Can you find new life from an old diary?
That's the question New York Times writer Lily Koppel asked when she uncovered a long-abandoned red leather diary in the trash outside her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
That discovery led the twentysomething Koppel on a journey that would change not only her life but also the life of the diary's author. After reading five years of daily entries detailing exotic Manhattan life from 1929 to 1934—all through the eyes of a sophisticated 15-year-old girl who blossoms into a creative, passionate young woman—Koppel put her reporting skills to work: Where was the diary's author? How had her life turned out? Was she still alive? If found, would she welcome such a detailed, open-hearted, and revealing reminder of her impetuous youth from more than 70 years earlier?
In 2006, aided by a private investigator, Koppel reunited the diary with its diarist, Florence Wolfson Howitt. The smart, witty, aspiring, and adventurous teenager whose dreams could have filled Central Park was now a 90-year-old surgeon's wife splitting her time between Connecticut and Florida.
Combining verbatim diary entries with revealing conversations between the two women, this memoir of youth recaptured reads like a novel. The older woman places each entry in clarifying and often wistful context as the younger woman reconsiders her own life in relation to the vitality and wisdom she encounters.
With a mother who objected to her daughter's independent spirit but didn't stop it, and a distant but wealthy father who made sure his daughter never lacked financial wherewithal, Wolfson was able to make New York City her playground. At times her descriptions of life in New York evoke the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and E. L. Doctorow, particularly The Great Gatsby and Ragtime. The reader gets a front-row seat to the most exciting people and places of Depression-era New York—which was anything but depressed for Wolfson, who relished her teenage life on the literary and artistic stomping ground of the Upper West Side.
Koppel's love of their shared home neighborhood comes through loud and clear via vivid descriptions that bring it to life as if it were a mythical salon for Manhattan intelligentsia—which, in many ways, it still is. (It's a fitting flourish to the beginning of this story that Wolfson's trashed diary was found in a plastic bag from Zabar's, the Upper West Side's legendary gourmet emporium.)
But Wolfson's playground extended from the Upper West Side across all of New York City. On Sundays she spent hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, absorbing images while confiding her dreams to paper. She frequented the renowned tea room Schrafft's and was a regular at the glamorous nightclub El Morocco. She flirted like mad with writers and musicians, never seemed to lack for dates, shopped at fashionable stores, obsessed over the theater and its stars, and read everything in sight.
"There's so much to do—music, art, books, people," Wolfson notes in one entry. "Can one absorb it all?"
Clearly, she tried. In another entry she writes: "Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven—I feel like a ripe apricot—I'm dizzy with the exotic. Like an old maid yearning for love—love!" This from a 15-year-old girl!
Though focused on the business of living a big life, Wolfson was self-aware about the follies and timeless aspects of her youth. "Had an amusing day writing my novel. You didn't know I was writing one did you—but what adolescent is an adolescent without a novel?" This kind of commentary gives the book poignancy, as the older and wiser Florence looks back at her younger self.
In some ways a typical teen—she was in love with love, yet continually frustrated by what she felt were the shackles of her conservative mother—Wolfson reflects on the important relationships in her life. Married for 67 years to a wonderful man whose debut in her life is captured in the diary's pages, Wolfson recalls the wildly passionate feelings she and her husband shared back then, as they now face his impending death. Reading about her mother, who objected to her wild spirit and just about everything else about her, makes her sad. She wonders if things could have been different if they'd learned to communicate.
At times, confronting all aspects of her life—happy times, unfulfilled dreams, and devastating moments—is quite hard for Wolfson. The diary forces her to reconcile herself to specific ambitions that many of us might have forgotten by age 90. She wonders what she's done with her life, much of which was lived as a surgeon's wife, certainly quieter than in her teen years.
But for the most part Wolfson is thrilled and unafraid to connect with the girl inside. Yes, she wonders what happened to the eager, searching girl she'd once been. She acknowledges it might be too late to climb Mt. Everest. But she reconnects to a passion for the many things she can and will do with her time left. Ultimately, that is the book's greatest message.
In one especially powerful passage she speaks of age as a state of mind: "I never felt old. I always felt like a neophyte. Isn't that interesting? I always felt like the young one." In another she reveals that her diary helped her come to terms with herself. "I'm much happier now than I was a few years ago when I wasn't very true to myself," she reflects. "I had a country-club mentality…and I'm through with that now. I am what I am, who I am, what I was when I wrote this."
Wolfson wrote her last diary entry on August 10, 1934. It was a wistful entry about how she'd grown in five years. Seventy years later she has lived a full life but thinks she was too "country-clubby," focused too much on being a doctor's wife and not enough on her personal dreams. Lily Koppel writes, "If Florence kept a diary today, she might write, 'August 11, 2007, My 92nd birthday. Small family party. Studying Buddhism—taking a life drawing class.' "
In the end, it's a story of not one but two women finding a timeless connection between generations. The diary discovery led to conversations, which sparked a friendship between the two women that endures to this day. It inspired the much-younger Koppel to value authenticity and, in her words, "search for treasure every day, on the street, in my writing, in people and all aspects of my life."
The Red Leather Diary reminds readers of all ages that it's never too late to rediscover who you want to be.
Dave Singleton works for AARP Publications and is the author of two books. Reading The Red Leather Diary inspired him to revisit some of his own journal entries from 20 years ago.