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Dailiness No. 1 – Florence Wolfson

Letters & Essays

Dailiness No. 1: Florence Wolfson

One morning in October 2003, the staff at 98 Riverside Drive, an elegant pre-war apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, cleared out the contents of the massive basement in preparation for a planned renovation. The basement had for decades been used as overflow storage for the building’s residents, and the disinterment unearthed long-lost items dating to the early 20th century.


Clothing, photographs, furniture, and personal items were hauled out and thrown away. Among them was an old steamer trunk, plastered with vintage travel stickers. Something about this piece in particular — perhaps the way it evoked the glamorous golden age of ocean liner voyages — caught the eye of a young engineer who worked who worked in the building. 


After bringing it to the dumpster where the rest of the basement’s contents lay, doomed, he jimmied open the locks to have a look inside. Spilling from the warped cedar drawers were a red kimono; a beaded rose flapper dress; a cloth-bound volume of Tennyson’s poems; the top half of a baby’s red sweater still hanging from its knitting needles, a single limp silk glove, and a red, tattered, leather-bound diary with gold-edged pages and the words “Mile Stones” engraved on the front. The book was old — with dates going back to the late 1920s — and had clearly been loved. It’s pages were crammed full with passionately scribbled words.


The man took the book, wrapped it in a plastic Zabar’s bag, and stashed it in his locker. Not sure what to do with it or how he might reunite it with its owner, he showed the book to a young journalist who lived in the building. 


Lily Koppel, who was at the time a 22-year-old news assistant at The New York Times and a subletter in the building, was intrigued. a diary kept by one of the building’s former residents, a teenage girl named Florence Wolfson. Not a single day was skipped in the diary’s five years from 1929 to 1934.


She realized she was holding a map of a bygone era in Manhattan, one that came with the perfect guide. Florence Wolfson met friends for tea at Schrafft’s and frequented the nightclub El Morocco; she window-shopped at Bonwit Teller and Bergdorf’s, and rode horses at the Claremont Riding Academy. In short, she was Marjorie Morningstar before Herman Wouk graduated from college. 


Koppel shared it with a New York lawyer named Charles Eric Gordon (license plate “Sleuth”), who specializes in tracking down missing persons.


After a few weeks of investigation, Mr. Gordon struck gold. Searching the city’s birth records, he discovered only one New Yorker of the proper age named Florence Wolfson, who was born in Manhattan on Aug. 11, 1915, to a pair of Russian immigrants who had come to the city in the early 20th century.

Florence Wolfson was born in Manhattan on Aug. 11, 1915, to Daniel and Rebecca Wolfson. Her father, a doctor from a family of prominent rabbis, had a busy medical practice. Her mother, Rebecca, owned a couture shop on Madison Avenue, where she stitched up frocks for clients who paid up to $1,000 for an outfit, a fortune in those years. As her daughter would dryly observe decades later, “We were not poor during the Depression.”


Hers was a life of privilege: meeting friends for tea at Schrafft’s, nightclubbing at El Morocco and the Copacabana, dancing at the Pennsylvania Hotel and the New Yorker. She subscribed to the Philharmonic ($7 for the season) and bought discounted theater tickets at LeBlang’s drugstore, played tennis in Central Park and rode horses along the park’s bridle paths in jodhpurs or breeches — which she also wore to school because she thought she looked so dashing.

In the summer, there were excursions to the Catskills. “To the country today,”“ she wrote in her diary on Aug. 12, 1933, “and felt as never before my passion for the trees & clean air and infinite space.”


It was during one such trip that Florence met a dark-haired young man with chiseled features named Nathan Howitt (“as handsome as a Greek god”),with whom she would elope a decade later. She was 13, he was 18, and the two crossed paths at Spring Lake, the Catskills hotel owned by his parents.


The two met when Florence was 13, and first kissed (duly recorded in the diary) when she was 16. “Nat finally kissed me! It was pretty bad, but he was so utterly delightful about it that I didn’t care. He’s sweet.”


Nat proved a devoted swain: Among the items in a pile of rubble near the entrance of 98 Riverside, not far from the Dumpster that held the diary, was a brittle Western Union telegram addressed to her and signed: “I love you. Nat.”


They eloped when Florence was 24, and stayed married for 67 years until he died in 2006 at the age of 97.


In its nearly 2,000 entries, the diary paints a picture of a teenager obsessed both with her appearance and with the meaning of existence.


Jan. 16, 1930: “I bought a pair of patent leather opera pumps with real high heels!” On April 8 that year: “Bought myself a little straw hat $3.45 — It won’t last long.” On April 20 the following year: “Dyed my eyebrows & eyelashes and I’ve absolutely ruined my face.” On 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.”


Yet interspersed with observations about frivolous matters are equally heartfelt remarks about the books she loved — Baudelaire and Jane Austen were particular favorites — the paintings she studied, the performances she attended and the city that was her home.


“Slept long hours, read ‘The Divine Comedy’ and for the most part too exhausted to think or even understand,” she wrote on March 12, 1934. Four months later: “Reading ‘Hedda Gabler’ for the tenth time.”


Music, a recurring theme, scored her life with exclamation points. Beethoven symphonies! Bach fugues! “Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven,”“ she wrote on June 28, 1932. “I feel like a ripe apricot — I’m dizzy with the exotic.”


The portrait that emerges is of a young woman with huge ambitions, even if chasing them proved daunting. “Went to the Museum of Modern Art.”“ she wrote on Feb. 21, 1931. “Sheer jealousy — I can’t even paint an apple yet — it’s heartbreaking!” On Jan. 16, 1932: “I couldn’t study today & went to the museum to pass a morning of agonizing beauty — Blown glass, jade and exquisite embroideries.”“


Perhaps the most revealing indicator of the roller coaster that was Florence’s emotional life is the diary’s “Index of Important Events,” charted over the volume’s five-year span:


“My first dance, Dec. 30, 1929.”

“My first cigarette, Jan. 12, 1930.”

“My first evening dress, May 20, 1930.”

“Spotted Eva Le Gallienne, May 8, 1930.”

“Fell in love with her, May 8, 1930.”

“Manny came to New York, July 19, 1930.”

“Won a scholarship, Aug. 30, 1930.”

“Spoke to Eva again — and was refused — Nov. 14, 1930.”

“First formal dance, January 10, 1931.”

“George came back, June 29, 1931.”

“Absolute End of George, July 1931.”

“End of Manny, April 23, 1932.”

“Slept with Pearl, April 11, 1932.”

“Won $40 for short story, June 8, 1932.”

“Reconciliation with Manny, Aug. 26, 1932.”

“Dismissed Pearl, Sept. 7, 1932.”

Having reunited Wolfson with her diary, Koppel soon struck up a friendship with the woman she had come to know through her writing. In interviews on Sunday mornings over bagels and lox, Koppel used tidbits of diary entries to trigger Florence’s memory of the years between her 14th and 19th birthdays, when she faithfully wrote a few lines every night about her whirlwind life in New York, her quarreling Russian Jewish immigrant parents, her intellectual adventures, and flirtations. Those meetings eventually yielded the book, The Red Leather Diary, a dusty window into an extraordinary life. 

Florence Wolfson's diary