Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nonfiction Review: The Red Leather Diary

My mother read The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal by Lily Koppel for a book group discussion and recommended it to me. I thoroughly enjoyed this very unique book that begins with its author, Koppel, finding an old diary in a pile of steamer trunks that had been discarded from her apartment building in New York City. That diary led Koppel on a journey of discovery.

The 5-year diary had once belonged to a young girl named Florence Wolfson who started it on her fourteenth birthday in 1929. Florence lived a rather privileged life, attending Wadleigh High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in the city and spending her summers on Long Island and, later, in the Catskills. Florence was a remarkable young woman, mature beyond her years, who had started high school at age 11 and graduated at 15.

Koppel read the diary from cover to cover, then hired a private investigator to help her find Florence. Amazingly, they found her, alive and well, now 90 years old, and living in Connecticut and Florida. The two women met, and Koppel returned Florence’s diary to her. Florence answered Koppel’s questions and filled in more information about her life as a young woman of the 20’s and 30’s.

Koppel’s book is a combination of Florence’s original diary entries and additional details, some supplied by Florence and some gained through research, as in this excerpt:

A magnificent day – I still can’t get over the beauty of New York – at dusk.

Everywhere she looked there was a scene ripe with artistic possibility. Around her neck dangled her new Leica camera with a Zeiss lens from a brown leather strap. Florence snapped a photograph of a man in a Magritte hat scanning a store display, which she titled on the back, “Reflections,” for a competition she entered by mail. Off Fifth Avenue, streetcars buzzed diagonally across intersections on brass rails powered by live wires. Florence reached her arm out the trolley’s window to feel the breeze. Wires also transmitted phone calls, courtesy of New York City’s thousands of telephone girls, easy to flatter with a joke as they plugged in the right exchange. “Atwater 9-5332” reached the Wolfsons. At the Horn and Hardart Automat, sticking a nickel in a slot opened a little glass door for a slice of pie. Silver dolphin spouts poured hot coffee.

Young Florence’s boundless joy for life and love of the arts is evident in many of her exuberant diary entries, like this one:

Bought several books today and feel quite proud of my tiny library. Alice and her adventures in Wonderland are included – and why not! There’s so much to do – music, art, books, people – can one absorb it all?

The result is a fascinating and engaging portrait of that time period, from the perspective of this lively, enthusiastic young woman. Florence went to Hunter College in New York and enjoyed all that the city had to offer. She shares intimate details of her friendships, love affairs (with both boys and girls), hopes, and aspirations. Sprinkled throughout the book are captivating photos, many of them from Florence’s own collection, that help to complete the picture of a young woman’s life in 1930’s New York.

352 pages, Harper Perennial


  1. I liked this one too Sue when I read it. Great review.

  2. I read this book about a year ago and absolutely loved it! I thought it was fascinating. I especially enjoyed the fact that Koppel was able to find Florence and had her write an afterward (or maybe an introduction). Amazing.

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. It had a lot going for it.

  4. This is on my list to read. I always hear good things about it and enjoyed your review immensely!