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The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life through the Pages of a Lost Journal Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 8, 2008

3.7 out of 5 stars 131 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.

From Booklist

In 2003, Koppel, a novice writer for the New York Times, stumbled upon an amazing discovery: the decades-old diary of a privileged teenaged Manhattanite penned between 1929 and 1934. Fascinated by entries detailing theater expeditions, shopping sprees, love interests, and grand ambitions, she put her journalistic skills to good use, tracking down the original owner of this faded and cracked red-leather treasure. Elated to discover 90-year-old Florence Wolfson alive, alert, and eager to share her memories of a bygone time and place, Koppel began interviewing Florence, interweaving the brief diary entries with more detailed personal anecdotes infused with the type of glamour and sophistication associated with a 1930s romantic comedy. 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. --Margaret Flanagan

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1St Edition edition (April 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061256773
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061256776
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (131 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #563,698 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
The premise was interesting but the execution poor. There is much information but little life in the telling of Frances' story. Confoundedly uneven: for example, dwells at length on her superficial teenage lesbian affairs, but glosses over the details of the romance with the love of her life. No drama, no introspection, no examination of why or how things happened. Most annoying, however, was Lily Koppel's self-conscious intrusion into the story, reminding us repeatedly about her role in bringing the diary to the world's attention. As if telling the world that she's done so might give her some unearned gravitas, an understanding of what it all means, or at least fool the reader into overlooking her artless, simplistic style. Was especially annoyed with her attempts at impressing the reader with her glamorous-but-shallow writing assignments that had nothing to do with the story. Had a hard time getting through the whole book.
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Format: Hardcover
In 2003, a young journalist for the New York Times named Lily Koppel discovers the diary of Florence Wolfson, age 14, in a discarded steamer trunk on the Upper West Side. Investigation leads her to find out that Florence is still living. Upon visiting the 90-year-old, Florence tells Lily her story, of growing up in New York in the 192os and `30s. Florence grew up in an affluent Jewish family, and kept the diary for five years, from age 14 to 19. She was an active writer and artist. Florence attended a private girls' school and then Hunter College (then all women and now co-ed and part of the CUNY system), where she was active in the college literary magazine. Along the way she experimented with same-sex relationships and agonized over the behavior of boys, eventually marrying a childhood friend.

It seems like your typical coming-of-age story, except for the fact that Florence's is very much of the place and era she grew up in. Little facts about New York City are revealed: for example, for thirty years, there were little statues of Mercury mounted on top of all the stoplights in the city. That was one of the biggest draws of this book. Florence had a pretty average New York City childhood, all things considered; and adding in those little bits of arcane trivia really spiced things up for me.

There were a couple of problems I had with this book: first, Koppel spends an inordinate amount of time bragging about her accomplishments. The story is ultimately Florence's, and Lily talking about, say, a story she did once detracts from that. Koppel's prose seemed a little bit purpled and hackneyed; she also tries to make generalizations about the New York of today that ultimately don't ring true. Also, I thought the book would have been better if Florence had actually written it herself. She's a writer, so why not?
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Format: Hardcover
What a wonderful and magical read. Lily Koppel has done an amazing job of bringing the reader into the story, "seeing" Florence's life and NY in the 1930's. Florence did not care for "watered down personalities" and no wonder as she is such a forceful character. Before reading this I never imagined the freedom a young New Yorker might have. This woman was so precocious and open minded. You find yourself wondering how her parents managed and at the same time wishing for some of her moxie. Most interesting!
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Format: Hardcover
While the premise intrigued me, I gave up reading 1/3 way along. At first the pictures and time period held my interest, but the writing felt more like newspaper reporting than storytelling and I never became invested in the persona of Florence Wolfson.

This impetuous, strong-minded and creative young woman should have been an evocative character, but her exploits were chronicled with a distant and cool hand that left her sounding spoiled and foolish to me. The prose had less life than the brief entries in the diary. I couldn't help thinking that the cold home life alluded to here and there and such events as the house burning down would have had a dramatic effect on an emotional, imaginative girl, yet nothing is made of it at all. We're told Florence wanted to go to school the day after the fire to report the event--only for the dramatic shock effect! Wasn't it rather a plea for attention and/or comfort that was apparently not forthcoming from her parents? This should have been developed (and plenty of other things) to show a sympathetic and multidimensional person who was coping with an intense and complicated situation. The girl who wrote in that diary wasn't a cardboard figure, yet she is made to seem one in the narrative.

Perhaps my expectations for this book were wrong. I thought that based on the diary's entries, a story would be woven that made a young girl and 1930's New York come alive. The author did a fine job of reporting the facts (just the facts, M'am) and there were plenty of them--great research--but no emotion. Considering how dramatic Florence was, it almost seemed silly to report her life like battles in a war. Perhaps things changed further along; I can't say. And again, maybe my expectations were in error and the book was intended to be an accurate chronicle of the facts, but it didn't hold my interest.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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