Underfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff: A

underfootFrom the front flap:
“Each year, hundreds of stagestruck kids arrive in New York determined to crash the theatre… One in a thousand turns out to be Noel Coward. This book is about life among the other 999. By one of them.”
– Helene Hanff

In her spirited, witty and vastly entertaining memoir, Helene Hanff recalls her ingenuous attempts to crash Broadway in the early forties as one of “the other 999.”

From the joys of summer theatre and furnished rooms to being Seen at Sardi’s and weathering one more Theatre Guild flop, Miss Hanff recalls the rigors of crashing Broadway with warmth and generous humor. Her exuberant account of a misspent youth will hearten theatre hopefuls and entertain the large, devoted readership she has acquired through her subsequent works.

Helene Hanff’s memoir of her attempts to break into the threatre spans decades from the early ’40s to the early ’60s. Conforming to Flanagan’s Law, a theory advanced by a friend of hers that states, “If you can predict it, it doesn’t happen. In the theatre, no matter what happens to you, it’s unexpected,” Hanff’s career does not go as planned. It starts off well, with Hanff taking top prize in a contest, but soon sputters. Though she wants to be a playwright, and can create excellent characters and settings, she’s never been a fiction fan so her plots are always weak and her plays never sell. To make ends meet she takes a variety of part-time jobs, and eventually ends up writing for television. Just as she accepts that it’s time to give up on plays and focus on TV, all of the writing jobs for that medium move off to the West Coast and she’s left unemployed once again.

Hanff tells the story of her career trajectory with warmth and wit and, though I just used this adjective the other day and am hesitant to do so again, the result is nothing short of delightful. Interspersed with tales of her various odd jobs—including a memorable episode where she and an assistant have to alter 10,000 mimeographed press releases for Oklahoma! by hand when its creators decide it needs an exclamation point—are stories about the places she used to live (garrets with a communal kitchen and colorful neighbors), the free entertainment she and a friend used to enjoy (courtesy of a nifty trick of mingling in with the crowd at intermission), and snippets of wisdom gleaned from so many years in the business.

Toward the end, the narrative overlaps a little with 84, Charing Cross Road, probably the best known of Hanff’s works. At least one story shared with her English penpals is recounted in this book, too—about a dramatization of the life of Aesop and Rhodope—but it’s not tiresome by any means. It’s more like your friend telling you an amusing story and not quite remembering they’ve told you already, but it’s fun and you like them, so you play along and don’t interrupt.

And speaking of not interrupting, this book is so captivating that I very nearly read it in one sitting and would have if not for the pesky necessity of going to bed at a reasonable hour. A special thanks to MJ for the recommendation!

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff: B+

84charingFrom the back cover:
This charming classic, first published in 1970, brings together twenty years of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City, and a used-book dealer in London. Through the years, though never meeting and separated both geographically and culturally, they share a winsome, sentimental friendship based on their common love for books. Their relationship, captured so acutely in these letters, is one that will grab your heart and not let go.

As promised, 84, Charing Cross Road is indeed a completely charming collection of letters, selected from twenty years’ worth of correspondence between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel. It all begins in October 1949, when Helene writes to Marks and Co., Booksellers—located in London—to inquire whether some out-of-print items on her wishlist might be located. Her letter is answered by an employee who signs his replies “FPD.” While Helene is personable from the start, and definitely quirky, her correspondent takes some time to warm up. After she hears of the rationing going on in England, however, and arranges for a package of rare food items to be delivered to the shop (a practice she will continue for several years), he writes to thank her for her kindness and reveals that his name is Frank Doel.

Helene can sometimes come across as rude in her letters, though even complaints about delays or unsuitable editions typically have a postscript inquiring about what kind of eggs the staff at Marks and Co. would like her to send (fresh eggs being extremely hard to come by in the postwar years) or something along that line. Part of this can be attributed to her attempt to “puncture that proper British reserve,” and in time, the letters from England do grow quite warm and friendly. When Frank first addresses her as Helene, I actually got a bit verklempt! Eventually, she begins to correspond with Frank’s wife as well as a few other employees of the shop. Through the years, Helene is urged many times to come visit. Though she makes several attempts to save money, life always intervenes, in the form of dental bills, new home expenses, or a lack of work as a TV writer. At the time that the book was published (1970), she had not made it there yet.

I consumed this little volume—its brevity is my chief complaint!—in unabridged audio format. Many thanks to Erica Friedman who recommended this particular edition. What’s so lovely about it is that each letter writer has their own narrator. Helene is given voice by the talented Barbara Rosenblat and Frank by John Franklyn-Robbins, with many other notable Recorded Books regulars making an appearance. It’s lovely to hear the increasing affection in each voice and it makes one particularly amusing part—during which Frank is dismayed that a “thank you” letter for the latest package hasn’t been sent to Helene when in fact several people from the shop have surreptitiously written to her already—work even better than it would in written format.

For a period of correspondence spanning twenty years, 84, Charing Cross Road does seem to go by awfully fast. But if you’re looking for a cozy read one afternoon—or a cozy listen while you toil away at some harried task—then I definitely recommend it.