Having spent nearly 40 years writing plays that never reached the stage, unsuccessful New York writer Helene Hanff (pronounced 'Hellayne') finally became a celebrated author thanks to the collected letters she wrote to, and received from, Marks & Co1, a bookshop found at 84 Charing Cross Road2, London, UK.
Underfoot in Showbusiness
Helene Hanff was born in Philadelphia, USA, on 16 September, 1916. Her parents, Arthur and Miriam Levy-Hanff, were poor but enthusiastic fans of the theatre and, from an early age, Helene knew she wanted to be a playwright. After being forced to leave college during the Depression due to lack of funding, she decided to continue her studies on her own and began scouring the library for a suitable guide to literature. It was there that Helene happened across a series of books by renowned English academic, Arthur Quiller-Couch (AKA 'Q'3) which provided her with a recommended reading list which she began wading through. Hanff moved to Manhattan, New York in the late 1930s after winning a Theatre Guild grant to attend a year-long playwriting seminar. From there, she got a job in the Guild's Press Office, where she remained for several years. Hanff eventually left the Guild and began writing summaries of plays and novels for Paramount Pictures while working on her own plays and continuing to collect books from Q's reading list.
84 Charing Cross Road
In 1949, Hanff found an advert in the New York Times for Marks & Co, a London bookshop based on Charing Cross Road4 that specialised in 'antiquarian' books. As she wrote at the time, she had an 'antiquarian taste in books' but not much money. She decided to reply to the ad to enquire about a selection of out-of-print books she'd so far been unable to track down in New York. Some time later, she received a reply from 'FPD' on behalf of the bookshop informing her that they had some of her request list in stock and the rest on order. Soon she was corresponding with the bookshop on a regular basis, first with letters headed 'Dear Sir' and 'Dear Madam' (which prompted her to jovially enquire if the word 'Madam' meant the same in London as it disrespectfully did in New York), but eventually she became comfortable to write on first-name terms with 'FPD', the bookshop's chief buyer, Frank Doel. When English neighbours of Helene's told her that the UK was still under the cloud of post-war rationing, she began sending food parcels for Marks & Co's employees. In return, the employees sent her gifts, such as a hand-made Irish embroidered tablecloth made by Frank Doel's elderly neighbour and first editions of books they hoped she'd like. Some members of staff even slipped thank-you cards into her orders while the bosses weren't looking.
In the 1950s, Helene's many purchases from Marks & Co were funded by writing screenplays for television shows such as The Adventures of Ellery Queen5 as well as penning a number of historical adaptations for children's television. But freelance writing was not a lucrative business, and Ms Hanff often found herself living from hand to mouth. In 1961, during a lull in her career, Hanff was encouraged to write a book about her time in the theatre. The resulting Underfoot in Showbusiness was published with little fanfare and went out of print a short while later.
By the late 1960s, Helene's writing career was at its lowest ebb; close to poverty she found herself writing less and less to her favourite bookshop. So it was all the more upsetting when, in January 1969, Helene received a letter from Marks & Co:
I have just come across the letter you wrote to Mr Doel on the 30th of September last, and it is with great regret that I have to tell you that he passed away on Sunday the 22nd of December, the funeral took place on Wednesday the 1st of January. The death has been a very great shock to Mr Cohen, especially after coming so soon after the death of Mr Marks...
Distraught, Helene opened up a box of the letters she had collected over the years6 and decided to write them up as a tribute to Frank. She contacted Frank's widow, Nora, and with her help she put together a book using almost all of the letters sent to and from Marks & Co over the space of 20 years. The book was eventually published in 1970 under the title 84 Charing Cross Road.
Though the sales were at the time considered 'modest', the book stirred something in its readers that created thousands of loyal and passionate fans across the world. They immediately fell in love with Helene's witty, brash correspondence which seemed so at odds with the generous humility and quintessential 'Britishness' of Frank Doel. A strange consequence of the book was that, as almost every page carried Helene's address at the top, fans were able to send letters to her gushing with praise. Soon, as her phone number was listed in the public directory, she began to receive phone calls from enthusiastic fans wanting to speak to their new 'friend'. Then copies of the book began to arrive with little notes asking her to sign the books and post them onto a relative or friend (and not all of the requests were accompanied by money for the postage!).
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
Having always adored England - and in particular, London, Helene had always seen her letters to Marks & Co as her lifeline to a country she always longed to go to but would never be able to afford to visit. With the publication of 84 Charing Cross Road in the UK, Helene was finally able to visit London, a year after the bookshop that had inspired her had closed down. There, she was treated like a celebrity and was able to finally meet old friends such as Nora, Frank's widow, and their daughters. She also met Leo Marks7, the son of the co-owner of Marks & Co. Leo and Helene became fast friends and on subsequent visits to the country, Helene would always stay as Leo's guest.
As a consequence of her London visit, Helene was able to write a follow-up to 84 Charing Cross Road in the form of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which was published in 1973. Meanwhile, 84 Charing Cross Road became a successful stage play in London's West End, a considerably less-successful stage play off-Broadway in New York and an enchanting film, starring Anne Bancroft8 as Helene and Anthony Hopkins9 as Frank Doel.
Despite being one of the world's most well-known bibliophiles, Helene had a surprisingly practical attitude to books. As she once wrote to Frank Doel:
I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I'm never going to read again like I throw out clothes I'm never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don't remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life... but you don't throw it out! Not if it has a hard cover on it! Why not? I personally can't think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.
Still, there were some books she would never part with, the books that she'd bought from 84 Charing Cross Road, which she kept on a shelf alongside the old bookshop's sign which a devoted fan had 'acquired' for her some time after the bookshop closed for the last time.
Despite the fame and adoration that all of her books brought her, Helene was by no means a wealthy woman. Towards the end of her life, she was living off meagre royalties and accepting financial help for her medical bills. Helene Hanff died in 1997, aged 80. She is, fittingly, commemorated at the spot where Marks & Co once stood by a plaque which reads:
84 Charing Cross Road
The booksellers Marks & Co
Were on this site which became world renowned
Through the book by Helene Hanff.
- Underfoot in Showbusiness (1961)
- Terrible Thomas (1964)
- Movers and Shakers (1969)
- 84 Charing Cross Road (1970)
- The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (1973)
- Apple of my Eye (1977)
- Q's Legacy (1986)
- Letters from New York