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Helene Hanff circa 1990s
Helene Hanff (April 15, 1916 – April 9, 1997) was an American writer. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she is best known as the author of the book 84, Charing Cross Road, which became the basis for a stage play, television play, and film of the same name.
Helene Hanff's career, which saw her move from writing unproduced plays to helping create some of the earliest television dramas to becoming a kind of professional New Yorker, goes far beyond the charm of her most famous book. She wrote a memoir in 1961 called Underfoot in Show Business that chronicled her struggles as an ambitious young playwright trying to make it in the world of New York theatre in the 1940s and 1950s. She worked in publicists' offices and spent summers on the "straw hat circuit" along the East Coast, all the while writing one play after another. Her plays were admired by some of Broadway's leading producers but somehow none of them ever made it to the stage.
When network television production geared up in New York City in the early 1950s, Hanff found a new career writing and editing scripts for many early television dramas. Chief among these was the Dumont Network series, The Adventures of Ellery Queen. At the same time she continued to try to get one of her plays produced on Broadway and not just be "one of the 999 out of 1,000 who didn't become Moss Hart." (In later editions of Underfoot this reference was changed to Noël Coward.) When the bulk of television production moved to California, Hanff chose to remain in New York. As her TV work dried up she turned to writing for magazines and, eventually, to the books that made her reputation.
84, Charing Cross Road
First published in 1970, the epistolary work 84, Charing Cross Road chronicles her 20 years of correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer for Marks & Co, a London bookshop, on which she depended for the obscure classics and British literature titles around which her passion for self-education revolved. She became intimately involved in the lives of the shop's staff, sending them food parcels during Britain's postwar shortages and sharing with them details of her life in Manhattan.
Due to financial difficulties and an aversion to travel, she put off visiting her English friends until too late; Doel died in December 1968 from peritonitis from a burst appendix, and the bookshop eventually closed. Hanff did finally visit Charing Cross Road and the empty but still standing shop in the summer of 1971, a trip recorded in her 1973 book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. In Duchess, Hanff describes her visits with friends and fans to various locations and places of literary and historical interest in London and Southern England. This trip was a highlight of her life - her modesty and sense of humor are evident as she talks about the friends, including Frank Doel's wife, Nora, and daughter, Sheila, who were so devoted to her because of 84 Charing Cross Road, and her love of London.
In the 1987 film adaptation, 84 Charing Cross Road, Hanff was played by Anne Bancroft, while Anthony Hopkins took the part of Frank Doel. Anne Jackson had earlier played Hanff and Frank Finlay Doel in a 1975 adaptation of the book for British television. Ellen Burstyn recreated the role on Broadway in 1982 at the Nederlander Theater in New York City. Elaine Stritch also played Helene Hanff in a television adaptation of 84 Charing Cross Road.
Hanff never married. In the 1987 movie, a photo of a US serviceman is shown in her apartment during the period of World War II, a portrait at which she smiles fondly, suggesting to the viewer that Hanff remained unmarried due to this naval officer's death. No such person is mentioned in her autobiographical Underfoot and none of her writings suggests that she ever had any lasting, or even short-term, romantic relationship with any person. In Duchess she confides to her diary that she was irritated by 'a lot of togetherness' with one of her male English fans who had taken her to Stratford-upon-Avon and Oxford on a two-day driving trip. Her relationship with Frank Doel, warm as it was, was entirely literary.
One interesting facet of Hanff's career is that she was asked by editor Genevieve (Gene) Young of Harper & Row to write her autobiography as a failed playwright-cum-successful television writer before she became notable as an author, publication of Underfoot In Showbusiness preceding 84 Charing Cross Road by eight years.
Hanff later put her obsession with British scholar Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch to use in a book called Q's Legacy (1985) The book serves as a prequel to 84 and also recounts the aftermath of Duchess. Other books include The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (1973), Apple of My Eye (1977 and updated in 1988), an idiosyncratic guide to New York City, and Letter from New York (1992), which reprinted the five-minute talks she gave each month on the BBC's Woman's Hour radio broadcasts between 1978 and 1984, and Underfoot in Show Business (1961, reissued 1989). Underfoot in Show Business was adapted as a stage play by Charles Leipart and premiered in 2008 at the Devonshire Theatre in Eastbourne, UK, directed by David Giles.
Stephen R. Pastore published a biography of Hanff, based on interviews he had conducted with her, in 2011.
Hanff was never shy about her fondness for cigarettes and martinis, but nevertheless lived to be 80, dying of diabetes in 1997 in New York City. The apartment building where she lived at 305 E. 72nd Street has been named "Charing Cross House" in her honor. A bronze plaque next to the front door commemorates her residence and authorship of the book. In England, a bronze plaque commemorates the bookstore featured in 84, Charing Cross Road, although the building now houses a restaurant.
- Underfoot In Show Business. Harper and Row, 1962. ISBN 0-316-34319-6
- 84 Charing Cross Road. André Deutsch, 1971. ISBN 0-233-96330-8
- The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1973. ISBN 0-397-00976-3.
- Helene Hanff: A Life. Stephen R. Pastore, Grandoak Books, Philadelphia, 2011. ISBN 0-9829579-3-9.
- Obituary in The Independent Helene Hanff biography by James Roose-Evans
- 84 Charing Cross Road - Play for Today, 1975 at the Internet Movie Database
- 84 Charing Cross Road - film, 1987 at the Internet Movie Database