From the Daily Telegraph, Friday 11th April, 1997 - Page 29
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In 1975, 84 Charing Cross Road was filmed as a BBC Television Play for Today. Meanwhile
Helene Hanff returned to her life in New York. In 1981, 84 Charing Cross Road was adapted
for the stage and opened in the West End starring Rosemary Leach. The show was such a
success in London that it transferred to New York, but proved less popular on Broadway.
The film version was made in 1987. As well as Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins as
Hanff and Doel, it starred Judi Dench and Maurice Denham.
Helene Hanff always considered herself a playwright rather than an author. She spent all of
her adult life in New York working in temporary jobs, such as selling theatre tickets and
writing press releases for theatrical agents, in order to finance her writing. None of her
many plays were ever produced, although she had considerable success with television
scripts. Surprisingly, when 84 Charing Cross Road was adapted for television and film,
Helene Hanff was not invited to write the screenplay.
Helene Hanff was born on April 15 1916 in Philadelphia, the daughter of a failed song and
dance man turned shirt salesman. "My parents were great theatre-goers," she recalled. "My
dad used to swap shirts for theatre tickets. So even during the depression we went every
week." Her only ambition was to become a playwright and she would write "at least a play a
month". She began to study English at the University of Philadelphia in 1935, but after only
a year her family's finances gave out and she had to look for work. Her first job was as a
typist in the basement of a school for motor mechanics. "I got $12 a week, and all the
grease I could carry home." She then worked for a pair of impoverished saxophone
teachers who spent their lunch hour playing in the Ritz. Her job was to pass herself off as
Baroness Helene von Hanff, and to write letters on stolen Ritz notepaper to expensive
schools offering saxophone letters to the pupils.
In 1936 Helene Hanff entered a play-writing competition held by the Bureau of New Plays
in New York. She immediately received a letter from the head of New York's Theatre Guild,
Theresa Helburn. Though she thought that the plays submitted were "just terrible", she
believed that Helene Hanff had talent, and spent the next two months coaching her in
technique. "She made me read Lawson's Theory of Playwriting and Stanislavsky's An Actor
Prepares, stuff I'd never seen before. Helene Hanff, the youngest and the only female
entrant, won a $1,500 grant to study drama writing with the Theatre Guild. For the next
two years she lived in a series of dilapidated single room apartments in New York while she
attended seminars and sat in on rehearsals of Guild plays. Unlike many aspiring
playwrights, she made friends with actors and stage hands.
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Obituary Articles from UK Newspapers
The Definitive Helene Hanff Website
(1980): "Who could
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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".