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Florence’s writing possessed the literary equivalent of perfect pitch. Her handwriting looped and soared dreamily across the page in blue and black ink, as in this entry from when she was fifteen: “Stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven—I feel like a ripe apricot—I’m dizzy with the exotic.” She was a theater nut and wrote on another occasion: “To a dance recital of Star-Ron, a Hindu of such exquisite beauty and grace as to seem almost as planned as his dances—what a body! As slender as a woman’s and exceedingly chaste, I am certain.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, free and almost deserted during the week, was a temple that she wandered in, solitary and content, for hours. Like a disciple, Florence stood before contemplative stone Buddhas and felt herself magically transported to the Orient. Blissfully wandering on, she was reminded of the words, “Life is but a dream,” from the children’s song. She writes, “Spent all afternoon in the museum and saw the Chinese snuff bottles of jade & onyx and carnelian—oh, to touch them!” On another occasion, “Am on the lookout for a really satisfied person—and so far I’ve discovered that happiness is an alien blessing to those who are true to themselves.”
The diary was a portal into this lost world. I felt as if I was one with this young woman from the thirties. My lavender bedroom filled with an orange glow from the streetlamp outside my second-story windows as I continued to read. February 6, 1934: “Hours repairing torn music books and they look perfectly hideous with adhesive plastered all over them—But what beauty within! My love is so sporadic.”
Although written at a time when sex was a subject discussed discreetly, the diary was studded with intimate details of relationships with both men and women. April 11, 1932: “Slept with Pearl tonight—it was beautiful—there is nothing so gratifying as physical intimacy with one you like.” April 19, 1933: “Dear God, I’m sick of this mess! What am I—man or woman? Both? Is it possible—it’s all become so hard, so loathsome—the forced decision—the pain.”
What she craved most was to be enveloped in a grand passion that would transform her life. July 3, 1932: “Five hours of tennis and glorious happiness—all I want is someone to love—I feel incomplete.”
Compelled by the hopes and heartaches, I set out to find Florence, my only clue her name and address on the Forward clipping. Staring out of the sepia newsprint, her luminous eyes would not let me go.
Three years later, a private investigator—responding to a story I had written about Manhattan’s last typewriter repairman—phoned me while I was at work at the New York Times. I told him about my hunt for Florence and he offered to search the city’s birth records, where he discovered one Florence Wolfson, born in New York City on August 11, 1915, to a pair of Jewish immigrants from Russia, a doctor and his wife. The investigator led me to Florence Howitt, a ninety-year-old woman living with her ninety-five-year-old husband, a retired oral surgeon named Nathan Howitt. Florence and Nathan had been married for sixty-seven years and had homes in Westport, Connecticut, and Pompano Beach, Florida.
One Sunday afternoon in April 2006 I dialed their Florida number on my cell phone. After two rings, a refined voice with the command of a stage actress answered. “Hell-o?”
When I met Florence for the first time in May 2006 in Westport, she hugged me. She seemed an ageless phenom, radiant and full of spunk. During weekly Sunday visits over bagels and lox, we got to know each other. She and her husband had lived in my apartment building about fifty years before me, and when they’d moved out they’d forgotten about the trunk they’d left in the basement storage space. Now, reunited with her diary, Florence rediscovered a lost self that had burned with creative fervor.
As a nineteen-year-old Columbia student, Florence had hosted a literary salon in her parents’ apartment. Her friends, the young poets Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman, were members.