2008_04_koppel.jpgA few years ago, there was a transfixing story in The New York Times about a 77-year-old old diary found in a dumpster on Riverside Drive. Its discoverer--and the article's writer--Lily Koppel, found herself mesmerized by the five years (1929-1934) of hopes and dreams of the young diarist, Florence Wolfson, a teenaged girl on the Upper West Side. She went as far as tracking her down and meeting her, now in her 90s and named Florence Howitt.

Now Koppel has written a book, The Red Leather Diary, that weaves diary entires with interviews, anecdotes and more. Koppel, who will be appearing at the McNally Robinson bookstore (available on Amazon), spoke to us about the discovery and the book that emerged.

Please describe how you found the diary in the first place.
I was 22, I had just graduated from Barnard College and landed a job at the New York Times, Metro clerk by day, celebrity reporter by night. I was renting a lavender-painted room in the apartment of an eccentric older woman on the Upper West Side. I came out of my building one morning to discover a dumpster full of old steamer trunks, like something out of Titanic, each was plastered with vintage travel labels from Paris, Monaco, “The Anne Frank Diary Hotel in Amsterdam.” Unhesitatingly, I climbed up and into what felt like my own movie as I started excavating the treasure chests and found the diary.

As you read the diary, when did you realize you were spellbound by Florence's story?
Despite the red leather diary’s rusted brass latch, the book was unlocked. That night, I read it as little pieces of leather crumbled onto my bedspread like misshapen hearts. Florence Wolfson, who kept her diary from 1929 to 1934 between the ages of 14 and 19, seemed so alive. The journal painted a vivid picture of 1930s New York—horseback riding in Central Park, summer excursions to the Catskills and an obsession with a famous avant-garde actress, Eva Le Gallienne. We were both writers and painters.

Hers was the life that I wanted, one of theater, art and writers, including an Italian count, a poet and pilot, with whom she had a love affair with when she sailed to Europe in 1936. He composed love verses to her, which were later published. The young woman of the diary became my guide to New York.

Tell us about tracking down and meeting Florence. If you weren't a reporter, do you think you would have persisted in finding her?
The red leather diary was a portal into a glamorous, half-forgotten New York. For three years, the journal slept in my bedside table as I carved out a beat for myself, covering the disappearing characters of New York as our city fills up with Starbucks (how about a new word, “Starbuci”) and Citibanks, such as my New York Times article on Manhattan’s last typewriter repairman who worked out of a crammed office in the Flatiron building.

The day this article ran, I received a chance phone call from a private investigator (license plate “Sleuth3”) who is like a character out of a pulp 1930s crime novel. He literally wears a trenchcoat and carries a magnifying glass. I took a chance and called him back. This grew into a Times story and he tracked down Florence. Story by story by story I was led to her.

Interview continues here; some photographs from Koppel below

For the young Florence of the diary, who was inspired by art, literature, and life and quite adventurous (affairs with men and women) and accomplished (a Columbia graduate student!), the world seems to be her oyster. But when you find her, she's been settled as a housewife in Connecticut for some time. Did that disappoint you?
Florence, at 90, asked me that. I was not disappointed in the least. Florence has a rich and interesting life. She has two daughters, granddaughters and great granddaughters who she has inspired. “You brought back my life,” Florence said to me. She changed mine too, at 27 to write the book about a lifethat was about to be lost but was fortunately saved, reconstructed from a 75-year-old diary. The Red Leather Diary is a magical story about finding the significance in each of our lives.

2008_04_rld0.jpgHow did you decide to turn the article into a book?
Writing The Red Leather Diary has been a serendipitous chain of events. My editor Claire Wachtel (whose books include Freakonmics, Mystic River and Predictably Irrational) read the cover story in The New York Times City section and got in touch, but not before visiting the building, where the diary was unearthed. Claire is a literary sleuth.

What's your relationship like with Florence?
Florence is my new best friend. Meeting Florence was like meeting this young woman—and she just happened to be 90. Florence adopted me into her family. We are embarking together on this adventure and its surreal, so it’s great to have a partner. “It’s a fairy tale,” Florence said,a true celebrity, wearing violet-framed Gucci glasses before the cameras rolled on our appearance on The Today Show.

Florence's diary provides a slice of what NYC during the 1930s was like. These days, people are less likely to write diaries--but they might have a blog. Do you think there's something lost or gained--or both--with the 21st century's form of diary-keeping?
I think there is something to be said about a lock and secrets. In today’s New York, we have very little private space, no more in taxis or while waiting for the movie to begin in theaters. In her diary, Florence performed for herself, she was the lone actress and her audience. Like we all wish for, Florence was waiting for someone to discover her. “Find me, find me,” she seemed to be saying, as I stared at the brittle scrap of newspaper, which fell out of the diary’s brittle pages. On it was her image, a girl with waved blond hair and intelligent, longing eyes. Blogs are journals on public display. Already Florence is inspiring people to go back to their diaries.

Do you still search for treasure in dumpsters?
I search for treasure everyday, on the street, in my writing, in people and all aspects of my life. My next book focuses my gaze inward.

And we asked Koppel a few questions about NYC:

What part of the city seems like a throw back to the old New York of Florence's diary?
Walking through the old flower, fur and garment districts. Florence was always outfitted in the most gorgeous, as she would say, handmade clothes designed by her mother, a couture dressmaker with a shop on Madison Avenue. In one photo from her diary days, Florence looks like a platinum blond starlet.

What's your favorite place to escape the hustle and bustle?
I escape to the rooftop garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Florence spent hours wandering, blissfully, on weekday afternoons without seeing a soul. My parents also met there, in an exhibit called “Patterns of Collecting,” under a medieval tapestry called “The Redemption of Man.”

What's your favorite way to enjoy spring in the city?
A picnic in the park with my boyfriend, who writes about crime, his second book, after one about 1970s Harlem heroin kingpin Nicky Barnes, is about the Gallo brothers.

What's your favorite city park?
Central Park—where Florence and her girlfriend Pearl, with whom she attended Hunter College, had their first date, walking hand-in-hand, reciting poetry and musing about Alice in Wonderland.

What fiction book do you think captures New York City the best?
I love the works of J.D. Salinger. I walk around the city wondering about the apartments full of stories to tell. I want to visit them all.

Is there something you make sure to do here in NYC, as a tribute to Florence?
As a 19-year-old graduate student at Columbia, Florence hosted a literary salon. The members included the poets Delmore Schwartz, the preeminent poet of his generation (later an inspiration for Lou Reed who dedicated “European Son” on the Velvet Underground’s banana album to Delmore) and John Berryman, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Dream Songs. As her guests debated the poetics of Aristotle and the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Florence remembered bending down to light the fireplace and as she did, she would unpin her long blond hair and let it cascade down her shoulders. I’m starting a salon.

Koppel will be at McNally Robinson bookstore (52 Prince Street) at 7:00 p.m.