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Interview: Lily Koppel, Author of The Red Leather Diary

By Jess D'Amico in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 10, 2008 6:25PM

2008_06_Lily%20and%20Florence.jpgLily Koppel, 22 and fresh out of Barnard, was already late for work when she rushed out of her New York apartment in 2003. She stopped when she saw several vintage steamer trunks piled on top of the building’s red dumpster. So, like any good reporter, she and her ballet flats dove in, literally, pulling out a beaded flapper dress, an old coat from Bergdorf's, saddle shoes that fit her like Cinderella's shoes, and at the bottom, a cracked red leather diary with gold edged pages and an open brass lock.

Inside was scrawled the life of a young New York socialite named Florence Wolfson in the 1930’s, which started on her fourteenth birthday and, over two thousand entries later, ended when she was 19. The stories included riding horses in Central Park, travels to Europe where she had an affair with an Italian count, and her obsession with the lesbian founder of the Civic Repertory Theatre, Eva le Galliene. One entry read, "Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven—I feel like a ripe apricot—I'm dizzy with the exotic."

Lily was transfixed, but there was little hope that the owner of the diary was even alive, and so kept the diary for three years when a visit from a man calling himself a lawyer specializing in investigative counsel called her with a lead. They met in an old steakhouse. He wore a trenchcoat and had a magnifying glass.

A few phone calls later, and Lily met with the 90 year old woman, now Florence Howitt, and returned her long forgotten diary.

Florence's story, fleshed out by Lily, is now a book entitled, of course, The Red Leather Diary.

Originally from Hyde Park, Lily’s back in Chicago for the book tour and took time out of her busy schedule to fill us in about her favorite treasure hunting spots in Chicago, her own diaries, and why she thinks modern Chicago is more like 1930’s New York than New York is.

Chicagoist: What was it like first reading Florence's diary?

Lily: It was like a personal letter to me almost. It became sort of a guide for me of an intellectual but beautiful woman and I had sort of a parallel life in Chicago, while Florence was riding horses in Central Park I was riding horses in this stable in Old Town and while Florence was taking art classes, I was also taking classes at the Art Institute. Just you know, decades apart.

C: So did you feel like her story was your story in a way?

L: The book in a way was almost like an actress and having the diary was seeing the world through her eyes and as I was trying to think about it and I kept coming back to Chicago. You can sort of feel ownership to those places where in modern New York you just can’t. Manhattan is too crowded. Even just walking around downtown; you’ve got to be alone with the city. And in Chicago you can still have that, and still be there.

C: Where do you go to find treasures in Chicago?

L: I always go vintage shopping. My favorite place is Silver Moon on North Avenue by Damen. They downsized though, and I haven’t had a chance to go back yet. I love all the boutique-y vintage stores on Damen, too. Robin Richmond is my favorite on Damen. Also, in high school, I had in my glove compartment a folded page from the phone book that listed all the Villages. It was better than therapy. I’d go through the whole store and take whatever caught my eye. Then I’d do my second edit and always end up with a large bag of stuff. If I had the energy I’d go to a second one and spend a whole day like that.

C: In the trunk were you found the diary, what made it stand out above everything else?

L: It looks just like the book cover, glistening red cover with this rusted brass latch. It looked so intriguing, and it was whispering “open me.” I did and the frontispiece had Florence’s name beautifully written and inside in blue and black ink cursive there were over 2000 entries. One read, “five hours of tennis and glorious happiness. All I want is someone to love. I feel incomplete.”

At 15 she was writing a novel, and she wrote about how every adolescent needs to write the novel of their angst. The diary was a guide or map to something we all want but is hard to find in this digital age. This girl was 19 and hosting a literary salon in her parents’ house that included these amazing writers like John Berryman. This old newspaper clipping fell out just when I was wondering what she looked like when she wrote about her mother making these gorgeous dresses and just this vintage fashion lover and so this picture fell out and she has waves and platinum blonde hair which first she dyed by sneaking a bottle of peroxide from her father, a doctor.

C: How did you find Florence?

L: I thought it would have been really pushing it that she would still be alive. As a young writer moving to New York and I felt like I’d already had a great experience finding this diary and everything, and I thought it was unlikely that she would be alive.

I had it for three years. I found in 2003 and by 2006 I had carved out covering hidden treasures of New York as the city fills up with Starbucks and banks and all. I had written a story about the last typewriter repairman and I received a call from a lawyer who introduced himself as investigative counsel and had this sort of underworld feeling and we met a week later at this steakhouse and the sleuth, Charles R. Gordon was wearing a trench coat, and at dinner pulled out a magnifying glass. He even has a plastic Sherlock Holmes figure in his office.

C: And you talked to her on phone a couple of times, but when you first met her face to face, how did you feel?

L: It did feel like one of those reunion shows with twins separated at birth or something. I had crossed paths with her in such an interesting way and I thought I'd be meeting a writer or artist and she was this wonderful housewife in Connecticut. Mostly before I had this feeling that I had trespassed on somebody’s life, and that was completely gone. I met her in 2006 in the spring and the first time I did she hugged me and said, “this girl is gorgeous” to her daughter and it was really incredible. I almost think all of us deserve that. Being able later in life to look back in such a concentrated way at our youth.

Although there was this moment when she was reading about this young woman she asked me, “How do I end up living this ordinary life?” But to me, the fact that she persisted in such an open-minded way was brave itself. At first she wasn’t sure if she wanted the whole world looking at her so closely but she told me the old Florence would’ve said go for it, so she tried to be true to that. And I think that’s what the book is really about. It’s about the significance of all of our lives. It was headed for the dumpster and would’ve been forgotten. Florence said to me, “my life was a tragedy and now it’s a romantic comedy.” She refers to it as, “a sexy Tuesdays with Morrie.”

C: Do you keep a diary?

I must have like 50 in Chicago of my teenage diaries. They aren’t as cute as Florence’s but they’re usually like concert tickets stapled in and someone who broke my heart and photocopies of my hands and the sort of collages you make. But my mother keeps them all in this trunk she painted for me. She told me she’s never read them, and I guess I have to believe that. (laughs)

Red has of course taken on a new meaning for me, so now I have my red moleskine, I’m still writing but my writing tends to be flash lists, rather than a true diary.

C: What are you working on now?

I’m really absorbed in the diary still and giving it a chance for people to discover it, but I do have a second book in the works. It’s about my mother and exploring how we know our mothers and one thing that made an impression on me was Florence’s daughters. They both told me they cried at the end of the book and they learned so much about their mother and how differently they looked at her. So that’s where I’m headed.

If you'd like to see Lily read, here's where she'll be the rest of the week:

Tuesday, June 10, 2008
7:00 p.m.
Evergreen Park Public Library
9400 South Troy Evergreen Park, IL 60805

Wednesday, June 11, 2008
07:30 PM
Women and Children First
5233 N. Clark Chicago, IL 60640

Thursday, June 12, 2008
07:00 PM
Borders Books and Music
830 N Michigan Ave Chicago, IL 60611