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Review: The Red Leather Diary, by Lily Koppel

In 2003, a young journalist for the New York Times named Lily Koppel discovers the diary of Florence Wolfson, age 14, in a discarded steamer trunk on the Upper West Side. Investigation leads her to find out that Florence is still living. Upon visiting the 90-year-old, Florence tells Lily her story, of growing up in New York in the 192os and ‘30s. Florence grew up in an affluent Jewish family, and kept the diary for five years, from age 14 to 19. She was an active writer and artist. Florence attended a private girls’ school and then Hunter College (then all women and now co-ed and part of the CUNY system), where she was active in the college literary magazine. Along the way she experimented with same-sex relationships and agonized over the behavior of boys, eventually marrying a childhood friend.

It seems like your typical coming-of-age story, except for the fact that Florence’s is very much of the place and era she grew up in. Little facts about New York City are revealed: for example, for thirty years, there were little statues of Mercury mounted on top of all the stoplights in the city. That was one of the biggest draws of this book. Florence had a pretty average New York City childhood, all things considered; and adding in those little bits of arcane trivia really spiced things up for me.

There were a couple of problems I had with this book: first, Koppel spends an inordinate amount of time bragging about her accomplishments. The story is ultimately Florence’s, and Lily talking about, say, a story she did once detracts from that. Koppel’s prose seemed a little bit purpled and hackneyed; she also tries to make generalizations about the New York of today that ultimately don’t ring true. All New Yorkers have a certain fondness for the city, but pretty much everything you can say about New York has already been said. Also, I thought the book would have been better if Florence had actually written it herself. She’s a writer, so why not?


Nicole said…
Hmm, doesn't sound too great. Thanks for the review.
So is this non-fiction or fiction?
Wendy said…
JULY 2008
I have seen Lily Koppel's unusual title The Red Leather Diary described as little more than a voyeuristic romp through the 1930s adventures of upper middle class single girl Florence Wolfson, and on a very surface level that is true, but it is also very lazy. Koppel did find Wolfson's diary and then constructed an article in The New York Times around her fascination with teenage Florence and their eventual meeting. But in writing the book Koppel went far beyond a recitation of Wolfson's life and provides an enormous amount of background about the people and places Wolfson knew in the city. Ultimately she has crafted a love letter to New York itself, with young Florence as an exceptionally witty guide. The final chapters with Florence and her husband (who we meet initially through the diary's pages) are particularly poignant, and raise all manner of questions about what it means to have a life well lived. But first there is the discovery which brings Koppel into the story.

The diary is discovered in the basement cleaning of the apartment building where Koppel lives. She finds herself literally diving into a dumpster, a treasure trove of old clothes, books and letters. (She is not the only one that morning who is willing to sacrifice clean clothes to root through old trunks and boxes.) Florence Wolfson's diary with its traditional red leather cover seems at first to be the story of a doctor and dress-maker's fourteen-year old daughter who lives on the fringes of the city's society but enjoys a great deal of intellectual freedom. Florence is a theater nut, especially for the work of Eva Le Gallienne. She records her rhapsodic experiences seeing the lesbian actress on stage (and even meeting her), and Koppel fills out the narrative with insight into Gallienne's life and performances. This pattern of Florence leading Koppel (and the reader) around New York is maintained throughout the book, turning the narrative into a social history of the city as much as a personal exposition. Florence falls in and out of love (with both young men and young women) but her feelings for New York never waver. I hesitate to refer to her as a pre-war Carrie Bradshaw, but in a way the comparison is solid. Florence is smart and curious and also consumed with thoughts of love and fashion. At fifteen she is denied entrance to Barnard on the grounds she is "too brilliant and individual." The rejection does not seem a negative moment for her; "I'll never learn discretion -- never," she writes. The rules -- any of them -- do not appeal to Florence in the least. This makes her the quintessential New Yorker and quickly someone Koppel can not forget.

From summers in the Catskills where the young men, as evidenced by the accompanying photographs, are appropriately well muscled, to classes at Hunter College, Florence dances her way through intense relationships and intellectual pursuits all of whom threaten to consume her just as they baffle her conventional parents. She became editor of Hunter's literary journal the Echo, "Hunter's most prestigious position for a student." She uses the locked office for her first shattering sexual experience, with a girlfriend, but finds herself at odds with her mother who is less than pleased with her bisexual tendencies. "Mother" begins to set Florence up on dates with young men, something that chills the teenager. But she can only be who she is and continues to fall into relationships with a healthy abandon. Florence is an incredibly passionate young woman and society's conventions are hardly something she concerns herself with.

Koppel charts the rise and fall of Florence's romances in an orderly manner just as she guides readers through her successful college years and establishment of a rollicking salon upon graduation from Hunter and enrollment in the Columbia graduate English program. The people Florence surrounded herself with were just as dedicated to pursuing life and the arts with passion as she was and Koppel introduces each of them providing readers with stories not only about their involvement in the salon but what became of them in the decades that followed. As always, New York was positively teeming with creative brilliance in the 1930s and it is almost as if Florence and her friends were aching to change the world but could not figure out how to do it. They spent a lot of time talking and planning and raging against the world of their parents but did not seem to know how to frame real change in their own lives. Florence did successfully petition her parents for a tour of Europe, something she was convinced would bring her knowledge and experience critical to her writing career. There was more romance, more outrageous and enthralling experiences but then, upon her return, the trail ends. Koppel found herself left with the story of a young woman who seemed bent on transforming the world to her own vision but then disappeared into history. Driven to discover anything more she could about Florence's life she hired an investigator to find her and amazingly he did. She turned out to be thrilled to rediscover her diary and more than happy to share the rest of her life's story with Lily Koppel.

I won't spoil the ending by revealing just what became of Florence after the overseas trip but if anything she becomes an even more interesting figure in the compromises she found between her own drive and what family and society demanded. By taking her diary and surrounding it with so much historical detail Koppel shows how one single figure from a city's past can frame a large scale social history that in its narrowness -- that of a young woman of a specific class, ethnicity and location -- can still be epic in scope. America's identity is found in stories like this; in all of Florence's determination, frustration, selfishness and sheer chutzpah. She is an irresistible lure to those who wonder about the story beneath the story; about the energy that keeps a city growing behind the rich and famous. Florence Wolfson did not become anyone we have ever heard of but her life is one worth noting for a thousand different reasons, not the least of which because there is so much here in which we can learn about ourselves and each other, and so many secrets that will propel our own truths to come out into the light.

I found The Red Leather Diary compelling and compulsive reading. The parts about old New York were riveting in their own right, but with Florence as a guide I saw so much more of what youthful idealism can accomplish, and I wondered just why we always seem to work so hard to quash that; why growing up to security and social station must always be the goal. "Where did all that creativity go?" Florence asks when Koppel returns the diary. "If I was true to myself, would I have ended up living this ordinary life?"

The significance of one life is what Koppel reveals in this biography/social history/memoir. Her search for Florence, and the great appeal young Florence presents, is a story lying in the midst of so many other stories and questions and explorations that the resulting book seems to cascade in a dozen different directions. What can you find in an old trunk in a dumpster, Koppel asks, that could change your own life? The answer is a single world in a book; all the hopes and dreams of a vibrant young woman lost in a long forgotten diary that in the end will likely be more valuable to Koppel's readers today then it ever was to the divine Florence Wolfson.

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