The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (2 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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Theoretically, it was one of the happiest days of my life. The date was Thursday, June 17, 1971; the BOAC lifted from Kennedy airport promptly at 10
; the sky was blue and sunny, and after a lifetime of waiting I was finally on my way to London.

But I was also fresh out of the hospital after unexpected surgery, I was terrified of going abroad by myself (I am terrified of going to Queens or Brooklyn by myself; I'm afraid of getting lost) and I had no idea what I would do if something went wrong and nobody met the plane. I especially didn't know how I would manage the mammoth borrowed suitcase I couldn't budge, let alone carry.

Year after year I'd planned a pilgrimage to London, only to have it canceled at the last minute by some crisis, usually financial. This time it was different. From the beginning, heaven seemed to favor the trip.

I'd written a book called
84, Charing Cross Road
, and a few months after it came out in New York, a London publisher named André Deutsch bought it for publication in England. He wrote me that the London edition would be brought out in June and he wanted me there to help publicize the book. Since he owed me a small “advance,” I wrote and told him to keep the money in his office for me. I figured it was enough to keep me in London for three weeks if I was frugal.

In March, the
Reader's Digest
bought an article I wrote about my fan mail and the
check bought the BOAC
ticket, some expensive clothes and—as things turned out—an expensive surgeon.

With the surgery, contributions came in from all over. The Democratic Club I belong to didn't send flowers to the hospital, they sent a Harrods gift certificate. A friend just back from London stuck a wad of British pounds under my door labeled “For theatre tickets.” And one of my brothers stopped by and gave me a hundred dollars “to go to Paris with.” I had no intention of going to Paris (I never wanted to see any city but London) but the hundred meant an extra week in London plus a few frills like cabs and hairdressers. So financially I was all set.

The night before I left, two friends gave me a farewell party. I'd spent the day packing, to the indignant fury of all my vital organs, and I left the party early and was in bed and asleep by midnight. At 3
. I came staring awake, with my insides slamming around and a voice in my head demanding:

“What are you
, going three thousand miles from home by yourself, you're not even HEALTHY!”

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.

Paul, the doorman, drove me to the airport. I got on the passport line holding my coat, scarf, magazines and an extra sweater in one hand, while the other held up the pants of my new navy pantsuit which had refused to stay up by themselves since the operation.

Standing in line proved to be no more uncomfortable than hanging by my thumbs, and when I was finally allowed to board the plane I slid into my seat by the window blissful
in the knowledge that for five hours I wouldn't have to move a muscle. Somebody brought me sandwiches and coffee I hadn't had to make; somebody brought me a martini; and somebody else was going to clean it all up afterwards. I began to relax.

When I was completely relaxed, the voice in my head inquired what I planned to do if something went wrong and nobody met the plane. To forestall panic, I got the letters out of my shoulder bag and read them over. Those letters were my lifeline.

The first was from Carmen, André Deutsch's publicity girl.

Dear Helene,

I've confirmed your reservation for June 17th at the Kenilworth Hotel. It's just up the way from Deutsch's so you won't feel too alone. The publication date of your book is June 10th, sorry you'll miss it but glad you're on the mend.

We're all looking forward to seeing you on the 18th.

Thanks to a mix-up I had two hotel rooms, one at the Kenilworth and one at the Cumberland. On the advice of well-traveled friends I'd hung onto both rooms in case one wasn't there for me when I arrived. But I was going to the Kenilworth first; it was cheaper.

The second letter was a hasty, last-minute scrawl from Nora Doel.
84, Charing Cross Road
is the story of my twenty-year correspondence with Marks & Co., a London
bookshop, and particularly with its chief buyer, Frank Doel, whose sudden death had given rise to the book. Nora is his widow; Sheila is his daughter.


Sheila and I will be at Heathrow Airport on Thursday night at ten. We're both very excited.

Have a good trip.


The third letter came from an Englishman who had written me a fan letter after he read
84, Charing Cross Road
and had asked when I was finally coming to London. I wrote and told him, and he wrote back:

I am a retired publisher now working at London Airport. Please, if I can be of help, USE ME! I can meet you off your plane and see you through Customs and Immigration. Any friends meeting you would have to meet you AFTER you leave Customs. I would meet you off the plane before your dainty feet touched British soil.

I hadn't the slightest idea how he expected to manage it but I was counting heavily on his getting my dainty feet off the plane. What did I know about Customs and Immigration?

There was a fan letter from the wife of an American professor working at Oxford for a year, inviting me to visit them at Oxford. There was a fan letter from an American
living in London, who wanted to take me on a walking tour. And there was a letter from Jean Ely, a retired actress in New York whom I'd met as a result of the book:

Dear Helene:

I've written to a friend in London about you. He's an Old Etonian who knows London better than anyone I ever met. I've never imposed on him in this way before but I wrote him you were one visitor he must take on a tour of London. His name is Pat Buckley. He'll get in touch with you at the Kenilworth.

I won't tell you to have a wonderful time, you couldn't possibly have anything else.


PS. Keep a diary. So much will be happening to you, you won't remember it all without a diary.

I read all the letters over several times. I checked my passport and vaccination certificate several times; I studied an English Coins card somebody had given me, and I read a BOAC booklet I hadn't had time to read before, on What to Take With You on the Trip. It listed twenty-three items, fourteen of which I didn't have:

3 washable dresses

2 vests

2 pair gloves

small hat(s)

twin set

wool stole

evening dress

evening bag

evening shoes


I'd brought three pantsuits, two skirts, several sweaters and blouses, a white blazer and one dress. The dress was silk, chic and expensive, it had a matching coat and was intended to cover large evenings.

I got out my Visitors' Map of London and pored over it. I can read maps only in terms of Up, Down, Left and Right, but I'd marked key places—St. Paul's, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London—and I'd charted walking tours all over the map. The key places would have to wait till the end of my stay, when I hoped to be able to stand still for long periods, but meanwhile I could walk the city end to end. (I'd discovered I was all right as long as I kept moving.)

I was perfectly calm and happy until a voice announced over the intercom that it was 9:50
British time, we would be landing at Heathrow Airport in five minutes and it was raining in London.

“Don't panic,” I told myself. “Just decide
what you'll do if Nora and Sheila aren't there and that nut at the airport forgot this is the day you're coming.”

I decided I would look up Nora and Sheila Doel in the phone book and call them. If they didn't answer I would look up Carmen of Deutsch's. If she didn't answer I would go up to an airport official and say:

“Excuse me, sir. I have just arrived from New York, I have a suitcase I can't budge, I don't know where the Kenilworth Hotel is and I am Not Well.”

The plane began its descent and the passengers moved about, collecting hand luggage. I had no hand luggage. I sat frozen and told myself that if nobody met me I would sit in the airport till the next plane left for New York and fly home. At which moment the voice spoke again into the intercom:

“Will Miss Hanff please identity herself to a member of the staff?”

I leaped to my feet and held up my free hand (one hand being permanently attached to the pants) only to find there wasn't a member of the staff in sight. The other passengers, lining up to leave the plane, stared at me curiously as, red-faced but awash with relief, I gathered up everything in my free hand and got on the end of the line. Now that I knew I was being met, I was giddy and half drunk with excitement. I had never really expected to make it to London—and I'd made it.

I reached the stewardess who was saying goodbye to disembarking passengers, and told her I was Miss Hanff. She pointed to the bottom of the ramp and said:

“The gentleman is waiting for you.”

And there he was, a big, towering Colonel Blimp with a beaming smile on his face and both arms outstretched, waiting to get my dainty feet onto British soil. As I went down the ramp to meet him, I thought:

“Jean was right. Keep a diary.”

Thursday, June 17


There's a radio in the headboard of this bed, the BBC just bid me goodnight. The entire radio system here goes to bed at midnight.

Arrival triumphant.

“Helene, my dear!” boomed the Colonel, stooping to kiss me on the cheek, nobody would have believed he'd never set eyes on me before. He's a beaming giant of a man with tufted gray eyebrows and tufted white sideburns, and a vast stomach that marches on ahead of him; and he strode off to see to my suitcase ramrod straight, a Sahib out of Kipling's Old Injah. He came back, followed by a porter with the suitcase on a trolley, put an arm around me and walked me past the Immigration and Customs tables, calling genially to the men behind them, “Friend of mine!” and that was all I saw of Immigration and Customs.

“Now then,” he said. “Are you being met?”

I told him Nora and Sheila Doel were there somewhere.

“What do they look like?” he asked, scanning the crowd jammed behind a rope that cordoned off the arrival area.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Have they a snapshot of you?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Do they know what you're wearing?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“But my dear girl!” he boomed. “How did you expect to find them?! Wait here.”

He parked me in front of an Information Desk and strode off. A moment later, a voice over the public-address system asked Mrs. Doel to come to the Information Desk—and a pretty, black-haired woman ducked under the cordon directly in front of me, thrust a sheaf of roses in my arms and kissed me.

“Sheila said it was you!” said Nora in a rich Irish brogue. “We saw every woman off the plane. I said, ‘That one's too blond,' and, ‘That one's too common.' Sheila just kept sayin', ‘It's the little one in the blue trouser suit, she looks so excited.'”

The Colonel steamed up and got introduced, and we went out to Nora's car. She and Sheila got in front, I got in back and the Colonel announced he would follow in his car, unless Sheila would rather he led? Did she know the way to the Cumberland?

“The Kenilworth,” I corrected. I explained about the two hotel rooms and the Colonel stared at me in horror.

“Well, in that case,” he bellowed, “some total stranger at the Cumberland has a roomful of beautiful roses!”

He drove off to the Cumberland to reclaim his roses and I drove off toward the Kenilworth with Nora's roses in my arms, thinking,
“It was roses, roses, all the way,”
and trying to remember who wrote it.

It was dark and rainy as we drove along a highway that might have been any highway leading to any city, instead of the road to the one city I'd waited a lifetime to see. Nora was lecturing me for not staying with her and Sheila in North London (“Frank always meant you to stay with us!”), and as we entered London both of them pointed out the sights:

“There's Piccadilly!”

“This is the West End.”

“This is Regent Street.” And finally, from Sheila:

“You're on Charing Cross Road, Helene!”

I peered out at the darkness, wanting to say something appropriate, but all I could see were narrow wet streets and a few lighted dress-shop windows, it could have been downtown Cleveland.

“I'm here,” I said. “I'm in London. I made it.” But it wasn't real.

We drove on to Bloomsbury and found the Kenilworth on the corner of a dark street. It's an old brownstone with a shabby-genteel lobby, it's going to suit me.

I registered and the young desk clerk handed me some mail, and then Nora and Sheila and I rode up to inspect Room 352. It looked pleasant and cheerful with the drapes drawn against the rain. Nora surveyed it judiciously from the doorway and announced:

“It's gawjus, Helen.”

“My name's Helene,” I said.

She looked surprised but unimpressed.

“I've been calling you ‘Helen' for twenty years,” she said, peering into the bathroom. It has a shower stall but no tub. “Look at this Sheila, she's got her own loo!”

The loo is the toilet, Sheila thinks it comes from Waterloo.

We went back down and found the Colonel fuming in the sleepy lobby: he'd found his roses lying half dead on the Cumberland Package Room floor and had had a row with the management.

We went into the dining room, empty but still open, and the Colonel located a young Spanish waiter who said his
name was Alvaro and allowed we could have sandwiches and tea-or-coffee.

“You smoke too much, Helen,” Nora announced, after we ordered.

“I know it,” I said.

“You're too thin,” she went on. “I dunno what kind of bloke that surgeon is, to let you come away so soon after your op. A hysterectomy is a very serious op.”

“Is it, Mum,” said Sheila mildly in her university accent. She and Nora exchanged a look, and Nora giggled. They're remarkable, they talk in code and finish each other's sentences, you'd never guess they were stepmother and daughter. Sheila's an attractive girl in her twenties, laconic and unruffled. (“Just like Frank,” Nora told me.)

Nora was much struck by the fact that she and the Colonel were both widowed two years ago. He has one child, a daughter who's being married in the country on Saturday.

“Now, why don't you three girls put on your prettiest dresses and come to the wedding?” he invited expansively. “It's going to be a superb wedding!”

I declined and Nora obviously didn't think she should go if I didn't, so she declined, too, wistfully. (“I don't know him, Helen,” she said when I got her alone. And I said: “Who knows him?!”)

They left at eleven. Nora said she would give me tomorrow to rest and would call me Saturday about the interview. (“We're being interviewed together by the BBC! You've made us all famous!”)

The Colonel said he'd be in the country for a week and would call me when he got back and “arrange a little trip into our glorious countryside.”

I came up and unpacked a few things and climbed into bed with the mail.

Postcard from Eddie and Isabel, old friends from back home. They'll be in town Monday and will pick me up to go sight-seeing.

A note from Carmen at Deutsch's:


I know you're going to be very tired but I'm afraid we have a journalist from the Evening Standard along to see you here at 10
tomorrow. Someone will be by to pick you up before 10.

On Saturday at 2:30, the BBC want to interview you and Mrs. Doel on “The World This Weekend.”

On Monday at 3:30 an interview on “The Woman's Hour,” also at Broadcasting House.

On Tuesday, visits to bookshops, including Marks & Co. (closed but still standing, and we want photos of you there), and at 2:30 an Autograph Party next door at 86 Charing Cross Road, Poole's Bookshop.

On Tuesday evening, André Deutsch will give a dinner for you to meet the Deutsch officers and a distinguished journalist.

I just got uneasy about remembering all those dates, and got out of bed and made a day-to-day calendar out of a pocket memo book. I'm also uneasy about how I'm going to break the news to Carmen that I don't have my picture taken. I'm neurotic, I don't like my face.

I lie here listening to the rain, and nothing is real. I'm
in a pleasant hotel room that could be anywhere. After all the years of waiting, no sense at all of being in London. Just a feeling of letdown, and my insides offering the opinion that the entire trip was unnecessary.

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
13.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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