A worker’s curiosity about the contents of an abandoned steamer trunk leads a very young writer to unlock the romantic story of a much older writer.
by Dave Riley
LEO ROSTEN, THE SCREENWRITER AND HUMORIST, said it best: “The only reason for being a professional writer is that you just can’t help it.”
As Rosten suggests, for some people writing is a compulsion, not a choice. Having a burning desire to write isn’t something you acquire, like a college degree or a good tan or a new sofa. It’s either in your DNA or it’s not, and if it’s not, no amount of work or study can instill the love of writing in you. Mia Hamm, arguably one of America’s greatest soccer players and herself an author, once said, “If you don’t love what you do, you won’t do it with much conviction or passion.”
New Yorker Florence Wolfson Howitt, who was born in 1915, was an avid writer from an early age, and, like many writers, one of her first works was a diary. Besides her love of writing, she was bright. She graduated from Wadleigh, an arts high school in Manhattan, at age 15, then went to Hunter College and was editor of the literary magazine. Later she got a master’s degree in English at Columbia.
In 1939, she married a dentist, and they moved into an apartment on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, eventually raising two daughters. Along the way she wrote articles for Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan, but those literary accomplishments were not enough to make her famous or, more importantly, make her believe she had reached her full potential as a writer.
FAST FORWARD TO 2005. According to Columbia Magazine, the alumni publication of Columbia University, Ms. Howitt, who was 90 at the time, was sitting in her home in Pompano Beach, Florida, one Sunday morning when the phone rang. It was Lily Koppel, a young writer working for the New York Times, who told Ms. Howitt she wanted to write her story. Ms. Koppel, coincidentally, was also a Columbia graduate and even more coincidentally (if there is such a thing as “more coincidentally”) had sublet an apartment in the same Riverside Drive property where Ms. Howitt and her husband had lived many years before.
Ms. Koppel told Ms. Howitt that she had come into possession of a diary that Ms. Howitt had written over a five-year period as a teenager. It seems a cleaning out of the storage area had taken place at 82 Riverside Drive, and in the process a steamer trunk was placed in a Dumpster. A worker, curious about what was in the trunk, opened it and found the diary. Eventually he gave it to Ms. Koppel.
“Oh, my God,” Columbia quotes Ms. Howitt as saying when she comprehended what Ms. Koppel was telling her.
Columbia continued: “Florence would soon become reacquainted with that passionate, precocious, privileged girl. In interviews on Sunday mornings over bagels and lox, Koppel used tidbits of diary entries to trigger Florence’s memory of the years 1929 to 1934, between her 14th and 19th birthdays, when she faithfully wrote a few lines every night about her whirlwind life in New York.”
There are entries about going to Playland, to a haunted house, to the beach, and to the Modern. “Tonight Bernard told me he loved me better than any other girl and I said the same,” she wrote. “It sounded like what we read in books,”
In another entry she complained about the people in Rockaway, where she was vacationing with her family one summer, saying, “How I long to go home.” But then she goes home and writes, “I went to school today and met all of my old school friends…but I miss some of the boys from Rockaway. How changeable I am.”
From the interviews and the diary, Ms. Koppel wrote an article for the Times and then a book, The Red Leather Diary. One review describes it as “a journey into the past, traveling to a New York in which women of privilege meet for tea at Schrafft’s, dance at the Hotel Pennsylvania, and toast the night at El Morocco. As she turns the diary’s brittle pages, Koppel is captivated by the headstrong young woman whose intimate thoughts and emotions fill the pale blue lines.”
AFTER THE RED LEATHER DIARY WAS PUBLISHED, Ms. Howitt became an instant celebrity. Articles were written about her, she appeared on NBC’s “Today,” and she made appearances at book club meetings. It was an ironic kind of literary fame — Ms. Howitt became known not precisely for what she had written but for something someone else had written about what she had written. But that didn’t diminish her enjoyment. “It was the most exciting year or two of her life, something she always sought,” her daughter Valerie Fischel told the New York Times of her mother’s unexpected fame. “She felt like a celebrity and was 92 years old.”
Florence Wolfson Howitt passed away in March of 2012. at her home in Pompano Beach at age 96. She was a talented writer whose literary fame arrived late — but nevertheless arrived in time for her to savor every minute of it.