From the Guardian, Friday 11th April, 1997
Helene Hanff, who has died at the age of 80, made her reputation mainly with one short
book, 84 Charing Cross Road, but she was a bubbling, caustic romantic who loved her
adopted New York, England and - above all - words.
Essentially an autobiographer in everything she wrote - she confessed she disliked fiction,
which may have hampered her during an early career writing Ellery Queen mystery
episodes for American television - she was a member of a dying breed: the compulsive
notetaker without a big theme, or even a big talent, who survives by describing the people
of her small universe with such animation that they take off.
The book 84 Charing Cross Road was based chiefly on letters exchanged between herself in
New York and Frank Doel, a member of another vulnerable breed: a little man who kept a
little antiquarian bookshop in the Charing Cross Road, on the edge of London's Soho. As
she supplies him with lists of rare books she wants, and he replies about his difficulties in
finding them, the reader gradually gets the impression of post-war Britain with its rationing
and shortages, and of New York at the same time, with Hanff's attempt to keep her
book-crammed apartment and her own life in some sort of order. The two never met,
which might have spoiled the story. By the time Hanff arrived at 84 Charing Cross Road,
Doel was dead and the shop was out of business. It was Doel's death that prompted her to
write the book. Apart from its success, it became a stage play, a TV drama, a film with Anne
Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Doel, and a radio play.
Hanff's view of this slice of life had its critics. It was pointed out that her Charing Cross
Road left out quite a lot of the not-so-nice context: the youngsters shooting up drugs in the
public lavatories at Cambridge Circus, the shops furtively selling marital aids, the razor
slashings in nearby Old Compton Street, and the raucous world of Ronnie Scott's jazz club.
Such criticism of a memorable book rather missed the point: Hanff may not have been a
fiction writer but equally she was not a social reporter. She was a dramatiser of fact and she
viewed that drama as essentially robust and up-beat. In her late 70s, she would cheerfully
tell interviewers (in the New York apartment in which she lived happily alone) to mind
their own business when they tried to guess her age.
Although diabetic she had a buoyant attitude to her condition, insisting on walking
substantial distances daily, though, she often joked, declining to carry bulky copies of the
New York Times for fear of fracturing an emaciated wrist. Her recipe for continuing to see
life in her characteristic terms was a good breakfast, followed by work. A glass of orange
juice, eggs, bacon, coffee and toast with marmalade was followed at 9am, regular as
clockwork, by a working stint at a small table - the only sort she could get into the micro
apartment. It might be work on one of her columns for magazines or a new edition of her
idiosyncratic guide to New York, which presented an almost trouble-free view of the city.
She pointed out that a group of British Derek Jacobi fans had once come to New York to see
their hero in a Broadway production and had slept on the sidewalks to be near him -
without encountering trouble.
For the second half of this article, please click HERE.
Obituary Articles from UK Newspapers
The Definitive Helene Hanff Website
(1980): "Who could
a film about a
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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".