Friday, February 06, 2009

The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel

I hadn’t heard of this book until recently, but maybe you have. It caused a sensation when it first appeared a few years ago. The author of the book, Lily Koppel, is not the author of the diary. The red leather diary belonged to Florence Howitt, who wrote in it every day between the years 1929-34 when she was a teenager in New York City. Lily Koppel discovered the diary in a dumpster outside her apartment building in 2003, read it, located its owner who was then around 90 and living in Florida, and persuaded her to allow its publication.

Most of the book is a narrative of the years Florence kept the diary. Rather than use verbatim diary entries, Koppel has turned Howitt’s words into a coherent story of her life as a high school, then Hunter College student, though Koppel intersperses her narrative with short quotes from the actual diary. Florence Howitt was accomplished, beautiful, obsessed with art, literature, and romance (and in constant pursuit of all three), stylish, rebellious, brave; it all makes for great reading.

I wish Koppel had included more of Florence’s own words. She was an excellent writer, was editor in chief of Echo, Hunter’s literary magazine, and received her master’s degree in English literature from Columbia. In the early 1940’s she enjoyed a short career writing for women’s magazines, before she dropped out of sight to pursue marriage and motherhood. Koppel’s prose is more journalistic and not as compelling.

I really identified with Koppel’s delight in discovering this diary. I love to find cool old things at Goodwill or the St. Vincent de Paul society store, and I wouldn’t hesitate to climb into a dumpster if I thought it was filled with personal treasures from the 1930’s.

Here is a link to a wonderful video clip of Koppel and Howitt being interviewed by one of the morning news shows. But I never know how long video stays up and findable on the Web so maybe by the time you click this, the link will be broken; if that's the case, I apologize.

(Book 5, 2009)


Anonymous said...

I really like the sound of this. Early 20th C women's writing, especially if literary or artistic ticks all my boxes!

Becky Holmes said...

Yes, mine too, which was why I rushed out to get this as soon as I heard of it!

LINDA from Each Little World said...

I read about this in the Bas Bleu catalog and just ordered it from the library!

Serena said...

I had not heard of this book, but what a great idea!

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