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updated 4/16/2008 11:45:06 AM ET 2008-04-16T15:45:06

When journalist Lily Koppel left her New York City apartment one morning in 2003, she had no idea that the contents of a Dumpster outside her building would change the course of her life and that of 90-year-old Florence Wolfson in an unforgettable way. In “The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal,” Koppel unveils the vivid and dynamic life of a young woman growing up in Manhattan in the 1930s. Here's an excerpt: 

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.

Florence Howitt
Westport, Connecticut
September 3, 2007

Chapter 1:The Discovery
Once upon a time the diary had a tiny key. Little red flakes now crumble off the worn cover.

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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.

Excerpted from "The Red Leather Diary," by Lily Koppel. Copyright 2008 Lily Koppel. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints


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