I just finished The Red Leather Diary, written by Lily Koppel and published by 2008 by HarperCollins Publishers (reading guide). Koppel, who, in 2003, was writing for The New York Times, discovered the diary of the title in a curbside dumpster outside of an apartment building at 98 Riverside Drive, on the Upper West Side, in October 2003. Koppel was renting a room in the building after graduating from Barnard and starting work with The Times. The dumpster was filled to overflowing with steamer trunks dating back to the 1930s, discarded as part of cleanout of the buildings basement storage.
While Lily rescued a number of trunks and their contents, a building employee actually retrieved the diary, set it aside, and gave it to Koppel, who immediately called for a Times photographer to document the contents of the basement. She also shared the diary with Charles Eric Gordon, a New York attorney who specialized in finding missing people. Using his collection of vintage phone books, he tracked down the diary’s owner, Florence Wolfson.
Florence began the diary on her 14th birthday, in 1929, and her last entry marked her 19th year. Between the pages, the vivacious, driven, creative young woman recorded her hopes, dreams, love affairs, and dramatic and literary ambitions. Lily and Florence connected as two women with many of the same passions, a lifetime apart. Florence rejoiced saying, “you’ve brought back my life!”, while also wistfully wondering, “Where did all that creativity go? If I was true to myself would I have ended up in Westport?” The two women met on several occasions, and Lily initially wrote a piece for the Times entitled “Speak Memory”. A flood of interest in that piece led to the book.
While some very interesting historical fiction and biography has been written based on the correspondence or diaries of the famous and not-so-famous, The Red Leather Diary fills in the spaces with Florence’s additional recollections, shared with Koppel in Florence’s 90th year. Koppel builds a well-researched picture of 1930s and 40s New York, and her interviews with Florence added “meat” to the diary’s bones that was much appreciated by this reader.
I’ve included some links in this post, but I was disappointed to find that the site www.lilykoppel.com is no longer active. I did locate some posts from Ms. Koppel in 2008 and 2009, as well as an announcement regarding her next book.