Brand building through storytelling

Portrait of the artist as a young woman blown off course

Every so often I come across a book so perfectly aligned with my interests that it practically levitates into my hand. For instance, The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal, in which a rueful 90-year old woman, chastened by decades of compromise and loss, comes face to face at last with the dreaming girl she used to be–and remains at heart.

Lily And FlorenceThe book owes its very existence to a life-changing twist of fate. First-time author Lily Koppel, age 22 and a celebrity reporter for The New York Times, was looking for a sense of purpose when she stepped outside her Manhattan apartment building to find a dumpster piled high with trunks that she just had to scale—and open. They contained the dusty trappings of a sybaritic life in the 1920s and 30s. Among the vintage gowns, Lily found the real treasure: a 75-year-old diary in which a teenager named Florence Wolfson had recorded her dreams and obsessions. She was a girl of vigorous appetites—for love, for learning and for all the arts, especially writing, her most cherished gift. On an impulse that led to an extaordinary friendship, Lily tracked her down and reconnected Florence—by this time a sedate nonagerian widow—with her young self by placing the diary in her hands.

FlorenceOn one level, The Red Leather Diary is a sweetly redemptive nostalgia trip. “I read the diary avidly and came to love that young girl,” Florence writes in a foreword. The book interweaves her hasty girlhood jottings with Lily’s painstaking evocation of the vanished New York where young Florence turned heads in her velvet coat and six-button gloves. Who knew that movie palaces retained a staff of nurses and surgeons, poised to operate in case of a medical emergency? Or that the Bergdorf’s shopper, suddenly remembering an overdue thank-you note, could duck into the store’s Writing Room and have a secretary post it on engraved stationery?

Florence had everything young women were supposed to want: beauty, intelligence, suitors galore and the sheen of self-possession. Her classmates were in awe of this charismatic blonde, who edited the literary magazine and would sweep into lectures in her riding gear after a morning canter through Central Park. At 19, Florence was hosting a salon that attracted two of the era’s most exciting young poets, Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman. Her bourgeois parents tolerated this eccentric fascination with writing, but insisted that her destiny lay elsewhere, in marriage to a rich Jewish husband.

Florence expressed her freewheeling side in a series of rapturous love affairs with both women and men. Through her lesbian adventures, she could borrow men’s freedom to pursue and abandon women. That’s how she explains it to Lily, but I suspect an additional dynamic—a sublimation of her unacceptable artistic impulses. “Sex was art,” Florence tells Lily in a tantalizing, unexplored aside.

Florence married a dentist, raised two daughters, played bridge and gave parties. Unless you count a flurry of articles for Good Housekeeping, she never became a writer. The voice of her diary—frank, vigorous, impassioned—was silenced. Looking back on her youth, she says to Lily, “Where did all that creativity go? If I was true to myself, would I have ended up living this conventional life?”

There’s no mistaking either Lily’s affection for her subject or her sense of herself as a modern version of the Florence who once captivated literary New York. Isn’t Lily forgetting something? She has the good fortune to be young when a woman can make an impressive run for President (if not clinch her party’s nomination; liberation still has its limits). Florence, born in 1920, belongs to my mother’s generation of women. For them, brains and ambition offered scant protection from the psychic amputations that were part of being female.

Lily Koppel has neither the life experience nor, it seems, the imagination to enter Florence’s emotional world and feel the anguish of her loss, now filtered through the graceful spirit of an old woman making her peace. Still, some of this material has a wrenching power that transcends the author’s limitations. As the daughter of a prodigiously gifted woman who also cranked out articles for Good Housekeepingbecause she had no other opportunities (gritting her teeth all the while), I was particularly moved by Florence’s sporadic attempts to speak in her own voice.

At 26, she wrote a book, Are Husbands Necessary? Too forward-thinking, said publishers. Nearly two decades later, she took a solo trip to Europe (a bold move in those days) and in Venice found herself immersed in a tidal wave of emotion. She wrote in a never-published short story, “My throat aches with the piled up sentiment, the release of emotions I never experience on Fifth Avenue… I am full of love, sadness, nostalgia, yearning…. I plunge into the nearest bar.” Her psychiatrist’s prescription: focus on her husband and children.

I wonder whether Florence had the stuff to become an honest minor writer (which is all most of us wordsmiths can ever hope to be). I’m sorry she never had the chance to find out. I wish I could sit down with her for wine and conversation. But I was not the one who stumbled upon Florence’s diary. I’m glad it ended up in caring hands, and that I’ve read this flawed but tender-hearted and ultimately life-affirming book.

Posted by Rona

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