Monday, May 5, 2008

The Red Leather Diary

Lily Koppel. The Red Leather Diary. New York. Harper. 2008. $23.95.

As a teenager, Florence Wolfson (now Howitt) kept a Mile Stones Five Year Diary from 1929 to 1934. She began on her birthday, four lines a day: "This is my first entry in this beautiful diary 'cause today I'm fourteen years old!"

The Red Leather Diary is a book of three stories: of Florence Wolfson's early life, of the unlikely events that reunited writer and diary in 2006, and of the poignant encounter between the diarist (who turns 93 later this year) and her younger self. Wolfson grew up in Manhattan, the child of a doctor and dress designer. She skipped three grades, was rejected by Barnard ("Too brilliant and individual"), studied at Hunter, and did an M.A. in English at Columbia. She appears in her diary entries as a young woman of tremendous energy and imagination, intellectually and sexually precocious, devoted to art, literature, and music, loving both men and women:

The museum all day — then Molière and again those damned études — it irritates me to practice them, but I cannot stop — what provoking technique — so tricky.

I went to see "Hedda Gabler" straight from school. It was marvelous.

Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven — I feel like a ripe apricot — I'm dizzy with the exotic.

Nat finally kissed me! It was pretty bad, but he was so utterly delightful about it that I didn't care. He's sweet.

She is so sympathetically identical — Why are not men like her?
Koppel, a New York Times reporter whose doorman retrieved the diary from a dumpster and gave it to her, provides choice bits of detail to put us in touch with the lost New York of Wolfson's youth. Koppel's account of finding Florence Howitt is pure serendipity, involving a typewriter repair shop and an investigative attorney with a collection of vintage phonebooks. And Florence Howitt's encounter with Florence Wolfson involves the reckoning we all must make as our dreams run up against circumstance: "I don't feel like a heroine in my own life," Howitt tells Koppel, "but I have to tell you, I've come to terms with myself."

One reservation: I've quoted the diary entries above as they appear in the book. But here is the third, as seen in the New York Times slideshow about the diary:

Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven & music & Huysmans — I feel like a ripe apricot — I'm dizzy with the exotic
Yes, music is redundant, and Huysmans not a household name, but diary entries don't seem fair game for this kind of editing. Does it run throughout the book?

And if you're wondering — yes, there's already talk of a movie.

The Red Leather Diary (HarperCollins)
Speak, Memory (New York Times article)
Speak, Memory (New York Times slideshow)

comments: 1

Geo-B said...

Honestly, just last week I ordered a 5 year diary from Amazon ($ 24.95 marked down to $ 16.47, by Tamara Shopsin, I don't know what her part was in it). I feel like such a 14 year old girl.yqjalgc