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Lily Koppel's The Red Leather Diary

An online exclusive review

(Harper)

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008


The Red Leather Diary
By Lily Koppel
(Harper)

Reviewed by Brian Berger

Florence Wolfson was a remarkable young lady. From 1929 through 1934, the teenage Manhattan resident recorded the events of her life in the journal from which Lily Koppel’s book takes its name. It’s a nice story: In October 2003, a plucky 22-year-old New York Times news assistant notices some old trunks being cleared out from the basement of her Upper West Side apartment building. Claimed from the detritus is a diary belonging to one of building’s previous residents. For five years, its author didn’t miss a single day. After a period of wonder — and key assistance from a lawyer skilled in finding missing persons — Koppel makes contact with now octogenarian Florence Howitt, nee Wolfson. Surprised to be discovered this way, Florence was excited, too. The Red Leather Diary is the result of her and Koppel’s combined enthusiasm.

Despite the book’s title, this isn’t a diary, per se. Rather, the diary’s contents are drawn upon to craft both Florence Wolfson’s biography and — thanks to Florence’s intellectual precocity — a thrilling cultural history as seen from the affluent side of Depression-era New York. When the diary begins, the Wolfsons live in Harlem. Florence’s father is a doctor, her mother a successful dressmaker. Cold and argumentative, it’s Eglin, the family’s live-in Jamaican housekeeper, whom Florence is closest to. While noting her parents “lost everything” following the October 29, 1929 stock market crash, Florence is apolitical and wants for little materially (she’s always at shows, studies classical piano, owns a Leica camera). A couple years later, the family moves to Manhattan’s most expensive neighborhood, the Upper East Side.

The Wolfson family saga isn’t especially unique, although its stories of summers spent out in Rockaway, Queens — still a popular in-city vacation spot then — and in the Jewish camps and resorts of the Catskills are entertaining. Indeed, the story of the South Wind Hotel in Woodborne, New York is more than that. Koppel deadpans it was a “full service resort” and the licentious are to be commended for readin’ dirty. “With their men away, the women were free to take full advantage of the help,” Koppel writes, “slipping the boys their keys. This was the unwritten code of a Catskill vacation. For the summer, these ordinary housewives were undomesticated.” Whether or not their husbands knew, or disapproved, this adds all sorts of amazing context to Henny Youngman’s signature line, “Take my wife, please.”

Florence Wolfson’s own love life is engagingly split between bodily passions and an active life of the mind. In perhaps the book’s most surprising revelations, the two combine in the great actor, Eva Le Gallienne, sixteen years Florence’s senior. Alas, despite Florence having seen Le Gallienne’s Hedda Gabbler 10 times, her advances are rebuffed, although Le Galliene does give her a signed photo and a spot in a Civic Repertory Theater acting class. Although Koppel offers some background on the lesbianism of Le Gallienne and notes Florence had acquired Natalie Barney’s scandalous 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, it seems an opportunity lost Koppel didn’t ask Florence what she knew of other important women in that circle, like Berenice Abbott and Djuna Barnes, whose satirical Ladies Almanack was also published in 1928.

While not the book’s only regret — some of the New York history is potted and there are other instances knowing readers will wish for more context — Koppel is a respectable narrator. Florence went to college: First Hunter, then Barnard, where she studied with art historian Meyer Schapiro, critic Mark Van Doren and was part of a libidinous salon which included both Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman. Upon graduation, Florence travels to Europe, has affairs, returns to New York, writes for women’s magazines and finally marries dentist Nat Howitt, whom she had met in the Catskills years before. If the rest of Florence’s life — and her 67 years of marriage to Nat — were perhaps not as engaging as her youth, there are reasons, ones she’s unafraid to share with Koppel.

Ninety-two years old as this review goes to press, the last words deserve to be Florence Howitt’s own: “And how did I feel about so many intimate thoughts and acts on pulic display? Here’s how I felt… I am fighting to keep my fingers in the pie of life. Young Florence would have agreed that this is a positive… It has been fun, it has added zest to my life and made me feel more alive than I have in years. I am probably one of the most excited old woman in the world.”

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