a literary salon (a novel idea) in 1934 which included famous poets John Berryman and Delmore Schwartz; and she traveled alone to Europe in 1936, on the cusp of WWII. Koppel captures the life of this enigmatic and strongly independent young woman perfectly.
But the book is not just about Florence – it is also about its author who arrived in New York City at the age of 22 seeking to make her own mark in the world. In an interview at the end of the book, Lily Koppel writes:
When I moved to New York, like every young person drawn to the big city, my quest echoed Florence’s: I was seeking love, meaning in my life, and, as a writer, a story.
Koppel’s discovery inflamed her imagination. When she finally was able to meet Florence Wolfson face to face, an immediate friendship formed – a unique connection between a young woman at the beginning of her life and an older woman looking back on her youth.
How do you feel when a forgotten chunk of your life, full of adolescent angst and passion, is handed to you? How do you feel when you see your striving, feeling, immature self through your now elderly eyes? It stopped my heart for a moment. That was me? – written by Florence (Wolfson) Howitt, September 3, 2007 –
I read straight through The Red Leather Diary, finding myself immersed in a time long gone through the words of a girl who wanted to live in the center of it all. Koppel has written a marvelous book that tugs at the reader’s imagination.