The Duchess of E 95th Street

Over on Twitter, I seem to have spent quite a bit of time recently discussing Helene Hanff with fellow book lovers. I guess it shouldn’t feel strange that book Twitter talks about famous book lovers but Hanff isn’t so well known that she would be mentioned as much as I’ve seen her name pop up on my feed recently, so I thought I’d devote a blog to her.

Helene Hanff is one of the main reasons that I wanted to become a writer, and while ideally I’d like to be a writer in 1950s New York, a part time writer in 2020s Nottingham will have to do. Famous for writing 84 Charing Cross Road, the bookshop lovers book, Hanff churned out a range of writing across her career and I’m pretty certain most of it is now out of print. She has the happy knack of making you feel as if you’ve known her for years when you read her, as if you would bump into her in the street and could carry on a conversation with her without having ever met her before. As such, she also puts me in mind of Nora Ephron, another New Yorker writer I admire hugely.

15-year old me wanted to go to New York so very much. I taught myself to drink coffee because I knew that’s what New Yorkers drank. Much as Helene Hanff used to go to English movies to watch the London streets, I love a good NY film – When Harry Met Sally and Crossing Delancey being two of my favourites. And so I also collected writings by my favourite NY authors. Here’s my Hanff collection.

Aren’t they lovely looking? Kudos to Futura editions who published them all so lovingly. Looking at the prices on the back, the most expensive cost £4.50 and the cheapest £1.95.

84 Charing Cross Road

I have two copies of 84, the hardback was a gift from Mr Barsby for my birthday last year. It’s got a picture of the original shop on the back, and is published by Andre Deutsch, Hanff’s first British publisher.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this classic, it is a collection of letters exchanged between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, a bookseller working at an antiquarian (second hand) bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. The letters begin in the immediate post-war period when Hanff is trying to find a range of books to suit her antiquarian taste in English literature. She writes to the shop, they dispatch books and she gets increasingly familiar in her tone so that she and Frank develop a friendship, despite never meeting. Hanff yearns to visit London and makes a huge impact on the lives of the English bookshop by sending food parcels and crazy letters. The book has built a cult following over here and in the US, and its charm comes from Hanff’s bold manner and Frank’s polite but humorous replies.

The paperback also contains The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is the story of Hanff finally making it to London for the first time when 84 was published over here. After Hanff died, there were a few mean spirited articles criticising her, especially in this book, for making caricatures of the people she met over here but she was always clear that these books were her impressions of people and I guess once you’ve spent your whole life imagining a place, you might fancy more than you really see when you finally get there. (Conversely, I was never more delighted than when the NY cab driver called me “Lady” in an exasperated voice as I wrestled with my rucksack in his back seat. Just like in the movies…)

Q’s Legacy

This book tells a similar story to 84 but with a wider context. Hanff explains where she began to read English literature, being too poor to attend college. She checked books out of the library instead, including a series of books by Cambridge professor Arthur Quiller-Couch, better known as Q. It was through his written lectures that she read a huge amount of books and developed her taste. This book also tells the story of the impact that 84 has on her life, taking her to London, watching plays and TV adaptations, and the letters and contacts that she had from fans who wrote or called her. Like 84, it sounds like a thin premise for a book but as I said, Hanff is one of those gossipy charming writers where as a reader, you feel like you’ve known her for years when you read her and it all works. Plus some of her fans do amazing things for her.

Underfoot in Show Business

Hanff did well writing quirky autobiographical volumes and this is the story of her early writing career in the theatre in New York. Full of anecdotes, famous faces and silliness. What makes this work is that she is underfoot, poor, striving about for any income in a business she loves but that doesn’t want her and this is so relatable to almost anyone who started out working a rubbish paid job with a bunch of misfits. It’s a popular formula, replicated many times in TV and film scripts.

Apple of My Eye

In the mid-1970s Helene won an assignment to write copy on a tourist book of photographs of New York. In her mind, it was the dream assignment, right up until she realised that she’d never really been to any of the tourist landmarks and knew nothing about them. So she enlisted the help of her friend Patsy and together they investigate New York. In the 1970s NY’s reputation wasn’t great, and it was before the big clean up and regeneration projects that leave the city looking so shiny these days. (One of the reasons I love the film Crossing Delancey is that you see New York looking a bit run down and rubbish, but people live there happily. Modern film and TV representations of rundown areas in cities are so often filled with stories of drugs, gangs, crime and trafficking, that you forget that most of the time, urban dwellers are just normal people are just going about their daily lives.) Helene and Patsy dash about the city, passing on tips and unearthing all kinds of facts that I doubt ever made it into the photo book but make for a great read about a great city in this book.

Letter From New York

In the last Seventies, Helene was asked to write her version of Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America for BBC Woman’s Hour and this book is her collected letters. She thought it would run for about six months and instead it ran for six years. The scripts then sat forgotten for many years in Helene’s filing cabinet until she mentioned to someone that she had written them and in the early Nineties this book was published. I spotted it in a remaindered bookshop one week and didn’t have the cash to buy it and when I went back the following week it had disappeared so I hassled the shop assistant to go and root through the back until she came across a copy. It’s the kind of dogged persistence that I like to think HH would have appreciated, even though her words were in a remaindered bookshop. It was during my ‘I hate book jackets’ period and I threw the jacket away, which I regret now as I’m certain it would have matched the others in red, white and blue US magnificence.

If you have the chance to read more Hanff, in battered second hand editions, then please do. It’s a good friendship to have.

A postscript. As a 21-year old who had finally made it to New York after what felt like years of waiting, I sat in a coffee shop overlooking Fifth Avenue and sipped at my huge vat of black coffee and watched the cars and the people, and thought to myself, “This is exactly how I thought it would be.” It isn’t often that our dreams come true in real life. I put this success down to having a dose of heavy reality and humour in the dreams in the first place. Thanks Helene, for that.

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