Serendipity; magical moments in New York

 

When  a Sydney radio station announced the  death of actress Anne Bancroft in 2005  there was an immediate response  from callers. They spoke of her  enduring marriage to comedian Mel Brooks and of her wonderful  theatre and movie performances. However, no one mentioned the film for which I best remember Anne Bancroft; 84 Charing Cross Road. Perhaps this was not  surprising. The movie’s nostalgic literary theme did not  have the mass appeal of  The Miracle Worker or, even more famously, The Graduate, in which Miss Bancroft played the seductive  Mrs Robinson.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK!

In 1986 my partner Rob  and I were holidaying in New York. For me the trip was  a  literary pilgrimage.  I had become obsessed with the works of Helene Hanff,  author of  84 Charing Cross Road. The book was based on a series of letters between herself, then a struggling New York playwright (she confessed she was hopeless at plots!),  and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller at Marks & Co,  in London’s Charing Cross Road.84-Charing-Cross-Road-496x295

Their correspondence continued from 1949 until Doel’s death . When  published in 197o the book became  a surprise best seller. It was later  adapted for the stage, indirectly fulfilling  Helene Hanff’s childhood dream of having one of her plays performed in London’s West End.

Cover84CharingC

Ms Hanff had always dreamed of visiting London, although her savings were constantly eroded by dental bills (she has my  sincere sympathy here!).  In 1971 her literary success finally enabled her to do so,  but unfortunately Frank   Doel had died in 1968.   Nevertheless, she met his widow and ex-staff members  from the  by now defunct  Marks & Co.  The diary of her trip was published as The Duchess of Bloomsbury.

Subsequently she was commissioned to write the text for a photographic work on New York, but despite having lived in The Big Apple all her adult life, she realized there were shocking gaps in her knowledge of the city. She enlisted the help of her friend Patsy Gibbs, and together the two middle aged women explored Manhattan.

I am not sure  whether the original project ever came to fruition,  but their  weekly forays  produced a very funny, very personal walking guide called Apple of My Eye.  Patsy was a stickler for detail and felt that Helene was a little slap-dash in her approach. She would constantly harangue her friend; ‘Get this down…..Have you written that down?’.  At one point Patsy made the withering  comment that the photographic book should carry a rider stating;  ‘Everything in this book is only half-accurate.’   Oh how I related to this.  As an author myself I have exactly the same reaction from my beloved husband Rob.

I had taken a copy of Apple of My Eye to New York and was spending my days following in Helene and Patsy’s footsteps. One morning we visited   the Fraunces Tavern, from where General George Washington farewelled  his troops. I had been  lured there by  Helene’s mention that Washington’s wooden false teeth were on display in the Tavern’s museum. The  teeth were actually  made of hippopotamus ivory  and cow’s tooth, so perhaps Patsy was right about Helene’s inaccuracy.

Visiting the Fraunces Tavern in the footsteps of Helene and Patsy

Visiting the Fraunces Tavern in the footsteps of Helene and Patsy

 

On the way back to our hotel Rob suddenly said; ‘Let’s cross here and walk up Madison Avenue.’  As we did so we found our way blocked by a film crew.  Heavy lunchtime traffic  was being halted every few minutes to allow a scene to be shot. I was fascinated by the speed at which old lamp posts and flower stalls were set up, and vintage  motor vehicles moved into position. Pedestrians in 1950’s costume appeared like magic.

A lightening fast transformation of Madison Avenue.

A lightening fast transformation of Madison Avenue, New York.

 

The crew were filming a rather dowdy, head-scarfed woman  crossing the street to post a letter.

Stand back please Ready....ACTION

Stand back please. Ready….ACTION

 

What’s happening?’  I asked the person next to me.  I was astounded by the reply; ‘ That’s  Anne Bancroft in the scarf. They’re filming a movie  called 84 Charing Cross Road’.   It was an incredible co-incidence, especially as I  was carrying a copy of Apple of  My Eye   in my handbag.

 DrBobCornwall84Charing 010

I later discovered that, like me, Ms Bancroft was a huge fan of Helene Hanff’s engaging book. She was introduced to it when a complete stranger  approached her in the street and presented her with a copy. Her husband Mel Brooks later bought the film rights, and presented them to his wife as an anniversary present.  When the 25th anniversary edition of the book was published in 1995, Anne Bancroft wrote the foreword.

Naturally I went to see the movie  of 84 Charing Cross Road when it was  shown in Sydney.  It was fortunate  I knew the book so well, because I was so busy looking out for ‘our’ scene that I could scarcely concentrate on the dialogue.

Another very strange coincidence occurred recently when  I was searching  boxes of material for the photographs  we had taken of the New York filming.  I had managed to resist the temptation to be distracted until I came across a letter from a close friend, written from London in  August 1987.   Halfway down the second page Patti  had written;

‘I took Captain & Mrs E  (the couple she was living with) to see 84 Charing Cross Road last night …..I was watching  closely for that scene you saw being shot, where Helene Hanff posts the letter on Madison Avenue.’DrBobCornwall84Charing 009

 

In her later  years Helene Hanff  wrote a  revised edition of Apple of My Eye , but this time much of the joy was missing from her research trips. Her dear  friend Patsy  Gibbs had died of cancer.

84 CCRPlaqueThe bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road was eventually demolished.  The site is now occupied by a MacDonald’s restaurant!  I suspect Helene   would  have been horrified at such sacrilege, but also  rather amused.  A brass plaque commemorates  her engaging correspondence with Frank Doel, and her first  literary success.

Helene  Hanff  died from complications of diabetes in 1997,  shortly before her eightieth birthday. Her New York apartment block at 305 East 72nd Street was renamed Charing Cross House, in her honour.

Helen Hanff, shortly before her death. (Wikipedia)

Helen Hanff, shortly before her death. (Wikipedia)

My literary pilgrimages have taken me to many places around the world.   It is a great joy to know that readers of my own first book ,The Water Doctor’s Daughters, now follow a self-guided tour around Great Malvern, where Dr Marsden and his unfortunate children lived. Here is  the link for those who may be interested. Walking  Tour.  I doubt if anyone will come across the filming of The Water Doctor’s Daughters in Malvern’s  High Street, but I can dream!

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