Obituary: Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff will always be associated with what is, undoubtedly, her most endearing and enduring book, 84 Charing Cross Road (1971); yet this slim volume of correspondence between herself and Marks & Co, an antiquarian bookshop in London, was written at the lowest point in her career.

For years, as she was later to describe in Underfoot in Show Business (1961), she had been writing plays that never got produced, while eking out a precarious existence reading scripts for Paramount Pictures, writing articles for encyclopaedias, television scripts, and children's history books; until one evening she sat down to take stock of herself and her future. "I was a failed playwright. I was no-where. I was nothing."

It was into this void that there came the news of the death of Frank Doel of Marks & Co from whom for over 20 years she had been ordering books she could ill afford, but which had given her a link with England. "Coming when it did the news was devastating. It seemed to me that the last anchor in my life - my bookshop - was taken from me. I began to cry and I couldn't stop." It was then that she realised that she had to write the story of her relationship with the shop and, in particular, with Frank Doel.

Published in 1971, the book became an overnight success and, even more surprisingly, a cult book. Once, in conversation with me, she referred to it as "my little nothing book; I thought I was writing a New Yorker story when I wrote it. I still think it is a nice little short story."

Soon letters, gifts, and telephone calls poured in from all over the country. One such call was from a woman in Alaska and when Hanff commented: "This must be costing you a fortune," back came the unexpected reply, "I'm married to an Eskimo and we live 300 miles from the nearest town. I didn't want to wait till spring when the roads clear and we can get into town to the post office." It became one of those books that people passed on, or gave to each other. Hanff told me how the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey near Worcester, an enclosed order of Benedictines, had a single borrowed copy which was placed in a glass case, and a small American nun was elected to turn one page a day so that the whole community could read it together.

Then, in 1980, I acquired the stage rights and adapted the book as a play for the stage, directing it first in the West End and, the following year, on Broadway. Later it was made into a movie starring Ann Bancroft. Since then the play has been performed all over the world. But it was not until the stage version that Helene Hanff began to make any real money, enough to ensure her at least a reasonable comfort in her old age which was much troubled by pneumonia and bronchial infections (exacerbated no doubt by her excessive smoking), as well as diabetes. Until then, in spite of the book's success, she never made a penny because, as she described on the Dick Cavett celebrity television show, every reader of the book wrote her a fan letter which she would then answer, and she had worked out that the cost of the aerogram equalled the amount of the royalties on each copy of the paperback edition.

It was the book's publication in England by Andre Deutsch which brought her to England for the first time, only to find that Marks & Co had closed. This, and subsequent visits, led to her writing a sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (1976). Soon she was giving regular monthly talks for Woman's Hour on BBC entitled "Letter From New York". Other books followed, including The Apple of My Eye (1978), a quirky look at New York, and Q's Legacy (1985) - about the work of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, whose essays found in a library first ignited her passionate love of English literature - and still the letters kept arriving from all over the world.

As a writer Helene Hanff is no Jane Austen or George Eliot. Being a lover of what she once described as "I was there" books, she is at her best when writing about her own experiences. And the six books which she published provide an almost ongoing autobiography. Unmarried, she lived alone; but, although there had been romances, as she once confided to the American actress Olympia Dukakis, who is to play Helene Hanff in a revival of the play, she was not prepared to write about the more private side of her life.

Perhaps the central irony of that life is that having always dreamed of being a playwright the only thing of hers that was staged was an adaptation of her book. When she was young she had entered and won a playwriting competition sponsored by the prestigious Theater Guild of New York. Summoned to New York, she met the formidable Therese Helburn, co-director of the Guild, who told her: "Your plays are terrible, just terrible. But never mind. You have talent." She was given a job in the publicity department of the Guild and once a week studied the craft of writing plays with Miss Helburn. But although options were taken on a number of the plays, none was ever produced.

When 84 Charing Cross Road opened in the West End (on Thanksgiving Day, of all days, she complained), the audience rose to its feet as she appeared at the end to embrace the stage Helen Hanff played by Rosemary Leach. The next day, in the Times, Irving Wardle wrote, "The sight of Helene Hanff on the set of the bookshop she made famous, and blinking under the applause of the town she could never afford to visit, made last night's opening into the end of a fairytale: obscure affection crowned with public acclaim."

Although the bookshop itself is long gone, on the spot where it once stood, is a brass plaque which states simply to every passerby:

84 Charing Cross Road

The booksellers Marks and Co

Were on this site which became world renowned

Through the book by Helene Hanff.

Helene Hanff, writer and broadcaster: born Philadelphia 15 April 1916; broadcaster, Woman's Hour, BBC 1978-85; author of Underfoot in Show Business 1961, 84 Charing Cross Road 1970, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street 1973, Apple of My Eye 1978, Q's Legacy 1985, Letter from New York 1992, Helene Hanff Omnibus 1995; died New York 9 April 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?