Obituary: Helene Hanff

James Roose-Evans
Monday 14 April 1997 00:02 BST

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.

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