Letters after her name – An Irishman’s Diary about the strange fame of Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff,  author of ‘84 Charing Cross Road’

Helene Hanff, author of ‘84 Charing Cross Road’


The life of Helene Hanff, which began 100 years ago today in Philadelphia, was a masterclass in the fickleness of fame.

It was dominated for decades by her attempts to become a successful playwright, an ambition for which she was tragically under-equipped.  When she did at last create a stage hit, 84 Charing Cross Road, it was an accident. That much-loved book started as a series of letters, only published as an afterthought when the object of her correspondence died.

The text was turned into a play, and then a screenplay, by others, wowing the West End, Broadway, and Hollywood. This allowed her, among other things, to visit London, and the address she had immortalised, for the first time.

But by then the shop had closed, celebrity having been thrust on it too late. As for Hanff, she at least lived to enjoy a wider readership. Unfortunately, her creative limitations remained, so that proved a mixed blessing.


Underfoot in Show Business

In between not getting her plays staged, she had worked as a TV writer and theatrical publicist – learning, as the latter, interesting lessons about the fine lines between triumph and disaster.

Once she had to pulp 10,000 mimeographed press releases about a folk opera called Away We Go, because the producers decided on a late title change.  She hated the new one, “Oklahoma” (it was like calling the musical “New Jersey, or Maine”), but cranked out another 10,000 releases anyway.

Then the producers decided the name still lacked something. As a result, she spent a long night adding 30,000 exclamation marks (“Oklahoma!” was mentioned three times on each release), while the manager went to frantic work on the playbills. All this in a freezing New York office, because (as she said) the company had turned off the heating to compensate for the overspend.

By the time of the memoir, Hanff’s transatlantic correspondence with a book dealer called Frank Doel was into its second decade. Begun after the war, it was accompanied by occasional presents of food to the ration-starved Londoners, and peppered with her New York wit.

After dispatching one gift, a ham, she noticed that the proprietors of Doel’s shop were “Marks” and “Cohen”. In an urgent follow-up, she inquired: “ARE THEY KOSHER?  I could rush a tongue over.  ADVISE PLEASE.”

The relationship between the sassy, sophisticated Manhattanite (Anne Bancroft in the 1987 film) and the staid, reliable Englishman (Anthony Hopkins) would strike a favourite chord on both sides of the ocean.

There was also an amusing sub-plot in Doel’s wife, the Irish Nora, née Morrison), who jealously chided him for bringing Hanff’s letters home, although as both correspondents told her, she’d have more reason to worry if he didn’t.

Still, it was only after Doel’s death in 1969 that it occurred to Hanff to publish the exchanges, and even then she thought it no more than “a nice little short story”. The result was indeed barely 100 pages. But crucially, it had the magical touch that eluded all her previous works.

Among its cult of fans, as mentioned in one of Hanff’s 1997 obituaries, was an enclosed order of Benedictine nuns, who placed a borrowed copy in a glass case, like the Book of Kells, and had the page turned daily so they could read together.

The same obit, written by the man who made her book a play, noted gently that Hanff was “no Jane Austen or George Eliot”. Alas, even the charms of 84 Charing Cross Road were absent from the follow-up account of her London visit.  An abbreviated Irish Times reviewer (“M.M.”) declared it “excitable and witless”, adding: “Mercifully, it’s short.”

As for the money success brought, she didn’t keep it long. Generosity was another failing. She ensured the Doel family received a share of royalties, and spent much of her own on airmailed replies to fan letters. In later life, she needed help from a charity for authors to pay hospital bills.

Still, somehow, she had won a measure of fame, and may be retaining it better than some.  In the 1961 memoir she wrote of her struggle “not to be one of the 999 out of 1,000 who didn’t become Moss Hart”. “Moss Who?” you may ask. Indeed. Even during Hanff’s lifetime, in later editions, her role model had to be changed to “Noel Coward”.