James Roose-Evans' tribute article in The Independent, 14th April 1997

Helene Hanff will always be associated with what is, undoubtedly, her most endearing and enduring book, 84 Charing Cross Road (1971); yet this slim volume of correspondence between herself and Marks & Co, an antiquarian bookshop in London, was written at the lowest point in her career.

For years, as she was later to describe in Underfoot in Showbusiness (1961), she had been writing plays that never got produced, while eking out a precarious existence reading scripts for Paramount Pictures, writing articles for encyclopaedias, television scripts, and children's history books; until one evening she sat down to take stock of herself and her future. "I was a failed playwright. I was nowhere. I was nothing."

It was into this void that there came the news of the death of Frank Doel of Marks & Co from whom for over 20 years she had been ordering books she could ill afford, but which had given her a link with England. "Coming when it did the news was devastating. It seemed to me that the last anchor in my life - my bookshop - was taken from me. I began to cry and I cculdn't stop." It was then that she realised that she had to write the story of her relationship with the shop and, in particular, with Frank Doel.

Published in 1971, the book became an overnight success and, even more surprisingly, a cult book. Once, in conversation with me, she referred to it as "my little nothing book; I thought I was writing a New Yorker story when I wrote it. I still think it is a nice little short story."

Soon letters, gifts, and telephone calls poured in from all over the country. One such call was from a woman in Alaska and when Hanff commented: "This must be costing you a fortune," back came the unexpected reply, "I'm married to an Eskimo and we live 300 miles from the nearest town. I didn't want to wait till spring when the roads clear and we can get into town to the post office." It became one of those books that people passed on, or gave to each other. Hanff told me how the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey near Worcester, an enclosed order of Benedictines, had a single borrowed copy which was placed in a glass case, and a small American nun was elected to turn one page a day so that the whole community could read it together.

Then, in 1980, I acquired the stage rights and adapted the book as a play for the stage, directing it first in the West End and, the following year, on Broadway. Later it was made into a movie starring Ann Bancroft. Since then the play has been performed all over the world. But it was not until the stage version that Helene Hanff began to make any real money, enough to ensure her at least a reasonable comfort in her old age which was much troubled by pneumonia and bronchial infections (exacerbated no doubt by her excessive smoking), as well as diabetes. Until then, in spite of the book's success, she never made a penny because, as she described on the Dick Cavett celebrity television show, every reader of the book wrote her a fan letter which she would then answer, and she had worked out that the cost of the aerogram equalled the amount of the royalties on each copy of the paperback edition.

For the second half of this article, please click HERE.
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Anne Bancroft - Introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of 84 Charing Cross Road
The Guardian - April 11, 1997
The Independent - April 14, 1997
Mark Shivas - Tribute article, April 11, 1997
James Roose-Evans - Tribute article April 14, 1997
The Guardian - April 11, 1997
The Guardian - April 11, 1997
The Guardian - April 11, 1997
The Independent - April 14, 1997