Helene Hanff (1916-1997), best known for her book, 84, Charing Cross Road, hailed from Philadelphia, but was a New Yorker, through and through.
From 1978 to 1984, Hanff worked for the BBC recording five minute snapshots of life in New York City for the British public. Published in a collection titled, Letter from New York, these essays provide a detailed look at life in an era of the city that was less glamorous than the New York of today (owing to the serious financial situation not only in the city but the whole country at the time), but down-to-earth and fascinating.
Hanff lived and worked in her apartment at 305 E. 72nd Street, in the Lenox Hill neighborhood of the upper east side. Her observations of daily life in her building, her neighborhood and her beloved city provide insight into the characters, rhythms and details of life in New York. From her accounts of her dog friends (and many trips to the park for runs and playing) to her attempts to describe just how New Yorkers manage in their tiny apartments (storing seasonal clothes at the dry cleaners, for example), Hanff records with wit and insight life in the Big Apple.
Later, she would publish a guidebook to the city, titled: Apple of My Eye. When hired to put together the book in 1976, she realized how little she knew of the city’s most famous landmarks and sites (Statue of Liberty, World Trade Center, et al) and so she ventured with a friend to take in all the sites. The result is a hilarious tourist adventure with Hanff chronicling the realities of New York sightseeing with an ethnographic point of view.
What I love most about Hanff’s writing is that she approaches her subject with a realistic attitude: she is not a writer who tries to rise above her subject. She finds delight in the smallest detail and she is bold in her writing as she records those details so deftly.
Apple of My Eye and Letter from New York are two books that offer a view of a New York of the past, a city that struggled in the 1970s with a reputation for being a dangerous, dirty place–trash piled high in the streets, blackouts, muggings, and a host of other problems famously portrayed in movies of the same era such as The Out of Towners (1970) and Taxi Driver (1976).
That is not Hanff’s New York. Hers is a city of people, of neighborhoods and a million little fascinating details.