Helene Hanff and Her Story of ‘Away We Go’

Helene Hanff: writer, pamphlet maker, storyteller(Photo: unknown, scanned from the Daily Telegraph, 04/11/1997 - Page 29)
Helene Hanff: writer, pamphlet maker, storyteller(Photo: unknown, scanned from the Daily Telegraph, 04/11/1997 - Page 29)

It was a voice that betrayed its owner’s devotion to cigarettes and gin. “Honey” she rasped on the phone, “Mel Brooks bought ‘eighty-four.’ Can you believe it?”

The speaker was author Helene Hanff (1917-1997) and “eighty-four” was the volume of pithy and entertaining letters between herself and a London bookshop, published in 1969 as 84 Charing Cross Road.

Mel Brooks filmed the book in 1987 as a vehicle for his wife, the great Anne Bancroft, who starred with Anthony Hopkins. Hanff, the cult heroine, became a star.

But she never left her L shaped studio on East 72nd, and the fortune part of the fame didn’t last,  The booze and cigarettes eventually did her in, but, oh my, she was a character and fun to know.

You’ll read 84 Charing Cross Road in thirty minutes.  Then you should give it to someone you love. It’s that kind of book. My own favorite of Helene’s was a book she wrote in 1960 called Underfoot in Show Business.

Hanff’s Story About Working on Broadway

From her days working for a Broadway press agent in the early 1940s Helene had this story. (Don’t light a cigarette but feel free to crack open a cold one):

“I was working for the Theatre Guild. The Theahtah Guild doncha know. They were broke.  Bankrupt, bust, the wolf had come in the door and was pregnant. Mind you,  honey, they had produced Shaw and Ibsen and their stars had been Olivier and Katharine Cornell.

And you don’t have to look at me like you’ve never the —- heard of Katharine Cornell. (God help you if you said to her, Did you mean Katharine Hepburn?) The things is honey, they were great but it was war time and people wanted to see boobies if you know what I mean.

Anyway, The Guild had one property left to produce. Now, they had everything riding on this show. The Guild Building across from Sardi’s was in foreclosure, so was the Guild Theater.  My boss, Theresa Helburn had moved into the YW—ingCA from the Plaza. That’s how bad it was.

So we have this script.  Set in the wild west.  Singing cowboys.  Curtain goes up on two old ladies in gingham dresses churning butter. Lotsa arty type dancing by a student of Martha Graham’s,  God bless us and save us.

Did I mention it was going to be musical? The composer died! Dropped dead before they got started. The lyricist was a drunk and couldn’t work.  So they come up with the leftover halves of each other’s writing team.  We have a lyricist and composer who had never met and had nothing in common except having dead partners. Don’t forget the butter churn and the old ladies.

And how’s this for a title: Away We Go!

So the show with its dresses and arty dancing goes up to New Haven. Walter Winchell sneaks up to see it and sends a telegram to the wire services saying “Away We Go, Not a Chance” and that’s great for business. We got four hours of gingham dresses and fancy dancing. The leading man was a borscht-belt comedian and there he was playing a cowboy. Great singing voice, though.

The ingenue was nineteen and still lived with her mother! I’m working late in what’s left of the Guild offices when the phone rings and it’s Mrs. Helburn in New Haven. We had just mimeographed BY HAND 10,000 fliers with Away We Go. And Terry says to me, Helene, we’ve changed the title. You’ll have to re-write the flier. The new title is: OKLAHOMA.

Big deal! Back then it was the name of a state! Would you name a musical Maine or New Jersey? But we redo the fliers and hand crank out 10,000 new ones. Phone rings again: You’ll have to redo the fliers again. They want an exclamation point at the end. OKLAHOMA!

Listen honey, it was still singing cowboys and gingham dresses. But the new song writing team was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.  (Rodgers lost Lorenz Hart and Hammerstein lost Jerome Kern).  The arty dancing was by Agnes de Mille. The borscht belt comic with the great voice was Alfred Drake and the ingenue was Celeste Holm.

After two weeks every store on Fifth Avenue had gingham dresses in their windows and you couldn’t buy a ticket to Oklahoma! until it closed in 1949. To New Jersey you could buy a ticket honey, but to Oklahoma! forget it. Who knew?  On the first night on Broadway I was so beat from cranking out thirty thousand fliers that I went home to bed. Turned off the damned light just as Alfred Drake began to sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!”

“That’s just one of my stories from show business, honey.”

So do yourself a favor and go find Helene Hanff’s books, among them  84 Charing Cross Road and Underfoot in Show Business. Honey.

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