top of page

Helene Hanff

Basic bio

Growing up in Philadelphia, USA during the Depression, Helene Hanff and her family couldn't afford a full college education. Visiting the library she decided to educate herself on English Literature using two volumes of lectures by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch (a professor at Oxford University, England) - and proceeded to work through his lectures by herself at home or during her free time during her first jobs.

Helen was a budding playwright and was one of two winners of an annual competition for playwrights, which led to her moving to New York City in order to be trained in the art of writing by the Theatre Guild. Sadly, none of her plays ever made it to the stage - she later said that she could create characters and write dialogue but couldn't write a decent plot... In the 1950s she became involved in television and wrote screenplays for several early TV shows inc.

In 1949 she contacted a London based booksellers, Marks & Co to buy books - and to give herself a link with England, a country that she longed to visit. A 20-year correspondence ensued with the shop's chief buyer, Frank Doel. His death in 1968 prompted her to publish their letters in "84, Charing Cross Road". This then led to her visiting England in 1971 for the publication of the book in the UK, which she then described in "The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street".

Having tried and failed to write a successful play for many years, it is rather ironic that "84" went on to become a TV Play in 1975 created by Mark Shivas and Hugh Whitemore for the BBC, with Anne Jackson playing Helene and Frank Finlay playing Frank Doel. Another visit to London followed for Helene, to watch some of the recording of the show.

Further irony ensued when James Roose-Evans adapted the letters into a play which was performed in 1981 on London's West End and on Broadway - and which has since been performed by countless amateur dramatics companies the world over! Helene once again visited England to see the world premiere in London.

"84" then reached the dizzying heights of 'full-on movie' status when film producer Mel Brooks then bought the rights to the book for his wife Anne Bancroft and the movie of "84" was born, with Anne playing Helene and Sir Anthony Hopkins playing Frank. This time Helene visited London and met English Royalty - HRH Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Prince Charles and Princess Diana AND Helene attended a royal gala performance of the film, and Helene found herself meeting The Queen Mother.

Fans from around the world contacted Helene constantly by mail and phone, and she endeavoured to respond to every single person wherever possible. She wrote several other books (see the Books pages for more information on these). Her final book was published in 1995 and she sadly became ill after another trip to England, suffering from pneumonia and diabetes. Helene Hanff died in April 1997, just a few days shy of her 81st birthday.

bottom of page