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The Chosen Ones: An Interview with Lily Koppel

The best-selling novelist on dumpster diving, what’s in the astronauts’ wives’ closets, and almost going on a date with Tony Soprano

Periel Aschenbrand
September 28, 2017
Mark Seliger
Mark Seliger
Mark Seliger
Mark Seliger

Lily Koppel is The New York Times bestselling author of The Red Leather Diary and The Astronaut Wives Club, which inspired the ABC television series of the same name. Her work has received praise from every place imaginable and she is currently at work on her third book. A native of Chicago, Koppel moved to New York over a decade ago and has written for The New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, and Glamour.

Tall, blonde and leggy, she looks more like a mod girl from the 1960’s than she does a Jewish journalist from New York. But as writers should know better than literally everyone else, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Koppel, is, in fact, equal parts writer, dumpster diver extraordinaire, and Jewess. From writing obituaries to being asked out on a date by Tony Soprano, this is her story. I extracted it from her over coffee—or in her case, cold brew with almond milk—at an old-timey coffee shop in the West Village.

Periel Aschenbrand: Your first book, to me, was in many ways to me the most magical New York story. I know it was a while ago and you’ve done so many fascinating things since….

Lily Koppel: I think about it all the time.

PA: I do too. Can you tell me the story again?

LK: I had just graduated from college, from Barnard, I was living on the Upper West Side as sort of throwback to a New York I never got to live in. I was living in a room in somebody’s apartment on 82nd Street and Riverside Side. I moved to New York because of a childhood notion that I would find true love here, which I hope is still true.

PA: You can find true love in lots of different places and in many different incarnations, I think.

LK: I might even find it in the trash, as I found out. I love the trash.

PA: Me too.

LK: I look in it every day. Multiple times.

PA: I think you and I have that in common—a love of the juxtaposition of high and low.

LK: If you only exist in high culture, you’re more in the trash than if you’re in the trash.

PA: Exactly.

LK: So I was working at The New York Times, I was a news clerk, and I was writing obituaries and celebrity journalism. I was going out every night and covering red carpet events and I had a really great mentor named Joyce Wadler. She always wanted the moment where a celebrity was sticking a wad of gum or a booger under the table and she said that if the publicists were assholes, we would put them in the column too. And anyone who had a quote, we would bold face their names, which is why the column was called Boldface Names. James Gandolfini once asked me out on a date, which we wound up writing about.

PA: Did you say yes!?

LK: No, unfortunately. I’m still so fucking pissed. I was such a good little reporter back then. I was like, ‘Scoop!’ and I ran back. But I regret it because The Sopranos is an obsession. And I miss Tony.

PA: I think everybody does. In any event, I admire your journalistic integrity. Philip Roth fed me a cherry once and I tried to write a whole book about it.

LK: I was unhappy because I wanted to be a ‘real artist’ and write a novel and all these dreams. But I came out of my building and one of the sides of this shoebox in the dumpster was down and I could see it was it was stacked with these old trunks from the 1920s and 30s that used to be brought on steamships to Europe. They were all covered with these labels from Paris and Monaco and I literally thought I had manifested this. It was my ultimate fantasy. And I just climbed up into the top of the dumpster and started going through these trunks. And they were better than I could have imagined. They were filled with little drawers and wooden hangers, there was an orange coat from Bergdorf Goodman, there was a flapper dress, lucite bags, a mah-jong set, an emerald crown and then the trunks, themselves! It felt like I was deep-sea diving in Manhattan.

PA: I love that!

LK: Anyway, among all of this treasure was this red, leather diary, with a little lock, with little gold edge pages and I remember not opening it until I was in my little room and wondering if it was going to be unlocked and, miracle of miracles, it was unlocked. And it was filled with over 2000 entries and it just swept me into this other life of this person. At the time I felt blank and very unsure of who I was in my life and all of a sudden, I felt like I was somebody because I was reading this woman’s diary. She kept it from age fourteen to nineteen, but she was very sophisticated. She was having love affairs with men and women…

PA: And she had lived in New York, in the 1930s? Florence.

LK: Florence Wolfson. The pages were so delicate, as if they might crumble if you touched them, but out of them falls a picture! It’s a sepia newsprint from The Forward, the Jewish newspaper at the time, written in Yiddish and it’s a picture of Florence! So as I’m wondering, who is this person, who would be me had I lived in the thirties in the New York, here is her picture delivered to me! She was so beautiful and I just started falling in love with her.

PA: So tell me how you found her.

LK: I didn’t write the book until I found her. I had moved on a bit and was writing about what I thought of as sort of endangered species of New York. Like Manhattan’s last typewriter repairman and idiosyncratic details about New York. And this private investigator called me out of the blue because he had read this article and I thought he might be an interesting profile so we met at this old steakhouse. Charlie was a real character, he wore a trench coat and his license plate was SLEUTH3… If Inspector Gadget lives, that was Charlie. I decided on a whim to bring the diary that day and he became as fascinated with Florence as I was. I obviously wondered if she was alive and had tried without much success to find her. Charlie was a good Jewish boy from Long Island and he said, “Lily, we need to find her. And he did.”

PA: SLEUTH3. Of course he did.

LK: Right. She was ninety. And she was living in Pompano Beach, Florida for the winter.

PA: Of course she was.

LK: One day he called and he gave me her number. And I just remember being really scared to call her. But I called her and I breathlessly sort of tell her my half of the story and she just stops and says, “I have to meet you.” We had both lived in the same building on the Upper West Side, which is how her diary ended up there, but she lived in Westport, Connecticut for the summers, so one day I just took the train to go visit her at her home, near the water, by the Long Island Sound, with sailboats there and I never really left. She was wearing red lipstick, sitting in her Eames chair and she just hugged me. She was just a badass girl. I can’t even really call her a lady because I knew her as a girl from fourteen to nineteen and it just exploded my sense of time. We became really good friends. And more than that, we just had this incredible connection, through time.

PA: It’s just one of the most incredible stories because you each made each other’s dreams come true. Because she’s always wanted that, right? She had sort of given up this life, right?

LK: She was depressed. She was ninety and she was depressed she had lived this conventional life and she had wanted very much to be a writer.

PA: Lesson to us all.

LK: To follow your heart and do what you’re passionate about. And I don’t think that means giving up certain responsibilities but you must follow your intuition.

PA: This is like the best Rosh Hashanah interview.

LK: Florence got an obit in The New York Times when she died at ninety six…

PA: Did you write it!?

LK: No, someone else did but her daughters were like, “Florence would be so happy!” She finally got her recognition.

PA: You have this deep interest in really getting in there. You did the same thing with your second book, The Astronaut Wives Club, where you told the story of the wives of America’s first astronauts, right?

LK: I see journalism—and I’m not even sure I would call it that—as between being a cosmic detective and an actress taking on the role of someone else’s life.

PA: Really?

LK: Yeah. You’re reporting on the facts but you’re also trying to put yourself in that space of what it’s like to be that person. I think I learned that from the diary. That’s what I try to do when I interview someone: Get into their life space.

PA: I’m like wham bam, thank you ma’am. Your interviews last like months and months.

LK: Yeah. I have a hard time leaving. If I come over for a two-hour interview, it usually winds up lasting like eighteen hours. Sometimes a slumber party. Like with the astronaut wives, I wound up going through their closets and cataloguing their Pucci dresses.

PA: Your look is probably helpful for that. No one would ever really peg you as a journalist. And probably nobody knows you’re Jewish.

LK: I’m undercover.

PA: You probably have such an interesting experience because you “pass.” You look like a nice, blonde girl from next door. And you’re so not that!

LK: It’s like a disguise.

PA: You really are like an undercover agent… for the Jews.

LK: I always think of what Joan Didion said, that what made her a really good reporter was that she was so diminutive and frail that she would just dissolve into the background. There is something about looking like a sunshine kid… You can go wherever you want, especially in America.

PA: It’s unbelievable. This blonde, blue eyed, fresh faced beauty.

LK: I grew up atheist. I was also really curious about religion. My father grew up Orthodox in Jamaica Estates, in Queens, around the corner from Donald Trump.

PA: Crazy. And now?

LK: Now I’m a believer.

PA: Fascinating. And now is a really awful place to transition but what’s your favorite drink?

LK: Cold brew or mango juice.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

LK: With almond milk.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

LK: Recently I don’t eat eggs.

PA: Because they’re disgusting and like eating an abortion? I totally eat eggs, by the way.

LK: Mickey Rourke says in Angel Heart, “I have a problem with chickens.”

PA: Ha!

LK: It’s sort of like Indiana Jones and snakes. But I guess I would do them hardboiled but I think eggs are super cute, I think I would prefer them as a children’s toy.

PA: Well, you can come over. I have that. What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

LK: Rosh Hashanah!

PA: Thank you for saying that and bringing this full circle. It almost makes up for my clumsy jump! Did you have a Bat Mitzvah?

LK: No. But I always wanted a lot of Tiffany jewelry.

PA: Touché. What shampoo do you use?

LK: Right now I’m using Moroccan oil.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

LK: I recently bought a pair of cork platforms from a flea market with green and gold hearts on the toes and I’m obsessed with hearts and
I love those.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

LK: Lox.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

LK: A heart ring, my Captain America watch, my cherry / clown nose keychain, my bell from a self-realization center in LA, and a lipstick by Poppy King.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.