22 November 2008

Book: Rummaging in the trunks of life

Philadelphia's Jewish Exponent offered a great story by Robert Leiter on what can be found if one only takes the time to look. "Dear, Dear Diary," is the story of a chance discovery revealing a vibrant life.

Lily Koppel was a young reporter working at The New York Times and living at 98 Riverside Drive, when one morning in the fall of 2003 she found a large red Dumpster firmly planted outside her apartment house, brimming with old steamer trunks. Though Koppel was late for her job on the Metro desk, she was struck by an impulse that nothing else mattered but discovering what was inside the trunks. She assumed they wouldn't be around for long, so she pulled her hair back in a ponytail, hoisted herself up into the Dumpster and dove in.

She soon discovered why these "treasures" were being disposed of: The management at 98 Riverside Drive had decided to expand the bike room in the basement, and all unclaimed tenant storage, some of it dating back to the early years of the 20th century, was being ditched. Koppel rooted in that Dumpster until dusk began to settle around her.

One of the doormen had already found a young woman's diary and knew Koppel would be interested. It had belonged to Florence Wolfson, and it would be the basis for "The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal" (Harper).

Amazingly, Koppel tracks down Florence, 90. She kept the diary as a teenager from 1929-1934, with some 2,000 entries recording meeting friends for tea, nightclubbing, dancing, shopping, teen gossip, fashion, plays, exhibits and music.

After three years wondering about the diary's writer, she received a call from a lawyer who specialized in tracking missing persons. Koppel discussed the diary with him, and after a few weeks of investigation, Florence Wolfson was found in Westport, Connecticut, with her longtime husband, Nathan Howitt, who appeared as "Nat" in many diary entries.

Reading what she'd written -- it was begun when she was just 14 -- the elder Florence was amazed by the young girl she'd once been. She told Koppel that she'd brought back her life. And so, with the help of the original diarist, Koppel fleshed out Florence Wolfson's story until it became The Red Leather Dairy.

Writes Leiter, "The book is filled with the surprise and wonder of stumbling upon another person's life -- one that was eventful and filled with detail. Even famous people pop up now and again."

No matter its faults, what keeps you reading The Red Leather Diary is the mystery at the heart of Wolfson's life: How did this rambunctious young woman, filled with artistic passion -- and others, as well -- become the long-married, 90-year-old that the author eventually found? Koppel reveals some of the answers -- those she was able to unearth -- though not until the very end of the tale. But you'll just have to read about them yourself.

Read the complete story at the link above.

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