Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Helene Hanff

When I think of literary New York I think of Helene Hanff. The diminutive author of the literary classic 84, Charing Cross Road is the definitive New Yorker, despite being born in Pennsylvania. Helene became the voice of America, and more importantly New York, to all of England when she published her correspondence between herself and Frank Doel, the British book seller, in 84, Charing Cross Road. The book changed her life. Helene was finally able to visit England and do the type of long dead literary stalking I dream to do in New York. She also saw her life transferred to radio, television, film, and stage (realizing her lifelong dream of being a playwright). And as a side note, also a bit ironic for someone who didn't like the limelight and even hated having her picture taken (take the above picture as proof, as she is obviously trying to dissuade the photographer).

In her seminal book there was a connection forged between a store in England and a home in New York, a home which she mentions is "a real apartment with real furniture" which she moved into "AFTER September 1 [1956], 305 East 72nd St., New York, N.Y." She bought into this little apartment before it was even built, sadly she couldn't very well afford this Upper East Side location today. Charing Cross House, named after her book, is located at East 72nd Street and 2nd Avenue, there's a plaque and everything! Why does this apartment hold such fascination for me? Because my favorite book of Helene's is actually a collection of five minute radio pieces she did for the BBC's Women's Hour Broadcast called Letter from New York. In it we get a glimpse of Helene's day to day life. How she walked around the block every night with the apartment's dogs. How the building wasn't just part of a neighborhood, it was a community, a city entire onto itself within one of the greatest cities in the world.

And the closeness of Central Park was just an added bonus. If you continue from Helene's apartment on 72nd street westward five blocks later you will enter the park at the 72nd street entrance. Here is the little conservatory where people sail their model boats, made famous by such books as Stuart Little. Here you can see the statue of Hans Christian Anderson reading, usually being climbed on by gaggles of children, or literary geeks who have always been susceptible to climbing on public art. If you infer that that is me I shall not correct you. And just to the north of the water feature is one of my favorite places in central park, the statue of Alice in Wonderland. The fact that I love and enjoy a place that also resonated with Helene brings me more joy then you can imagine.

If you were to continue going north on East Drive, past Alice, you will hit the 79th Street Transverse. Back in 2005 when I went to New York several times the 79th Street Transverse was my path from the West Side to the MET. I wish I had taken a little more time examining the surroundings then just using it as a conduit. At the foot of the Belvedere Castle there is a little garden. If I had but done more then just glimpse at the wooden fencing I might have learned that this is Shakespeare's Garden. Helene adored this garden because it contains every flower mentioned in the works of Shakespeare.

In Letter from New York Helene mentions how her heart broke when the garden fell into disrepair. But New Yorkers love Central Park, as it's basically their communal backyard, so some industrious New Yorkers took to restoring it. Though the restorers weren't able to get all the plants because many were only available in England. This is where Helene's listeners came in. They heard the broadcast and inundated the little rescue project with seeds and flowers to restore the garden to it's previous glory.  Since then the little garden has remained in good repair, with new walkways and even bronze plaques with quotes from the Bard littering the pathways. So as you luxuriate in the beauty, take a moment to remember Helene, a true original who contributed more to literature and New York then most know.


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