Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal

The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal

3.9 46
by Lily Koppel

See All Formats & Editions

For more than half a century, the red leather diary languished inside a steamer trunk. Rescued from a Dumpster on Manhattan's Upper West Side, it found its way to Lily Koppel, a young writer, who opened its tarnished brass lock and journeyed into an enthralling past. The diary painted a breathtaking portrait of a bygone New York—of glamorous nights at El


For more than half a century, the red leather diary languished inside a steamer trunk. Rescued from a Dumpster on Manhattan's Upper West Side, it found its way to Lily Koppel, a young writer, who opened its tarnished brass lock and journeyed into an enthralling past. The diary painted a breathtaking portrait of a bygone New York—of glamorous nights at El Morocco and elegant teas at Schrafft's during the 1920s and '30s—and of the headstrong, endearing teenager who filled its pages with her hopes, heartaches, and vivid recollections. Intrigued, Koppel followed her only clue, a frontispiece inscription, to its now ninety-year-old owner, Florence Wolfson, and was enchanted as Florence, reunited with her diary, rediscovered a lost younger self burning with artistic fervor.

Joining intimate interviews with original diary entries, The Red Leather Diary re-creates the romance and promise of a remarkable era and brings to life the true story of a daring, precocious young dreamer.

Editorial Reviews

Erica Jong
“THE RED LEATHER DIARY is a fascinating book—inventive and inspiring.”
“New York Times writer Lily Koppel’s The Red Leather Diary melds three life-affirming subjects—Florence Wolfson’s journal of life in 1930s Manhattan, Koppel’s discovery of it in a Dumpster decades later, and the meeting of the two women—into one enchanting memoir.”
“Sparked by a felicitous discovery in an Upper West Side dumpster, New York Times writer Lily Koppel spins an enthralling true fairy tale about a Depression-era ingénue.”
“Florence’s life reads like E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime in places, with all the famous paths crossed and situations experienced; while descriptions of city life recall Marjorie Hart’s Summer at Tiffany... Together, Koppel and Florence take readers through a world dizzy with new ideas, rhythms and inventions.”
New York Times Book Review
“Skillful reporting, fine prose and [an] excellent eye for period detail. . . . A story about not one but two lovable characters—and the city that brought them together.”
“After a front-page story appeared in the New York Times Sunday City section, interest in Florence’s fascinating story prompted the author to write a full-length book that works as both a biography and a spellbinding glimpse into a vanished era.”
Reader's Digest (Editors' Choice)
“In The Red Leather Diary, Lily Koppel finds an old journal in a Dumpster, gets lost in its rich take on 1930s New York and, improbably, tracks down the now-90-year-old woman whose life—real and imagined—fills its worn pages.”
If 22-year-old recent Barnard graduate Lily Koppel hadn't been agile enough to climb into a dumpster, Florence Wolfson's red leather diary might have been lost forever. As it was, Koppel rescued it from a sea of steamer trunks, brought it back to her small apartment, and began an immersion that would last for years. Wolfson's journal tracked her adolescent preoccupations and teenage yearnings from 1929 to 1934 so candidly that Koppel couldn't resist trying to track down its author. When she found her, she met a 90-year-old woman who was eager to be reintroduced to her much younger self.
Alana Newhouse
On its own, the diary offers a dusty window into an extraordinary life. With her skillful reporting, fine prose and excellent eye for period detail, Koppel has given it a lovely shine: especially since she miraculously managed to track down—and befriend—Wolfson, who is now in her 90s. In The Red Leather Diary Koppel's delicate historical filigree moves along a tale told mostly by the entries…In the end, The Red Leather Diary is a story about not one but two lovable characters—and the city that brought them together.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Journalist Koppel found the inspiration for this book, based on her 2006 New York Times article, after discovering Florence Wolfson’s diary in a Manhattan dumpster. Koppel eventually locates Florence in Florida and surprises the 90-year-old with this artifact from her past, which reveals her views on growing up as an intelligent, ambitious and creative teenager on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1930s. Florence received the diary as a present on her 14th birthday. She recorded everything from her first kiss (with a boy) to her crush on actress Eva Le Galliene (which led her to question her sexuality) to her passion for writing and art. The diary acts as a window into a fascinating and privileged world, one that Koppel tries to recreate by writing in a novelistic way, using no more than snippets of text from Florence’s diary and, we can presume, multiple interviews as support. The result, which some readers may find frustrating and others rewarding, is that the original inspiration—the diary itself—becomes no more than a starting point for a much larger story: that of Florence’s life.

Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal

In 2003, Koppel, a young New York Times journalist, stumbled across Florence Wolfson's titular five-year (1929-34) diary by chance; it was sitting in a dumpster on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Koppel was rightly fascinated by this glimpse into a stranger's teenage years in the elegant and exciting New York City of the 1930s, and so she tracked down the diary's writer. After her initial surprise, Wolfson, then 90 years old and living in Connecticut, willingly fleshed out the diary for Koppel with recollections of her later life. The resulting story, which initially appeared as a New York Times feature article, is here developed into a compelling portrait of 1930s New York cleverly blended with Koppel's own experiences of the city to create a connection between then and now. Koppel's love of New York is obvious in the details she draws from Florence's diary, which show how the city has changed in ways both big and small. An entertaining and enjoyable work suited to public library collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ12/07.]
—Stacey Rae Brownlie

(Editors' Choice) - Reader's Digest
"In The Red Leather Diary, Lily Koppel finds an old journal in a Dumpster, gets lost in its rich take on 1930s New York and, improbably, tracks down the now-90-year-old woman whose life—real and imagined—fills its worn pages."

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
P.S. Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.12(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Red Leather Diary
Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal

Chapter One

The Discovery

Once upon a time the diary had a tiny key. Little red flakes now crumble off the worn cover. 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 marcelled 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 passersby jimmied open the locks and pried apart the trunks' sides in search of old money. Others stared transfixed, as ifgazing 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.

The first time I came to 98 Riverside Drive, an orange brick and limestone building set like a misty castle overlooking leafy Riverside Park and the Hudson River, I felt I was entering a hidden universe awaiting discovery. Under the maroon awning, I entered the red marble lobby, pockmarked with age like the face of the moon. I passed an old framed print of a gondola gliding under Venice's Bridge of Sighs, the early August evening light that filtered through stained-glass windows illuminating a young gallant displaying a jeweled coat of arms, with a dagger stuck in his belt. He was carrying a locked treasure chest.

My gaze wandered to the building's rusted brass buzzer. There were fifteen stories, each floor divided into eight apartments, A through H, where I half expected to find Holden Caulfield's name. Among the residents were several psychoanalytical practices and an Einstein. Floating through the courtyard airshaft, I heard Mozart being worked out on piano. The building seemed to have an artistic soul.

I was twenty-two. I had just landed a job at the New York Times after graduating from Barnard College. An older woman I had met at the newspaper had put me in touch with a friend who wanted to rent a room in her apartment at 98 Riverside. The building was on the Upper West Side, which has long held the reputation of being Manhattan's literary home, although few young artists could still afford the rents.

I rang the pearl doorbell to 2E, waiting in front of the peephole. The red door bordered in black opened, and my new landlady introduced herself. Peggy was in her fifties, with a Meg Ryan haircut. Midwest born and bred, she was glad to learn that I was from Chicago. She was still wearing a pink leotard and tights from Pilates, and her pert expression was hard to read behind a black eye patch. "The pirate look," she said, explaining that a cab had hit her while she was biking through Midtown. Peggy shrugged. "Just my luck."

It was a marvelous apartment with an original fireplace, high ceilings with ornate moldings, Oriental carpets, and antiques. Her collection of Arts and Crafts pottery and vases covered every available surface. When turned upside down, they revealed their makers' names stamped on the bottom—Marblehead, Rookwood, Van Briggle, Roseville and Door. I admired a faun grazing on a vase. "All empty." Peggy giggled, since none held flowers. "I know, very Freudian." She opened French doors, showing me the dining room with a parquet border, and led me through the kitchen, past a no-longer-ringing maid's bell. Down the hallway, she pointed to her own paintings, acrylic portraits and rural landscapes. "The building even has a library," added Peggy, who had just finished Willa Cather's A Lost Lady, which she recommended.

Over Brie with crackers and red grapes set out with silver Victorian grape scissors, we became acquainted on the couch, a pullout, where Peggy said she would sleep. I offered to take the living room instead of her master bedroom, but Peggy insisted. She mentioned rigging up a Chinese screen for privacy. This way she could watch TV late or get up if she couldn't sleep. She told me that when she was my age, she had also come to New York to become an artist. There was a short-lived marriage in her early twenties to a jazz musician. Peggy admitted she lived quietly now, designing Impressionist-inspired napkins and guest towel sets painted with café chairs and names like Paris Bistro, which she sold on the Internet.

The Red Leather Diary
Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal
. Copyright © by Lily Koppel. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Erica Jong
“THE RED LEATHER DIARY is a fascinating book—inventive and inspiring.”

Meet the Author

Lily Koppel writes for the New York Times and other publications. She lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Red Leather Diary 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing piece of history which reads like a novel and is highly recommended for all readers of all ages. As I read I thought, 'In our age of television and video games, it is a shame we no longer have the personalities revealed here, the philosophers, the artists.' But then I remembered young Lily Koppel not only rescued this diary from the dumpster, she followed through until she discovered Florence and produced this book. Thank you, Lily, and thank you Florence. I'm going to buy a copy for my grandma, just two years younger than the book's heroine, also named Florence and also still very much alive, alert, and full of fun.
geokatgrl More than 1 year ago
A brilliant story told from brief entries in a diary of a young woman growing up in New York City in the late 1920's and early 1930's. The most amazing part of this story is that the book's author, a young journalist in New York, researches the story and finds the diarist, now a 90+ year old woman. I identified with this character in ways that I couldn't have imagined and found myself drawn into the time period as if it were my own neighborhood. Superbly provocative and inspirational! This would be a great book for a book club.
jufrida More than 1 year ago
When I purchased this little gem, I was looking for a benign read. As soon as I began reading, I was enchanted by the story of a woman who lived during my own grandmothers era; a woman whose story transcends time and place. I found myself wanting to know the protagonist; I wanted to ask her so many things about the 20's and 30's in New York. I was transported back to my own ancestral past as well. Kudos to the author, Lily Koppel, who brings a refreshing view to being a woman, whatever the era; and, who makes this story come alive.
pinklady23 More than 1 year ago
This book was found in a trunk in early 2000. It had been written by a young girl in the late 20's. If you're interested in our country in general New York City in particular this book is for you. The impressive part, to me, was that the writer of the Diary was tracked down at all. She is now in her late 80's.
MerryOne More than 1 year ago
Lily Koppel writes an engaging story of a young woman's life in New York City in the 1920's. Having found a diary on an old trunk salvaged from her apartment building's storage area and destined for the landfill, Ms. Koppel becomes intrigued by what she reads. What unfolds is the story of a young and vibrant woman, pursuing her dreams, love and a career. Florence Wolfson, the woman who recorded her life in the pages of that long-lost diary, was a very modern woman, full of talent, ambition, and a great sense of adventure. Ms. Koppel, intrigued by the woman revealed in the pages of the diary, finally locates Florence. What follows is the unfolding of a wonderful story and a friendship between author and subject. "The Red Leather Diary" paints a vivid picture of Florence's life, and Florence is a intriguing subject with an extraordinary life. Striving to have an interesting and meaningful life and career, Florence immerses herself in the arts, her education, travel, and a very full social life. Her sense of adventure ans her determination lead her through some very wonderful experiences - love affairs, travelling in Europe in 1936, starting a literary salon in her parent's apartment. Ms. Koppel does a wonderful job of telling this story. Her writing is fluid and very descriptive, and brings both Florence and NYC to life so vividly. I often looked up from my reading and felt a bit disoriented to find myself in 2009, having been so immersed in the book. And as an added bonus, it was wonderful to have 1920's NYC depicted so well. Several times I had to remind myself (a former NYC resident) that I was reading about an earlier time. Ms. Koppel, a NYC resident and reporter for the "New York Times" has captured the city's rhythyms - past and present - perfectly. This book is a wonderful read, a page turner from beginning to end.
filmgirl More than 1 year ago
I randomly picked up this book at the store. I started reading it while waiting for my friend. I thought it was very interesting. It took me back to Florence's youth. I liked how she was very modern for her time. I would recommend this book to anyone. It makes me wish I had kept a diary when I was younger. I would have loved to read it now and remember how it felt to be that young.
SAMWA More than 1 year ago
I was intrigued by the cover and the synopsis of the book and was not disappointed in the content. This coming of age story of a moderately privileged teenager provides a glimpse of life in the 30's, an era which we usually equate with the depression. While Florence seems to have had a great deal of freedom for someone so young, her diary entries give us the feeling that she was truly trying to find where she fit in, while being true to her varied interests and talents. The "rest of the story" segment detailing Lily Koppel's attempt to find the author of the diary was a fitting conclusion to a most enjoyable book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought it at B&N after reading the back cover. I love the time period--the 30's----and the place--New York. The author writes with a very entertaining style and yet it is very informative about the time and place. The fact that she found the old diary in a trash bin and retrieved it made it all the more interesting. I think book clubs would really enjoy this book as well as anyone interested in NYC in the 30's.
KarGustaf More than 1 year ago
I might have enjoyed reading the diary alone; but there was so much research into the times that I wondered often how much of it was from the diary or the elderly woman's remembrances and how much was fiction based on research. Although some of the teenager's life was interesting (in that she was worldly compared to girls living today in New York), she was also self-absorbed (just like a teen) and unfeeling to the point of meanness to others. In the end, I just couldn't finish it -- and I have rarely put a book down once I've started reading. -- Kar Gustaf
PCPC More than 1 year ago
Brought the 20's&30's to alive. Similiaty of feelings of teenagers of yesteryear compared to todays teenagers as well as thru the years.Continuation of the Women's movement!!
Stitchlady More than 1 year ago
The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel was a great book. The diary was written by a daring young lady for her era and found many years later. I learned a few things about NY in that time frame.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had read a small blurb about this book in the NYT Book Review section and was interested. The story is amazing and Florence Wolfson, who had kept the red leather diary when she was a teenager in the '30s, was clearly an exceptional young woman - smart, talented, gifted, confident, adventurous, independent... yet longing for true love and life meaning as so many of us do. My one disappointment is that from the NYT blurb I was under the impression that the book really was the diary. While the diary is quoted throughout, the book is really written by Lily Koeppel, pieced together from her interviews with Florence more than 75 year after the fact. She does an excellent job and seems to find the voice of Florence, but I would like to have been able to read more of the original diary. Still - highly recommend it.
MariaSavva_Author More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book. This is the true story of the discovery of a long-forgotten diary. The diary of Florence Wolfson lay undiscovered for over half a century until the author, Lily Koppel, finds it in a dumpster. Koppel is a writer for the New York Times and was naturally curious about the content of the diary. She searched for the diary's author, and 90 year-old Florence told her all about her life in 1920s and 1930s New York. Florence as a teenager had been full of energy and had a zest for life and the arts. Her story is an amazing one. Lily Koppel brings the pages of the diary to life brilliantly...
Guest More than 1 year ago
Loved this book. Great peek into life of a teenage girl. Quick read, almost too quick.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Nostalgic, charming, and magnificently written. This recreation of a young person's awakenings and yearnings in New York City in the 1930s speaks to every generation of dreamers. Highly recommended. 5 stars.
olemoney More than 1 year ago
I have to agree that I would have rather just read the diary, without all the interjections that distract from what was going on...but then again, it probably would have been boring. I could not finish this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Given the life she led, she turned out to be a remarkedly unremarkable matron. Interesting to be to read about old New York. The well to do and wealthy of that time have always fascinated me. Worth the read, not 5 stars
MWgal More than 1 year ago
Ms. Koppel has great insight into other times, feelings, and happenings, despite being so young. It was a fascinating read. I also enjoyed the photos and actual diary lines I, too, look forward to seeing this story on film.What a sweet diversion to read! 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago