Wayne Smart, an Australian living in Dubai, posted this memory of his encounters with Helene Hanff to the Fans of Helene Hanff Facebook Group. I thought it was so lovely I wanted to share it with a broader audience and I knew that regulars of Hogglestock would enjoy reading it. I’ve posted it in total with Wayne’s permission.
I became acquainted with Helene Hanff when I first saw the movie 84, Charing Cross Road in the mid 80’s. I subsequently went about reading every book of hers that I could get my hands on.
As a university student in Australia at the time, all I wanted to do was visit NYC (something I have done more than a dozen times since). Helene’s descriptions of NYC made me long to go.
After reading 84, Charing Cross Road several times, I decided to write to Helene. Problem was, I didn’t know where to get her address. (This was long before the internet). One night after a few gin and tonics, I decided to see if her phone number was listed. I decided to CALL her!
I called the “International Directory” number and asked for NYC listings – there was only one H Hanff listed in NYC – I got the number and then dialed.
A very friendly voice answered- I explained I was a fan – and that I was calling from Australia. Helene then exclaimed: “THIS MUST BE COSTING YOU A FORTUNE – HANG UP AND WRITE TO ME!!”….. I explained that I didn’t know her address. She laughed loudly and asked if I had a copy of 84. I said I did, and she said her address was printed on the top of every second page for the entire last part of the book (It was a book of letters!).
I wrote to her in the late 80’s, and always received a lovely handwritten reply on a personalised post card.
In 1991 I visited NYC for the first time. I called Helene, and we met at Rumpelmayers on Central Park South – (long gone now) for coffee. It was the most delightful hour. She was gracious, and regaled me with many stories. We shared a love for not only books, but also classical music.
I continued to write to Helene throughout the 90’s, and in January 1997 whilst visiting NYC, I went up to 72nd Street to leave flowers with the doorman. He told me Helene was very sick and that I should go up and deliver the flowers myself, as she would like company. He said I would find the door open – and he called her to announce me.
When I arrived up at her apartment, Helene was sitting on a couch near the window looking out towards 2nd Ave. She was obviously very sick – she appeared not very mobile. She asked me to fetch her some drinking water. I arranged the flowers. We chatted. She invited me to go into the alcove at the side of the apartment where there was a huge bookshelf. She said “go ahead – take down some books – touch them – they have brought me so much joy”. The original Marks and Co sign from the shop in London was on the top bookshelf.
A few months later, in April 1997, a friend faxed me Helene’s obituary from the NY Times. The headline was: “Helene Hanff, Wry Epistler Of ’84 Charing,’ Dies at 80”.
Memories I will always cherish – and sustained by my occasional re-readings of her wonderful books.