Sunday, August 31, 2008

49. The Red Leather Diary

by Lily Koppel

Subtitled “Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal,” this book should list as co-author the diary’s writer, Florence Wolfson Howitt, who is still alive and well at age 93. Florence received a “Mile Stones Five Year Diary” for her 14th birthday on August 11, 1929, and continued to write four lines faithfully every day through August 10, 1934, the day before she turned 19. It’s a fascinating look at the life of the gifted daughter of a Yiddish doctor and a couture dressmaker in New York City.

Lily Koppel was a young New York Times reporter when the diary was found in October 2003 in a dumpster outside her apartment building, saved by the doorman from numerous unclaimed trunks in the building’s storage area. With the help of a lawyer/private investigator, Koppel tracked down the owner now living in Connecticut and Florida. Koppel combines research on New York City in that period with interviews of Howitt and others, as well as excerpts from the diary. She weaves a fascinating true tale about a precocious young woman who starts college at age 15, wants to be a writer and artist, and falls in love with both men and women. The non-fiction book is heavily illustrated with photographs, mostly from Howitt’s albums.

I loved this book! I think it’s mostly because I had a similar five-year diary at a comparable age, although I could never confine myself to just four lines per day, and thus I wrote longer journal entries at infrequent intervals, eventually continuing my diary/journal in two spiral notebooks. (I admire Howitt for managing to be so succinct yet detailed in her brief entries.) Alas, I threw them all away before my marriage to my first husband in 1983, not wanting him to read what I’d written about previous loves. That of course included Breathless, the love of my life. I’d give anything to have those journals today (especially since Breathless is so good at remembering our past and I’m so bad), but they’re not likely to be recovered from a landfill.

My only gripe with the book is that Koppel uses excerpts from the diary without any dates. I would have liked to have known exactly when particular entries were made. Also, the back-cover blurb on the hardbound edition is misleading: it includes supposed entries from September 2 and October 12, 1934, which would have been beyond the five-year period the diary covered.

For more information on the book and the diary behind it, see

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