Please note: For all you Helene Hanff fans out there, remember that Stacy Horn (an author I think of as a modern-day Hanff, with her fantastic writing skills, her joy for life, and her residence in New York City) put up a walking tour video of the places Helene lived in New York. It's awesome.
The bad news is, I am all out of "new to me" Helene Hanff books to read.*
The good news is, the book in question, the one I had been saving to read for last, was wonderful.
As you know, I love Helene Hanff. (Actually, I think I am in love WITH her. It's a small distinction but an important one.) After I first read 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloosmbury, I started making my way through her other books, but slowly, so I wouldn't run out of them all at once. But now, having read her memoir Underfoot in Show Business, I am officially out of Hanff treats for myself.
But it was worth it. I checked it out from the library, and the very first thing I enjoyed about it was its delicious old book smell. You know, the slightly sweet, pulpy odor that most books of a certain age, particularly if they've been living around other books, get. And then when I read it, it turned out to be a delightful journey through Helene's early professional life, when she moved from Pennsylvania to New York City to try and become a playwright. This is how it opens:
"You may have noticed that this book was not written by Moss Hart. It's a book about show business, where fame is the stock in trade, and it's written by a name you never heard of and probably can't pronounce. There is a simple explanation for this.
Each year, hundreds of stage-struck youngsters arrive in New York to crash the theatre, firmly convinced they're destined to be famous Broadway stars or playwrights. One in a thousand turns out to be Moss Hart.
This book is about the other 999. By one of them." (p. 11)
Of course, this book is old. It's dated. Frankly, I don't even know who Moss Hart is. But Helene plows right in, in her forthright manner, and tells you how she grew up loving the theatre (as did the rest of her family), how she attended college briefly and then had to drop out to take a job (where she spent a lot of her time writing plays), and how she eventually moved to New York City and tried to make it in the business. And once she's in New York, well, she never slows down. She describes trying to find an agent, how actors and actresses get cast, and all other manner of behind-the-Broadway-scenes action; but perhaps the most enjoyable bits are those in which she and her friend Maxine make their way in the big city, contriving to see Broadway shows for free and trying to find apartments which include some kind of kitchen space or privileges.
This should come as no surprise: I loved it. Even when I didn't get the references, even when I had no idea what she was talking about. I just find Helene so inspiring. Here was this woman who was never rich, was mostly quite poor, as a matter of fact, but she lived life (mostly) where she wanted to live it, in her beloved New York City, and she seemed always, ALWAYS to be having a good time. I'm sure a lot of her life wasn't easy, but you certainly wouldn't know it from her prose. I enjoyed this bit, too, when she described herself, fairly early on in the book:
"I had a dumpy little figure, and the clothes I bought off the sale racks in Wanamaker's basement didn't improve it. I wore glasses, I had straight, stringy, mouse-colored hair which I could afford to have cut or set very often, and I had as much poise as any young girl who's never been anywhere or done anything and most of the time isn't exactly sure who she is." (p. 14.)
She's not describing herself very glamorously, and yet, you get the feeling, even when she was unsure, Helene didn't really mind being Helene. At least that's the impression I get. The other overall impression I always get from her books is one of joy: what joy she brought to life, and what joy she got from it. And what joy she's brought to my life. I wish she'd written at least a hundred more books.
*Well, she wrote a few children's history books too, that I might still track down.