Helene Hanff; Author of ’84, Charing Cross Road’
Helene Hanff, the author whose 20-year correspondence with an English bookseller inspired her book, a play and the movie “84, Charing Cross Road,” has died. She was 80.
Hanff died of pneumonia Wednesday in Manhattan, where she had lived most of her life, her publishers said.
She was a prolific and eventually successful writer for television and children. Her work was barely noticed until 1970, when she wrote “84, Charing Cross Road.” The title was the address of Marks & Co. of London, based on letters she exchanged with the shop and its chief buyer, Frank Doel, between 1949 and 1969.
Times reviewer Charles Solomon said the subsequent television show and 1986 film with Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Doel never “diminished the charm of Helene Hanff’s book. . . . The ideal book to tuck away for a rainy afternoon.”
The book was wildly popular in England and was adapted as a British television drama by Hugh Whitemore, who later wrote the screenplay for the motion picture. The book was also adapted for the London stage by James Roose-Evans. The play was produced on Broadway in 1982 starring Ellen Burstyn and Joseph Maher.
In 1990, Solomon described the still-popular book as “a collection of letters between a struggling young writer in post-World War II New York City and the staff of a small used-book store in London [which] chronicles the changes England underwent as rationing and austerity gave way to prosperity. A voracious and discriminating reader, Hanff filled her letters with concise, intelligent discussions of English literature and the joys of book-collecting.”
Hanff’s letters bore little resemblance to the usual business correspondence.
“WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?” she wrote after receiving a shipment from the bookshop in 1951. “This is not pepys’ diary, this is some busybody’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary may he rot. i could just spit. where is jan. 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?”
Doel had responded impersonally at first but he and his colleagues soon warmed to Hanff’s affectionate needling.
The shop’s staff sent her recipes for Yorkshire pudding, and she mailed them food packages and nylon stockings to ameliorate the rigors of postwar England.
“The Newman arrived almost a week ago and I’m just beginning to recover,” she wrote in 1950, when she bought a first edition of John Henry Newman’s “Idea of a University.”
“I feel vaguely guilty about owning it. All that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type belongs in a pine-paneled library of an English country home; it wants to be read by a fire in a gentleman’s easy chair--not in a secondhand studio couch in a one-room hovel in a broken-down brownstone front.”
Born in Philadelphia on April 15, 1916, Hanff’s professional work consisted mostly of television plays that appeared on such prestigious early shows as “Playhouse 90" and “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” and children’s books. She also wrote three other well-received books for adults: “Underfoot in Show Business,” an account of her life as an unsuccessful Broadway playwright in the 1930s and 1940s; “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,” a sequel to “Charing Cross” describing her visit to London; and “Apple of My Eye,” a diary and guidebook on New York.