Born 100 years ago this April, Helene Hanff came of age as a writer when women wrote in cardigans and pearls, tortoiseshell glasses hanging from strings around their necks—or so they were so often depicted on those occasions when a photograph of, say, Barbara Cartland or Margaret Mitchell might appear in the pages of a Saturday magazine. But Hanff was different. A playwright and children’s author, she wrote with her elbows while balancing a gin and tonic in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the ashes tumbling down into her battered typewriter. Gravel-voiced, she swore like a sailor. She had opinions on everything, and even when she was being kind and helpful, there was a sense of chastisement to the enterprise.
And she was so often kind and helpful, as a British bookseller learned when, like a whirlwind, Hanff came blowing, unannounced, into his London shop in the fall of 1949. She arrived in the form of a letter that opened, “Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase ‘antiquarian booksellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.”
She enclosed a list of books that she wanted, fine books of essays by William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, a Vulgate Bible, a Greek New Testament, Robert Louis Stevenson’s aphoristic Virginibus Puerisque (“But marriage, if comfortable, is not at all heroic. It certainly narrows and damps the spirits of generous men.”). The books came, taking weeks to cross the ocean, and in such nice shape that Hanff confessed that they made her orange-crate bookshelves look shabby. Another list went out, requesting classics of British literature and books of and on religion, and more books arrived, and so forth, back and forth across the pond.
Soon into their correspondence, gathered in her beloved 1970 book, 84, Charing Cross Road, Hanff sends a package of ham, eggs, cheese, and other things not easily found in the starving postwar years of what historian David Kynaston calls Austerity Britain. Two and a half years after sending that first letter and that gift, it being a formal time, she comes to be on first-name terms with bookseller Frank Doel. More food packages are sent, more letters exchanged, and in the growing friendship between them that Hanff records, her fortunes and reputation rising as the years pass, Hanff’s liveliness matches Frank’s reserve (“we are prepared to be broad-minded about your choice of subject matter”). From page to page, she coaxes him into the written equivalent of a thin smile if never an outright grin, even though she is often very funny.
84, Charing Cross Road was made into a film in 1987, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins perfectly cast in those roles. Book and film have become a standard for readers who love books about books, and Helene Hanff’s story remains a pleasure all these years later.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.