Just got the Helene Hanff Omnibus, which includes 84 Charing Cross Road and its sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, plus her memoir of trying to make it as a playwright, "Underfoot in Show Business", some essays about New York, "The Apple of My Eye", and "Q's Legacy", about how, when she had to leave college, she began a huge self-education program guided by "The Art of Writing", by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.
I've read 84CC and Duchess more times than I can count; 84CC is my second favorite book of all time (after Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory", and it's a close-run contest). When I'm mad at the world and think all my fellow creatures are hateful, I stay in bed and read right through it and get up again knowing that human beings are wonderful.
If you haven't run across 84 Charing Cross Road (then I envy you the treat of reading it for the first time), it's nothing but letters over some decades, beginning in 1949, from a starving writer in New York who saved up for nice books, and the used book shop in London which found the books for her. They all became family, in the best sense of the word. Through the years of postwar shortages and rationing, she send care packages, while they repaid her with the occasion gift or book and in endless, endless invitations to visit.
I could almost cry just writing that, thinking about these people, and I'm sure I haven't written anything that would actually communicate why her stuff is so moving, uplifting. It's sincere, and sincerity is a bit out of fashion these days, I think. I think I fell in love with Hanff when she sent the first care package, containing a ham (she mail-ordered it all from a cheap place in Denmark) and after setting up the transaction, she wrote them in a panic saying that she'd just realized from one of her invoices for books that the proprietors of the shop were called Messrs Marks and Cohen: "ARE THEY KOSHER? I could rush a tongue over". I would never have thought of that (okay, I'm not Jewish and Hanff was) but it's so...thoughtful, as well as generous. Or maybe you have to read it in context to feel the amazing connection these people had, on different continents, never having met, in an age before email and when trans-Atlantic phone calls were beyond ordinary peoples' means except in emergencies. When some friends of Hanff's made it to London and visited the shop, they wrote (from memory) "You might have told us! When we said we were friends of Helene Hanff's, we were mobbed!"
My resolution, reading it all again this time around, is that I will now be a supporter of Tottenham Hotspurs (it's a football team here). I know *nothing* about European football, but Hanff's contact at the shop, Frank Doel, followed the Spurs, and I'm going to do that, too. (Unfortunately, I just found out what the tickets to a game costs, from their website. I will be following them via television and radio. How do working-class British people afford football tickets??)
One last item about Hanff -- my favorite story from her memoir: She won a fellowship, $1500 (in the 1940s, real money) to go to NY to write plays, but the group that had started the fellowship the year before and just given 2 writers the money and left them to fend for themselves, was converted by a hotshot arts group called the Theater Guild to the opinion that this would not do. The three winners of the fellowship the year she got it attended, along with 9 other wannabees, a seminar 3 times a week to hear famous directors and producers and writers, were assigned to certain plays to follow through the rehearsal process, given tickets to lots of other Broadway shows, and on and on.
But none of the 12 people who were so carefully cultivated as playwrights by the Theater Guild ever ended up with a play on the Broadway stage. And the 2 unsupervised guys from the year before that? Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller...