by little red pen
Occasional notes on what I’ve read.
Helene Hanff, Underfoot in Show Business and all the rest
I can’t remember whether Helene Hanff got caught up in the first Great Book Loss, but she was definitely part of the second. The first Great Book Loss happened in the late 1990s when my sister and I rented a tiny wooden house on a one-way street between the campus and the gardens. The house had deep green painted walls inside and a brick wall enclosing the garden. Boys lived in the flat next door and sometimes we would peek over the wall at them drinking beer and sitting around in shorts and jandals, and sometimes they would peek over the wall at us planting broccoli or drinking gin with our woolly hats on or decorating the edges of the garden with mussel shells, and generally there was a feeling of mutual intrigue and bewilderment at the utter weirdness on each side of the wall, but also a sort of benevolent live-and-let-live vibe that was best exemplified by Mushroom the Cat, who wandered from house to house over probably the radius of a full block, eating wherever she lit on some food and sleeping wherever she lit on a bed.
Anyway, the house was small and, to be honest, pretty cold, but it was a refuge from the intensity of student life and we loved it. It had an outside loo that we painted midnight blue with a silver ceiling (it was the 90s, remember, and — now that I think about it — I had my Masters thesis bound in much the same colours, only purple in place of the blue, GOOD WITCHY TIMES those were), every hole in the walls was stuffed with Steelo pads, the bathroom had rose-pink walls and pot plants all along the bench beside the shower, we had beautiful old plates and a big shared bookshelf in the front room, and every morning we’d walk to university together and every evening we’d walk home.
We also had many meals and drinking sessions and cups of tea and deep meaningful conversations with our friends, around the old formica table in the garden or nestled in the dusky green of the living room. One of these conversations involved cups of tea, the bookshelf and a dear friend. We got to chatting about our favourite feminist writers and, in our youthful enthusiasm, my sister and I started pulling books off the shelf and piling them up for the dear friend to take home. It was intoxicating, as choosing books for someone you love is, that full-throated joy of “Oh, you must read this one” and “This changed my life” and “I cannot wait for you to see what she does here”. Off our friend went with, I don’t know, three bags of books maybe, and we settled down to contemplate the gaps in our bookshelf, the gaps where we were making connections, sharing ideas, spreading the joy.
Eventually, our friend brought the books back. Only, not quite. Perhaps half the books she brought back were ours. The others, not so much. In my better self, I love the egalitarian librarianishness of this story, the idea of books passing from person to person, wending through the world as reader gives to reader gives to reader. In my not-so-better self, I still miss the books that didn’t come back, even though we never managed to fully work out what they were. Because they were our Young Women books. The books that we used to figure out the first bits of being adult and political and strong. The books that we cried to and laughed with and roared at. The books of the small makeshift house with the brick-walled garden.
So, I think Helene Hanff must have been in that lot. And then I lost her again. I gave another friend a set of books to help her through a rough patch, and they are with her still. I’m still looking for replacement copies of Primo Levi’s Other People’s Trades and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but last week my mum’s cousin sent a bunch of Hanffs from his sister’s collection. And if any writer exemplifies the Sunday afternoon bookshelf type, it is Hanff. God, but she’s gorgeous. What I would really like is to sit around drinking martinis and listening to Hanff tell stories, high up in one of her New York apartment buildings, perhaps with a bunch of other broads and dames, my sister certainly, Nina Simone, my mum and her friend Christl, Allison Janney, Patricia Grace, Ani Difranco, the Renegade Mother, the Yarn Harlot and anyone else who cared to join us. Mum and Christl and probably Grace really aren’t either broads or dames, and my sister and I neither, but we’d do our best.
Hanff wrote plays, television scripts, articles, letters, telegrams and books. I’ll bet she wrote terrific shopping lists and notes. She’s sharp, big-hearted, well-read, funny. She used a typewriter and you can hear it in her prose, the staccato rhythm and the emphatic punch of sentence ends and paragraph breaks. Here’s a bit:
The problem of my Greek and Latin lessons remained unresolved. I wrote dignified letters to all the free city colleges, none of which, it turned out, gave free night courses in Latin and Greek. I took my one remaining piece of jewelry — a lapel watch — down to the Empire Diamond and Gold Buying Service and they wouldn’t even make me an offer. Just as I was getting completely discouraged, Maxine, as usual, came through with the solution.
“Why don’t you run an ad in the Personals column of the Saturday Review?” she suggested.
“The problem isn’t finding a tutor,” I said. “It’s finding the money to pay him!”
“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. I got five offers, one from a German refugee who said he would teach me the Latin and the Greek if I would teach him the English, two from retired professors, and one from a Lebanese rug merchant who didn’t know Latin but offered to teach me modern Greek and Arabic instead.
The fifth letter came from a young man who wrote that he’d graduated from the Roxbury Latin School and Harvard; and after careful consideration, Maxine advised me to award the coveted post to him.
“In the first place, he’s young and he might be cute,” she pointed out. “And in the second place, you can’t do better than Harvard.”
So Tom Goethals, who turned out to be six-feet-four, lean and shy-looking, and whose grandfather had built the Goethals Bridge, put his Roxbury Latin School and Harvard education to use by teaching me to read Catullus and trying to teach me Greek grammar.
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 the 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.
Underfoot in Show Business, 1961 (London: Futura, 1981), 65–66.
I’ll have to work out a book-share system on this set with my sister. In the meantime, I’m hovering Hanff in every break in the day — with breakfast, while cooking dinner, while eating dinner, in the evening, in bed, while lighting the fire and playing Mastermind with the Rabbit, while cleaning my teeth and washing the dishes and making supper for the Cat.
I did the same 20 years ago and I’ll be doing it 20 from now, God willing.