4th Sep 2012
In Praise Of: Helene Hanff
It isn’t being reissued for the occasion in a fancy new cover; instead it’s tragically underrated and all but forgotten, like most of her work.
If you’ve read Hanff at all, it’s probably her one bestseller, 84 Charing Cross Road, a slim book of letters between Helene (I like to think we’d be on first name terms) in New York and the staff of antique booksellers Marks & Co. in London.
The letters range from 1949 to 1968, and yes, it’s probably her best book: in just 97 pages, it captures life in post-World War II Britain and America (and the contrasts between them), illustrates the consoling power of books, and proves that even before the internet, friendships could transcend the Atlantic Ocean. (Helene sent the shop staff food parcels at Christmas and Easter for years; in return, they posted her books she couldn’t otherwise afford.)
Helene’s letters are full of her signature voice: forthright, funny, sometimes crotchety. Tongue in her cheek, she’d berate her main correspondent, Frank Doel, when a book wasn’t as she expected (“WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?”) but didn’t hesitate to enthuse when she had reason to (“Thank you for the beautiful book. It is really much too fine for the likes of me.”)
I’m sure she’d treat me to a few choice words if she heard me call her a salty old broad, but that’s how I think of her — and I mean it as the highest compliment. You can’t finish the book and not want to mix her a Martini, hand her a cigarette, and ask her to be your honorary aunt.
Of course, that’s not possible: she died in 1997, aged 80. But in her lifetime she was happy to answer calls and letters from fans, many of whom she considered friends. Because 84 Charing Cross Road featured her real address, people would also drop by her building unexpectedly, and she’d obligingly troop down to the lobby for a chat.
84 is often bound with its sort-of sequel, Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, in which Helene finally makes it to London (and to Marks & Co., kind of), which is also wonderful.
I especially love Underfoot in Show Business because it captures an era when you could find cheap accommodation in a “women’s hotel”, eat in automats, see Katharine Hepburn on Broadway, and, as Helene did in the early forties, move to New York with just a suitcase, a typewriter, and a dream.
Forced to drop out of college after a year because the Depression cut short her scholarship, she cried all night when her parents said they were sending her to secretarial school instead. But she rallied: not only did she study English Lit via library books, but her typing skills turned out to be an asset.
An avid theatre-goer growing up, she started typing her own plays in her spare time at work, eventually winning a competition for young playwrights whose prize included a generous stipend and a shadowing programme in New York.
Her plays were never produced, but she got a job in a theatre press office, made friends with an aspiring actress, and generally seemed to have the time of her life despite little inconveniences like a housing shortage which saw her spend 18 months bouncing from one short-term sublet to another. Things can’t have been as fun as she made them seem, but Helene had no time for self-pity, glossing over harsh realities in just a few sentences.
In fact, despite writing six books about herself, she was intensely private, revealing little of her personal life. She never married or lived with anyone, but whether because she was a lesbian, celibate, asexual, or had a string of casual love affairs has never been determined.
This air of mystery is one reason I find Helene so fascinating. Most authors I love either blog and tweet or are the subject of in-depth biographies, but all we know about Helene is what’s in her books and the few newspaper and magazine articles about her.
There is one (self-published) biography but it’s full of inconsistencies, terribly-proofread, and unflattering in a way that seems cruelly-intentioned, featuring frequent mentions of how “ugly” Helene was.
Yes, like many writers, she couldn’t have doubled as a model. But to focus on her looks is to completely miss the point. She was an inspiring, intelligent, independent woman who wasn’t especially interested in the pursuit of beauty, caring more about literature, history, baseball, and social justice.
While she never explicitly discusses feminism in her books, she is a feminist role model, having lived a non-traditional life in an era when there was intense pressure to conform.
And she was passionate about equality, getting so involved with the politics of her local neighbourhood that she became the Lenox Hill Democratic Club’s first female president. (Helene clearly adored New York, even turning down guaranteed work in Hollywood because she couldn’t bear to leave.)
While she sadly struggled for money most of her life, her hard work paid off in other ways. 84 Charing Cross Road was turned into a TV movie, film, and radio play, but as an Anglophile who’d dreamed of becoming a playwright, being flown First Class to London for its West End opening night was the highlight.
Helene documented that trip in Q’s Legacy, writing: “What fortune teller would ever have the nerve to predict that the best years of my life would turn out to be my old age?”
For all her reading, Helene wasn’t a big fan of fiction because she thought real life was usually more interesting. When it came to her own, she was probably right.
Guest feature by Diane Shipley. Diane is a freelance journalist who loves to write about TV, feminism, and lovely, lovely books. She’s on Twitter (almost all the time) and, with around 30 other women, writes for group blog Bea.