Despite her intentions being laid out clearly in the opening pages of this book, Helene Hanff (1916 – 1997) never made it as a successful playwright (spoiler alert). However, she was a writer who could meet deadlines and create work quickly and relied almost entirely on her typewriter for a living which means that, by any stretch of the imagination, she was a successful author. She also achieved several bestsellers, the most famous of which was the epistolary 84, Charing Cross Road, a chronicle of her communications with a London bookstore through which Helene managed to achieve her dream of living, even if only in her head, in an England that she had never seen.
But this memoir, Underfoot In Show Business, goes back to the very beginning of her career. Helene and 11 other hopefuls are selected to work with various productions as recipients of the Bureau Of New Plays scholarships for aspiring playwrights. It seemed that the two previous winners had been given their prize money and sent off to do some writing without being checked up on later. This, according to the Theatre Guild, was not on. So they stepped in and interned 12 wannabe writers and mentored them in the ways of theatre. None of them, according to a postscript by Hanff, went on to be a success in the theatre, although some did achieve a degree of fame in movies and television. The punchline to this story is that the two previous winners, who had been given their prizes and sent on their way, were Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
The book progresses in a similar fashion from there. Hanff has a delightfully dry wit but you never get the sense that she feels short-changed or cynical about what has happened to her: she recounts her experiences in a way that shows that she now thinks it to be an absolute hoot, and also that a lot of her misfortunes were brought about by her own inexperience or just plain bad luck. She is equally bemused by her own successes as well. In an early chapter she talks about how she had to stay back for most of a night to add an exclamation mark to a show’s title on the programmes and publicity material because the producer felt it needed it. Nobody else believed in the show and it was rumoured that it would be that particular company’s final production. This was the final straw for Helene and her co-workers; after all, the title had only recently been changed as well, so it seemed futile to think that an exclamation mark would make a difference to a show retitled from Away We Go to the even more insipid Oklahoma (“It sounds fine to you,” she writes. “You’re used to it.”).
These are examples of what Hanff calls “Flanagan’s Law.” Named for a stage manager named Bill Flangan, the Law expounds that, “No matter what happens to you, it’s unexpected.” It’s a rule that Helene refers to quite often in this book and it fits a lot of what happens to her in it.
As I said, Hanff’s wit shines through from the page and you begin to feel as though you are listening to someone rattling off anecdote after anecdote to an enraptured audience. Even the poverty that she experiences is made to feel hilarious. Not in a way that cheapens it or lessens the impact it had, but in a manner that makes you feel that it was a lived experience that, while horrific and soul-destroying at the time, was far enough removed from the present day that the participants could reflect ruefully on it. And, given that this book was first published in 1961, enough of her audience would have had similar experiences that they may have found them quite resonant.
As a reader who came to the book forty-something years after it was first published, I found it a fascinating snapshot of a different time. For a long time, I’ve had an interest in how writers lived and worked during the middle of the Twentieth Century (for whatever reason, I’ve been especially interested in New York’s SF scene in the 30s and the London theatre crowd of the 50s), and this seemed like it would be another glimpse into a forgotten time. I’d read a lot of other biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of authors and I was starting to cross-reference the people they were talking about as well as the editors, publishers and producers they were dealing with.
However, I was not expecting to laugh out loud as much as I did. At the time, I was familiar with Hanff’s work through 84, Charing Cross Road and its successor, The Duchess Of Bloomsbury Street; here, though, I had a whole new aspect of her life explained to me. And, while 84, Charing Cross Road remains the only book in existence that I will think less of a person for not enjoying, this is probably my favourite of her books. When I read it, I was trying to break into writing (twenty years later, I can report that nothing much has changed on that front), and Hanff’s recollections of someone who had a much bigger and more influential network than me and was still struggling made me feel a lot better about my own efforts.
And it’s hilarious while still being very astute about how Hanff dealt with the rejections she was getting. She talks a lot about what she did to support herself while still maintaining herself as a writer (the chapter in which she recounts being an outside reader for a movie studio is wonderful). She’s quite blasé about the process of writing because she understands that each writer needs to find their own rhythm, and that the casual reader is not really interested in how writers go about producing their exalted works. But she effortlessly deflates herself every time she feels that she’s beginning to get a little “mystical” about the process. And, as a neophyte writer who could wax not-terribly-lyrical for ages at a time about the creative process and who had read more books about writing than is generally considered wise, this was a Good Thing.
But what I also love about this book is Hanff’s matter-of-factness, her refusal to let anything get her down: her lack of money; her lack of success; bedbugs; her terrible maths; even a sainted Oxford don who has authored a beloved fantasy text cannot cow her! Her tenacity in reaching for success during one of the most desperate and competitive times in modern history is, if not inspirational, at least guaranteed to make you look at your own situation a little more fondly.
If you would like to find out more about Helene Hanff, take a look at http://www.helenehanff.com/