A Full Life, Reclaimed
Trash to charming, historical treasure
by Suzi Steffen
Want to feel closer to someone in today’s world? Read his Facebook updates or check her blog posts. Want to feel closer to someone from the past? Get inside her diary.
Reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries, anyone intimidated by the prose of To the Lighthouse or The Waves can fall for her sharp, concise commentary on supposed friends and her vulnerability both in writing and in life. And diaries, like that of Samuel Pepys, reveal far more than the mind of the author; historians scan them for information about a time and place distant from our own. So it was with Lily Koppel, a young New York Times reporter who fished a crumbling diary, along with flapper dresses, a coat and other treasures from the 1920s and ’30s, from the Dumpster of her building on the Upper West Side.
The diary, combined with an intense amount of research and a streak of luck, became a book, the tale of the diary’s owner, Florence Wolfson. An investigator found her three years after Koppel stumbled on the diary. Wolfson, now Howitt, is still alive and sharp in Connecticut (and Florida), and her diary speaks volumes about her life — genius girl, bisexual writer, artist, music lover, horsewoman and independent spirit, child of immigrant parents, and faithful recorder of her teenage life from 1929 to 1934. “Not a single day was skipped in the diary’s five years,” Koppel writes. After Koppel found Howitt, a great-grandmother impatient with herself for caring about the country club, the story unfolded in much more detail.
As Red Leather Diary begins, getting into the thickly described world of 1920s New York takes a while. Koppel perhaps did a bit too much research or simply couldn’t decide what to exclude. But for New York lovers, there’s more than just Florence’s life, packed as it was with her bitter youthful literary competition with Joy Davidson (who married C.S. Lewis and was the inspiration for Shadowlands), her many days wearing full riding gear to Hunter College and the literary salons she hosted, where Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman shared their poetry. From architectural details to fashion descriptions, from an evocation of an immigrant family divided against itself to the history of the Catskills, Red Leather Diary brims with information about The City and its environs. And that’s not even counting the narrative arc.
Koppel weaves three stories into the book: the story of her own find and her life as a society reporter for the Times; the tale of Florence’s young life; and the story of how Florence Wolfson, adventurous spirit who fell madly in love with an actress, Mozart, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and various peers, became a bridge-playing, tennis-loving society elder. It’s a sometimes shaky collaboration, written with the passion and excitement Koppel feels about both of her finds but with a bit too heavy a hand (Guess what? Florence inspires Lily!). Still, the book exerts many charms and delights. It left me shaking my head in admiration and smiling — but with an undercurrent of sadness that the brilliant Florence Wolfson wasn’t born 60 years later, when she could have been a Times reporter alongside Koppel, or, more likely, the editor of the Paris Review.
Reading the foreword from Florence makes it clear why we shouldn’t throw away the past, why maybe your teenage LiveJournal blog shouldn’t be deleted (though it should be deeply privacy protected). Florence, 90 years old, reads the diary and thinks, “That was me? This tempestuous girl who did pretty much what she wanted was now walking slowly and not really wanting to do much of anything.” But, she adds, “I read the diary avidly and came to love that young girl. … It has been fun, it has added zest to my life, it has brought back some of the passion of my youth and made me feel more alive than I have in years.”
When Lily Koppel reads at the UO Bookstore (7 pm Thursday, Sept. 11), she’ll bring both history and the present to life.
Nena Baker celebrates the release of The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-Being, 7:30 pm 9/8, Powell’s on Burnside, Portland.
Love the Eugene Public Library? The library seeks two advisory board members, one under age 25. Contribute your opinion on where those videotapes should really go and whether teenagers should get just as much space as little kids, among other things, as a board member. Apps at www.eugene-or.gov/bcc or the City Manager’s office. Deadline is 5 pm Friday, Sept. 5.