Helene Hanff – lady of letters

MISTRESS OF MISSIVES Helene Hanff (1916-1997) made a career of letter writing.
MISTRESS OF MISSIVES Helene Hanff (1916-1997) made a career of letter writing.

COULD there be a better proponent of written communication, a smarter wordsmith, a more ‘writerly’ writer than New York denizen, Queen of the day job, rejection letter collector, and one of the world’s biggest fans of English Literature – Helene Hanff (1916-1997), author of 84, Charing Cross Road?

Of all the writers I admire, I cannot think of one who deserved more to have lived long enough to write in the age of blogging.

It could be argued that Helene Hanff invented the style of writing now employed almost blindly by bloggers the world over – the confessional epistolary genre, studded with emotion, was embedded in her genes, and her unbeatable use of it was borne of her own life experience.

“I’m a great lover of i-was-there books,” she wrote in her most famous work.

“That her nature often resulted in alienation gives her story all the more pathos.”

Overwhelmed by a sense of failure and loneliness in her fifties, after the collapse of some long-held dreams about becoming a Broadway playwright (not to mention the four decades she spent trying), Hanff received news that one of her oldest friends had died.

This was bookstore manager Frank Doel of Marks & Co. at the address made famous by the title of her book, in the city of London, England.

The two had known one another since 1949. Hanff was devastated.

Forget that she had never been to London. Forget that they had never met face to face. Through their two decade correspondence, Doel and Hanff had developed a unique long distance friendship.

There was no overt romance, but there was a great and tender mutual love of English Literature – Hanff the reader, and Doel her literary scout, seeking-out affordable copies of the classics for a writer of limited means eking out an existence in New York City.

Compelled to document what may have felt like one of the more meaningful relationships in her life, Hanff embarked on what she thought would be a very small work.

MEETING OF MINDS First edition cover of Hanff's most famous book.
MEETING OF MINDS First edition cover of Hanff’s most famous book.

It’s hard to put a finger on why 84, Charing Cross Road resonates with readers. Beyond the letters between the main characters, Hanff (and Doel, in his replies) recorded the early post-WWII years on both sides of the Atlantic, through to the revolutionary late 1960s. On the journey, they held steadfastly to literature as the world changed around them.

I first encountered this story in its 1987 film adaptation, starring Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Doel.

What spoke to me was the idea that Hanff fed her soul without really leaving her living room, which some might consider limited, but which struck me as profoundly imaginative.

She really was an armchair traveller who reassured people the world over that where we were, right at that moment, was neither limited or mundane, if only we could read and access our imaginations.

I felt I was starting to understand Hanff better when I read one of her most revealing paragraphs in the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, when she described how she stumbled into what is known as the Actors’ Church in London’s Covent Garden, and promptly burst into tears at the sight of the small plaque in memory of Vivien Leigh.

It also says a lot that Hanff doesn’t explain why. Her sentiment was very personal, but it was also very private. She seemed to take plenty of secrets to her death in 1997, leaving behind much speculation about her life.

Although readers and fans got a rare glimpse into Helene Hanff’s life in a 2014 tribute written by her cousin, writer Jean Hanff Korelitz, who recorded her first meeting with her famous relative.

“Helene turned out to be a small woman with the wiry build of a preadolescent boy, and she dressed in a style that had seen her through decades of a writer’s life: wool trousers, cardigans, flat sneakers, everything well worn and often less than scrupulously clean,” Korelitz wrote.

“She had a barking voice, a wry perpetual smile, and a pageboy haircut that veered in colour towards a not entirely natural rust.”

These observations make Hanff sound like a short Katharine Hepburn, but it was Hanff’s response to her young cousin’s first published book that is the more revealing memory. According to Korelitz, when Hanff questioned, brusquely, why Korelitz wrote something “like that?”

“Five minutes later she called back, in tears. ‘I’m sorry,’ she wailed. I was stunned, and tried to persuade her that it was nothing, but she didn’t believe me, and she was right; when she died the following year there was still that skein of discomfort between us.”

These moments are reminiscent of similar turning points in 84, Charing Cross Road that do not appear in the correspondence, but rather provide the links between Doel and Hanff’s letters.

For example, when Hanff writes of sending a food package to the staff at the London bookshop in the middle of Britain’s postwar rationing, only to realise that the six-pound ham in it may have meant any kosher Jewish staff would miss out, she cares enough to write and make other arrangements.

In these anecdotes, Hanff reveals herself as an ‘act first, think second’ character, but one who was never afraid to try better next time.

Confronted with her younger cousin’s publication success, the woman who’d waited until she was almost fifty to make her own literary splash, and only did so by writing primarily about herself, Hanff’s response to Korelitz is understandable.

But it’s this combination of a strong individual who showed actions of great empathy that provides the dynamic attractive force in Helene Hanff, and, by extension, her work. That her nature often resulted in alienation gives her story all the more pathos.

A loyal respondent to the thousands of fan letters she received (and, according to her obituarist, kept in relative poverty for a few years from the postage costs), Hanff’s true life’s work was probably in these letters, surely scattered across the globe by now.

“If she were alive today, Helene Hanff would preside over the world’s most followed literary blog.”

One day, Hanff’s replies to these fan letters may provide an even deeper account of this intensely private woman who preferred to put things in writing – after all, her breakthrough work (and certainly her most enduring), is ‘just’ an edited collection of letters.

If only the rest of her missives could be collected.

Her correspondence style was direct, humorous, polite, punctuated by outbursts in capitals and underlinings for emphasis (you can hear the clack of her typewriter in the execution), and you’ll never catch her abrevi8.

It’s tempting to imagine what Hanff would think of all the communication problems modern internet participants encounter in their use of written language. I’d like to think she’d write: “GET OVER IT and just READ, for God’s sake!” and: “TONE, you think I used a TONE with you? Of course I did …”

PLUCK COVER copyIf she were alive today, Helene Hanff would preside over the world’s most followed literary blog, from which she’d broadcast her wry empathy to the world from her kitchen table. Would Twitter’s 140 characters have given her the space to say what she wanted? I am sure she’d have found a way; but emoticons? NEVER!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

 

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