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Helene Hanff

HH obituary articles

From the Daily Telegraph, Friday 11th April, 1997

Screen image: Anne Bancroft playing the Hanff character
in the successful film of 84 Charing Cross Road

By Sandra Barwick

HELENE HANFF, the author of 84 Charing Cross Road, the correspondence between her and the manager of a bookshop in the Fifties, has died aged 79 in a nursing home in New York, keeping a secret to the last. Leo Marks, the son of the owner of the antiquarian bookshop to whom she wrote, said she had never written what he believed would have been an even better book, about her love affair with a famous American.
Mr Marks, a wartime code-master with the Special Operations Executive, who became a close friend of Miss Hanff, said: "She had something better than 84 Charing Cross Road to write, but she was afraid of doing it. "She had a relationship with a very famous American, whom she had to share with two other ladies, and she was never sure whether she was the senior or the junior."

Her account of this relationship was, he said, even more amusing and touching that her letters to Charing Cross Road. She tried to write it but always destroyed her attempts. Mr Marks said he could not reveal the name of her lover but she had told him of the affair some years ago. "She was an unusual human being, with great humour and incisiveness, and very, very intelligent." When he urged her to write her account, she had always put him off by saying that she would finish her book when he finished his book about the SOE. She had carried with her the poem he had written for the agent Violet Szabo, he said, which begins:

The life that I have is all that I have - and the life that I have is yours.

Miss Hanff said in one interview that she had been trying to write a book since 1963, but had repeatedly thrown it in the incinerator. "Is it autobiographical? Of course it is," she said. She had contacts in television, for which she wrote scripts, among actors and, during the Sixties, in Democratic politics.

Miss Hanff first wrote to the Marks bookshop in London in 1949, seeking out-of-print titles. It was the beginning of a 20-year correspondence with its manager, Frank Doel. When she finally compiled their letters in a book she was in her fifties and at a low ebb, her scripts and plays rejected. One rejection slip arrived in the same post which told her Doel was dead. In 1971 the book was published, captivating readers, and then a successful film, starring Anne Bancroft in Helene Hanff's character and Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel.

By the time she arrived in London to publicise her book, the shop had closed. She climbed its stairs and looked at the empty shelves and said out loud, "Frank, I finally made it." She hoped he heard, she said later. Michael Reddington, who produced the stage adaptation of the book, said: "She was opinionated and strong, like the character in the book. Her book is unique."

She had suffered from diabetes for some years and Mr Marks said that towards the end she had been unable to write.


From the Guardian, on April 11th 1997


Mark Shivas (who produced the BBC Play for Today of '84 Charing Cross Road') wrote:

I played up to Helene's rosy view of a London, England and the BBC when we started making 84 Charing Cross Road. On our first meeting, instead of sending a car to take her to rehearsals, I presented myself at her Bloomsbury hotel driving my Morgan, with a bunch of roses from the garden. Sure enough, I turned up in a later book as the epitome of Englishness.

Anne Jackson was cast as Helene without ever having met the real person, as much on Helene's dark brown, gin-and-cigarettes telephone voice as anything. Helene was tickled. "She's so much more glamorous than I am," she growled. And indeed she was. Helene more resembled Nancy Walker. It was hard for Anne to play the part with Helene watching from the control box, but it was difficult for Helene to watch us recreate her life. She ended the recording in floods of tears and said it was as though she had died and gone to heaven.

The production team loved her. Anne Jackson, the director Mark Cunningham, and I all became her long-term friends and I soon visited the New York apartment that we had built in the studio from photographs, an eerie experience. She was so delighted that we'd all recreated her life for her. 84 then became a stage show in London and New York and later a movie. I'm sure there's room for a musical. Probably we could figure out an ice show.


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