A young reporter learned what the phrase “sex and the city” used to mean when she set out to find the owner of a red leather diary that turned up in a Dumpster at 82d Street and Riverside Drive
The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal. By Lily Koppel. Foreword by Florence Howitt. HarperCollins, 321 pp., $23.95.
By Janice Harayda
One of Florence Wolfson’s high school teachers sent a note to her parents saying that she had an unhealthy need for attention. Lily Koppel never says so directly, but the comment seems to have meant: Your daughter believes she deserves as much attention as a boy. It is this quality above all that gives piquancy to the teenage journal that Wolfson kept from 1929–1934, then abandoned.
Koppel was a 22-year-old reporter when the red leather diary turned up in a Dumpster at an apartment building at 82d Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan. With the help of a private detective, she tracked down its author, who was in her 90s and living in Connecticut and Florida. Florence Wolfson Howitt told her that she had married an oral surgeon, raised two daughters and developed – to her regret – “a country-club mentality” at odds with her youthful independence and ambition.
But she agreed to cooperate on The Red Leather Diary, a book that intersperses excerpts from her diary with Koppel’s reporting on its era. Koppel evokes capably a time when Mr. Kool, a penguin in a top hat in Times Square, promised that “even if you cough like crazy, Kools still taste fresh as a daisy.” But this book belongs to the young Florence Wolfson, who kept her diary between the ages of 14 and 19. Wolfson emerges from its entries and photographs as brainy, perceptive, beautiful and, for the Depression, rich. She had a gift for attracting men and women, whether she was touring Europe or vacationing in the Catskills or holding a salon for the poet Delmore Schwartz and others in her parents’ Upper East Side apartment. More unusually for a woman of her era, she claimed right to enjoy the benefits of her appeal: She had affairs with women at Hunter College and in Italty with a man who claimed to be a count.
“Reading ‘Hedda Gabler’ for the tenth time,” Florence writes in one entry. “An interview with Bruno Walter – a vigorous, intense man whose sincerity & love for music are so creative – made me feel degenerate,” she says in another entry, made while she was working on the Hunter literary magazine. “I know now that obscurity for me is disastrous – Have not the respect for people which flatters them and believe implicitly in the superiority of my taste,” she says in a third. “Result – conflict.”
Koppel doesn’t probe too deeply into how Wolfson made peace with the obscurity that nonetheless found her when, after a period as a freelance writer, she seems to have made her husband and children her career. And Koppel writes at times in a gee-whiz tone that makes her appear less worldly her subject was at a similar age.
In a sense, that’s the point of The Red Leather Diary — few young women are as as worldly. Wolfson laments to Koppel that people don’t “think and live philosophy” anymore. “I can’t imagine my grandchild or great-grandchild or anyone writing this,” she says of her diary.
The comment rings true. Wolfson’s sense of herself didn’t go underground in adolescence, as Mary Pipher has said that it does for many girls, despite her parents’ belief that her main task was to find a rich husband. The Red Leather Diary leaves you with the sense that if Ophelia was revived in Florence’s life, she was revived not during her teenage years but during her marriage. It also suggests that work on this book helped to restore her feeling of independence. How nice to know that, for a certain kind of woman, it’s never to late to put Ophelia to rest.
Best line: From Wolfson’s teenage diary: “To Gertrude’s tonight and met boys who shocked me into respect – brilliant, thoughtful, gentle and mentally fastidious – the conversation sometimes oppressed me – it was too logical.” Gertrude is Wolfson’s friend Gertrude Buckman, who married the poet Delmore Schwartz.
Worst line: Koppel says that when Wolfson began graduate school at Columbia University, “St. John the Divine was on its way to becoming the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.” Gothic cathedrals were built during the Middle Ages. St. John the Divine is Gothic Revival, an architectural style also called neo-Gothic. Koppel also reports that Wolfson tried on coats “in one of the shops on Princess Street” in Edinburgh when she appears to mean Princes Street.
Editor: Claire Wachtel
Published: April 2008
Read an excerpt at: www.redleatherdiary.com
Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. You can read more of her comments on books and life by searching for “Janice Harayda” on Twitter www.twitter.com or subscribing to her Twitter feed.
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© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.