Monday, June 21

Miss Hanff and A Bookshop in London


On 5 October 1949, 33-year-old Helene Hanff had no inkling the letter she had just posted to an address in Charing Cross Road was only the first of many that would one day not only make Marks & Co. London's most famous used bookshop, but bring her the fame that had so long eluded her as a playwright and author of American history books for children.

Helene (pronounced "helane") was born 15 Apr 1916, the daughter of a Philadelphia shirt maker. She won a scholarship to Temple University, only to have it evaporate at the end of her freshman year when funding dried up in the Great Depression.

Undaunted, she haunted the public library for books on the art of writing, eventually discovering five volumes of lectures that Arthur Quiller-Coach (commonly known as "Q") had given at Cambridge to young men fresh from the hallowed halls of Eton and Harrow, and who were already familiar with classics such as Milton's Paradise Lost.

Which Helene wasn't, so back to the library she went for Milton, and over the next eleven years, every other writer that Q's students had digested long before they ever set foot in his lecture hall.

Helene credits Q, John Donne and John Henry Newman (author of Idea Of A University), all of whom lived in the same rooms at Trinity College, Oxford although not at the same time, with teaching her everything she knew about writing English.

I haven't read Q's Legacy yet as it hasn't arrived from...where else...a used bookshop in the UK.

But after watching "84" and reading the book and its sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, I couldn't help thinking this passionate, funny, self-taught classicist would've been at home at the lectern of any university in England.

Helene's books are sprinkled with tidbits that make history come alive, such as the note John Donne (pronounced "dunn") sent to his bride after her father, Lord Lieutenant of the Tower of London, imprisoned them in separate wings of the Tower for eloping:

John Donne
Anne Donne
Undone

Helene even turned their plight into an episode of Hallmark Hall of Fame with the working title "John Donne: eloping with the boss's daughter"!

When Helene mailed the first letter to 84, Charing Cross Road, she was living in a walk-up bed-sit on East 95th St., barely making ends meet as a $40-a-week script reader. To satisfy her craving for out-of-print English classics, she needed a less expensive source than New York's antiquarian (translation: over-priced) book dealers, and found it in Marks & Co.'s ad in the Saturday Review of Literature.

Included with the letter was a list of books she most desired, and the hope that "clean, secondhand copies will cost no more than $5.00 each". With the first two books she received was an invoice for $5.30, which included postage!

Outside Marks & Co. in the late 1940s or early '50s,
around the time Helene's relationship with it began.
(from 84 Charing Cross Road Revisited)

In February 1951, her fortunes improved five-fold when she was hired as a scriptwriter for the weekly TV series Adventures of Ellery Queen at "two bills per" ($200), raised to $250 a year before EQ went off the air in May 1953 at the end of its second season.

Which happened to be when she had intended to sail for England, in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. But thanks to extensive and expensive dental work begun the previous September, she wrote Frank Doel: "Teeth are all I'm going to see crowned for the next couple of years".

And so it went for almost two decades...crises in Real Life popping up to delay The Dream Trip.

"84" (the book) ends in October 1969 with Frank's daughter Sheila giving Helene permission to publish Frank's, Nora's, and her own letters.

The Doel family, early 1960s.
l-r: wife Nora, dau Mary, dau Sheila, Frank.
(from 84 Charing Cross Road Revisited)

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, the sequel to "84", begins on 17th June 1971 as Helene, now 55, is about to land at Heathrow, where her "dainty feet" will finally touch English soil.

84, Charing Cross Road, the 1987 movie, also opens in the plane as it wings its way to Heathrow. Had the movie been faithful to the book, the landing would've been at night (10 p.m. GMT) and Anne Bancroft would've been wearing a navy pantsuit. But no one else could've brought Helene's take-no-prisoners attitude to the screen with such style and elan, so the beige outfit she wore instead is fine by me. Nor can I imagine anyone but Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel.

Ms. Bancroft owned the movie rights, btw, a birthday gift from comedian-producer husband Mel Brooks who perhaps recognized that his wife and Helene had much in common.

Even with the likes of Bancroft, Hopkins and Judi Dench anchoring the cast, it's no easy task to turn a slim book of letters into a movie that won't put an audience to sleep after five minutes. That English playwright and screenwriter Hugh Whitemore and director David Jones managed to bring the letters to life while feeding us slices of London and New York history between 1949 and the Swinging Sixties is nothing short of magical.

If this is your introduction to the world of Helene Hanff, I recommend "84" the movie be your first stop, so that you'll have faces to put with the names in the letters when you read the book. Do be aware that not all of the letters in the book were included in the movie, and that parts of some that were omitted to move the story along. Then read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and watch the movie again, because "Duchess" contains the back stories of many scenes. Helene's affinity for Central Park's Dog Hill, for instance.

I was leery of reading The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street after many reviewers said they found it downright boring. On the contrary! If I'd had a copy in 2003, my own Dream Trip to London and the South of England would've been quite different. I doubt I would've stayed at the Kenilworth at the corner of Great Russell & Bloomsbury, as it's no longer the quaint, inexpensive B&B it was in 1971. Nonetheless, Helene's account of her five weeks in England is a marvelous guide for first-timers.

As for the photo in the movie of the Mysterious Man in Dress Uniform on Helene's dresser, his role in her life is never revealed. She never married, and although she weeps while watching Brief Encounter, the 1945 tearjerker starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, that photo is the only hint that she ever had a boyfriend or lover in real life.

But according to Leo Marks, son of Ben Marks (co-founder of Marks & Co.), Helene had a relationship "with a very famous American"....a story "even more amusing and touching than her letters to Charing Cross Road"....a love affair he believes "would have been an even better book". Alas, Helene started that book several times but destroyed each attempt, so the identity of her famous lover went to the grave with her (and Leo).

Helene died of complications of diabetes and pneumonia on the 9th April 1997, exactly one week before her 81st birthday, and is interred at Mount Lebanon Cemetery, Glendale, Queens Co, NY.


The trailer for 84, Charing Cross Road:



84 Charing Cross Road revisited, the definitive site
about Marks & Co., its history and real life staff.

Angela Garry's site devoted to Helene's life and books

Helene's memorial page at Find A Grave

Helene Hanff in Central Park, New York,
oil on canvas, by Elena Gaussen


Have a great day!

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5 comments:

jo oliver said...

"it's no easy task to turn a slim book of letters into a movie that won't put an audience to sleep after five minutes."

Very true. This looks very interesting:)

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

I love stories like these. Things back then were not as easy for women writers. Not that they are a breeze now, but these days, there are at least as many wonmen as men making a living as writers.

Dimitris Mita - De Greek said...

You are extremely bad for my wallet! Now I have to read all these books, you bad girl, AND watch the movie! :D

The Ancient Digger said...

Maybe I can find some of these on Google Scholar. Let's hope.

William F. Torpey said...

Nice story and video. Well told. It's now on my reading list.