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Helene Hanff

From Women in European History

by Hoi Lam Hannah So

Helene Hanff in her later years from http://freespace.virgin.net/angela.garry/obit3.jpg



Helene Hanff was a twentieth-century American writer who was brought to fame in literary circles by her 1970 book 84, Charing Cross Road. It recorded the correspondence between her and British bookseller, Frank Doel, and also recounted her struggle as a playwright, her precarious financial situation, and her fervor for British literature. Helene Hanff’s dedication to her vocation and passion displayed a character of similar assertiveness to many feminists, although she was not directly involved in any feminist movements. Her persistence is an example of how women were affected by feministic thoughts circulated in the twentieth-century society. Because of the idea of the “New Woman” [1], Helene Hanff was influenced to become independent and very determined. This development of her character subsequently gained her popularity among her readers, which also made her a significant contributor to the promotion of British literature in the twentieth century.

Helene Hanff and the New Woman

Helene Hanff lived through one of the most tempestuous time in modern history. Born in Philadelphia in 1916, she grew up during the time of the Great Depression. Western societies at that time had already experienced a dramatic change in their understanding of women, particularly in politics and literature. A new kind of woman, “the New Woman,” [2] became increasingly prominent in late nineteenth century [3]. This emergence shattered females' traditional image. These women were willing to venture into the unknown: they refused to consider home as their only place to be [4] , and were bold to strive for legal equality, namely their right to vote. This caused “a crisis of masculinity” [5] in some men, in particular the masculinists and anti-feminists. Instead of supporting feminists’ claims, they retreated to “traditional configurations” [6] of women, and resorted to an “assertion of a renewed masculinity.” [7]

By early 1930s, women bore “a new image of femininity encompassing both independence and self-assertion” [8] with the success of suffrage movements. After the Second World War, in most western industrialized countries, society geared “toward an increased involvement of women in employment outside the home.” [9] With a greater exposure to the business world, women started to wake up to the need of social equality in family, the workplace, social responsibilities, and even sexual relationship. This maturation of feminism brought further challenges against the outmoded social tradition and history of women. Some men were still uncomfortable to find women competing with them at work and in society, as they began to take up roles of greater importance in various realms, such as Jane Goodall in science and Margaret Thatcher in politics. While opposing voices gradually quieted down, there were still obvious gender bias towards males in business, as in screenwriting. Helene Hanff lived her first few decades against this backdrop of increasing feminist ambition, and continued conservative masculinist dissatisfaction.


Brought into contact with theatre since childhood [10] , Helene Hanff dreamt of becoming a scriptwriter all her life. Although girls of her time were still expected to perform their traditional duties, such as childbearing [11], her liberal-minded parents did not thwart her ambition to take up a masculine occupation [12]. In 1938, she took the effort to turn her dream into reality. That year, she entered a nationwide competition, and won a fellowship from the Bureau of New Plays at the young age of twenty-two. [13] She then studied as a protegee of Theresa Helburn, co-producer of the renowned Theatre Guild. [14] The acknowledgement of her talent in screenwriting by prestigious institutions gave her confidence to make a future in show business. Therefore, in the next ten years, she spent the majority of her time in front of an old typewriter, writing over twenty scripts. [15] Yet to her disappointment, none of them was ever produced. [16]

Her struggle in the playwriting career was a complication of the clash between the continuation of traditional gender roles and the continual rise of feminism. The business world had long been a men’s world. It was no different for the movie industry. Film writing was a profession “with a substantial female presence displaced by men.” [17] In the 1930s, women writers for movies “were likely to be assigned to administrative or support roles such as reader or script supervisor,” [18] rather than taking up a creative part. Helene Hanff, a female minority in the profession of screenwriting, found it difficult to break into the male-dominant business. She tried to make her name in scriptwriting for over thirty-years, and still did not make any significant achievements.

In spite of the obvious difficulties for women in particular, Hanff was not distressed that she had to contribute much more than the other sex in order to make her name in show business. The fact that she did not back out of her dream showed her determination in becoming a serious scriptwriter. Her steadfastness in becoming a screenwriter displayed a similarity between her and other feminists, which showed that she was discreetly influenced by the modern female ideals circulating in her society despite the fact that she was not an advocator of feminism herself. It was also this quality that eventually differentiated Helene Hanff from other women she met later in life.

Difficulties in Life

In the late 1940s, Helene Hanff’s life was as bleak as the prospect of her career; she could barely maintain the basics of her daily life. Her lack of a stable income all boils down to the gender-ratio imbalance in show business. The industry’s unwillingness to accommodate more female writers made it difficult for Helene Hanff to obtain a steady job. Rather than writing for movie productions, the best she could do was to write screenplays for television shows, such as “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “The Adventures of Ellery Queen.” These freelance writing jobs were only temporary; difficulties relapsed when her shows were canceled, or moved from New York to Hollywood. Without a stable income, Helene Hanff was refused the basic amenities in daily living. For a better part of her life, she lived in a New York “5-story brownstone” [19], wore “moth-eaten” [20] clothes, and was so poor that she could not afford buying books “more than five dollars.” [21] Even a necessary trip to the dentist for a regular checkup was deemed extravagant. [22]

Life was harsh with a lack of a promising outlook in the film industry. As in Helene Hanff’s case, the show business’ hesitation to open up for women brought disappointments and bodily hardships. Nevertheless, Helene Hanff did not give up a career in screenwriting. Despite living impoverished almost half her life, she did not display negativity in a writing career for women either. She was still excited every time she landed herself a screenplay job. To her, it meant that she was again a step closer to her childhood dream, and that she would not have to worry about her living for the near future. This was portrayed in one of her letters dated August 15, 1959. She opened it with fervent excitement: “i write to say i have got work. i won it. i won a $5000 Grant-in-Aid off CBS, it’s supposed to support me for a year while i write American History dramatizations.” [23]

In spite of the gender bias in show business and her poor situation, the fact that Helene Hanff still tried to achieve her dream showed her seriousness in establishing a scriptwriting career. On top of her perseverance, she also displayed an astounding kindness. Notwithstanding the tightness of her financial condition, she still sent her British friends “food parcels” [24] in relief of their post-war food shortages. This generosity made her character even more extraordinary. For this reason, Helene Hanff gained accolades from her friends (and readers of her 1970 book) in reverence for both her persistence and big-heartedness.

British Literature, and Marks & Co. Bookshop

Other than her overwhelmingly poor living condition, one of the most important life experience for Helene Hanff would be the development of a love for British literature. She was lucky to have met Cambridge professor, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, whom she affectionately called Q, from whom she developed a peculiar taste in British literature at the age of seventeen. [25] After the fortuitous meeting with Q, she became an avid yet critical reader of all English literature she could lay her hands on. To compensate her lack of college education (because of her family’s humble situation), reading also became her way to self-educate.

Helene Hanff inherited a peculiar taste in British literature from Q. [26] She refused to read love poems by great poets, Keats and Shelley, because she found their poems excessively sentimental. [27] She also detested books that are not historically accurate. [28] Her love of literature made her a ‘literature puritan’. As a book lover, she did not think all books are sacrosant. Books of low quality, “even a mediocre book,” [29] should be tear into pieces. [30] Her passion was so strong that it extended further than merely reading well-written books. She could not tolerate any slight physical harm of books, [31] and even a misusage of the English language. [32] Her fastidiousness in English literature made it difficult for her to find books in her home country. For this reason, she began her search for clean secondhand copies of antiquarian British books in “England the land of English literature,” [33] and came into contact with Marks & Co. bookstore located in London in 1949.

Marks & Co. bookshop in London when it was still standing from http://www.bartsbookshelf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/marksandco.jpg

1949 was a watershed year for Helene Hanff as a woman and writer. Other than producing scripts, she once again plunged into the wonders of out-of-print British literary works with the discovery of the secondhand bookstore Marks & Co. Through her constant purchase orders, she befriended one of their employees, Frank Doel, who eventually became her long-distance bosom friend. Helene Hanff’s budding friendship with Frank Doel proved to be life-transforming. This relationship assisted her to her fame when she published their correspondence in the book 84, Charing Cross Road in 1970.

Because of her love for English literature, the purchase orders for British books never ceased. In effect, the letters also continued for twenty years between 1949 and 1969. As it went on, the contents of letters grew personal as Helene Hanff and Frank began to exchange gossip as well as thoughts on literature, the book business, their families, and even politics. Although their friendship was strictly of paper-and-pen, the frequent book purchases, and Hanff’s wry sense of humor drew her closer to this small British bookstore.

The employees at Marks & Co. liked her so much that she became a frequently-mentioned client in the employees’ lives. To them, Helene Hanff was an enigma. Having invited her to visit Britain many times, Hanff could not make it cross Atlantic until 1971 [34], for reasons like she spent all her fortunes on the dentist [35] and she had to move to a “real apartment with real furnitures.” [36] There were three reasons that ignited a curiosity about Helene Hanff among her English friends. First, Helene Hanff would rather use her money to purchase food for her friends than to save money for her visit to Britain despite yearning to see London and the country of English literature. [37] Second, they had never seen her face in a photo, let alone meet her in person. Third, Hanff, as a woman, displayed a drastically different personality than all of female employees in Marks & Co. Her unladylike conducts - the profession of her love for alcohol and cigarettes [38], and bold expressions of vulgarities, such as signing her letters with “h.hffffffffffff” [39] with the letter f being an euphemism of the English taboo word fuck - made her special. Her friends at Marks & Co. tried to “imagine what [she] looked like,” [40] and get her “snapshot.” [41] For her eccentric behavior, she drew instant attention from her newly found British friends, and later her readers too.

Like her hopes for a playwriting career, she also showed a remarkable enthusiasm in literature. While discussing about British literature with Frank Doel, she explained the requirements for books that are worth perusing, and unknowingly set a new standard for literature. Her criticalness meant that she was serious about reading. Her perfectionistic view of English literature also inspired her readers into trusting her expertise, which laid the grounds for the revival of British literature by her 84, Charing Cross Road.

Read more about secondhand bookshops: Secondhand Bookshops: Their Significance, and Current Situation

Helene Hanff’s Literary Celebrity

Book Cover of Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road from http://compulsiveoverreader.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/84charing.jpg

Helene Hanff was brought a “small if unanticipated literary celebrity” [42] with the success of 84, Charing Cross Road. This recognition was met not merely because of her ability in bringing amusement to readers by writing, but also of a mixture of her social background, career experience, character and her love of British literature. Her tenacity as a career woman instantaneously reaches out for attention, differentiates her from traditional stay-at-home women, and equates her as a new kind of woman who emerged after the dawn of feminism. Her unconventionality chronicled in 84, Charing Cross Road made her and her book stand out. The letters she sent to Marks & Co. bookshop also included discussions of English authors from medieval times to nineteenth century, such as Chaucer, Jane Austen and Izzac Walton. With the help of her books’ popularity, the content about books instilled a sense of curiosity for English literature in her readers. The final publications of these private letters in 1970, first in New York then in London [43] helped her gather a notable amount of followers. Her fans wrote her so many letters that she had to “write an article about her fan mail,” [44] which was printed on Reader’s Digest. In her 1972 travelogue, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street , she recorded how her cross-Atlantic fans rediscovered interesting places in England that were related to British literature, such as a pub patronized by Shakespeare and Dickens’ Alley. [45] This brought about more than just a literary exchange, but also revivified part of the English’s culture of literature.

Her contribution to British literature is still in effect to this date. In one of the Amazon book reviews, a reader from Texas admitted that he “is collecting all the books that were mentioned in the correspondence.” [46] According to him, “some of these books [mentioned in 84, Charing Cross Road] appear to have been reprinted due to this publication.” [47] The legacy of 84, Charing Cross Road, stretched further to a larger audience when it was adapted for London West End and New York Broadway [48]; a little more than a decade later in 1987, her book was even turned into a movie of the same name, starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. [49]

Watch the dramatization of the last letters exchanged between Helene Hanff and Frank in 84, Charing Cross Road (1987) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPV8sja0dsg.

Helene Hanff’s literary celebrity was intricately connected to her life experience. An average and impoverished woman, Helene Hanff was singled out by her perseverance and her dissimilarity from the majority of women. For this characteristics, she drew a notable group of followers just because she was different. The effects of her popularity contributed to both literary and cultural revival of British literature in the twentieth century, as shown from the initial responses of her readers immediately after the publication of 84, Charing Cross Road. With the production of her book in other forms of media, like as a play and a film, her book is not just limited to readers; it also reached farther for another pool of audience whom may never have experienced literature before. Although it is very hard to measure the extent of her influence in the literary world, her written work certainly had introduced some British literary classics to modern day audience, and brought a challenging book list to her fellow book lovers.


  1. Carolyn Forrey, “Gertrude Atherton & the New Woman,” California Historical Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Fall, 1976): 194, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25157640.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 195.
  5. Michael S. Kimmel, “Men’s Responses to Feminism at the Turn of the Century,” Gender and Society, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Sep., 1987): 261, http://www.jstor.org/stable/189564.
  6. Ibid., 262.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 194.
  9. Duane F. Alwin, Michael Braun, and Jacqueline Scott, “The Separation of Work and the Family: Attitudes towards Women’s Labour-Force Participation in Germany, Great Britain, and the United States,” European Sociological Review, Vol. 8, No. 1 (May, 1992): 13-14, http://www.jstor.org/stable/522315.
  10. Margalit Fox, “Helene Hanff, Wry Epistler Of ’84, Charing,’ Dies at 80,” The New York Times, April 11, 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/11/arts/helene-hanff-wry-epistler-of-84-charing-dies-at-80.html?pagewanted=1.
  11. Kimmel, “Men’s Responses,” 262.
  12. Forrey, “New Woman,” 195.
  13. Fox, “Helene Hanff,” 2.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Denise D. Bielby and William T. Bielby, “Women and Men in Film: Gender Inequality among Writers in a Culture Industry,” Gender and Society, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Jun., 1996): 252, http://www.jstor.org/stable/189696.
  18. Ibid., 253.
  19. Helene Hanff, 84, Charing Cross Road (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 13.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 1.
  22. Ibid., 54.
  23. Ibid., 73.
  24. Ibid., 9.
  25. Ibid., 13.
  26. Ibild.
  27. Ibid., 10.
  28. Ibid., 86.
  29. Ibid., 54.
  30. Ibid., 31.
  31. Ibid., 17.
  32. Ibid., 69.
  33. Ibid., 13.
  34. Helene Hanff, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (Rhode Island: Moyer Bell, 1973), 1.
  35. Hanff, “Charing Cross,” 54.
  36. Ibid., 66.
  37. Ibid., 13.
  38. Ibid., 44.
  39. Ibid., 77.
  40. Ibid., 12.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Fox, “Helene Hanff,” 1.
  43. Hanff, “Duchess,” 1.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid., 25.
  46. “Customer Reviews, 84, Charing Cross Road,” Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Charing-Cross-Road-Helene-Hanff/product-reviews/0140143505/ref=cm_cr_pr_link_2?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&pageNumber=2&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending
  47. Ibid.
  48. Fox, “Helene Hanff,” 2.
  49. “84, Charing Cross Road (1987),” The Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090570/

Annotated Bibliography

Annotated Bibliography, Helene Hanff

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