The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (4 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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Monday, June 21

Eddie and Isabel picked me up this morning to go sight-seeing. Isabel is an old school friend, they live in Texas. They are the most conventional, conservative people I know.

It was sunny this morning, and when they came for me the sight of them charmed me: Isabel wore cotton overalls and a print blouse, Eddie was in a sports shirt and slacks. It was the first time I'd ever seen them that they didn't look ultra proper-and-respectable. I had an interview at Broadcasting House at three and I thought I might not get back here first so I wore my marked-down beige linen pantsuit; next to them I was overdressed.

They'd been to London before and had seen the sights so we just wandered around the shopping district all morning. They like to window-shop and buy curios and good prints and we did that. At lunch time, we were wandering along a street when I stopped suddenly and gawked because there, directly ahead of us, was Claridge's.

Claridge's is where all the characters in Noel Coward lunch. For years I've had glamorous images of fashionable London sailing grandly into Claridge's—and there before my eyes was today's fashionable London still sailing grandly into Claridge's.

Eddie asked what I was staring at and I explained.

“Fine,” he said promptly. “We'll have lunch at Claridge's.”

It was a spontaneous, generous gesture very typical of him. I waited for Isabel to say, “Now Eddie, not the way we're dressed!” but to my astonishment, she didn't.

“I think it's very fancy,” I said. “Lets go home and change first.”

“They'll take our money,” said Eddie dryly—and took our arms and led us proudly into Claridge's.

I'm a slob by nature. On an ordinary day at home I couldn't care less how I look. But this was CLARIDGE'S. I sat through lunch in that room of grace and elegance surrounded by tables of perfectly groomed Londoners—sandwiched between two happy Texans dressed for a picnic and affectionately pleased at having taken me somewhere special.

After lunch they went with me to Broadcasting House, and then more window shopping, and at six we were in the theater district. A few people were on line at the Aldwych hoping for last-minute return tickets to
A Midsummer Night's Dream
. Eddie spoke to a man on line and came back and said:

“There are always a few returns. If we get on line now, we can get tickets at seven, when the box office opens. It's a seven-thirty curtain, we'll eat afterwards.”

This was the Peter Brook production, you understand, the National Shakespeare Theater Company production. I would have given a week of my life for a ticket. I'd tried to get them for Nora and Sheila and me through the hotel, it was the one show I couldn't get, it's sold out for the rest of the run. And much as I wanted to see it, I
couldn't
have walked into that theater looking the way we looked—in clothes we'd worn since early morning and without so much as having washed our faces all day. And Eddie and Isabel, who wouldn't have dreamed of going to the theater that way in Houston, were ready to do it in London.

The whole thing was academic for me: I couldn't have stood on that line for ten minutes, much less an hour. I'd stood peering in at shop windows most of the day with my teeth gritted and by six I'd had it. I told them I thought I'd call it a day and go sit somewhere before my insides fell out on the pavement. They're old friends, they immediately abandoned the project and we went to dinner at a little side-street pub instead.

Not till I got home did it dawn on me that they and I had completely reversed roles. Coming abroad, where nobody knows them, Eddie and Isabel have rid themselves of a lot of social inhibitions. Coming abroad, where noboddy knows me, I've acquired a whole set of inhibitions I never had at home. Wild?

Carmen just phoned to remind me of the Autograph Party tomorrow and the Deutsch dinner tomorrow night. I told her I have a calendar propped against the traveling clock so it's the first thing I see when I turn the alarm off in the morning.

Asked her what I do if nobody shows up for my autograph; she said briskly Talk to the manager, he's a fan. After twenty minutes say you have a headache and he'll get you a cab.

Tuesday, June 22

We toured the bookshops in the rain. They all had
84
prominently displayed, and all the managers and sales people bowed and beamed and shook my hand, and after the third bookshop I got terribly poised and gracious about it all, like I was used to it. We got to Poole's at two-thirty for the Autograph Party—and would you believe a long line of people waiting for my important autograph? On a rainy Tuesday?

They'd set up a table for me at the head of the line and I sat down and asked the first man to tell me his name and a bit about himself so I could write something personal, I can
not
break myself of the habit of autographing books with chummy little messages that take up the whole front page.

A lady from California plunked down twelve copies and got out her list and said, This first one's for her brother Arnold in the hospital, could I write something cheerful? and this one's for Mrs. Pratt next door who's watering her plants, and this one's for her daughter-in-law Pat, could I write “To Pat From Mother Crawford Via—”? Twelve. Now and then I'd squint along the line (I wasn't wearing my glasses, I'm a celebrity) and apologize for keeping everybody waiting; they all just smiled and went on standing patiently, people are unbelievable.

I got nearly to the end of the line and said automatically without looking up, “Will you tell me your name, sir?” and he said “Pat Buckley,” meekly, and I looked up and there he was with two books under his arms. I told him I want to give him a copy. I autographed his two for him to give to friends.

He asked whether I'm free on Saturday if he's “able to arrange a little outing”; I said I'm free for any outing he arranges any day at all, and he beamed and said he'd be in touch.

After the autographing, I had sherry with the manager, Mr. Port. (Fact.) He gave me a letter someone had left there for me and I put it in my shoulder bag and brought it home and just now remembered it and got it out and opened it.

Dear Miss Hanff—

Welcome to England. A benefactor from Philadelphia sent us your book and we love it, as do all our friends.

I wonder if you would be free on Monday next, June 28, and would like to see Peter Brook's production of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” with us? It is at the National Shakespeare Company's London theater, the Aldwych. We are taking two Australian friends with us, both devotees of your book.

My husband is English, so am I, but I had an American mother.

We'd love it if you are free to come. Will you telephone me?—and we can plan where to meet and eat first.

Sincerely,

Joyce Grenfell

I feel as if God had leaned down from heaven and pasted a gold star on my forehead.

I'm sitting here all gussied up in the silk cocktail-dress-and-coat for the Deutsch dinner, ready half an hour early as usual. I'm afraid even to smoke, I'll get ashes on it.

1 a.m.

The desk buzzed up when the car came, and when I went down to the lobby, Mr. Otto, the Kenilworth manager, bowed ceremoniously and said:

“Madam's car awaits.”

Told him this was my first and last chance to be a celebrity and I was gonna make the most of it. He nodded solemnly and said: “Quite.” He and the two boys who work as desk clerks get a charge out of all my roses and phone calls and notes-left-at-the-desk. So do I, believe it.

The dinner party was at a Hungarian restaurant called Victor's. Victor is a close friend of André Deutsch, they're both Hungarian but Victor is more so. He bowed and kissed my hand and told me I was “beautiful” and “Queen of London for a month” and my book was also “beautiful.” I told Deutsch:

“He's straight out of Molnar.”

And Deutsch looked at me in mild surprise and said:

“Oh, did you know Ferenc?”

No, I didn't know Ferenc but Deutsch did. If any Molnar fan is still alive and reading this, you pronounce it Ference.

The dinner was in a private upstairs dining room; we paraded up the carpeted stairs, about eight of us, and into a dining room, where a large round table was just jumping
with wine glasses and flowers and candles. I sat between Deutsch, very old-world and courtly, and the “distinguished journalist” whose name I didn't get.

Everybody at dinner was bowled over to learn I was going to meet Joyce Grenfell. I know her as a comedienne in British films but she's much more famous over here for her one-man shows, which I never saw. She writes all her own material and the show always sells out. So now of course I'm nervous about meeting her.

Over coffee, somebody passed a copy of
84
around the table for all the guests to sign for me. Above the signatures somebody had written a flowery tribute to “an author who combines talent with charm” and sociability with something else, and Deutsch read it and nodded vehemently and signed his name and handed the book to me with a flourish. And Victor read it and said Yes, Yes, it was So! and signed his name (“Your host!”) and kissed my hand again, and dessert was a fancy decorated cake with WELCOME HELENE on it in pink icing.

Got home at midnight, swept into the lobby and informed Mr. Otto and the boys at the desk I am hereafter to be known as the Duchess of Bloomsbury. Or Bloomsbury Street, at least.

The two desk clerks are students from South Africa. One of them has to go back in a few days, and the other advised him conversationally:

“If the police come after you, eat my address.”

Wednesday, June 23

Nora and I were taken to lunch by a rare-book dealer, and over lunch a bizarre story from Nora.

I gather book dealers are as clannish as actors, and the closest friends Frank and Nora had for ten years were a book dealer named Peter Kroger and his wife, Helen. The Doels and Krogers were inseparable despite the fact that the two men were competitors. One New Year's Eve, the Doels gave a party, and Helen Kroger arrived looking very exotic in a long black evening dress.

“Helen, you look like a Russian spy!” said Nora. And Helen laughed and Peter laughed and a few months later Nora picked up the morning paper and discovered that Helen and Peter Kroger
were
Russian spies.

“All the journalists came swarming round to the house,” Nora told me, “offering me a couple of thousand quid to tell them about ‘the ring.' I told them the only ring I knew anything about was my wedding ring.”

She visited the Krogers in prison and Peter asked if she remembered telling Helen she looked like a Russian spy.

“It must have given them a turn,” I said.

“I don't know,” said Nora. “He just asked if I remembered it. Then we talked about something else.”

She and Frank went to the trial and discovered that everything the Krogers had told them about their past lives had been invented. I asked if this bothered her, Nora said No, she understood it.

“They were the best friends we ever had,” she said. “They were fine people, lovely people. It was all political, I s'pose they had their reasons.”

A year later the Krogers were exchanged for a British spy held by the Russians. They live in Poland now. Helen and Nora still write to each other at Christmas.

Phoned Joyce Grenfell at dinner time, told her what movies I'd seen her in and she said:

“Then you'll know me, I'm the one with the bangs.” I'm to meet them for dinner Monday at the Waldorf, which is next door to the theater.

Thursday, June 24

I finally got a day to myself and did the Regent's Park area on foot. Walked around the Nash Crescent twenty or thirty times, saw the house on Wimpole Street where Robert Browning came to call on Elizabeth, walked Harley Street—and also Devonshire Street, Devonshire Place, Devonshire Mews, Devonshire Close and Devonshire Mews Close, this is a lovely city.

There was a note at the desk for me when I came back. No salutation.

Can you be here at twelve noon
sharp
on Saturday? We are driving down to Windsor and Eton and have rather a lot to do.

In haste—

P.B.

We are driving down to Windsor and Eton. Me, this is.

I love the way he never uses a salutation. It always aggravates me, when I'm writing to some telephone-company supervisor or insurance man, to have to begin with “Dear Sir” when he and I both know nobody on earth is less dear to me.

I'm writing this in the Kenilworth Lounge. Not to be confused with the Kenilworth TV Room, where everybody sits bolt upright on little straight chairs in total darkness staring at some situation comedy. The Lounge is just off the lobby. It's a pleasant room with easy chairs and a sofa, but
if you want to write in your journal you have to slither an eye around the door before entering. If there's a woman alone in here she's looking for somebody to talk to. If there are two women already talking, they're gracious and friendly enough to include you in the conversation, and you can't decline to be included without seeming
un
gracious and
un
friendly.

Tonight when I came in there was only a man at the desk writing letters, he just left. He asked me for a light, and when he heard my American accent he told me he'd lived in New York for a year.

“And then one day I was walking down Fifth Avenue with an American friend and I said to him: ‘Why are you running?' And he said: ‘I'm not running!' And then I knew it was time to come home.”

People here ask you for “a light” only if you're smoking and they can light their cigarette from yours. Nobody would dream of asking you for a match, it would be like asking you for money. Matches are not free over here. There are none in ashtrays in hotel lobbies and none on restaurant tables. You have to buy them at the store, I suppose they're imported and too expensive to fling around the way they're flung around at home.

A lady just came in, she asked Am I the writer? she heard about me at the desk. She lives in Kent, she doesn't care for London, she's here because her brother's in the hospital here but at least she's seeing a bit of Bloomsbury, he just won't hear of her staying in the room all day, so this afternoon she went out to the Dickens House in Doughty Street, have I been there?

She wants to talk so we'll talk.

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