Tag Archives: Rejection

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.

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 …”


If 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


Writing my way out of London

ROYAL MAIL I sent plenty of dreams into the slots of Royal Mail boxes in England (Photo pixabay.com/en/mailbox-background-architecture-22149/)
DREAM CATCHER I posted plenty of dreams through the slots of Royal Mail boxes.

A Writer gives up on the big city.

I LIVED in the city of London for three years. During the first I was heady with hope, not caring that I hadn’t ‘made it’ yet, sure that I would at any moment. Throughout the second I bargained with my definitions of success, as I compromised in order to survive financially while keeping my dreams alive. In the third, my hopes were dashed and my finances dived as I held-on for that dream job, while life collapsed around my deluded ears… relationships, projects, homes, prospects. All gone with the rent money.

Long before I encountered the hopeful practice of affirmations, I was already making them in my own way. When ridiculous barely media-related jobs were offered to me, since I presented as a non-insane organised person, such as the job filming rich tourists on Caribbean cruises, I would get out of them by saying: “Thanks, but I have been offered another job which I simply cannot refuse… I’m perfect for it, and to turn it down would be impossible.”

The crestfallen human resources folk would express a moment of regret, then drop me, still unemployed, with the phone.

Thankfully I landed just enough unpaid independent film and television work to stave off a real ego bruising.

I assistant-directed a Goldsmiths College student film, after answering an ad the student producer put in the local paper seeking skilled volunteers to support the shoot. We filmed in a famous British Comedian’s daughter’s house, and in between consoling her about the abuse her place was getting from its use as a location, and various auditions she felt she had failed, I was consoling the students through a series of disasters. The main one was the discovery that all the rushes (on expensive celluloid!) were unusable due to focus problems.

I encouraged a soldier-on approach, which was met with wild anger from the director of photography, who stood in my face and screamed at me, barely masking his obvious feelings of guilt about the fuzzy rushes. Quite rightly, I felt I didn’t need that, and at the end of that shot, I walked off set and didn’t go back.

Later that year I assisted on two short films directed by the life-enlarging Jillian Li-Sue, who I still feel has a feature film in her waiting to get out, if only someone would take a punt on her and put up the money.

The first of these was shot on location in Catford, only a few blocks from where I lived in Lewisham.

CEDAR ON CELLULOID Production still from Jillian Li-Sue's short film Cedar Wood and Silk.
CEDAR ON CELLULOID Production still from Jillian Li-Sue’s short film Cedar Wood and Silk.

Taking care of odd jobs on a film set, like fetching porn mags to be used as props, and amusing actors between shots, earned me the title of second assistant director on Jill’s beautiful short Cedar Wood and Silk. That was one I was proud to have been a part of.

Amazingly, some Australian friends were able to put me in touch with one of Britain’s film producers of the moment, who was kind enough to meet me at his Soho office, and not laugh at the film script I’d sent him. In fact, he gave it to one of his readers who wrote an exacting report on it. Tough stuff, but a wake-up call.

There I sat, feeling misunderstood, across the desk from this titan of film. He must have been bemused at my silent miscomprehension of exactly how he could help me, kindly pointing out that a certain amount of enthusiasm was essential for getting a project together. I barely knew what I was doing there, really, but he took my number and gave it to someone.

Weeks later, after returning from my regular job-seeking in the West End, I played the answering machine, only to have missed a call for a day’s work on his new movie. I called back, but the super-busy-super-organised production assistant happily informed me that position had been filled. Too late.

Around that time my Soho office (a red telephone booth off Charing Cross Road) was blown-up by the IRA. The kid who did it lived over my back fence in South London, and apparently the  explosives he’d used were stored in the garden shed, only metres from where I’d slept for over a year.

Perhaps I was in the wrong place?

So I answered an advertisement in Broadcast magazine, looking for a production assistant for a small production company in Ipswich, Suffolk.

I had to look on a map to find Suffolk, imaging it to be tucked ‘up north’ somewhere remote. But it was barely an hour away by train. For an Australian, an hour was a mere trifle. Perhaps I should expand my horizons beyond the tarnished fabulousness of London?

Not having even a typewriter to make use of (one of my flatmates stole the phone bill money and disappeared to St Lucia … cue the violins, but I had to sell stuff to get by), I hand wrote a job application and resume onto beautiful thick yellow paper, hoping it would stand out. My handwriting on quality paper was about as honest as I could be in the situation I found myself in.

I posted the letter on the way to my cinema job, and promptly forgot all about it. After all, the Royal Mail hadn’t delivered me a break in three years.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Always putting on a play

SHEPHERD STAR Playing the misunderstood sheep herder, at left, surrounded by siblings and neighbours.
SHEPHERD STAR Playing the misunderstood sheep herder, at left, surrounded by siblings and neighbours.

A Writer ventures back into theatre.

I WAS one of those children for whom the world of theatrics was the most sought-after form of play. Whether it was reciting poems for my assembled grandparents, or recruiting the local kids into an impromptu christmas play, I was the keenest, bossiest, most theatrical of them all.

This had more to do with boredom than any great desire for a career in the theatre. Without plays, there seemed to be nothing to do.

To fill in the endless daylight-saving hours on our farm, the shearing shed became a playhouse; whiling away the tedium of school, the annual plays were islands of creativity; and during access visits to my Dad’s place, where none of the adults present seemed to comprehend the finer points of parenting, I made my own fun creating embryonic theatre pieces.

One of these was my adaptation of Saint George and the Dragonet, an iconic 1950s radio play which I dutifully typed-up from the vinyl 45 into a bona fide script.

Back in the relative stability of my home town, I pitched the production to our headmaster, who willingly gave-over the school hall and an assembly session for my production. It may well remain the easiest production I ever got-up.

Friends took on the roles of the Dragon, Damsel in Distress, and Saint George’s sardonic boss. I, of course, slipped easily into the lead role and those of director, writer and designer. Really, I’ve being filling all of the above in various forms ever since.

At high school the entire community got involved in the annual musicals, but by the time school was over I was left to my own devices – for most people, plays were just pretend. A theatrical career was a complete anathema.

Two drama schools drummed the processes of play production into me, but it was boredom, again, which saw me return to the theatre while working in the creative drought of corporate production.

A small advertisement in The Stage newspaper caught my eye, since it was placed by a new company – GIN Theatre – operating in South London. They wanted a director to adapt a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale for a children’s Christmas show.

Now this was something right up my alley.

I chose the tale I’d adapt based on its evocative title – The Girl Without Hands – a classic rite of passage which I suggested we transpose into Victorian England to cement the Christmas feel.

To my surprise, amidst the waves of rejection that year, GIN chose my idea. We auditioned for a cast of actors, went into rehearsal and production at The Studio, a small performing arts centre in Beckenham.

RESTORED BY FAITH The Girl Without Hands, from the story by the Brothers Grimm, from an image by Philipp Grot Johann (1841-1892).
RESTORED BY FAITH The Girl Without Hands, from an image by Philipp Grot Johann (1841-1892).

All of us were recent drama school graduates, eager for experience and opportunity. Together, we created a beautifully detailed production, rich in theatricality and full of the wonder that the story requires, following as it does the journey of an innocent drawn into the deepest tragedy, eventually restored by faith.

The core group survived the disappearance of some cast after day one (it always happens), and ultimately the lack of bums on seats (it always happens) despite all the hard work, and a small tour to Bromley’s performing arts centre down the road.

The following year I was recruited as Assistant Director on a production of David Hare’s The Secret Rapture, staged at The Steiner Theatre in Regent’s Park. This was an altogether much ‘cooler’ outfit, although I missed the camaraderie of GIN.

On day one the director roped the entire cast and crew into an exercise centred-on saying “yes” to everything, aimed at removing blocks and helping us get to know one another. I took part – I had to in the terrible role of Assistant Director, an entity which nobody likes or trusts, and who usually does the lion’s share of the work smoothing actor’s egos and overseeing the graft of rehearsals.

The next day the producer called me with the news that the director had resigned (it often happens) and asking would I take over? Having had “yes” drummed into me, I said that very word, and found myself aged 25 in a life I barely understood directing a play I comprehended even less.

But I was a great actor. The deeply closeted can go to great lengths keeping everyone off the scent, preventing all the wrong questions from being asked.

I duly mimicked the best tools I’d been exposed to at drama school and stumbled through with the more experienced, and therefore more jaded (they often are) actors from north of the Thames.

We got the production to the stage, with some heavy symbolism masking the great gaps in my grasp of Hare’s masterful exploration of relationships in this play.

Another year later more familiar territory revealed itself with the opportunity to design a production of Chekhov’s One Act Plays (adapted by Michael Frayn) at the Tristan Bates Theatre right in the heart of London’s West End.

Five years since washing my hands of theatre design, in one of the most design-friendly theatre capitals in the world, and completely on my own terms, I revelled in bringing this production to life. We got plenty of bums on seats too (it sometimes happens).

By that time I’d left London for good, for the frozen plains of Suffolk. A visit to a castle somewhere in East Anglia, on the same day that a troupe of actors took over the inner keep, set up a simple stage and unfurled some coloured banners, drawing a crowd of hundreds with a raucous energy that could not be ignored, taught me that it matters not where you put on a play.

An audience of less souls than those on the stage, in a ‘proper’ theatre in a ‘proper’ city … or engaged, thrilled crowds before a couple of actors on an old barrel in a castle keep? I know which side my theatrical sensibility falls on.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.