The New York Times
July 16, 2006
By LILY KOPPEL
"THIS book belongs to ...," reads the frontispiece of the little red
diary, followed by the words "Florence Wolfson" scrawled in faded black ink. Inside the worn leather cover, in brief, breathless dispatches written on gold-edged pages, the journal recorded five
years of the life and times of a smart and headstrong New York teenager, a girl who loved Balzac, Central Park and male and female lovers with equal abandon.
Tucked inside the journal, like a pressed flower, is a yellowed clipping from a Yiddish newspaper, noting that at age 15 the diary's owner was awarded a New York State Regents college scholarship. The
photograph of a girl with huge, soulful eyes and marcelled blond hair atop a heart-shaped face stares out of the brittle scrap of newsprint.
The diary was a gift for her 14th birthday, on Aug. 11, 1929, and she wrote a few lines faithfully, every day, until she turned 19. Then, like so many relics of time past, it was forgotten.
With its tarnished latch unlocked, the diary lay silent for more than half a century inside an old steamer trunk, plastered with vintage travel stickers that evoke the glamorous golden age of ocean liner voyages. The trunk in turn languished in the basement of 98 Riverside Drive, an orange brick apartment house at 82nd Street, until October 2003, when the management decided it was time to clear out the storage area.
The trunk and its sisters were carted to a waiting Dumpster, and as is often the case in New York, trash and treasure were bedfellows. Some passers-by jimmied open the locks of the trunks and pried apart their sides, in search of old money. Others stared transfixed at the treasures spilling from the warped cedar drawers: 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 fluttered like a small flag.
NEW YORK is a city threaded with castoffs. Among the most haunting remnants of 9/11 were scraps of paper from the World Trade Center that
floated down into brownstone gardens miles away. Even old tradesmen's signs that sometimes swim into view like apparitions when a building next door is torn down are unexpectedly evocative.
But the little diary seems a particularly eloquent survivor of another age. It is as if a corsage once pinned to the dress of a young girl was preserved in amber for three quarters of a century, its faded ribbons still intact, the scent still lingering on its petals.
Through a fortuitous chain of events, the diary got a chance to tell its story. A young building engineer who worked at 98 Riverside Drive rescued the book, wrapped it in a plastic Zabar's bag, and stashed it in his locker. He showed the book to me, and I 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's father, Daniel, 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
The family, which by 1919 included a baby named Irving, lived for a time in a Harlem brownstone, with a backyard, that also housed Dr. Wolfson's office. In 1927, along with Mary, their live-in German maid,
they moved to an eight-room apartment on Madison Avenue and 97th Street, a comfortable neighborhood for a solidly middle-class Jewish family.
Florence attended Wadleigh High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which still stands on West 114th Street. It was a perfect place for someone with a passion for playing piano, painting portraits and
writing poems. A precocious student, she graduated at 15, and then she was off to Hunter College on East 68th Street.
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, 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.
"Nat finally kissed me!" she wrote in her diary three years later. "It was pretty bad, but he was so utterly delightful about it that I didn't care. He's sweet." He also 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."
In her senior year at Hunter, Florence served as editor in chief of Echo, the college's literary journal, writing stories and plays with titles like "Heard Flowers" or "Three Thousand Dollars," about a man who finds a wallet in Central Park and to his wife's fury returns it
to its owner.
She was hardly the only member of the class of '34 with a taste for the literary life. One of her colleagues at Echo, Joy Davidman, who went on to marry the novelist C. S. Lewis, was a prize-winning poet.
Another classmate, Bel Kaufman, granddaughter of the Yiddish humorist Sholom Aleichem, gained fame as the author of a best-selling novel, "Up the Down Staircase."
Judging by the words beneath her portrait in The Wistarian, her college yearbook, Florence Wolfson, too, seemed headed for a career in the arts: "Undecided as to whether she should devote her life to painting or to writing, Florence will doubtless continue successfully to use both as media of expression."
Despite a hectic social calendar, a comfortable lifestyle and a string of academic triumphs, however, the Hunter student felt isolated at home. Her parents fought bitterly with each other, and she clashed with both of them. "Had a miserable argument with mother this evening," she wrote on Jan. 7, 1932. "I hate home. Whenever I voice the lightest complaint, the heavens over my head are crushed."
On another occasion: "I never fully realized what a tragedy my parents' lives were."
Three-quarters of a century later, she would recall telephoning her parents anxiously before bringing home a date, to ask them to please not be fighting when she walked through the door. Her father, she
said, was generous to his patients, especially during the Depression, when he sometimes treated those who couldn't pay for just a few dollars, but, she added, "I never remember mother or father kissing
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.""
On April 10, 1932: "Wrote all day — and my story is still incomplete." On Sept. 2, 1934: "Planning a play on Wordsworth — possibilities are infinite." On Oct. 12, 1934: "How I love to inflict pain on my characters!"
Yet what she seemed to crave most were grand passions that would envelop her and transform her life. "Five hours of tennis and glorious happiness,"" she wrote on July 3, 1932. "All I want — is someone to love — I feel incomplete."
Though written at a time when sex was a subject discussed discreetly at best, the diary is studded with brief but graphic details about relationships with both men and women. "Slept with Pearl tonight — it
was beautiful," she wrote on April 11, 1932. "There is nothing so gratifying as physical intimacy with one you like." And on April 19, 1933: "Dear God, I'm sick of this! What am I — man or woman? Both? Is it possible — it's all become so hard, so loathsome — the forced
decision — the pain."
A consuming object of her affection was Eva Le Gallienne, the openly lesbian actress who founded the Civic Repertory Theater in Greenwich Village. "I had a tremendous crush and drew a picture of her,"
Florence Howitt recalled years later. "I went to the theater one night. I gave it to an usher and said, 'Give this to Miss Le Gallienne.' I went backstage and her girlfriend was there, half dressed. We talked. But she had this girlfriend. I came home and told my father. Of course he blew up."
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."
AFTER graduating from Hunter and taking a whirlwind trip abroad, Florence enrolled in the graduate English program at Columbia University, where she studied with the poet and critic Mark Van Doren and attended parties with the equally illustrious Lionel Trilling. A
dusty document titled "The Life and Work of John Hughes," her master's thesis on a critic of the English poet Edmund Spenser, would be salvaged decades later, near where her diary was found.
Among those much taken with the brainy and beautiful graduate student was the poet Delmore Schwartz. James Atlas, in his biography of the poet, wrote of "the 'salon' of Florence Wolfson, the daughter of a
wealthy doctor who allowed her to entertain friends in their large apartment." Florence remembered the scene vividly; as she bent to light the fireplace, she used to unpin her long blond hair and let it cascade seductively onto her shoulders as her guests pondered the ethics of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.
In 1939, at 24, Florence married Dr. Howitt, who was just out of dental school at the University of Pennsylvania. After a honeymoon in Mexico, they moved into an apartment connected to the apartment her
parents had moved to a few years earlier, on West End Avenue and 92nd Street. For the new bride there followed a stint of writing feminist-tinged advice articles for Good Housekeeping magazine, like "How to Quarrel With Your Husband," "How to Behave in Public Without an Escort" and "Don't Apologize So Much!"
But professional motivation did not seem her strong suit, and not long after the birth of her two daughters, Valerie and Karen, and the family's move to 98 Riverside Drive, her focus shifted from pursuing a career in writing to playing tennis, bridge and the stock market.
TODAY, Florence Howitt is an unexpectedly glamorous-looking 90-year-old, with homes in Westport, Conn., and Pompano Beach, Fla. In
Westport, she and her husband, a retired oral surgeon, live on Long Island Sound, in a private community near the Cedar Point Yacht Club,
in a gray cottage over a one-lane wooden bridge. The walls of their living room are filled with figurative and abstract paintings, among them her pastel of their daughter Valerie as a young girl.
A few weeks ago, wearing well-tailored fawn pants, red lipstick, and tinted gold and tortoise Christian Dior glasses, Ms. Howitt sat in that room and journeyed back to the girl she had been. Clutching the
diary with hands still supple enough to practice scales daily on the piano, she caressed the book's fragile cover and gently thumbed through pages dense with girlish handwriting.
" 'I'm 14 years old!' 1929!" she read in a husky voice. Then: " 'At last I've arrived! The year has left me wiser, less happy, but still I'm 15!' "
She seemed both shocked and delighted by the accounts of her early promiscuity.
"I'm quite a busy young lady," she said, going on to read an entry written when was 15: "Had a visit from George again, and a lecture from Dad, again, who walked in at the wrong moment."
Suddenly, she was back in the present. "I started this when I was 14," she said, as if she were speaking to herself. "My husband's 95 years old."
Her reunion with her diary seemed to help her discover a lost self, one that burned with artistic fervor. "You've brought back my life," she announced at one point.
Yet as she fingered the pages of the leather-bound book crumbling in her hands, she reflected on the disappearance of the creative young woman brought to life so vividly in its pages: "Wouldn't you think I
would have had a literary career?"
How, she was asked, did the diary end up in the Dumpster? She is not sure, but she suspects that the book was inadvertently abandoned in storage when she and her husband left 98 Riverside Drive in 1989.
The move from New York City to an affluent Connecticut suburb seemed to write a final entry to the chronicle of the eager, searching girl
she had been. "Where did all of that creativity go?" she wondered aloud as she pondered the newly rediscovered story of her youth. "If I was true to myself, would I have ended up in Westport?"