1916: Helene Hanff - Resources and General Discussion

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1916: Helene Hanff - Resources and General Discussion

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jan 31, 2016, 8:41 am

(1916 – 1997)

Helene Hanff was an American writer born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is best known as the author of the book 84, Charing Cross Road.

Helene Hanff's career saw her move from writing unproduced plays to helping create some of the earliest television dramas. She wrote a memoir as a failed playwright-cum-successful television writer 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. The bulk of television production eventually moved to California, but 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. The epistolary work 84, Charing Cross Road was first published in 1970.

Major works

Underfoot in Show Business (1961)
84, Charing Cross Road (1970)
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (1973)
Apple of My Eye (1977)
Q's Legacy (1985)
Letter from New York (1992)

Redigeret: feb 2, 2016, 11:02 am

I've read 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Sreet, will get around to Q's Legacy eventually. I've read two of Quiller-Couch's books of essays, essentially at her recommendation, and came away the richer for it.

Curious what others think of her other books. Do any contain anything from her plays or telescripts?

feb 20, 2016, 2:16 am

84, Charing Cross Road

I really don't understand the popularity of this little book. Here is the totally uninteresting correspondance between an American B-film script writer, who has nothing to say and proves herself to be a rude philistine, and the dry business correspondance of a clerk in a London book shop. There's a lot of names dropping, and plenty of drivel over post-war time charity. What horror to know there is a sequel (one could expect as much from a script writer).

feb 20, 2016, 2:17 am

I also read Q's legacy which wasn't any better.

Redigeret: feb 23, 2016, 1:57 pm

I also wondered about 84, Charing Cross Road and went so far as to watch the movie after reading the book. I too found the writer to be terribly rude and assumed the bookseller must have been need of the business after the war else he would have cut her loose.

feb 22, 2016, 9:42 am

I, on the other hand, found the interaction charming and a droll depiction of American and British manners. That it can be read as both of you apparently did suggests to me it was relatively unvarnished in its presentation of both characters. I also learned a bit about mundane life in both New York City and London, at the time. Perhaps not as interesting for anyone already somewhat familiar with those things.

feb 22, 2016, 11:48 am

>5 varielle:, 6

Well, it must be said that Helene Hanff still enjoys a great deal of popularity, which cannot be said of all authors dealt with in this group. She is not forgotten.

it was relatively unvarnished in its presentation of both characters

Unlike Address unknown (which I read last week), 84, Charing Cross Road is not an epistolary novel. As far as I remember, it is an actual correspondance. On Wikipedia, there is a list of books she ordered (mentioned in the book). But without comment, this list is fairly meaningless.

In my eyes, Helene Hanff is an uninteresting author, based on my reading of 84, Charing Cross Road and Q's legacy. She is not mentioned by other authors, she was not a member of any literary circle or movement, she was not innovative and she was not particularly successful.

I might be interesting to read her autobiography Underfoot in Show Business, and I would be quite interested to read Helene Hanff: A Life. by Stephen R. Pastore. Learning more about the background and life of an author, often helps.

Personally, I have quite nice memories about the time of "mail order", which involved real correspondance, and can say my letters were always answered very politely by my book sellers in Oxford, at the time, Blackwell's.

Quite a different experience from anonymous, on-line orders and automatic payment with credit card.

feb 22, 2016, 12:06 pm

>7 edwinbcn: In my eyes, Helene Hanff is an uninteresting author

Your observation here helped me realise my interest in Hanff is not as an author, but as a reader. The fact she published her memoirs, so to speak, makes her an author but that's not the source of her appeal for me.

feb 22, 2016, 12:31 pm

>8 elenchus:

what definitely makes her an author is her perseverance. Apparently, she just kept trying.

In some sense, it seems she was kind of -- not quite in touch.

I think that is why it would be interesting to know more about her, because why would she do that. What motivation, and, how did she see the significance of 84, Charing Cross Road?

feb 22, 2016, 12:35 pm

From her obituary in The Independent, James Roose-Evans,
Monday 14 April 1997

Helene Hanff will always be associated with what is, undoubtedly, her most endearing and enduring book, 84 Charing Cross Road (1971); yet this slim volume of correspondence between herself and Marks & Co, an antiquarian bookshop in London, was written at the lowest point in her career.


The obituary is quite interesting, actually.

feb 22, 2016, 12:47 pm

Yes, thanks for posting. I found this bit especially interesting!

Until then {the stage adaptation of the book}, in spite of the book's success, she never made a penny because, as she described on the Dick Cavett celebrity television show, every reader of the book wrote her a fan letter which she would then answer, and she had worked out that the cost of the aerogram equalled the amount of the royalties on each copy of the paperback edition.

feb 22, 2016, 12:49 pm

>9 edwinbcn: You made me wonder about why the book got published.

This from an article by a young writer acquainted with Helene:

To a friend embarking on a trip to London that spring, she wrote: “The blessed man who sold me all my books died a few months ago. But Marks & Co is still there. If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me! I owe it so much.” The epistolary book chronicling her relationship with the shop was born out of her deep sense of loss. Published in the US in 1970, it was an instant success. Unexpectedly, Hanff was catapulted out of obscurity to be feted in the media as a new literary celebrity.

I found the book quite charming.

Coincidentally, I'm reading a non-fiction book just now by Leo Marks, son of the proprietor of Marks & Company.

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