Helene Hanff – Author of 84, Charing Cross Road

Helene Hanff (April 15, 1916 – April 9, 1997) was an American author and playwright. She is best known for her book 84, Charing Cross Road, an endearing collection of her twenty-year correspondence with the owner of the London antiquarian bookshop, Marks & Co., on the eponymous street.

This book was written at a low point in her career, but later went on to gain a cult following and to be adapted for film and stage.

 

Early life and finding a love of writing

Helene was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Arthur and Miriam Levy Hanff. Both of her parents were passionate about the theater. Even during the Depression, her father, a shirt salesman, still took the family to the theater every week by slipping new shirts to the box office staff in exchange for tickets.

It instilled a love of theater in Helene too, and she wanted desperately to be a playwright. However, the family could not afford to send her to college. Helene was granted a one-year scholarship to Temple University.

Secretly, she relieved when it was not extended: “In my year at Temple I’d learned nothing about English literature or the art of writing, which was all I wanted to learn.”

Instead, Helene turned to educating herself on writing and literature through books. Making use of the public library, she started at “A” and worked her way along the shelves looking for what she wanted:

“What I wanted was the Best – written in a language I could understand…Most of the textbooks confined themselves to nineteenth and twentieth-century writers, omitting what I’d been taught were the greatest works of English literature: Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible. And all of them were written in learned academic language that was over my head.”

Under Q she finally found what she was looking for, On the Art of Writing by Arthur Quiller-Couch. It was this book that she claimed really ignited her love of English literature, and she later paid tribute to Quiller-Couch in her 1986 book Q’s Legacy

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Beginnings in the theater

In 1938 Helene won a fellowship from the Bureau of New Plays, and shortly after that moved to Manhattan where she was mentored by Theresa Helburn, a co-director of the Theatre Guild. Therese reputedly told her, “Your plays are terrible, just terrible. But never mind. You have talent.”

She got a job at the publicity department of the Guild, where she once spent a whole night adding exclamation marks to a first-night press release when the producers suddenly decided the new play needed one (it was Oklahoma!). She also studied once a week with Therese.

Helene wrote twenty plays throughout the 1940s, but although options were taken on them none were ever produced: she admitted later that “I wrote great dialogue, but I couldn’t invent a story to save my neck.” She later chronicled her attempts to break into playwriting in her 1961 memoir, Underfoot in Show Business.

 

Correspondence with Marks & Co. 

In the 1950s, Helene supported herself in a meager fashion by mainly writing screenplays for television, including Playhouse 90, The Adventures of Ellery Queen, and Hallmark Hall of Fame. She also reviewed books for film companies to advise on how they might be adapted.

Lord of the Rings was apparently a great ordeal, for which she charged ten times her usual fee as compensation for the “mental torture” of trying to understand and summarize the plot – and wrote articles for encyclopedias and children’s history books. She later said, “I was a failed playwright. I was nowhere. I was nothing.”

She continued to read voraciously and being a passionate Anglophile, preferred to order her books from a bookshop in London rather than buy “Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies”, even though she could ill-afford it.

She began to order from Marks & Co. on Charing Cross Road, having seen one of their adverts in the New York Times Saturday Review of Books. Eventually, an entire wall of her studio apartment was filled from floor to ceiling with the books she had ordered.

Her main correspondent at the bookshop between 1949 and 1969 was Frank Doel, whose “proper British reserve” was gradually worn down in the face of Helene’s exuberance and eccentricities. Later letters also included other members of the shop’s staff and Frank’s family.

To her British correspondents, Helene was a window into a typical New York lifestyle of picnicking in Central Park, following the baseball leagues and living in a brownstone tenement building. She was also a generous friend who sent food parcels and nylon stockings in an attempt to alleviate for them the worst of British post-war rationing.

Her letters about books were lively, witty, and acerbic – ignoring conventional niceties and grammar as well. One bellowing missive read:

“WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS? This is not pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary may he rot. I could just spit. where is Jan. 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?…”

She was also effusive in her thanks – although still with her trademark wit – when the bookshop got her orders right. When a pristine copy of Elizabethan Poets arrived on Helene’s birthday in 1951, she wrote, “I’ve never owned a book before with pages edged all round in gold…I shall try very hard not to get gin and ashes all over it, it’s really much too fine for the likes of me.”

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84, charing cross road - the book

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84, Charing Cross Road

In 1969, news came of Frank’s unexpected death from peritonitis. Helene had not realized that Frank was ill and received the news from a Marks & Co. secretary who did not know her, asking if she still wanted to order a book.

“Coming when it did,” she later wrote, “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 thought of gathering the correspondence into a book. 84 Charing Cross Road was published in America in 1970 by Grossman, and in Britain in 1971 by Andre Deutsch. It had a decent critical reception: Thomas Lask wrote in the New York Times, “Here is a charmer: a 19th-century book in a 20th-century world. It will beguile an hour of your time and put you in tune with mankind.”

However, it was the book’s popular success that took Helene by surprise. She herself thought of the book as a “New Yorker story…a nice little, short story”, and the following that it gained astounded her.

She received hundreds of letters, phone calls, and gifts. One phone call reportedly came from a woman in Alaska, and when Helene commented that the phone call to New York must be costing a fortune, the woman replied, “We live 300 miles from the nearest town. I didn’t want to wait until spring when the roads clear and we can get into town to the post office [to write].”

The book was also hugely popular in Britain, and Helene particularly loved the story of the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey near Worcester, who had a single copy that was placed in a glass case. One nun was elected to turn one page a day so that the whole community could read it together.

 

“The end of a fairytale”

It was due to the success of the book that Helene finally had the money to travel to England (as well as to pay her never-ending dentist’s bills). There, she met Frank’s family and visited the now boarded-up bookshop, gave radio and print interviews, attended the London launch, and was regularly invited to dinner by fans of the book.

She documented the trip in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (1973).  In 1980 the book was adapted for the stage (ironically the only thing of Helene’s that was ever produced for the theater), first in London’s West End and later on Broadway.

On the West End opening night, Helene appeared on stage to embrace the actress who had played her, Rosemary Leach. The next day, Irving Wardle wrote in The Times: “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…”

In 1982, Helene reflected on the changes 84 Charing Cross Rd had brought to her life:

“It’s unreal to me, what the last 10 years have been like…The fans – people all over the world who regard me as a friend! And in London there is a brass plaque on the wall with my name on it, to mark the spot where the bookshop once stood, because I wrote letters to it. In your own mind, you’re still an uneducated writer who doesn’t have much talent, and yet here you are with a plaque on the wall in London! You don’t even dream about things like that.”

In 1987 the book was made into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. Find more about the film, stage, and radio adaptations of 84, Charing Cross Road.

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helene hanff 84 charing cross road

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Last years

Despite its success, 84, Charing Cross Road did not provide Helene with much in the way of long-lasting economic stability. In her last years, she freely admitted that she was “broke,” existing on royalties and Social Security, and a five-thousand-dollar grant from the Author’s League Fund to help pay her hospital bills.

She continued to write, though her later books are less well-known (Apple of My Eye,1977 and Q’s Legacy,1986). Between 1978 and 1984 she also gave regular monthly talks for the BBC Woman’s Hour entitled “Letter from New York,” and these were later collected and published in 1993.

Helene never married nor had children and refused to talk much about her personal life. She died in the De Witt Nursing Home in Manhattan, from complications of diabetes, just a few days shy of her 81st birthday.

Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at  Elodie Rose Barnes


More About Helene Hanff

Major Works

  • Underfoot in Show Business (1962)
  • Queen of England: Story of  Elizabeth I (1969)
  • 84, Charing Cross Road (1970)
  • The Dutchess of Bloomsbury Street (1973)
  • Apple of My Eye (1977)
  • Movers and Shakers: Young Activists of the Sixties (1982)
  • Letters from New York (1992)

Biography

  • Helene Hanff: A Life by Stephen Pastore (2011)
  • Letter from New York by Helene Hanff (2023)

More information

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