Saturday, November 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #324: Underfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff had one of the least-likely successful writing careers imaginable. After toiling for thirty years in deep obscurity -- first a decade or so trying and failing to become a produced playwright, then the length of the '50s writing for minor TV shows in New York before that whole industry packed up and moved West, followed by more various and book-related activities -- her book 84, Charing Cross Road became a medium-sized hit in the UK, then a movie and a play. Like all successes, that book spawned a sequel -- The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street -- and it also lifted the fortunes of the books she wrote earlier and later.

It doesn't seem to have been a life of opulence, even after 84 -- the fact that Hanff wrote only six short books between 1961 and 1992 almost certainly had something to do with that -- but it seemed to keep her going, and she lived in crotchety splendor in her beloved New York until the age of eighty.

The other interesting thing is that all of those books are essentially intellectual autobiographies, the stories of Hanff's relationships with books and great thoughts and important places, explanations of how she became the person she was. 84 was a sequence of letters back and forth to the London book shop of that address, from which she bought a lot of cheap old classics in the two decades immediately after WWII. Duchess was about the trip to London she could finally make after 84 was a success. Q's Legacy covers many of the books she bought from that shop, and how she found out about them. And her first book was the story of those first twenty years in New York, in pursuit of that failed theater career.

Underfoot in Show Business is that book; it grew out of two magazine articles that Hanff wrote in 1960 about those early days (late '30s and through the '40s) It's the most conventionally memoir-like of all of Hanff's books, which means it's only mildly idiosyncratic: Hanff was never one for following other people's expectations. Her introduction explains that it's the book about "the other 999" of the thousand "stagestruck kids [who] arrive in New York determined to crash the theatre" -- the ones who don't become Noel Coward. But it isn't: besides Hanff herself, the only stagestruck kid who appears at all is her best friend Maxine Stuart (who became a respected TV actress, eventually). And you'll look in vain for much about the shows she and Maxine saw during those years, or the state of the theatre during that time -- aside from an amusing anecdote about a show that seemed doomed to failure. Instead, this is a book about being Helene Hanff in New York, in the theater world before and after WWII.

Hanff was thoroughly unsuccessful in that pursuit, and most of Underfoot is about those failures and how she and Maxine coped with them -- the fill-in jobs and crappy apartments and sneaky ways to see plays for free (show up at intermission without a coat, and wander back in with the audience), what they did in the summers out in minor theaters in the sticks, how producers and agents are hugely enthusiastic about things that will never happen, and so on. As the book goes on, it quietly moved further and further away from that world, probably because Hanff eventually realized that none of her plays would get produced, and because she had grown up and wanted a more solid life. So Underfoot ceases to be underfoot about halfway through, as Maxine heads off to California for TV work and Hanff turns to writing TV herself.

Hanff was a quirky person with strong opinions, but Underfoot doesn't give her room to display the full force of those opinions the way her later books did. This is not watered-down Hanff, but it is a Hanff who hadn't yet worked up to full volume yet. Read it for a view of that theater world and for the story of one indomitable young woman who knew she was going to be something, even if what specific thing that would be wasn't quite clear yet.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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