84, Charing Cross Road was recommended to me some years ago by the wife of one of my employers. Nancy was a lovely lady in a later-in-life marriage in which I had the privilege to attend. She and Carl had a beautiful wedding mass and then guests were wined and dined at a charming restaurant no longer in existence called Biggs, a converted mansion in downtown Chicago. Nancy was classy, interesting, and always well dressed and I admired her. She was in one day and knew that my co-worker, Esther, and I loved to read. She wanted to tell us that there was a book she just read, 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. She thought we would both enjoy it. Some time went by and there it was, the half sheet of paper with the title and author mixed in with grocery lists and PTA newsletters waiting patiently for me to discover just when I needed it. I have travelled a good many mental miles since then, not to mention years. I still think of Nancy and her thoughtful recommendation of the book.
Helene Hanff was a poor playwright who wrote a letter in 1949 with a list of books to Marks & Co., an antiquarian bookstore located in London on 84, Charing Cross Road. Rare, clean, and some very old books, some bound in leather, followed that first letter, as well as a 20 year correspondence, mainly between Helene and Frank Doel, the store’s buyer, with sprinklings of Frank’s coworkers and family penning their thoughts from time to time. The letters lead a literary trail of English writings, as well as a chronicle of post war England with rations and scarcity of goods – and gifts of food and nylons from the States.
It is was a literary love affair between two very different souls across the wide breadth of the Atlantic Ocean.
The book eventually became a British television feature, then a play and finally a movie. I read the book before knowing a movie existed, but I admit that I would have cast Anne Bancroft for the role of Helene for I think she played it to the hilt.
Just under 100 pages, the book consists of letters beginning in 1949. The letters from Helene are witty, provocative and demanding, and from Frank somewhat formal and terse, but grows warmer through the decades. My copy is a newer copyright date and has an intriguing introduction from Anne Bancroft. The book, you see, was recommended to her by a stranger on the beach at Fire Island while Bancroft was relaxing there. He actually returned the next day with a copy for her to read . Mel Brooks, her husband, as you may well know, later bought the movie rights as an anniversary gift.
The scene above is from their last letters to each other. The movie is told mostly in the words of their letters as well. I love the scenes of Helene typing with a vengeance, her constant companion a cigarette or martini, which is said to be true to form for her. I think that if Helene Hanff were alive today she would relish the internet and all the “conversations” about books and English literature and the state of the country and world as we know it. I enjoyed the movie when I saw it and I still enjoy the book whenever I feel a need to pull it down from a shelf.
So, here I sit, ignoring my own rules of reading engagement, showing you a movie clip before telling about the book, and hoping you will have time one day to read 84, Charing Cross Road.