Secrets of a Diary
A fateful discovery leads a Westporter to relive an artistic and passionate youth.
Flapper Florence at 14, the year she started the diary.
Photo courtesy of Lily Koppel
We hope you enjoyed reading in Westport Magazine (January 2009) about the Westport woman who inspired THE RED LEATHER DIARY: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal, by Lily Koppel.
The paperback is coming out on January 20. See more about the book and a reading guide for book clubs, at redleatherdiary.com
Here, an excerpt from the book…
At ninety, having survived a car crash and E. coli, I was living what can only be called a bland life. Mobility was low—no golf, no tennis, no long walks—but curiosity about people and politics was high. And there were such activities as practicing scales on the piano, playing bridge, reading, and agonizing with friends over America’s current quagmire. Not too bad a life for a nonagenarian.
What was missing were expectations. Everything was going to be the same until the final downhill slide. My beloved husband, Nat, was already on that slide. What was there to expect?
What, indeed! In my most cloud-nine dreams I could never have imagined what awaited me. I was sitting on my patio in Florida one glorious April afternoon when the phone rang. An unknown voice greeted me when I answered. “Hello, my name is Lily Koppel. Are you by any chance Florence Wolfson—now Howitt?”
I thought, Do I want to admit that I am? Was this going to be some marketing nuisance I regretted ever saying hello to? Well, I was a little curious, so I owned up to being me. Said Lily, “I have some old things belonging to you that I picked up at 98 Riverside Drive, and I thought you might want them back.” “What things?” I asked. “An old red leather diary, short stories you wrote when you were fifteen, and your master’s thesis from Columbia. I’ll be happy to send them to you.”
Those words changed my life. I told her not to bother sending them because my daughters would pick them up on one of their many trips to New York. So, waiting to hear from Valerie or Karen, she didn’t send them. She read the diary. I had totally forgotten about it and couldn’t imagine anyone finding it of interest.
But in the meantime, Lily had arranged to do a piece for the New York Times based on this seventy-six-year-old relic. When I came back to Westport for the summer, she handed it to me. That was a moment! How do you feel when a forgotten chunk of your life, full of adolescent angst and passion, is handed to you? How do you feel when you see your striving, feeling, immature self through your now elderly eyes? It stopped my heart for a moment. 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. I was stunned and a little sad—I read the diary avidly and came to love that young girl. What happened next was a surprise measuring ten on the Richter scale, my own earth-moving experience. Lily’s article turned out to be a mesmerizing piece of journalism, provoking enough interest to be developed into a book—which you are now holding in your hands, and I hope you will savor as you read about the New York I knew and loved.
When I heard the news, it was as though I had been hit by lightning. From no expectations of being written about, from being hidden in a diary with a key, fourteen-year-old Florence was going to be revealed in a book! And how did I feel about that? Here’s how I felt.
I am now ninety-two—my husband of sixty-seven years died last April—and I am fighting to keep my fingers in the pie of life. Young Florence would have agreed that this is a positive. She would have said, “Go for it.” 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. I am probably one of the most excited old women in the world. Thank you, Lily.
September 3, 2007
The Red Leather Diary
Once upon a time the diary had a tiny key. Little red flakes now crumble off the worn cover. For more than half a century, its tarnished latch unlocked, the red leather diary lay silent inside an old steamer trunk strewn with vintage labels evoking the glamorous age of ocean-liner travel. “This book belongs to,” reads the frontispiece, followed by “Florence Wolfson” scrawled in faded black ink. Inside, in brief, breathless dispatches written on gold-edged pages, the journal recorded five years in the life and times of a smart and headstrong New York teenager, a young woman who loved Baudelaire, Central Park, and men and women with equal abandon.
Tucked within the diary, like a pressed flower, is a yellowed newspaper clipping. The photograph of a girl with huge, soulful eyes and marceled blond hair atop a heart-shaped face stares out of the brittle scrap. The diary was a gift for her fourteenth birthday on August 11, 1929, and she wrote a few lines faithfully, every day, until she turned nineteen. Then, like so many relics of time past, it was forgotten. The trunk, in turn, languished in the basement of 98 Riverside Drive, a prewar apartment house at Eighty-second Street, until October 2003, when the management decided it was time to clear out the storage area.
The trunk was one of a roomful carted to a waiting Dumpster, and as is often the case in New York, trash and treasure were bedfellows. Some passers-by jimmied open the locks and pried apart the trunks’ sides in search of old money. Others stared transfixed, as if gazing into a shipwreck, at the treasures spilling from the warped cedar drawers: a flowered kimono, a beaded flapper dress, a cloth-bound volume of Tennyson’s poems, half of a baby’s red sweater still hanging from its knitting needles. A single limp silk glove fluttered like a small flag. But the diary seems a particularly eloquent survivor of another age. It was as if a corsage once pinned to a girl’s dress were preserved for three quarters of a century, faded ribbons intact, the scent still lingering on its petals. Through a serendipitous chain of events, the diary was given the chance to tell its story.
The first time I came to 98 Riverside Drive, an orange brick and limestone building set like a misty castle overlooking leafy Riverside Park and the Hudson River, the building felt like a hidden universe awaiting discovery. Under the maroon awning, I entered the red marble lobby, pockmarked with age like the face of the moon. Passing an old framed print of a gondola gliding under Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, the early August evening light filtered through stained-glass windows illuminating a young gallant displaying a jeweled coat of arms, with a dagger stuck in his belt. He was carrying a locked treasure chest.
My gaze wandered to the building’s rusted bronze buzzer. There were fifteen stories, each floor divided into eight apartments, A through H, where I half expected to find Holden Caulfield’s name. Among the residents were several psychoanalytical practices and an Einstein. Floating through the courtyard airshaft, I heard Mozart being worked out on piano. The building seemed to have an artistic soul.
I was twenty-two. I had just landed a job at the New York Times after graduating from Barnard College. An older woman I had met at the newspaper had put me in touch with a friend who wanted to rent a room in her apartment at 98 Riverside. The building was on the Upper West Side, which has long held the reputation of being Manhattan’s literary home, although few young artists could still afford the rents.
I rang the pearl door button to 2E, waiting in front of the peephole. The red door bordered in black opened, and my new landlady introduced herself. Peggy was in her fifties, with a Meg Ryan haircut. Midwest born and bred, she was glad to learn that I was from Chicago. She was still wearing a pink leotard and tights from Pilates, and her pert expression was hard to read behind a black eye patch. “The pirate look,” she said, explaining that a cab had hit her while she was biking through Midtown. Peggy shrugged. “Just my luck.”
It was a marvelous apartment with an original fireplace, high ceilings with ornate moldings, Oriental carpets, and antiques. Peggy had decorated in pastels. Her collection of Arts and Crafts pottery and vases covered every available surface. When turned upside down, they revealed their makers’ names stamped on the bottom—Marblehead, Rookwood, Van Briggle, Roseville and Door. I admired a faun grazing on a vase. “All empty.” Peggy giggled, since none held flowers. “I know, very Freudian.” She opened French doors, showing me the dining room with a parquet border, and led me through the kitchen, past a no-longer-ringing maid’s bell. Down the hallway, she pointed out her own paintings, acrylic portraits and rural landscapes. “The building even has a library,” added Peggy, who had just finished Willa Cather’s Lost Lady, which she recommended.
Over Brie with crackers and purple grapes set out with silver Victorian grape scissors, we became acquainted on the couch, a pullout, where Peggy said she would sleep. I offered to take the living room instead of her master bedroom, but Peggy insisted. This way she could watch TV late or get up at night if she couldn’t sleep. Peggy mentioned rigging up a Chinese screen for privacy. She told me that when she was my age, she had also come to New York to become an artist. There was a short-lived marriage in her early twenties to a jazz musician. Peggy admitted she lived quietly now, designing Impressionist-inspired napkins and guest towel sets painted with café chairs with names like Paris Bistro, which she sold on the Internet.
“This will be your room,” said Peggy, showing me into a large bedroom with two windows hung with filmy curtains billowing out, ushering in a warm breeze off the Hudson. She fluffed the new bedding on the antique white iron bed piled with lacy throw pillows, very Shabby Chic. It was everything Virginia Woolf had ordered in A Room of One’s Own for the young woman writer. The lavender walls gave it a Bloomsbury charm. There were two walk-in closets smelling of potpourri and an old vanity, which would serve as a good desk. Not wanting to spend another night going through the crawlspaces of Craigslist, I moved in. I hoped the Tennessee Williams setting and resident Blanche DuBois would only improve my writing. Hanging on the wall opposite my new bed was an oil painting of a sleeping teenage girl, her blond hair a storm cloud around her face on the pillow—a Lolita creature reminiscent of Balthus, from Peggy’s earlier period.
“Say hi to Miss Teeny.” Peggy held a gray ball of fur up to face me as I was unpacking my one bag. Over the next few weeks, other things came up, like the no-men-allowed rule. I could tell Peggy was a good person. I could also tell when tension was high by the determined hum of her whirring Dirt Devil in the morning. Two single women and a blind cat was hardly an ideal situation. Feeling shelved away in someone else’s life while my friends were living downtown with their boyfriends and in Brooklyn lofts, I was beginning to wonder if I had set myself up to live out my worst fear.
I left the apartment early and returned late at night. At the New York Times, I started getting my own articles in the paper while working as a news assistant on the Metro desk. I had carte blanche to enjoy the city’s glamorous nightlife, reporting for the Times celebrity column, traipsing from red-carpet movie premiere to party to after-party, interviewing hundreds of boldface names—Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Helen Mirren, Clint Eastwood, Jim Jarmusch, Sofia Coppola, Scarlett Johansson. “Dahling,” Mick Jagger called me. Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan flitted by. On a love seat, under a chandelier, in an empty ballroom, Shirley MacLaine tried to convince me of my past life.
Opening up the Times in the morning and seeing my name in print gave me a surge of hope. Other publications started writing about me, since I was now part of the scene. “The Bravest Gossip Reporter Ever” said Gawker, a popular media site, describing my relentless interviewing style when James Gandolfini, better known as Tony Soprano, asked me out on a date. The New York Observer wrote, “Bluish TV lights were installed in the furniture stripped parlor—they made flame-haired and pale-skinned Boldface Names legger Lily Koppel look like a divine space-age ballerina.”
Although I took none of this too seriously, the image spoke to my fantasy of superheroine feats to come. Since setting foot in the celebrity world, I had abandoned the novel I was working on. Fiction seemed strange when my reality felt so unreal. But despite all of the frivolity around me, I wanted to report on life not found in the pages of glossy magazines or in news recycled at the end of each day, and moment to moment on the Internet. I really wasn’t interested in the beneath-the-surface lives of celebrities any more than I was eager to run around the city covering crime scenes, which is how young reporters are broken in. I wanted everything to slow down. I was searching for a story that completely touched my life and those of other people. More than ever, I had no idea what to write about. What was I doing here?
It was almost eight a.m. on a crisp fall day, October 6, 2003, a couple months after I had moved in, and I was late getting to the Times. I would spend the next seven hectic hours answering phones on the Metro desk, helping editors coordinate news coverage, while writing my own articles, trying to break into the paper’s ranks. As usual, after another late night and one too many glasses of champagne, I was in a hurry to get to the subway and make it to the newsroom before the editors, to find out where a fire was blazing or a murder was under investigation.
I had just stepped out of my building. Parked in front of 98 Riverside’s awning was a red Dumpster brimming with old steamer trunks. One of the sides was collapsed. At a glance, I counted more than fifty trunks and elegant valises piled high like a magic mountain, just a polishing away from their descendants at Louis Vuitton. At the top, a tan trunk studded with brass rivets glowed in the sun with such luminescence that it appeared spotlit. Like a sequoia, the trunk betrayed its age with a copious skin of grand hotel labels. The world had been rounded.
Each label was a miniature painting, a dreamy portal into a faraway destination. Elephants paraded past exotic geishas twirling parasols. Pink palms swayed, hypnotizing passengers aboard the Orient and Round the World Dollar Steamship Line. Flappers frolicked. Seagulls working for I.M.M. Lines hawked “Cruises to Every Land through Every Sea!” An orange ship sailed through a fuchsia pagoda. Two women sat under an umbrella at Cannes. Giraffes kicked off the Around Africa Cruise. A classic ruin in a desert signaled the Grand Express Europe-Egypt. The Hotel Schwarzer Bock in Wiesbaden pictured a single-horned mythological ram staring boldly into the distance above dark trees and puffy clouds. A ship shot like a bullet from a kaleidoscopic Statue of Liberty. The red Italia Prima Classe sticker stood out with a first-class F.
I felt a pang of longing. It was like finding a message in a bottle. I was seized by the impulse that at this moment, nothing mattered but seeing what lay inside the trunks. They wouldn’t be around for long. I pulled my dyed red hair back in a ponytail. Slinging my bag across my shoulders, I grasped the Dumpster’s grimy edge and found toeholds with my embroidered Chinese slippers. I pulled myself up. Careful to avoid a tangle of lamp cords and a shattered gilt mirror, I balanced each foot on a different precariously lodged chest in the shifting maze. Lost among the trunks was a wooden stage prop of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, wearing what looked like a Marc Jacobs plaid coat, checking his pocket watch.
There were about a dozen trunks across and six deep. Testing my path with several taps of my foot, I crossed from trunk to trunk as if they were bobbing in the middle of the ocean. I gazed down my street, dotted with pots of magenta impatiens. It was a quiet path leading from West End Avenue to Riverside Park, lined in brownstones distinguished by polished door knockers sculpted as winged cherubs, dolphins, rams’ heads, and Victorian hands. A woman walking her black Lab, which was carrying the newspaper in its mouth, didn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary.
I fumbled with rusty brass locks and latches, and ran my hands over chests jumbled at odd angles. The dusty wood and metal surfaces felt rough, like sandpaper. I was searching for hidden treasure. Out of the darkness, a ghostly apparition of a woman’s sheer nightgown appeared as if floating. Lace curtains clung to sharp edges like Spanish moss. There was a man’s charcoal gray dress coat with its worn velvet collar, a lost satin slipper, watercolor sets, cloudy champagne glasses preserved in tissue paper from someone’s wedding, a chipped demitasse, and a still-fragrant bottle of Morrow’s pure vanilla. A typed manuscript and old scalloped photographs surfaced, as well as a sepia panoramic group portrait of a tough-looking crowd in black ties and sequins wearing paper cone hats and bibs at a beefsteak dinner at the Hotel Astor in 1922.
I struggled to make out owners’ initials stamped in gold beneath locks speckled green with patina. Names were written in a careful hand on labels dangling from the handles of trunks. “Mrs. Frances . . . Biancamano, Genova,” I read on an Italian Line tag displaying a majestic ocean liner gliding past Mount Vesuvius.
Each trunk weighed as much as a large TV. I managed to move a few, barely escaping a near avalanche. One black trunk, heavy as a boulder, with a charred-looking domed top ribbed with wooden slats, appeared too weary to move again. It had already come so far. I read its surface like a map. It seemed to tell of a trip across the Atlantic carrying everything one family owned. This was news. I called the Times, arranging for someone to cover for me, and a photographer to take pictures of the scene. In the meantime, the doormen came out to watch as if I were performing the high-wire act. “What do you want with that old stuff? Please, come down.”
The doormen ended up lifting several chests. They also filled me in on what was happening. Ninety-eight Riverside’s management had decided to expand the bike room, so all unclaimed tenant storage, going back to the early twentieth century, was being cleared out. One by one, the building engineers had dragged the trunks up from their longtime resting places to the Dumpster, which would deliver them to a barge for the final journey down the river to a landfill with the city’s thousands of tons of daily trash. Neighbors stopped to ask what I was doing, and several climbed in. An old couple told me that clearing out cellars had long been a common, somewhat secretive rite among Upper West Side landlords bringing their buildings up to snuff.
Peeking out from under a reef of gnarled drapes accumulated like seaweed, a swatch of orange caught my eye. Nearly slipping through the cracks, I tried to remember when I had my last tetanus shot, reflecting momentarily on the three-dimensional puzzle I had entered. Careful not to catch myself on anything, I fished out a tangerine bouclé coat with a flared skirt and a single Bakelite button. “Bergdorf Goodman on the Plaza,” read the label sewn into its iridescent lining. I saved the coat, a pale pink flapper dress, and a black satin bathing costume with the intensity of a rescuer at an archaeological dig. There were wardrobe trunks, one stacked on top of the other—a vintage clothing lover’s fantasy. I pushed with all of my weight on one chest, but it didn’t even budge. No wonder they had porters in those days! Its leather straps crumbled into red dust in my hands.
Finally, I got it open. It was from Saks Fifth Avenue, designed to stand upright for packing, like a miniature closet in one’s cabin. Half was filled with drawers, and the other side fitted with wooden hangers and a presser bar holding gowns in place. There was a built-in shoe box and a travel iron. The trunk’s ornate blue-gray seashell lining hinted at past grandeur. Each drawer revealed evidence of someone’s life lovingly folded and stowed away for another trip, season, or child. Tucked carefully inside were a stiff wedding dress, a twisted pair of gold-rimmed glasses, a riding jacket, and a pair of saddle shoes. I fingered a red paisley bandanna, not the stiff replicas sold by street vendors, but the soft cotton kind worn by real cowboys. I figured I’d give it to someone special, if he ever showed up.
Boxes from Anna’s Hats on East Fifty-sixth Street (Plaza 3-8369) protected never-worn feathered confections with pins topped by a pearl. I inherited an entire collection of handbags. There was a sleek evening bag with Grace Kelly elegance scaled with silver beads, a Lucite box purse, a doctor’s bag, and a black Bienen-Davis pocketbook with a matching coin purse attached on a gold chain and a pocket mirror in a silk envelope. I shook out this purse’s contents. A portrait of an era scattered before me, clues to how life was lived in Manhattan during the 1920s and ’30s.
This time capsule held a pencil, a gold tube of Revlon lipstick (in “Bachelor’s Carnation”), and a Parliament cigarette, never smoked, but considered, as someone’s lips had left a kiss. There was a 50¢ Loew’s movie ticket stub, The National Mah Jongg League: Official Standard Hands and Rules, an ossified stick of Beech-Nut peppermint gum, “Always Refreshing,” an Old Nick chocolate bar wrapper, a matchbox from Schrafft’s—a coffee shop chain where ladies lunched before a matinee or after shopping. Tobacco shavings covered everything, including a package with a woman’s long, seductively lashed gaze, asking, “Does smoke irritate your eyes? Use Murine.” This lucky girl had taken a weekend jaunt, staying at the Shelburne Hotel in Atlantic City.
Business cards listed old phone exchanges—Don Le Blanc School of Dancing (Trafalgar 7-9486) and Oscar’s Beauty Salon (Susquehanna 7-9489), “Permanent Waving,” with a sketch of a lady whose coiffeur was a surface of flat curls. Countless crumpled to-do lists still conveyed their urgency. “Thurs.: 12:30 Selma, present Doris, Saks—Bathing suit, bra, call Ryan. Girl: change bedding, press dresses. Eggs, cream, bread & rolls, radishes, bananas, lemons, sugar, oranges, toilet paper. Next week: carpets down, piano tuned.” A gift card fell out. “To Mom—May this lighter continue to light the way for many years to come. Love—”
“Mom, get down, we already have enough junk at home, we don’t need other people’s garbage,” a teenager loudly complained to her mother, who was gravitating toward the trunks. She sounded just like me talking to my parents when they dragged me and my younger brother from one antique shop to the next.
By dark, the Dumpster was illuminated by a streetlamp. Vans bound for flea markets loaded up. Completely exhausted, I headed upstairs. Prophetic of the larger story I had climbed into, although I didn’t know it yet, was the typewriter I carried under my arm, which I had retrieved from the Dumpster. In a pile of papers spilling out of a trunk, I reached for one last thing. It was a brittle Western Union telegram addressed to a “Miss Florence Wolfson,” signed, “I love you. Nat.”
Amid the chaos, a young woman’s diary was found. As I rode up in the mahogany-paneled elevator, a doorman, Hector, mentioned to me “some girl’s diary from the thirties.” We made a detour to the basement, where it was stashed in his locker, and he gave it to me wrapped in a plastic Zabar’s grocery bag. Back in my apartment, I sat down on my bed. “Mile Stones Five Year Diary” was written in gold letters across the book’s worn red cover. Holding my breath, I released the brass latch. Despite the rusted keyhole, the diary was unlocked. Little pieces of red leather sprinkled onto my white comforter.
“This book belongs to . . . Florence Wolfson.”
Inside, a blue vine grew around the frontispiece, stamped with a zodiac wheel. The diary seemed to respond to being back in warm hands, its pages becoming unstuck and fanning out. I flipped through the faded entries dense with girlish cursive. I could tell it had been cherished. I located the date Florence began writing: August 11, 1929. I had kept journals, but never like this. Not a single day was skipped in the red diary’s five years from 1929 to 1934. The book was fragile, but remarkably sturdy, considering it was three quarters of a century old. On the cover, where the leather had grown brittle, yellowed newspaper stock listings showed through from its lining.
Its nearly two thousand entries painted a portrait of a teenager obsessed with her appearance and the meaning of her existence. Meeting friends for tea at Schrafft’s. Nightclubbing at El Morocco. Dancing at the Hotel Pennsylvania, the New Yorker Hotel, and the Savoy Ballroom. January 16, 1930. I bought a pair of patent leather opera pumps with real high heels! April 8, 1930. Bought myself a little straw hat $3.45—it won’t last long. April 20, 1931. Dyed my eyebrows & eyelashes and I’ve absolutely ruined my face. March 13, 1934. A fashion show for amusement and almost overcome with envy—not for the clothes, but the tall, slim loveliness of the models.
Observations about frivolous matters were interspersed with heartfelt reflections about the books Florence loved—Balzac and Flaubert were particular favorites. August 3, 1932. Spent all day reading something of Jane Austen’s—how refreshing—how novel—has her breed died out? March 12, 1934. Slept long hours, read “The Divine Comedy” and for the most part too exhausted to think or even understand. Four months later, Reading “Hedda Gabler” for the tenth time. Music, a recurring theme, scored her life with exclamation points. Beethoven symphonies! Bach fugues! June 28, 1932. Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven—I feel like a ripe apricot—I’m dizzy with the exotic. February 6, 1934. Hours repairing torn music books and they look perfectly hideous with adhesive plastered all over them—But what beauty within! My love is so sporadic.
The young woman who emerged from the diary’s pages had huge ambitions, even if chasing them proved daunting. February 21, 1931. Went to the Museum of Modern Art and almost passed out from sheer jealousy—I can’t even paint an apple yet—it’s heartbreaking! January 16, 1932. I couldn’t study today & went to the museum to pass a morning of agonizing beauty—Blown glass, jade and exquisite embroideries. April 10, 1932. Wrote all day—and my story is still incomplete. September 2, 1934. Planning a play on Wordsworth—possibilities are infinite. October 12, 1934. How I love to inflict pain on my characters!
What she craved most was to be enveloped in a grand passion that would transform her life. July 3, 1932. Five hours of tennis and glorious happiness—all I want is someone to love—I feel incomplete. Although written at a time when sex was a subject discussed discreetly, the diary was studded with intimate details of relationships with both men and women. April 11, 1932. Slept with Pearl tonight—it was beautiful. There is nothing so gratifying as physical intimacy with one you like. April 19, 1933. Dear God, I’m sick of this mess! What am I—man or woman? Both? Is it possible—it’s all become so hard, so loathsome—the forced decision—the pain.
The diary’s “Memoranda” section included pages for “Birthdays and Anniversaries” and “Christmas Cards Sent.” The “Index of Important Events” was only “to be used to schedule outstanding occurrences.” It revealed the roller coaster that was Florence’s emotional life.
Fire in old house, February 14, 1927
My first dance, December 30, 1929
My first cigarette, January 12, 1930
My first high heels, January 16, 1930
Spotted Eva LeG, May 8, 1930
Fell in love with her, May 8, 1930
My first evening dress, May 20, 1930
Manny came to New York, July 19, 1930
Spoke to Eva again—and was refused, November 14, 1930
My first love affair, November 11, 1930
George came back, June 29, 1931
Absolute End of George, July 1931
Slept with Pearl, April 11, 1932
End of Manny, April 23, 1932
Won $40 for a short story, June 8, 1932
Reconciliation with Manny, August 26, 1932
Dismissed Pearl, September 7, 1932
Marjorie, September 1932
Evelyn’s Death, March 31, 1934
Suddenly, I realized that in one of the trunks, I had salvaged an inscribed photograph of Eva Le Gallienne, who I later learned was a famous avant-garde actress and the founder of the Civic Repertory Theater on Fourteenth Street. Le Gallienne, openly lesbian, had played Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and the first modern Hedda Gabler. It certainly seemed the actress had made more than a cameo in Florence’s life. Who was George? Pearl? Evelyn? What exactly did Florence mean?
My lavender bedroom filled with an orange glow from the streetlamp outside my second-story windows. Florence had probably lived in this building. Maybe she had written at a desk and slept not far from where I was right now. Was the flapper dress I had found Florence’s? I gave it a twirl until pearls from its frail fringe started hailing onto the floor. The straps of the black satin bathing costume designed for an hourglass figure crisscrossed my back like X-marks-the-spot. My gaze fell on the Bergdorf’s coat in a pile under the painting of the sleeping teenage girl. I wrapped myself in its sumptuous folds, admiring its sharp cut and luxurious warmth. I had never worn such elegant clothes. Had Florence? Buried under its layers of paint, 98 Riverside Drive seemed to be coming back to life.
As I slipped under the covers, a newspaper clipping fell out from between two stuck pages. On it was Florence’s picture. She looked like a 1920s starlet. Except for her waved hair, she appeared completely contemporary, as if she were a young woman of today. Her eyes were sensual and intelligent. I followed Florence late into the night, slowly savoring each of her well-thought-out words and quicksilver observations. Florence’s writing possessed the literary equivalent of perfect pitch. Her handwriting was looping, soaring, sometimes scribbled, dreamily, across the page in blue and black ink.
I couldn’t help but read it as if it were a personal letter to me. Florence and I shared so many of the same longings for love and the desire to carve out our own paths. Her entries confessing loneliness spoke to my insecurities about being on my own. We were both writers and painters. We both felt the need to create lasting beauty out of our daily experience. Florence seemed so alive, intensely internal and fully engaged with the world around her.
The diary’s golden “Mile Stones” title crumbled to “Stones.” It was obvious it hadn’t been touched for a very long time, probably not since Florence penned her last entry on August 10, 1934, the eve of her nineteenth birthday. I thought of the White Rabbit lost among the trunks. Who was Florence? How had she become separated from her diary? Could she possibly still be alive? Who were all of these men and women whose hearts Florence had chipped, if not broken? How to find Florence? Those luminous eyes would not let me go.
For three years, as I walked around New York, wondering about her, Florence remained unknown to me. Nights when I couldn’t sleep, I closed my eyes, picturing the mountain of trunks. I wished I could have gone through every single one. It seemed like a dream, except for the red leather diary in a soft Chanel shoe bag in the drawer of my bedside table. I was drawn into Florence’s world. I wanted to recapture her New York. I set out to find the diarist, the words “This book belongs to . . . Florence Wolfson” my only clue.
Searching out remnants of Florence’s time was the beat I carved out for myself during my free time. At the paper, I worked my way up, hitting the streets and writing stories. One afternoon at work, in March 2006, I received a chance call from a private investigator, Charles Eric Gordon, who specializes in tracking down missing persons. I shared the diary with him.
After a few weeks of investigation, we struck gold. Searching the city’s birth records, Mr. Gordon discovered one New Yorker named Florence Wolfson, who was born in New York City on August 11, 1915, to a pair of Russian immigrants who had come to the city in the early twentieth century. Following a trail of voter registration records and using his collection of vintage phone books, he led me to Florence Howitt, with homes in Westport, Connecticut, and Pompano Beach, Florida.
Florence was an unexpectedly glamorous ninety-year-old. In Westport, where I met her for the first time in May 2006, she and her husband, Nathan Howitt, a retired oral surgeon, one of her many admirers from the diary, lived on Long Island Sound, in a private community near the Cedar Point Yacht Club, in a gray cottage over a one-lane wooden bridge. The walls of their living room were filled with figurative and abstract paintings, among them her pastel of their daughter Valerie as a young girl.
Florence was wearing well-tailored fawn pants, red lipstick, and tinted gold and tortoise Christian Dior glasses. Clutching the diary with hands still supple enough to practice scales daily on the piano, she caressed the book’s fragile cover and gently thumbed through its pages. She sat by the window and journeyed back to the girl she had once been. “I’m 14 years old! 1929!” she read in a husky voice. She read from the next year’s entry, “At last I’ve arrived! The year has left me wiser, less happy, but still I’m 15!”
Florence seemed both shocked and delighted by the accounts of her early love affairs. “Am quite a busy young lady,” she read an entry written when she was fifteen. “Had a visit from George again and a lecture from Dad who walked in at the wrong moment.” Among those taken with the brainy and beautiful young woman was the poet Delmore Schwartz. James Atlas, in his biography of the poet, wrote of “the ‘salon’ of Florence Wolfson, the daughter of a wealthy doctor who allowed her to entertain friends in their large apartment.”
“I started this when I was fourteen,” said Florence. “My husband’s ninety-five years old.” As she fingered the pages of the red leather-bound book crumbling in her hands, she reflected on the creative young woman brought to life so vividly in its pages. “You’ve brought back my life,” confessed Florence, and she began telling me her story.