From the Daily Telegraph, Friday 11th April, 1997 - Page 29
HELENE HANFF, the American author who had died aged 79, rose to fame in the 1970s
with the publication of her book 84 Charing Cross Road. A collection of letters written over
20 years, the book charted the love affair between a smart, wise-cracking, noisy,
belligerent New Yorker - herself - and the mild-mannered staff of a secondhand bookshop
in London. It was turned ito a play and a film (starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony
Hopkins), but its popularity surprised Helene Hanff: "Who could have imagined a film
about a business correspondence?" She described it as "a static little piece" and insisted
that she had never imagined the collection of letters as anything more than a possible
The material for 84 Charing Cross Road came from the correspondence that she began
while working in New York as a reader for a film studio. She had already spent 15 years
failing to make a break-through as a playwright. In 1949, still bent on self-improvement,
she borrowed a volume of literary criticism by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch from the library
and set about following his advice on what to read. Unable to find most of the books she
wanted in New York, she answered an advertisement in the New Yorker and began to
correspond with the staff of Marks and Co, at 84 Charing Cross Road.
Her first letters were simple requests for out-of-print books but over the years she
developed a friendship with the manager, Frank Doel, and the other staff. "When we started
writing it was 'Dear Sir' and 'Dear Madam', but after 20 years it was 'My dear Helene' and
'Frankie'." But she and Doel were never to meet. Her letters soon evolved into accounts of
life in New York. In one she listed the names of the Brooklyn Dodgers and exhorted the
staff to pray for them. In another she described making her first Yorkshire pudding from a
recipe sent by one of the female staff. Helene Hanff was horrified when she heard about the
food shortages in post-war England and began to send food parcels. The staff reciprocated
by sending her first editions of her favourite poets and Irish linen tablecloths embroidered
by Frank Doel's next door neighbour.
When Helene's work as a television screenwriter failed in the 1960s, she had turned to
writing magazine articles and books, including her autobiography. But it was her account
of her correspondence with Marks and co, published in 1971, that developed a cult
following. Its unexpected success led to her making her first visit to London to publicise it
that year. By then Frank Doel had died and the bookshop had closed, but she was not
disappointed with London and spent most of her visit walking around the capital visiting
the houses of writers she admired.
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Daily Telegraph - April 11 1997
Article on Helene's death and revealing the
tantalising information that Helene had a secret love
affair with "a very famous American".