Lily Koppel, author of The Red Leather Diary wrote a post for you, my dears, to celebrate the launch of her book.
If I found a vintage treasure in a dumpster, I wonder if I would have the same drive to write a book about it, I like to think I would… Would you?
It is almost like a fashion time machine. I would certainly like to hop on. Can’t wait to read the book!
How I Slipped into a Depression-Era Young Woman’s World
It’s a story that reads like a movie: on my way to work at the New York Times, I stumbled upon a dumpster filled with old steamer trunks plastered with luggage stamps from luxe locales like Paris and Monaco, just a polishing away from their descendants at Louis Vuitton. Among the treasure trove of vintage clothes, a flapper dress, a stunning tangerine bouclé coat from Bergdorf’s with an iridescent lining and a single Bakelite button coat from Bergdorf’s, a beaded flapper dress, a custom-made riding habit, I found a young woman’s crumbling red leather diary kept in the 1930s.
Paging through the diary for the first time gave me goosebumps. Little flakes of red leather from its worn cover sprinkled onto my white bedspread. Every page and entry was magical. I couldn’t help but think, how did it find its way to me, and why?
January 16, 1930. I bought a pair of patent leather opera pumps with real high heels! April 8, 1930. Bought myself a little straw hat $3.45—it won’t last long! April 20, 1931. Dyed my eyebrows and eyelashes and I’ve absolutely ruined my face. March 13, 1934. A fashion show for amusement and almost overcome with envy—not for the clothes but the tall, slim loveliness of the models.
(Hello Fashion Week)
Observations about frivolous matters were interspersed with heartfelt reflections about the books she loved. Florence’s life was one of theater and art, many lovers, writers and poets, including the Italian count Florence fell for while in Rome when she sailed to Europe in 1936. Names floated on the pages through time: Eva Le Gallienne… George… Nat… Manny… Pearl… Evelyn…
That first night with the diary when I was 22, in 2003, I slipped under the covers and continued to read. I followed Florence’s adventures into the night. My lavender-painted room, which I was renting in the Upper West Side apartment of an eccentric older woman, filled with an orange glow from the streetlamp outside my window. Time seemed to do a backbend, like in yoga.
I felt as if we were one, this girl from the ‘30s and I. Florence wrote on July 3, 1932: Five hours of tennis and glorious happiness–All I want — is someone to love — I feel incomplete.
Scalloped-edged black and white photographs recreated the half-forgotten world of the sophisticated young Manhattanite who loved “making a sensation” outfitted in clothes designed by her mother, a couture dressmaker with a shop on Madison Avenue, who had come to America alone as a teenager and worked her way up to being a respected business owner, a rare accomplishment in those days. I especially like one of Florence posing in her velvet coat with the silver fox collar.
I got out of bed to examine the other items I had found in the steamer trunks in the dumpster alongside the diary and the entire collection of vintage handbags I had inherited, a lucite box purse and a scaled beaded evening bag. The rose beaded flapper dress hung from its wooden trunk hanger like a pale pink ghost. I wrapped myself in the musty glamour of the tangerine bouclé coat with the label sewn into its silk lining, the color of the pearly inside of a shell: “Bergdorf Goodman on the Plaza.” I secured its elegant Bakelite button.
I slipped into the flapper dress and quietly danced around my room until beads from its frail fringe started hailing down onto wooden floorboards. I eyed the black satin bathing costume for an hourglass figure. Its straps crisscrossed my back like X-marks-the-spot.
As I stared into my full-length closet mirror, the old kind in two separating layers dotted with black spots like a jumpy old film reel, I couldn’t help but wonder: Who was this young woman? Who was Florence Wolfson? Who was I?
As I walked around New York, Florence’s diary became my guide. Trying on a dress at Bergdorf’s, I caught myself searching my reflection, waiting for Florence to join me. Considering a lipstick at Barney’s, I noticed the Nars lipstick, “Flora” between “Orgasm” and “Pillow Talk.”
I stopped at La Perla to pass the time before meeting a friend, an actress, and thought of Florence amid lace as light as sea foam, embroideries made by fairy hands. I flipped through color swatches and lost myself in its underworld. The Roaring Twenties. Jazz. The Charleston. Coco Chanel. Garter belts. The ‘30s evoked Marlene Dietrich. The seducing Blue Angel in corset, stockings and top hat. Just what the dismal times needed.
Florence’s words floated down through the city’s canyons, and into my mind. Only a few favorite places survived from her New York. One was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I often sought rest in the Chinese Garden Court. From the rooftop sculpture garden, I stared at the dreamlike citadel of Manhattan’s rooftops. New York is the place of stories, allegory, and metaphor. Like Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy on the road to Oz, Florence was determined to make her way. I discovered the diary, a real-life time machine, which transported me back into Florence’s world. Florence once wrote, on the beach, away from her city, Oh, for dear old New York!
I needed Florence.
Fearlessly and authentically, Florence Wolfson filled the diary’s pages, recording her life’s adventures over five years, from 1929 to 1934 from 14 to until she turned 19. I learned from a newspaper scrap, which fell out of the diary’s pages that Florence had lived on the Upper East Side.
Three years later, I found Florence, miraculously, after receiving a chance call from a private eye. Charles Eric Gordon was like a pulp 1930s character who entered my life wearing a trench coat, pulling a magnifying glass out of his inside lapel. His license plate read “Sleuth3.”
Florence, I learned when I finally met her at 90 and reunited her with her red leather diary, was one of a generation of Depression-stamped young men and women who longed to cultivate a creative life. As a 19-year-old Columbia graduate student, Florence hosted a literary salon in her parents’ apartment. Among her friends were the young poets, Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman.
After Florence married, she drifted from her art and admitted she had, later in life, “a country club mentality.” As she fingered the pages of the red leather-bound book crumbling in her hands, she reflected on the young woman brought to life so vividly in its pages.
The diary proved how buttoned up our version of the past tends to be. Long before blue jeans entered the scene, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Woodstock–love was in the air. A sexual revolution was taking place in Florence’s 1930s world. If Florence had been born fifty years later, she would have fit right in.
Florence says without missing a beat that she would like Meryl Streep to play her older self in the movie. Scarlett Johansson would be perfect for the young Florence (and myself?). We appeared together on The Today Show, where Florence turned to me and squeezed my hand and said, “This is a fairy tale.”
We’re leaving soon–am trying to be calm–but who expected all this at my age? Lv