In the drab and traumatized post-war London of 1949, Marks & Co., second-hand and antiquarian booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road, received an enquiry from a Miss Helene Hanff of New York City. It was not the kind of letter they were accustomed to receiving, but it was one that would make history.
Helene Hanff described herself as ‘a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books’ which she was unable to satisfy as ‘all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or grimy, marked-up school copies’. She enclosed a list of her ‘most pressing problems’, one of which was a Latin Bible. Marks & Co.’s polite but formal reply regretted they were unable to supply the particular volume she described, but enquired if she would like them to send ‘a Latin New Testament, also a Greek New Testament, ordinary modern editions in cloth binding’.
When she began writing to Marks & Co., Helene Hanff was in her early thirties, scraping a living as a freelance scriptwriter and journalist. Having dropped out of college, she had decided to take her education into her own hands, and this had already led her down some little-frequented literary pathways which, with the passage of time, became ever more esoteric.
After a while, however, letters between the feisty, eccentric New York writer and the staff of the bookshop in Charing Cross Road began to encompass much more than books. Gradually the distant ‘FDP’ who first signed Marks & Co.’s letters emerged as ‘Frank Doel’, and ‘Faithfully Yours’ gave way to ‘With best wishes’, and eventually simply ‘Love Frank’. Soon the whole office was joining in, slipping in notes about their families, describing life in London, and thanking her for the food parcels she sent from New York.
It was a correspondence that would last for twenty years. By the time Helene Hanff made it to London in 1971, Frank Doel was dead and London was a different place. She never made her fortune as a scriptwriter, but when she finally had the idea of making the letters into a book, it became a bestseller. It’s a gloriously heart-warming read, the account of a friendship – almost a love story – conducted through books that captures the essence of a slower, gentler era.
I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books . . .
Gentlemen: Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase ‘antiquarian booksellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with...Read more
‘A delightful, quick, epistolary read . . .’Read more
84, Charing Cross Road: The Fulfillment of a Literary Dream . . .
‘If you’ve read 84, Charing Cross Road, you’ll appreciate that Helene Hanff’s trip to London, the city of her literary dreams is the realization of a life-long ambition . . .Read more
A Literary Love Affair
I thought I could never feel fond of Charing Cross Road. In 1988, when I was 23, I spent a miserable three months there doing a ‘Sight and Sound’ typing course on the bleak first floor of a...Read more
Slightly Foxed Issue 48: From the Editors
By now most of us have probably begun the often rather agonized run-up to Christmas – the worry about what to buy for whom and where to find it. For Slightly Foxed readers, we suspect books are...Read more
A delightful quick epistolary read. Frank is my favourite in the book as his hidden but implied cheekiness starts coming through with each letter.
I have the Plain Foxed Edition with the added journal entries from the writer while she was on holiday in the UK. The epilogue added more context to some of Hanff’s literary references and passions in the letters. I found that part just as lovely to read and made the book even more endearing.
The texture of the pages is quite smooth and wonderful.
Oh how I loved that book!
I read this during a holiday last year and it was absolutely delightful!
Slightly Foxed Editions – and I never tire of saying how beautiful they are – offer two different, wonderful things to the world. Either they are an introduction to brilliant memoirs that were undiscoverable and unknown, or they give the opportunity to have much-loved classics in that inimitably lovely series. And, of course, 84 Charing Cross Road appears in the latter category.
There can’t be many bibliophiles who aren’t already aware of this gem, but for the sake of this review I will assume there are some. It is the non-fiction letters between Hanff and Frank Doel, who worked in Marks & Co bookshop on Charing Cross Road. This area of London is renowned for its secondhand and antiquarian bookshops (though no. 84 is now, I am sad to say, a Pizza Hut) and Hanff found their advert in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1949. She was writing, you see, from New York. In the days before the Internet, she didn’t let the Atlantic get in the way of finding the books she wanted.
It starts in a fairly businesslike fashion – she writes off to them with a list; Frank Doel sends back the books he can find (even going to the extent of seeking out anthologies containing specific essays she requests – not something that would happen today, one suspects!). In her second letter Hanff writes ‘I hope “madam” doesn’t mean over there what it does here.’ That is a sign of things to come; the first spark of her personality . . .
“folded neatly inside, there was a receipt from Marks & Co, 84 Charing Cross Road to an address in New York signed by F Doel.” Ok – I am now in tears just reading this. I too have a paperback version that I loved reading but I am very tempted by the beautiful hardback version – my favourite Sense and Sensibility is a very old cloth bound hard back with such thin paper. What’s written on the page is important but the cover and feel of a book are what send it into my heart. I loved both the book and the film. Off to re-read 84 Charing Cross Road . . . 🙂
Anyone who has lost, lent or mislaid a favourite book will know that the feeling is akin to the loss of someone close with whom one could share a common interest. When the loss is as a result of selling the book in question the sense of betrayal and self loathing is almost tangible.
As a collector of books for over thirty years I embarked many years ago on a part time venture of second hand book dealing in order to cull an already out of control collection and to fund the purchase of even more books. In so doing I succumbed to the temptation to sell some of the books that had become close acquaintances, whose company I sought from time to time when new books failed to please.
One such book was Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road which I had bought new for the princely sum of £1.45 in 1971. I loved the stark contrast of the sharp, sassy up front New Yorker and the quiet, reserved efficiency of the bookshop staff and in particular its taciturn manager Frank Doel.
Much was made at the time of the unrequited affair between the two correspondents and it is true, that through their letters, the lady became a friend to all at Marks & Co. Her food parcels sent to the staff during the austere post war rationing period were testimony to the affection that she felt towards her fellow bibliophiles who indulged her craving for fine books.
But if it was a love affair at all it was the writer’s passion for all things English, its poetry, its prose, its literary heritage, pageants and ceremony. Marks & Co became the focus for this veneration and like many love affairs this one was unrequited for she was unable to visit the object of her affection due to pressure of work, lack of money and bad teeth!
When she did eventually visit London, I think to promote the book, Marks & Co had gone (It has now been incorporated into a site occupied by a pizza restaurant) I fancy that I shared some of that same sense of loss in the years that followed the disposal of my cherished copy, for, on occasions when I re-read the correspondence I could sympathise with the author’s search for that elusive Quiller-Couch anthology.
If any book talked to me it was this one. As years went by I bought several paperback editions to keep by me and give to friends but I was always looking to replace my precious first edition and eventually it happened. I came across a copy, hopelessly over priced because, folded neatly inside, there was a receipt from Marks & Co, 84 Charing Cross Road to an address in New York signed by F Doel.
Years later I was able to replace my first edition with another that had been signed by Helene Hanff during her long overdue visit to London. By placing Frank Doel’s hand signed receipt in this I felt that in some small way I had engineered a connection that was denied both correspondents in real life.
For many, book collecting is all about owning the first, the best, the only. But for me the thrill of owning a book that gives pleasure on discovery, on re reading and one that has association, is everything. I know collectors of modern first editions in particular who are so obsessive about condition that they would rather wait and buy a subsequent paperback edition to read rather than risk opening the book and lessening its value.
The collector who gloats over an uncut copy that cannot be read or the misprint that should have been returned to the publisher has, I fear, missed the plot entirely. In order to converse with books the dialogue must be a two way exchange. What does it matter if your companion is a little careworn and rough around the edges if there is a good story to be told.
First Published in Books & Company issue 11 Summer 2001
The enthusiastically reviewed 84 Charing Cross Road was even more of a hit here than in the US. It won Hanff a huge British fan base and, in the following years, turned into a phenomenon. In 1975 it was adapted for television by the BBC. Then in 1981 James Roose-Evans’s award-winning stage version was a West End hit which ran for 16 months.
Hanff really hit the jackpot a few years later, when Hollywood came calling. Producer Mel Brooks acquired the property as a star vehicle for his wife, Anne Bancroft. Doel would be played by Anthony Hopkins. Could things get any better? . . .
We met at Rumpelmayer’s, an elegant old café on Central Park South. In her gravelly, smoker’s voice she regaled me with anecdotes about New York life, and I relished her acerbic wit and self-deprecating humour . . .
Even when she had money, Hanff had given it away. Sheila Wheeler, Doel’s daughter, who lives in Muswell Hill, north London, tells me the writer made sure they received a share of her royalties following Frank’s death. “We saw her as an American fairy godmother when I was growing up,” she says. “I pictured her as someone tremendously rich and glamorous, looking like Lauren Bacall. It was a shock, when I finally met her in 1971, to see how wrong I had been.” . . .
The self-effacing Helene would doubtless be astounded that her little 84 is now considered a classic. I can just picture that look of incredulity, and hear that throaty laugh.
Oh how I loved that book!