From the Daily Telegraph, Friday 11th April, 1997 - Page 29

HELENE HANFF, the American author who had died aged 79, rose to fame in the 1970s with the publication of her book 84 Charing Cross Road. A collection of letters written over 20 years, the book charted the love affair between a smart, wise-cracking, noisy, belligerent New Yorker - herself - and the mild-mannered staff of a secondhand bookshop in London. It was turned ito a play and a film (starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins), but its popularity surprised Helene Hanff: "Who could have imagined a film about a business correspondence?" She described it as "a static little piece" and insisted that she had never imagined the collection of letters as anything more than a possible magazine article.

The material for 84 Charing Cross Road came from the correspondence that she began while working in New York as a reader for a film studio. She had already spent 15 years failing to make a break-through as a playwright. In 1949, still bent on self-improvement, she borrowed a volume of literary criticism by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch from the library and set about following his advice on what to read. Unable to find most of the books she wanted in New York, she answered an advertisement in the New Yorker and began to correspond with the staff of Marks and Co, at 84 Charing Cross Road.

Her first letters were simple requests for out-of-print books but over the years she developed a friendship with the manager, Frank Doel, and the other staff. "When we started writing it was 'Dear Sir' and 'Dear Madam', but after 20 years it was 'My dear Helene' and 'Frankie'." But she and Doel were never to meet. Her letters soon evolved into accounts of life in New York. In one she listed the names of the Brooklyn Dodgers and exhorted the staff to pray for them. In another she described making her first Yorkshire pudding from a recipe sent by one of the female staff. Helene Hanff was horrified when she heard about the food shortages in post-war England and began to send food parcels. The staff reciprocated by sending her first editions of her favourite poets and Irish linen tablecloths embroidered by Frank Doel's next door neighbour.

When Helene's work as a television screenwriter failed in the 1960s, she had turned to writing magazine articles and books, including her autobiography. But it was her account of her correspondence with Marks and co, published in 1971, that developed a cult following. Its unexpected success led to her making her first visit to London to publicise it that year. By then Frank Doel had died and the bookshop had closed, but she was not disappointed with London and spent most of her visit walking around the capital visiting the houses of writers she admired.

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Helene Hanff (1980): "Who could have imagined
a film about a business correspondence?"

Please select and click an article name to read the piece...
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".
The Guardian - April 11, 1997

Full obituary - again split into parts ONE and TWO.
The Independent - April 14, 1997

Short obit notice.
Daily Telegraph - April 11, 1997

Full obituary - long article which I've split into parts ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR and FIVE