From the Daily Telegraph, Friday 11th April, 1997 - Page 29
For previous section, click HERE.
By the late 1930s she had still had no success as a playwright. Most of her jobs were part
time (to enable her to write) and she remained poverty-stricken. "I never had two cents to
my name", she said later. "The rent to my room was usually $10 a week, and after paying
that I'd be left with about 75 cents a day for food and cigarettes." She would sneak into
theatres after the show had started to avoid paying for tickets. "I saw every play on
Broadway. Of course, I never saw any of the first acts, but then nothings happens in the
first act anyway." She outfitted herself by taking home clothes on approval from
department stores and returning them the following day. Even flowers were provided free
by the undertakers next door. "I never went anywhere without a corsage. They were
always lilies, but I wasn't complaining."
In 1942 Helene Hanff found a job as a press agent as a press agent to Joe Heidt of the
Theatre Guild. There was one show which was doing badly in the provinces, a musical
called Away We Go. A talent scout working for the critic Walter Winchell saw it in New
Haven and sent a telegram to him which read: "No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance!" Helene
Hanff's job was to type and copy the 10,000 press releases needed for the show.
Twenty-four hours before the show was due to arrive in New York, the title was changed to
Yessirree, and she had to type the press releases again. The producers were still not happy
and before the opening night they told Helene Hanff to copy the releases a third time. The
name they finally chose was Oklahoma!
With success as a playwright still eluding her, Helene Hanff found a job in 1948 as a reader
for a film studio. She had to pick up a novel or a screenplay from the studio offices at 4pm,
take it home, read it, write a synopsis and return the manuscript to the studio at four the
following day. She was paid $6 per synopsis, a figure which eventually rose to $10, and
continued to work as a reader for the next five years. She later remembered her horror
when asked to write a synopsis of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. "I read the opening
sentence of the first volume and phoned around several friends to say goodbye, because
suicide seemed to obviously preferable to 500 more pages of the same." When she handed
in her invoice for reading the three volumes she added an extra $40 for "mental torture".
After 15 years in New York, Helene Hanff had still not been able to sell any of her plays. She
worked for a period for Irving Caesar (author of No, No, Nanette) writing press
presentations for his new musical My Dear Public, but had no more success selling Caesar's
work than her own.
Still working as a reader, she was spotted by a story editor for Warner Brothers, Jacob
Wilk, who moonlighted as a theatrical producer. Wilk believed she should write a script for
Broadway. He tried to sell a play by her to every producer in New York (including Leland
Hayward, who was out of the country on his honeymoon, and Irene Selznick, who was in
hospital). He persuaded Helene Hanff to rewrite it twice but still could not find anyone to
produce it. She returned to her life as a reader.
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Obituary Articles from UK Newspapers
The Definitive Helene Hanff Website
(1980): "Who could
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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".