Tuesday 17 May 2011

Apple Of My Eye: Helene Hanff

I have never been to New York, but I've read the book.

I discovered it twenty-five years ago, and it planted in my brain a notion of the city which is so exciting and alluring that I have a ready answer when someone says, 'If you could do just one thing before you die..'

In 1975, at the age of fifty-nine, five years after the hugely successful 84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff was asked by a publisher of travel books to write the words for a tourist guide to her native New York. It was a dream assignment because, as she told herself at the time, she knew the city like the back of her hand. Only when she went to the Public Library, took home three books about New York and compiled a list of the eight attractions to make all three, did it dawn on her that she didn't know the place as well as she thought. Several must-see attractions, she had never seen at all; and she set out with a friend on a quirky, upbeat and enlightening voyage of discovery which the following year she worked up into book of her own - Apple Of My Eye.

Helene Hanff

Apart from the fact that her enthusiasm is catching and her writing style, as in all her books, easy, engaging and forward-flowing, what I love most about Apple Of My Eye is the author's unaffected likability, which radiates from every page like a log fire in winter. Hanff never married and there is no record, in her autobiography or elsewhere, of any romance - the feeling is that although she had many good friends, she was comfortable in her own skin. She was a lifelong smoker and enjoyed a martini. She called a spade a spade. She lived in a modest apartment and would have travelled more but was afraid of flying (during her twenty-year correspondence with Frank Doel in London, on which Charing Cross Road was based, she often thought about visiting but left it too late - Frank died and Hanff didn't see the famous bookshop, or what had once been the shop, until several years later).

In this passage about the Cloisters museum, high above the Hudson, she muses about John D. Rockefeller Jr's one-off creation, assembled from fragments of twelfth and thirteenth century European buildings stone for stone:

'.. no European can imagine being born in a country which was a wilderness three hundred years ago, in which a building seven hundred years old is literally unimaginable. John D. Jr knew that millions of Americans had no hope of seeing Europe, but might manage to see New York. Since his countrymen couldn't travel abroad to see medieval architecture, he brought medieval architecture to them.'

Helene Hanff died in 1997, aged eighty.
blog comments powered by Disqus