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.
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.
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.
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.
The crew were filming a rather dowdy, head-scarfed woman crossing the street to post a letter.
‘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.
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.’
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.
The 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.
Of course my heart is currently breaking for the residents of New York, that stylish, vibrant city of my dreams. It’s hard to believe that an even greater and more wide ranging catastrophe than the 9/11 terrorist attack could befall them.
FOOTNOTE …..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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