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Once upon a time the diary had a tiny key. Little red flakes now crumble off the worn cover. For more than half a century, its tarnished latch unlocked, the red leather diary lay silent inside an old steamer trunk strewn with vintage labels evoking the glamorous age of ocean liner travel. "This book belongs to," reads the frontispiece, followed by "Florence Wolfson" scrawled in faded black ink. Inside, in brief, breathless dispatches written on gold-edged pages, the journal recorded five years in the life and times of a smart and headstrong New York teenager, a young woman who loved Baudelaire, Central Park, and men and women with equal abandon.
Tucked within the diary, like a pressed flower, is a yellowed newspaper clipping. The photograph of a girl with huge, soulful eyes and marcelled blond hair atop a heart-shaped face stares out of the brittle scrap. The diary was a gift for her fourteenth birthday on August 11, 1929, and she wrote a few lines faithfully, every day, until she turned nineteen. Then, like so many relics of time past, it was forgotten. The trunk, in turn, languished in the basement of 98 Riverside Drive, a prewar apartment house at Eighty-second Street, until October 2003, when the management decided it was time to clear out the storage area.
The trunk was one of a roomful carted to a waiting Dumpster, and as is often the case in New York, trash and treasure were bedfellows. Some passersby jimmied open the locks and pried apart the trunks' sides in search of old money. Others stared transfixed, as if gazing into a shipwreck, at the treasures spilling from the warped cedar drawers: a flowered kimono, a beaded flapper dress, a cloth-bound volume of Tennyson's poems, half of a baby's red sweater still hanging from its knitting needles. A single limp silk glove fluttered like a small flag. But the diary seems a particularly eloquent survivor of another age. It was as if a corsage once pinned to a girl's dress were preserved for three quarters of a century, faded ribbons intact, the scent still lingering on its petals. Through a serendipitous chain of events, the diary was given the chance to tell its story.
The first time I came to 98 Riverside Drive, an orange brick and limestone building set like a misty castle overlooking leafy Riverside Park and the Hudson River, I felt I was entering a hidden universe awaiting discovery. Under the maroon awning, I entered the red marble lobby, pockmarked with age like the face of the moon. I passed an old framed print of a gondola gliding under Venice's Bridge of Sighs, the early August evening light that filtered through stained-glass windows illuminating a young gallant displaying a jeweled coat of arms, with a dagger stuck in his belt. He was carrying a locked treasure chest.
My gaze wandered to the building's rusted brass buzzer. There were fifteen stories, each floor divided into eight apartments, A through H, where I half expected to find Holden Caulfield's name. Among the residents were several psychoanalytical practices and an Einstein. Floating through the courtyard airshaft, I heard Mozart being worked out on piano. The building seemed to have an artistic soul.
I was twenty-two. I had just landed a job at the New York Times after graduating from Barnard College. An older woman I had met at the newspaper had put me in touch with a friend who wanted to rent a room in her apartment at 98 Riverside. The building was on the Upper West Side, which has long held the reputation of being Manhattan's literary home, although few young artists could still afford the rents.
I rang the pearl doorbell to 2E, waiting in front of the peephole. The red door bordered in black opened, and my new landlady introduced herself. Peggy was in her fifties, with a Meg Ryan haircut. Midwest born and bred, she was glad to learn that I was from Chicago. She was still wearing a pink leotard and tights from Pilates, and her pert expression was hard to read behind a black eye patch. "The pirate look," she said, explaining that a cab had hit her while she was biking through Midtown. Peggy shrugged. "Just my luck."
It was a marvelous apartment with an original fireplace, high ceilings with ornate moldings, Oriental carpets, and antiques. Her collection of Arts and Crafts pottery and vases covered every available surface. When turned upside down, they revealed their makers' names stamped on the bottom—Marblehead, Rookwood, Van Briggle, Roseville and Door. I admired a faun grazing on a vase. "All empty." Peggy giggled, since none held flowers. "I know, very Freudian." She opened French doors, showing me the dining room with a parquet border, and led me through the kitchen, past a no-longer-ringing maid's bell. Down the hallway, she pointed to her own paintings, acrylic portraits and rural landscapes. "The building even has a library," added Peggy, who had just finished Willa Cather's A Lost Lady, which she recommended.
Over Brie with crackers and red grapes set out with silver Victorian grape scissors, we became acquainted on the couch, a pullout, where Peggy said she would sleep. I offered to take the living room instead of her master bedroom, but Peggy insisted. She mentioned rigging up a Chinese screen for privacy. This way she could watch TV late or get up if she couldn't sleep. She told me that when she was my age, she had also come to New York to become an artist. There was a short-lived marriage in her early twenties to a jazz musician. Peggy admitted she lived quietly now, designing Impressionist-inspired napkins and guest towel sets painted with café chairs and names like Paris Bistro, which she sold on the Internet.The Red Leather Diary
Excerpted from The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal by Lily Koppel
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