in the successful film of 84 Charing Cross Road
By Sandra Barwick
HELENE HANFF, the author of 84 Charing Cross Road, the correspondence between her and the manager of a bookshop in the Fifties, has died aged 79 in a nursing home in New York, keeping a secret to the last. Leo Marks, the son of the owner of the antiquarian bookshop to whom she wrote, said she had never written what he believed would have been an even better book, about her love affair with a famous American.
Mr Marks, a wartime code-master with the Special Operations Executive, who became a close friend of Miss Hanff, said: "She had something better than 84 Charing Cross Road to write, but she was afraid of doing it. "She had a relationship with a very famous American, whom she had to share with two other ladies, and she was never sure whether she was the senior or the junior."
Her account of this relationship was, he said, even more amusing and touching that her letters to Charing Cross Road. She tried to write it but always destroyed her attempts. Mr Marks said he could not reveal the name of her lover but she had told him of the affair some years ago. "She was an unusual human being, with great humour and incisiveness, and very, very intelligent." When he urged her to write her account, she had always put him off by saying that she would finish her book when he finished his book about the SOE. She had carried with her the poem he had written for the agent Violet Szabo, he said, which begins:
Helene Hanff: Secret Love
|Miss Hanff first wrote to the Marks bookshop in London in 1949, seeking out-of-print titles. It was the beginning of a 20-year correspondence with its manager, Frank Doel. When she finally compiled their letters in a book she was in her fifties and at a low ebb, her scripts and plays rejected. One rejection slip arrived in the same post which told her Doel was dead. In 1971 the book was published, captivating readers, and then a successful film, starring Anne Bancroft in Helene Hanff's character and Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel.
By the time she arrived in London to publicise her book, the shop had closed. She climbed its stairs and looked at the empty shelves and said out loud, "Frank, I finally made it." She hoped he heard, she said later. Michael Reddington, who produced the stage adaptation of the book, said: "She was opinionated and strong, like the character in the book. Her book is unique."
She had suffered from diabetes for some years and Mr Marks said that towards the end she had been unable to write.
a film about a business correspondence?"
HELENE HANFF, the American author who had died aged 79, rose to fame in the 1970s with the publication of her book 84 Charing Cross Road. A collection of letters written over 20 years, the book charted the love affair between a smart, wise-cracking, noisy, belligerent New Yorker - herself - and the mild-mannered staff of a secondhand bookshop in London. It was turned ito a play and a film (starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins), but its popularity surprised Helene Hanff: "Who could have imagined a film about a business correspondence?" She described it as "a static little piece" and insisted that she had never imagined the collection of letters as anything more than a possible magazine article.
The material for 84 Charing Cross Road came from the correspondence that she began while working in New York as a reader for a film studio. She had already spent 15 years failing to make a break-through as a playwright. In 1949, still bent on self-improvement, she borrowed a volume of literary criticism by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch from the library and set about following his advice on what to read. Unable to find most of the books she wanted in New York, she answered an advertisement in the New Yorker and began to correspond with the staff of Marks and Co, at 84 Charing Cross Road.
Her first letters were simple requests for out-of-print books but over the years she developed a friendship with the manager, Frank Doel, and the other staff. "When we started writing it was 'Dear Sir' and 'Dear Madam', but after 20 years it was 'My dear Helene' and 'Frankie'." But she and Doel were never to meet. Her letters soon evolved into accounts of life in New York. In one she listed the names of the Brooklyn Dodgers and exhorted the staff to pray for them. In another she described making her first Yorkshire pudding from a recipe sent by one of the female staff. Helene Hanff was horrified when she heard about the food shortages in post-war England and began to send food parcels. The staff reciprocated by sending her first editions of her favourite poets and Irish linen tablecloths embroidered by Frank Doel's next door neighbour.
When Helene's work as a television screenwriter failed in the 1960s, she had turned to writing magazine articles and books, including her autobiography. But it was her account of her correspondence with Marks and co, published in 1971, that developed a cult following. Its unexpected success led to her making her first visit to London to publicise it that year. By then Frank Doel had died and the bookshop had closed, but she was not disappointed with London and spent most of her visit walking around the capital visiting the houses of writers she admired.
In 1975, 84 Charing Cross Road was filmed as a BBC Television Play for Today. Meanwhile Helene Hanff returned to her life in New York. In 1981, 84 Charing Cross Road was adapted for the stage and opened in the West End starring Rosemary Leach. The show was such a success in London that it transferred to New York, but proved less popular on Broadway. The film version was made in 1987. As well as Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins as Hanff and Doel, it starred Judi Dench and Maurice Denham.
Helene Hanff always considered herself a playwright rather than an author. She spent all of her adult life in New York working in temporary jobs, such as selling theatre tickets and writing press releases for theatrical agents, in order to finance her writing. None of her many plays were ever produced, although she had considerable success with television scripts. Surprisingly, when 84 Charing Cross Road was adapted for television and film, Helene Hanff was not invited to write the screenplay.
Helene Hanff was born on April 15 1916 in Philadelphia, the daughter of a failed song and dance man turned shirt salesman. "My parents were great theatre-goers," she recalled. "My dad used to swap shirts for theatre tickets. So even during the depression we went every week." Her only ambition was to become a playwright and she would write "at least a play a month". She began to study English at the University of Philadelphia in 1935, but after only a year her family's finances gave out and she had to look for work. Her first job was as a typist in the basement of a school for motor mechanics. "I got $12 a week, and all the grease I could carry home." She then worked for a pair of impoverished saxophone teachers who spent their lunch hour playing in the Ritz. Her job was to pass herself off as Baroness Helene von Hanff, and to write letters on stolen Ritz notepaper to expensive schools offering saxophone letters to the pupils.
In 1936 Helene Hanff entered a play-writing competition held by the Bureau of New Plays in New York. She immediately received a letter from the head of New York's Theatre Guild, Theresa Helburn,. Though she thought that the plays submitted were "just terrible", she believed that Helene Hanff had talent, and spent the next two months coaching her in technique. "She made me read Lawson's Theory of Playwriting and Stanislavsky's An Actor Prepares, stuff I'd never seen before. Helene Hanff, the youngest and the only female entrant, won a $1,500 grant to study drama writing with the Theatre Guild. For the next two years she lived in a series of dilapidated single room apartments in New York while she attended seminars and sat in on rehearsals of Guild plays. Unlike many aspiring playwrights, she made friends with actors and stage hands.
By the late 1930s she had still had no success as a playwright. Most of her jobs were part time (to enable her to write) and she remained poverty-stricken. "I never had two cents to my name", she said later. "The rent to my room was usually $10 a week, and after paying that I'd be left with about 75 cents a day for food and cigarettes." She would sneak into theatres after the show had started to avoid paying for tickets. "I saw every play on Broadway. Of course, I never saw any of the first acts, but then nothings happens in the first act anyway." She outfitted herself by taking home clothes on approval from department stores and returning them the following day. Even flowers were provided free by the undertakers next door. "I never went anywhere without a corsage. They were always lilies, but I wasn't complaining."
In 1942 Helene Hanff found a job as a press agent as a press agent to Joe Heidt of the Theatre Guild. There was one show which was doing badly in the provinces, a musical called Away We Go. A talent scout working for the critic Walter Winchell saw it in New Haven and sent a telegram to him which read: "No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance!" Helene Hanff's job was to type and copy the 10,000 press releases needed for the show. Twenty-four hours before the show was due to arrive in New York, the title was changed to Yessirree, and she had to type the press releases again. The producers were still not happy and before the opening night they told Helene Hanff to copy the releases a third time. The name they finally chose was Oklahoma!
With success as a playwright still eluding her, Helene Hanff found a job in 1948 as a reader for a film studio. She had to pick up a novel or a screenplay from the studio offices at 4pm, take it home, read it, write a synopsis and return the manuscript to the studio at four the following day. She was paid $6 per synopsis, a figure which eventually rose to $10, and continued to work as a reader for the next five years. She later remembered her horror when asked to write a synopsis of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. "I read the opening sentence of the first volume and phoned around several friends to say goodbye, because suicide seemed to obviously preferable to 500 more pages of the same." When she handed in her invoice for reading the three volumes she added an extra $40 for "mental torture".
After 15 years in New York, Helene Hanff had still not been able to sell any of her plays. She worked for a period for Irving Caesar (author of No, No, Nanette) writing press presentations for his new musical My Dear Public, but had no more success selling Caesar's work than her own.
Still working as a reader, she was spotted by a story editor for Warner Brothers, Jacob Wilk, who moonlighted as a theatrical producer. Wilk believed she should write a script for Broadway. He tried to sell a play by her to every producer in New York (including Leland Hayward, who was out of the country on his honeymoon, and Irene Selznick, who was in hospital). He persuaded Helene Hanff to rewrite it twice but still could not find anyone to produce it. She returned to her life as a reader. In 1952, Helene Hanff was offered her first paid scriptwriting job. Jacob Wilk's assistant Gene Burr had left Warner Brothers for television and on Wilk's recommendation offered her work for a new series, The Adventures of Ellery Queen. "I was always very scornful of television," she said, "and I only took the job because I had to have major dental work which cost $2,500."
The Adventures of Ellery Queen paid for the teeth but did not extend to financing a proposed trip to London to visit Frank Doel. "In a way I wasn't too upset to cancel my trip to England," she said later. "I was wary of meeting Frank, I had a feeling we might disappoint eachother, that it would fatally interfere with our correspondence."
Meanwhile she became what she described as "Ellery Queen's speical write of arty murders", and wrote plots about a murder at an art gallery, one at the opera, two at the ballet and one at a Shakespeare festival. "We were just getting round to murder at a rare book shop when they took the show off the air."
In 1953 she began work on Hallmark Hall of Fame, a television programme devoted to the lives of "great characters in history". She distinguished herself during her time withHallmark by devoting an entire script to the Greek slave girl Rhodope (whom she believed had told Aesop his fables). On the morning of transmission she read a review of a new book on brothels and discovered that Rhodope was one of the most famous prostitutes of the ancient world. Aided by the staff of the television station, she concealed the fact from the show's sponsor, Joyce Hall, who insisted his programmes should always have a high moral tone. "The show was the last one I needed to do to pay for my teeth, so I was determined to get it on the air at any cost." It was broadcast as planned and the station received only two letters, both praising it for "the interesting way in which it explored history".
After working for Hallmark, Helen Hanff transferred to the Matinee Theatre, where she became the principal scriptwriter, responsible for producing an hour-long programme every month. This was followed by a year of freelance writing paid for by a grant from CBS television. Her brief was to produce a dramatisation of America's history lasting two hours. The programme was neer aired and Hanff returned to popular television with a period as a writer for Playhouse 90, a series of 90-minute plays with contemporary themes. By the late 1950s most television companies left New York for Hollywood. Helene Hanff was unwilling to leave her home; she was unsuited for a life in California as she had never learned to drive. "Playhouse 90 was replaced by a game show, and I was unemployed again."
By 1960 she had stopped writing plays for both the theatre and television and began to concentrate on magazines as a source of income. She wrote for Harpers Bazaar and the New Yorker before being asked to write her autobiography. Underfoot in Showbusiness was published in 1961 and she followed it with two more books, an account of her devotion to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (The Q Effect) and then in 1971 84 Charing Cross Road. In New York, Helene Hanff spent her time researching a walking guide to the city entitled Apple of My Eye, which was published in 1976. On the wireless she became a monthly contributor of accounts of life in New York to Women's Hour on the BBC from 1978 to 1985.
By the late 1980s, after the enormous success of 84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff, then in her early seventies, began to reduce the amount of work she produced. She was diagnosed as suffering from diabetes in 1989 but continued to smoke and drink, although both were prohibited by her doctor. "I gave up sugar, but that was easy because it gave me cramp in my legs. That's my advice for all you diabetics out there, stay off sugar."
In 1992 Helene Hanff published her last book, A Letter from New York, a collection of her earlier Women's Hour talks. She continued to live in the same apartment she had leased in the 1950s on the strength of her scriptwriting contract and she continued to read English poetry and to visit England as often as possible. "If I had a million pounds and my life over again," she said, "I'd have a flat in Marylebone and spend my days walking around London looking for Noel Coward's Mayfair, Samuel Pepys's Fleet Street and Isaac Walton's meandering river."
Helene Hanff never married.
A TALE OF TWO CITIESby Dennis Barker
Helene Hanff, who has died at the age of 80, made her reputation mainly with one short book, 84 Charing Cross Road, but she was a bubbling, caustic romantic who loved her adopted New York, England and - above all - words.
Essentially an autobiographer in everything she wrote - she confessed she disliked fiction, which may have hampered her during an early career writing Ellery Queen mystery episodes for American television - she was a member of a dying breed: the compulsive notetaker without a big theme, or even a big talent, who survives by describing the people of her small universe with such animation that they take off.
The book 84 Charing Cross Road was based chiefly on letters exchanged between herself in New York and Frank Doel, a member of another vulnerable breed: a little man who kept a little antiquarian bookshop in the Charing Cross Road, on the edge of London's Soho. As she supplies him with lists of rare books she wants, and he replies about his difficulties in finding them, the reader gradually gets the impression of post-war Britain with its rationing and shortages, and of New York at the same time, with Hanff's attempt to keep her book-crammed apartment and her own life in some sort of order.
The two never met, which might have spoiled the story. By the time Hanff arrived at 84 Charing Cross Road, Doel was dead and the shop was out of business. It was Doel's death that prompted her to write the book. Apart from its success, it became a stage play, a TV drama, a film with Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Doel, and a radio play.
Hanff's view of this slice of life had its critics. It was pointed out that her Charing Cross Road left out quite a lot of the not-so-nice context: the youngsters shooting up drugs in the public lavatories at Cambridge Circus, the shops furtively selling marital aids, the razor slashings in nearby Old Compton Street, and the raucous world of Ronnie Scott's jazz club.
Such criticism of a memorable book rather missed the point: Hanff may not have been a fiction writer but equally she was not a social reporter. She was a dramatiser of fact and she viewed that drama as essentially robust and up-beat. In her late 70s, she would cheerfully tell interviewers (in the New York apartment in which she lived happily alone) to mind their own business when they tried to guess her age.
Although diabetic she had a buoyant attitude to her condition, insisting on walking substantial distances daily, though, she often joked, declining to carry bulky copies of the New York Times for fear of fracturing an emaciated wrist.
Her recipe for continuing to see life in her characteristic terms was a good breakfast, followed by work. A glass of orange juice, eggs, bacon, coffee and toast with marmalade was followed at 9am, regular as clockwork, by a working stint at a small table - the only sort she could get into the micro apartment. It might be work on one of her columns for magazines or a new edition of her idiosyncratic guide to New York, which presented an almost trouble-free view of the city. She pointed out that a group of British Derek Jacobi fans had once come to New York to see their hero in a Broadway production and had slept on the sidewalks to be near him - without encountering trouble.
Personal bereavements did not dim her love of New York. Her friend Patsy, with whom she wrote her first New York guide, died of cancer in her 40s. Four other friends, each 20 years her junior, died in the Big Apple while she sur vived, walking in Central Park, resenting the intrusion, as she saw it, of new Metropolitan Museum of Art buildings, and singing the praises of the burgeoning financial district around the World Trade Center.
She also greatly loved London - or her version of it. This included Regents Park, Bloomsbury, St Paul's, Wim pole Street, Nash terraces, Wren churches and St James's Square - though, to do her justice, it also included the Pakistani corner shops that she welcomed as livening up what had once been a rather dead city after office hours. Strangely, she disliked travel. She said she had always wanted to be "home alone".
She never married and maintained that she had never wanted to. Once in her childhood she had seen her mother coming through a door and had wondered why the woman simply didn't go away and leave her in peace. When she first arrived in New York, she had the choice of sharing a desirable apartment with a friend or taking a dirty furnished room by herself. To her, it was no contest. Hers was a very self-contained and resilient spirit. She asked to be buried in Brooklyn in memory of th Dodgers.
Hanif was the daughter of Philadelphia shirt salesman who had been a song-and-dance man. She won a playwright fellowship from the Theatre Guild and then wrote a series of plays, none performed, while she was a secretary. She did TV scripts, wrote American history for children and read novels for Paramount film studios. (She once added $40 to her invoice for "mental torture" after reading Tolkien's three-volume Lord of the Rings. Paramount paid.) In 1961 she published Underfoot In Show Business, about her fight to break into the trade as one of the 999 out of a 1,000 hopefuls who didn't "turn into Noel Coward". It was re-issued with even greater success in the more downbeat 1980s.
But she was usually upbeat. Her magazine journalism was positive about New York life. Her guide to New York, Apple Of My Eye, was like no other since she saw richness and colour even in what others saw as sad and threatening. Her monthly letters from New York for Woman's Hour on the BBC (1978-1985) were later published in book form. She concerned herself less with public affairs than with life around her apartment in East 72nd Street, her home for over 30 years. Walking the dogs, encountering the zany neighbours and dodging blizzards in April were subjects apt to crop up more than mugging, doping and loan-sharking. In this, as elsewhere, she had a charmed life.
Helene Hanff, writer, born April 15, 1916; died April 9,1997
Helene Hannf, 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.
(see 'A Word From' page on this site for tribute article written by James Roose-Evans which accompanied this obituary)
The above articles have been reprinted *without* the permission of the newspapers concerned, I'm afraid - but I *am* waiting to hear from them... Meanwhile - no writs or subpoenaes, please!!! :-)