It seems a very long time since I read 84 Charing Cross Road and Qs Legacy – the only books by Helene Hanff that I had previously read, but as soon as I started reading Letter from New York it was like meeting up with an old friend. I am grateful to Karen for sending me a copy of a book I hadn’t previously heard of until she offered to send it to me. What a lovely book it is, at once nostalgic and endlessly charming it is full of people you would like to meet, amusing anecdotes and affectionate observations of the people of New York.
For six years from October 1978, Helen Hanff broadcast five minute vignettes on BBC radio’s Woman’s Hour. In these broadcasts Helen talked about her life in New York, the people she knew, her friends, neighbours their dogs, Central Park and the traditions of New Yorkers. After those broadcasts came to an end, Helen Hanff was left with a folder full of the transcripts of those broadcasts, transcripts which she later showed to her publisher, they naturally wanted to immediately put them into a book, and reading the result it is very easy to see why.
“I gotta tell you about Nina’s bumble bee. Last year a bee came every day to pollinate her terrace. The old wooden terrace door had a hole in the top, and when the bee got tired he crawled into the hole and took a nap. But last fall Nina had a new door installed. And the next day the bee came and worked, and then looked for his nap-hole, He searched more and more frantically for it, before he gave up and flew off. And this spring he didn’t come back. Nina was inconsolable. Her orange tree had no blossoms and there was nobody to open the snapdragons; but more than that, she missed him.
‘He was a lovely bumble bee.’ She told me sadly. ‘ The two of us worked out there together, we never bothered each other; we were companions.’
Living in the small apartment, where she lived and wrote in a tiny alcove on a manual typewriter, and from where she famously corresponded with Frank Doel at Marks and co. at 84 Charing Cross Road, Helene was surrounded by a host of interesting, colourful neighbours, all of whom have their own stories. Many of her neighbours owning dogs and cats, Helene couldn’t help but include the stories of her four legged friends in her monthly letter to Britain too. Helene’s wonderfully, witty uniqueness comes across beautifully, her world is one the reader can’t help but want to spend time in.
Helene writes with affection of her neighbours in her high rise apartment, their comings and goings begin to read like those of the inhabitants of a small, cosy village, with all of them looking out for each other. At Christmas, catering for visitors in her tiny apartment kitchen, Helene is able to scatter her pre-prepared dishes around the building in the fridges of her neighbours, while the dishwasher in another apartment is useful afterwards.
“Richard came up a few minutes later, accompanied by the most beautiful Old English sheepdog I ever saw, with a thick snow-white coat and enormous white fur paws. I sat in my armchair and, at Richard’s command Bentley sat alongside the chair with his profile to me. His face was entirely hidden under a mop of white fur, and he stared off at nothing. I leaned down and, talking into his left ear, told Bentley he was the most beautiful sheepdog in the world. I told him there were lots of dogs in the neighbourhood who would be overjoyed to meet him. I told him he was going to be very happy in his new home with Richard, and that all the people who lived in the building were going to admire him and appreciate him and all the dogs were going to be friends with him”
We meet Bentley, the old English Sheep dog, once a sad abandoned animal in a dog’s home, he finds a happy home with Helene’s neighbour Richard, and is soon a big favourite with all, becoming a surprise hit at another friend’s fashionable New Year party. That party held by Arlene; Helene’s high-flying, couture wearing friend, whose social life gives Helene a few wardrobe difficulties, and provides a major contrast to Helene’s own, small, quiet writer’s life.
Helene writes also of the changing seasons. Through her eyes we see the colours of autumn, New York winters and summers, Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations and we see the runners and sunbathers in Central Park. Helene Hanff brings her beloved New York to life, in such an engaging way, that part of me wanted to be living in that apartment block with Helene and her neighbours during the 1970’s and 80’s – it sounded like just about the best place to live.