Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Writer's Almanac

I usually check in to The Writer's Almanac, especially if I think I may miss hearing Garrison Keillor's broadcast at 11:00 am.

I was delighted this morning when, still half asleep, I learned it is the birthday of Helene Hanff. So delighted that I lifted the entire piece and pasted it here to encourage you to get to know Helene and this wonderful little book if you do not already.

It was on this day in 1949 that Helene Hanff wrote her third letter from New York City to a used bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road, London. It was the beginning of a flirtatious epistolary friendship across the Atlantic that lasted for 20 years and revolved around classic literature. The letters were collected into 84, Charing Cross Road, a book Hanff published in 1970 and later adapted for the London stage, into a Broadway production, and into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (1987).

The correspondence began in early October 1949 when Miss Helene Hanff responded to an ad placed by London booksellers Marks & Co, whose bookshop was located at 84 Charing Cross Road. She wrote:

Gentlemen: 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.

I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?
Helene Hanff
(Miss) Helene Hanff

Over the 20 years, Helene Hanff ordered from 84 Charing Cross Road John Donne's Sermons, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Samuel Pepys's diary, Plato's Four Socratic Dialogues, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, and volumes of essays and poetry. She once wrote, "I require a book of love poems with spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley, send me poets who can make love without slobbering — Wyatt or Jonson or somebody, use your own judgment. Just a nice book preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park."

Her relationship with the book buyer, Frank Doel, expanded to a caring friendship filled with banter and repartee. She also corresponded with other employees of the bookshop. She sent over to the shop parcels full of dried eggs and nylons and things that were rationed and hard to find in post-World War II England.

Today, there's a plaque up at 84 Charing Cross Road, London, commemorating her correspondence with the bookshop that was there, and another plaque on the apartment building in New York City where she lived for three decades.

(I left out just a bit - in case you would like to read the book or watch the DVD. I don't want to spoil any part of it for you. And the movie - cover shown above - doesn't even list Judi Dench who perfectly portrays Frank's wife in a very small role. What you wanna bet I'm at the library today checking out that movie??)

1 comment:

minipurl said...

I've always enjoyed/appreciated Garrison Keillor's work, so it's odd that I never signed up for Writer's Almanac....until today. Thanks for the nudge. I learn so many interesting things from your blog.