Monday, March 12, 2012

Her Tossed-Out Diary Made her an Author at 92

Angel Franco/ The New York Times

I often say that the Obituary Section of The New York Times is my favorite section because it introduces me to fascinating people I’d never have heard of, like the man who designed the New York Coffee cup or the one who invented the Frisbee.

Last week I learned the story of Florence Wolfson Howitt, who died at 96.  Hers is a story so full of coincidences that, if it were fiction, everyone would scoff.

Here’s what The New York Times obit said on March 7, 2012:  “Florence Wolfson Howitt, whose lifelong dream of recognition as a writer eluded her until she was in her 90s, when the diary she had kept as a teenager was found in a Dumpster and became the subject of a newspaper article and a widely publicized book, died on Tuesday at her home in Pompano Beach, Fla. She was 96.

Florence Wolfson, the daughter of well-to-do parents living in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, was 14 when she was given a little red diary with gold-edged pages. For the next five years, without skipping a day, she wrote four-line entries that evoked her passions.
‘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.’
‘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!’
But she could write, and that was apparent at Wadleigh High, an arts school in Manhattan, from which she graduated at 15; at Hunter College, where she was editor of the literary magazine in her senior year; and at Columbia, where she earned a master’s degree in English literature in 1936. …
She wrote articles for Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan, with titles like “How to Behave in Public Without an Escort” and “What to Do With the Unmarried Daughter.”
Miss Wolfson married Dr. Nathan Howitt, a dentist, in 1939. They moved into an apartment on Riverside Drive and 82nd Street. Sixty-four years later, a steamer trunk that had languished in the basement was placed in a Dumpster on the street. A worker at the building pulled the diary from the trunk and gave it to Lily Koppel, a news assistant at The New York Times, who was subletting an apartment in the building.
In July 2006, after searching birth records and locating Mrs. Howitt, Ms. Koppel wrote an article about her for The Times. That led to Ms. Koppel’s 2008 book, “The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal,” and a close friendship. Ms. Koppel, who is now a freelance writer, said in an interview that the diary “was sort of a telephone line across time, and a glimpse into a vanishing New York.”
Profiles of Mrs. Howitt appeared in publications around the country. She was a guest on the “Today” show. She gave readings and interviews at book club gatherings.
Florence Wolfson was born in Manhattan on Aug. 11, 1915, to Daniel and Rebecca Wolfson. Her father was a physician, and her mother owned a couture shop on Madison Avenue. Mrs. Howitt’s husband died in 2007…
“It was the most exciting year or two of her life, something she always sought,” Ms. Fischel said of her mother’s unexpected fame. “She felt like a celebrity and was 92 years old.”
So many unlikely things gave this woman literary fame at 92.   What if the curious apartment worker hadn’t pulled the diary out of the steamer trunk on the sidewalk?  And what if he never gave it to the young New York Times Reporter?  And what if she never researched to find out the author of the diary?  But in the end, after longing for literary recognition for nine decades, Florence Wolfson Howitt got her fifteen minutes of fame before she died.
Her story hit a sensitive spot in me—because she and I have so many things in common.  Like her, I went to Columbia for a masters degree (in journalism)  When I got married, I lived two blocks away from her building on the West Side.  Like her, I wrote dozens of articles for women’s magazines (and 22 articles for The New York Times.)   Like her, I’ve kept a diary all my life (but not one worth publishing—just a boring few lines on what I did every day.) 
I also have a habit, on my birthday, of making a list of my goals for the year—and then hiding it somewhere in my desk.  Not too long ago I found a list I made when I was fifteen years old.  The number-one goal on my list was “write a best-seller.”
Seeing that brought a rueful smile to my face.  When I was fifteen, it seemed like a reasonable goal, but now that I’m 71, I can only laugh at my naïve 15-year old ambitions.  I have written a few books in my life that were well-reviewed and are still in print, but they were ghost-written with other people’s names on them and told other people’s stories.  I have yet to see my own name on a “real” book. (I’m not counting my Greek Cats photo book as a real book.)
But instead of giving up on my habit of writing a list of goals every year, I’d better sit down and write my list for this year (my birthday was last month.)  The story of Florence Wolfson Howitt has given me hope.  After all, I’m not dead yet....
And, oh yes, I'm designating her as Crone of the Week.  The statue please...


Marie said...

I discovered you on Open Salon and I am simply loving your wonderful blog!

I read the NYT obits for the same reason as you do, so I cannot believe I missed Florence's passing. It was such a remarkable story and she was such a character.

Thank you for your fascinating posts.

by Joan Gage said...

Marie! Thanks so much for your kind words! I love readers like you who share my interest in reading obits. Hope I can keep you reading in the future.