Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Red Leather Diary

I was describing Permanent Record to my new friend Casey the other day, and she mentioned a story that had run in The New York Times several years ago, about an old diary that been found in the trash and then reunited with its original owner.

The diary is shown above, being held by Florence Wolfson Howitt. She kept the diary from 1929 through 1934, when she was a teen-ager. The photo was taken in 2006, when she was 90 years old and had been tracked down by Times reporter Lily Koppel, who had come into possession of the diary after it had been forgotten in a storage trunk and then discarded.

This would be a great story even if the diary had chronicled a fairly mundane life. But the life described in Howitt's diary was anything but mundane. During her teens she was an aspiring writer, musician, and artist and had romantic experiences with men and women, all of it described in the sort of florid, occasionally overwrought language that you'd expect from a privileged teen-ager traveling in sophisticated New York circles.

Koppel, the Times reporter, explained all of this, and a lot more, in a 2006 article, which is fantastic — highly recommended. She ended up writing a book about the diary, and about the unlikely friendship she developed with Howitt.

That book, called The Red Leather Diary, was published in 2008 and apparently got a fair amount of media coverage at the time (as did the original 2006 article, for that matter, which is why Koppel got a book deal in the first place), but I somehow missed the boat on all of it. The storyline was briefly revisited in 2012, when Howitt passed away at the age of 96, but I missed that as well. Seems like the kind of thing that would have come across my radar, but for whatever reason it didn't.

An interesting footnote to all of this is that the format of Wolfson's five-year diary inspired New York illustrator Tamara Shopsin (daughter of famously irascible New York restaurateur Kenny Shopsin, for you NYCers who are clued into such things) to produce and sell her own blank five-year diaries, which are essentially identical to the one Wolfson used during her teens.

Casey — the friend who told me about all this — uses one of those diaries herself, which is a nice way to bring this story full-circle.