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Subject of ‘The Red Leather Diary’ dies at 96

After a journal she kept as a teenager was recovered by a writer, Florence Wolfson Howitt became a literary celebrity as the subject of "The Red Leather Diary." She died at home in Pompano Beach, Fla. at the age of 96.
/ Source: The New York Times

Florence Wolfson Howitt, whose lifelong dream of recognition as a writer eluded her until she was in her 90s, when the diary she had kept as a teenager was found in a Dumpster and became the subject of a newspaper article and a widely publicized book, died on Tuesday at her home in Pompano Beach, Fla. She was 96.

Her daughter Valerie Fischel confirmed her death.

Florence Wolfson, the daughter of well-to-do parents living in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, was 14 when she was given a little red diary with gold-edged pages. For the next five years, without skipping a day, she wrote four-line entries that evoked her passions.

“Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven,” she wrote on June 28, 1932. “I feel like a ripe apricot — I’m dizzy with the exotic.”

“Went to the Museum of Modern Art,” she wrote on Feb. 21, 1931. “Sheer jealousy — I can’t even paint an apple yet — it’s heartbreaking!”

But she could write, and that was apparent at Wadleigh High, an arts school in Manhattan, from which she graduated at 15; at Hunter College, where she was editor of the literary magazine in her senior year; and at Columbia, where she earned a master’s degree in English literature in 1936. She created a salon in her parents’ living room, inviting friends, among them the poet John Berryman and William Barrett, a distinguished professor of philosophy.

She wrote articles for Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan, with titles like “How to Behave in Public Without an Escort” and “What to Do With the Unmarried Daughter.”

Miss Wolfson married Dr. Nathan Howitt, a dentist, in 1939. They moved into an apartment on Riverside Drive and 82nd Street. Sixty-four years later, a steamer trunk that had languished in the basement was placed in a Dumpster on the street. A worker at the building pulled the diary from the trunk and gave it to Lily Koppel, a news assistant at The New York Times, who was subletting an apartment in the building.

In July 2006, after searching birth records and locating Mrs. Howitt, Ms. Koppel wrote an article about her for The Times. That led to Ms. Koppel’s 2008 book, “The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal,” and a close friendship. Ms. Koppel, who is now a freelance writer, said in an interview that the diary “was sort of a telephone line across time, and a glimpse into a vanishing New York.”

Profiles of Mrs. Howitt appeared in publications around the country. She was a guest on the TODAY show. She gave readings and interviews at book club gatherings.

Florence Wolfson was born in Manhattan on Aug. 11, 1915, to Daniel and Rebecca Wolfson. Her father was a physician, and her mother owned a couture shop on Madison Avenue. Mrs. Howitt’s husband died in 2007. Besides Ms. Fischel, her daughter, she is survived by another daughter, Karen Howitt; three granddaughters; and six great-grandchildren.

“It was the most exciting year or two of her life, something she always sought,” Ms. Fischel said of her mother’s unexpected fame. “She felt like a celebrity and was 92 years old.”

This article, “Florence Wolfson Howitt, Famed for Rediscovered Diary, Dies at 96,” first appeared in The New York Times