Nobody Puts Nonfiction in a Corner: Helene Hanff's Underfoot in Show Business.
30 May 2018
We all know Helene Hanff, of 84, Charing Cross Road fame, right?
Okay, well, if you don't, go get it and read it RIGHT NOW. I was always a little appalled that I've been a book person my whole life and still, nobody told me about 84, Charing Cross Road until I was in my early 30s.
So yes, that book's awesome. And a classic that should, by all rights, be the Helene Hanff book that makes it on to my list of educational/seminal/take-to-a-desert-island Nobody Puts Nonfiction in a Corner nonfiction book.
But, surprise! I'm going to choose her memoir Underfoot in Show Business instead.
I realize we're pretty far down the rabbit hole here. But stick with me.
Before Hanff wrote all her letters to the bookseller Frank Doel at Marks & Co., at 84 Charing Cross Road, and long before she became famous for publishing a book-length collection of that correspondence, she was a struggling writer living in New York City. And before she was a struggling writer, she was a struggling playwright. And before that, she was a young girl growing up in Philadelphia in a family who loved theater. So, after having to drop out of college after one year, because it was the Depression and nobody had any money, Helene found a job in Philadelphia to try and finance her move to New York City to try and become a playwright. Her career started off with a bang: she won a playwriting contest sponsored by the Theatre Guild (then a prestigious theatah institution), and was awarded a $1500 fellowship and participation in a playwriting seminar.
From that first flush of early success everything takes a most appropriate dramatic turn: in her first paragraph, Helene lays out what she calls Flanagan's Law:
"We'll begin with the law that governs the life of everyone one of the 999 [aspiring theatrical types] from the day he or she first arrives in New York, which was first explained to me by a stage manager named Bill Flanagan. Flanagan's law of the theatre is:
No matter what happens to you, it's unexpected." (p. 7.)
So, of course, you read the entire memoir, and you learn that Hanff never became a famous playwright. And to a large extent you don't care, because you know (which Helene didn't, at this point, Underfoot was her first book and 84, Charing Cross Road was far in her future) she'll become famous for writing half of the world's best book-related epistolary collections ever. But also you don't care because this memoir is so fresh, so hopeful, so beautiful, so life-affirming*, that you'll find yourself smiling after you read every chapter.
Take, for example, this paragraph, in which she describes how she had to go to New York to meet the Broadway producer who was partially responsible for her winning the fellowship. She had nothing to wear, but:
"On Monday night, my father triumphantly brought home for me a new green rayon suit which he had got wholesale from a friend. The suit was a brighter green than I would have chosen, and not precisely my size, but my mother took it in at the waist and let it out at the hips and cut off the row of threads that hung from the hem, and we decided it looked great." (p. 10.)
Everything about that short paragraph is so hilarious. How her parents (who loved the theater themselves) supported her; her gentle but still to-the-point admission that the dress is a little too green and it doesn't fit quite right; and how they all decided it looked great anyway.
Dear readers, she is like that about everything, and that is why this book is so awesome. Just recently I re-read it, and, just as it had been on the first read, one of my favorite chapters was about how she and her actress friend Maxine learned how to get all their entertainment and education for free in New York City. At one point Helene tells Maxine she wants to learn Greek and Latin (God I love her) and this is how she and Maxine solve that problem:
"'Why don't you run an ad in the Personals column of the Saturday Review?' Maxine asked.
'The problem isn't finding a tutor,' I said. 'It's finding the money to pay him!'
'Oh, that's all right,' said Maxine reasonably. 'Just mention in the ad that you can't pay anything.'
And if you think I got no response to an ad that read: 'Wish to study Latin and Greek. Can't pay anything.' you underestimate the readers of the Saturday Review..."
She ended up being tutored for free by a young man (Maxine suggested she choose him, as he was Harvard-educated and young and "might be cute"). And this is how that encounter ends:
"Maxine phoned me after the first lesson.
'How was he?' she asked.
'Oh, he's great!' I said.
'I told you to stick to Harvard,' she said. 'Taking somebody second-rate would be like sneaking into theatre and sitting in the balcony, or borrowing clothes from Gimbel's instead of Saks. If you're getting things for nothing, it's just as easy to get the best.'
We always got the best." (p. 57.)
My favorite thing about Helene in this memoir (and in her subsequent books) is that she refuses to be beat. For years while she ordered books from the store in London on Charing Cross Road, she dreamed of saving up enough money to visit England, and every time that she almost had enough saved, something else came up: she needed a mouthful of crowns, or she got evicted and had to move into a more expensive apartment. During one eighteen-month period she moved eleven times, so you can imagine her joy when she finally got a tiny place of her own:
"I moved in forthwith and plunged into the job of furnishing and decorating. I furnished the room in what New Yorkers called Early Orange Crate. The super helped me make a bookcase out of wooden planks he found in the cellar, and a dressing table for the bathroom out of an orange crate. One of my brothers donated a dresser his little girls had outgrown, and I bought a secondhand dropleaf table and chairs and a secondhand studio bed. Add white enamel paint to cover everything, my old white rug, and yards of red burlap which Maxine draped across the top of the window and down over the rusty living-room pipes in an opulent swag--and in our objective opinion the room was simply stunning." (p. 86.)
Oh, I love her. She never fails to cheer me up. When I went into the hospital to give birth to the CRjrs do you know what I packed? A nightgown, FiberOne granola bars, and Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road and its sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. And do you know why I didn't take Underfoot in Show Business? Because I hadn't read it yet at that point. If I had you can bet I would have unpacked the nightgown (they give you a hospital gown anyway) to make room to take it along.
Don't make that mistake. Read all the Helene Hanff, you can, RIGHT NOW.
*And you know me. I DO NOT USE bullshit words like "life-affirming." Except when I am describing Helene Hanff's books.