The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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To the people of London


If you find Nora Ephron hilarious, if you love the work of Nancy Mitford, and if Bridget Jones's Diary makes you scream with laughter, you will adore Helene Hanff. She had style. She had a voice. She had the inimitable attitude of those smart twentieth-century New York dames who didn't give a damn.

This slim little volume,
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
, is the sequel to Helene Hanff's first book,
84, Charing
Cross Road,
which was published in 1970.
The Duchess
is such a zippy read that I devoured it in one go on a recent forty-five-minute flight from London to Paris.

Despite her deft comic touch, Ms. Hanff was never afraid of unleashing an opinion. She would often capitalize a phrase When She Really Meant It. In this spirit, I am going to say something my publisher might wish I hadn't. (But, as Helene would have probably said, To Hell with Publishers.) Anyway, the thing I'm going to say, which I probably shouldn't, is that you will enjoy this book a squillion times more if you read
84, Charing Cross Road
first. Only it has as different publisher, which is probably why I'm not supposed to go on about it.

But go on about it I must. The first book,
84, Charing Cross Road
is a collection of correspondence between Hanff and the staff at a rare books dealer, Marks & Co., whose London address was 84, Charing Cross Road. The letters span the years 1949 to 1969. You can't truly enjoy
The Duchess
without having gone down
The Road
first because it's such a marvelous introduction to the phenomenon that was Helene Hanff.

Born in Philadelphia in 1916, Helene Hanff was a script reader and writer who lived alone on New York's Upper East Side.
A devoted Anglophile, she started corresponding with Frank Doel, the manager of the Marks & Co. bookstore, to acquire British books that were hard to come by in Manhattan. Her letters contain orders for obscure, by then long out-of-print, authors such as Walter Savage Landor, Leigh Hunt, and John Newman.

Helene's notes to Frank Doel reveal an extraordinarily well-read woman of great wit and character. Over time, her letters to Doel evolve from rather formal, polite notes to hilariously familiar ones. My favorite is dated September 18, 1952, and reads, “Now listen, Frankie, it's going to be a long cold winter and I babysit in the evenings AND I NEED READING MATTER, NOW DON'T START SITTING AROUND, GO FIND ME SOME BOOKS.” Hanff soon started receiving letters from other staff in the shop, and eventually from their various wives and daughters, who were intrigued by these missives from the outspoken New Yorker.

The letters are a bittersweet record of Britain's struggle to rebuild itself after World War II. Even five years after the war ended, Helene soon realized, her correspondents in London sadly lacked many of the things most Americans took for granted. She was by no means a rich woman—she couldn't afford to visit London in person—but she started sending the staff Christmas and Easter baskets, which included such delicacies as tins of tongue, dried eggs, and whole hams—it was still a rarity to see a piece of meat in one large portion in Britain well into the early 1950s.

Over this twenty-year period, Helene built an extraordinary friendship with these people whom she had never met. Facebook “friends,” with their videos, photographs, and constant updates have nothing on these guys, believe me.

Frank Doel died in 1969. To everyone's surprise, most of all Helene's,
84, Charing Cross Road
became a hit when it was published in 1970. Helene gained worldwide attention, and the legendary British publisher Andre Deutsch decided to bring the book out in England. Crucially for Helene, Deutsch wanted her
there for the publication. This made a visit to London just about affordable, and finally, at the age of fifty-five, Helene got to visit her beloved England.
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
is her diary of that trip.

I couldn't put this book down for two reasons. One: It is the charming story of a midlife dream realized. Two: Helene Hanff was a completely and utterly neurotic New Yorker—my favorite kind of heroine. Although she eloquently writes that she would go to England “looking for the England of English literature,” the day before she leaves for London she also admits that she is “terrified of going abroad by myself (I am terrified of going to Queens or Brooklyn by myself; I get lost).” That evening, she confesses, “I got out of bed, had hysterics, a martini and two cigarettes, got back in bed, and whiled away the rest of the night composing cables saying I wasn't coming.”

Helene does make it onto the plane, on June 17, 1971. The American publication of her book had brought with it avalanches of letters from adoring English fans, as well as offers from various correspondents to take care of her if she ever came to London. A former colonel, who had gone to work at Heathrow Airport after retiring from the army, volunteers to escort her through Customs and Immigration; Nora Doel, Frank's widow, and his daughter, Sheila, insist on meeting her after Customs. A glamorous-sounding Old Etonian called Pat Buckley even offers to show her literary London. (It's a very sweet idea, isn't it, that you publish a book and various strangers offer to take you on jaunts in a foreign country. Nowadays, such offers would be met with a jail term for stalking.)

Helene soon installs herself in the “shabby-genteel” Kenilworth Hotel, located on the corner of Great Russell and Bloomsbury Streets. Despite her room having “the damnedest shower you ever saw,” and the pouring rain on her first morning in London, she says that upon gazing at the rows of houses on Bloomsbury Street, “I was shaking.
And I'd never in my life been so happy.” Her trip starts in a blaze of glory—interviews with the
London Evening Standard
, the venerable BBC, and photographic sessions at Marks & Co., although it is no longer in business. There are dinners and lunches with her publishers and important journalists. But all this is just background noise for Helene. What she really craves is time to visit with Nora and Sheila, tour literary landmarks, and eat strawberries and cream with Pat Buckley in his Knightsbridge flat.

Because she finds herself constantly being picked up at her hotel by someone who is intent on taking her off, in a Rolls-Royce or a Jaguar, on yet another thrilling English expedition, Helene soon christens herself the Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. Life is one long stream of excitement for Helene while in London—very different from her spartan existence in New York City. When Pat Buckley drives her to the original site of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Helene says she was so excited that “I thought the top of my head would blow off,” even though it was just an empty lot. He shows her Charles Dickens's old London alleys; takes her to Shakespeare's favorite pub, the George; shows her the Tower of London and St. Paul's Cathedral—all in one evening. (Oh, for so little traffic! Such a swift tour would be impossible in London today.) When Helene thanks him for the tour, Pat replies, “‘Oh, thank
! Most Americans won't take this tour. They'll drive around with me for a quarter of an hour and then they want to know where the Dorchester Bar is.”

Having said that, our temporary Duchess is not averse to the favorite haunts of American visitors. She adores the Savoy. Claridge's is a dream, as Helene discovers when an old school friend from Texas takes her there one day for lunch. “Claridge's is where all the characters in Noël Coward lunch,” Helene writes later in her diary. “For years I've had glamorous images of fashionable London sailing grandly into Claridge's.” Her expectations are not disappointed; for Helene, the hotel is the epitome of “grace and elegance.” (Amazingly, it still is. Whoever the geniuses are
who own Claridge's now had the sense to keep its glorious Art Deco-era foyer intact.)

For someone who claims to be so neurotic, Helene has amazingly little fear of putting her life in other people's hands. The Colonel drives her through the rainy English countryside, on one occasion stopping his car and setting out a deckchair so she can catch a momentary ray of sunshine by the roadside. They motor through the charming Cotswolds, visiting Stratford and various nearby stone villages including Great Tew and Little Tew, which are still famous now for their charm—Soho House chose to build a new country club in Great Tew in 2015.

However, when Helene arrives in Oxford, she admits, “I had a tantrum.” She'd wanted to visit Oxford to see Oriel College, because John Henry Newman had taught Anglican theology there, and Trinity College, because John Donne was an undergraduate there. Her hosts, however, think she would be better served by visiting the Bodleian Reading Room, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, Blackwell's Bookshop, and Wadham Yard. “I stood in the middle of Wadham Yard and hollered, “WHEN ARE WE GONNA SEE SOMETHING I WANNA SEE?” she recalls.

Despite her recent success, Helene never has much money. She writes about this with disarming honesty. The length of her trip is based on the amount of dinners and lunches Helene thinks she can afford. Every now and again, a small check comes in, which allows her to extend her stay by a few days at a time, much to her elation. She soon realizes that the fewer lunches and dinners she has to buy for herself, the longer she can stay in London. Her publisher's secretary, Carmen, reassures her that although various strangers and admirers have been telephoning the Deutsch office attempting to contact her, “We never tell anyone where you're staying, we just ask them to get in touch with you through us.” But Helene responds, “Carmen, dear, I am not the kind of author
who wants to be protected from her public. Any fan who phones might want to feed me, and I am totally available as a dinner guest. Just give out my address all over.”

I won't go on. I hate introductions that spoil the book by giving away all the good lines, or the ending, before you've even read it. Believe me, there are dozens of good lines in
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
. I can't resist sharing my favorite. When she has to attend a glamorous dinner with a streaming cold, Helene's solution is thus: “I had a couple of martinis to clear the sinuses.”

Suffice it to say that Helene has such a wonderful time in England that, at one point, she laments, “I don't know how anybody expects me to adjust to life on Second Avenue when I get home.” Now, as Helene herself might have said, DON'T START SITTING AROUND READING THIS INTRODUCTION. GO BEGIN MY BOOK!

, 2016

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
3.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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