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Underfoot in Show Business

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It's a book about show business, where fame is the stock in trade. Each year there are hundreds of stagestruck kids arrive in New York determined to crash the theatre, firmly convinced they're destined to be famous Broadway stars or playwrights.

177 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1962

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About the author

Helene Hanff

25 books550 followers
Helene Hanff (April 15, 1916–April 9, 1997) was an American writer. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she is best known as the author of the book 84 Charing Cross Road, which became the basis for a play, teleplay, and film of the same name.

Her career, which saw her move from writing unproduced plays to helping create some of the earliest television dramas to becoming a kind of professional New Yorker, goes far beyond the charm of that one book. She called her 1961 memoir Underfoot in Show Business, and it chronicled the struggle of an ambitious young playwright to make it in the world of New York theatre in the 1940s and 1950s. She worked in publicists' offices and spent summers on the "straw hat" circuit along the East Coast of the United States, writing plays that were admired by some of Broadway's leading producers but which somehow never saw the light of day.

She wrote and edited scripts for a variety of early television dramas produced out of New York, all the while continuing to try and move from being what she called "one of the 999 out of 1,000 who don't become Noel Coward." When the bulk of television production moved to California, her work slowly dried up, and she turned to writing for magazines and, eventually, to the books that made her reputation.

First published in 1970, the epistolary work 84 Charing Cross Road chronicles her 20 years of correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer for Marks & Co., a London bookshop, on which she depended for the obscure classics and British literature titles around which her passion for self-education revolved. She became intimately involved in the lives of the shop's staff, sending them food parcels during England's post-war shortages and sharing with them details of her life in Manhattan.

Due to financial difficulties and an aversion to travel, she put off visiting her English friends until too late; Doel died in December 1968 from peritonitis from a burst appendix, and the bookshop eventually closed. Hanff did finally visit Charing Cross Road and the empty but still standing shop in the summer of 1971, a trip recorded in her 1973 book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

In the 1987 film of 84 Charing Cross Road, Hanff was played by Anne Bancroft, while Anthony Hopkins took the part of Frank Doel. Anne Jackson had earlier played Hanff in a 1975 adaptation of the book for British television. Ellen Burstyn recreated the role on Broadway in 1982 at the Nederlander Theater in New York City.

She later put her obsession with British scholar Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch to use in a book called Q's Legacy. Other books include Apple of My Eye, an idiosyncratic guide to New York City, and A Letter from New York (1992), which reprinted talks she gave on the BBC's Woman's Hour between 1978 and 1985.

Hanff was never shy about her fondness for cigarettes and martinis, but nevertheless lived to be 80, dying of diabetes in 1997 in New York City. The apartment building where she lived at 305 E. 72nd Street has been named "Charing Cross House" in her honor. A bronze plaque next to the front door commemorates her residence and authorship of the book.

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5 stars
339 (45%)
4 stars
259 (34%)
3 stars
126 (16%)
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15 (2%)
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4 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 119 reviews
Profile Image for Olive Fellows (abookolive).
613 reviews5,001 followers
January 23, 2022
Click here to hear my thoughts on Helene Hanff, this book, and all her other books over on my Booktube channel, abookolive!

Belly laughed more times than I can count, read several passages out loud for my husband because I just couldn't resist sharing. I love Helene Hanff with all that wit and bluntness!
Profile Image for Martin.
327 reviews143 followers
April 16, 2019
Helene Hanff recalls her ingenuous attempts to crash Broadway in the early forties.

Full of gentle humor as Helene relates the ups and downs of life in the theaters.

For many years Helene struggled to pay the rent and struggled just to have a place to rent.

A real rags to rags story, but she did not give up as it was her love of show business that kept her going.

I was pleased to read that her talents were finally recognized and so she became a successful screen writer.


Profile Image for Amy.
2,629 reviews416 followers
July 12, 2023
Helene Hanff might have failed as a playwright, but she's wonderful as an essayist. I've long suspected it but now I've just tumbled back into love with her ability to describe life.
The charm of this book comes partially from her gift with describing people, partially from setting (post-WW2 New York theater scene), and almost entirely from her comfort at poking fun of herself and others. She has chapter devoted to a stagestruck Warner Brothers executive who would become obsessed with a play or a playwright and use all his influence and networking to get the thing produced. (Then insist they 'keep his name out of it!') Her description of his calls (10 am every day, just checking in!) felt both caricatured and utterly familiar.
And perhaps that's part of her greatest gift. Hanff can illustrate dramatize personality quirks without losing the essential and familiar human nature behind it.
In pursuit of show business, Hanff took odd jobs, bummed cigarettes, and furnished her spaces with orange crates, whatever it took to be in the world she loved. As such, she met a host of colorful characters and behaved in outrageous ways that kept me wheezing with laughter.
I recommend (but if you haven't read her most famous memoir first, go check out 84, Charing Cross Road first. You can thank me later.)
Profile Image for Margaret H. Willison.
150 reviews462 followers
December 7, 2011
There is just something about Helene's voice that makes her feel like my funniest friend. She just knows her way around a good story. While 84 Charing Cross Road will always be first in my Hanff-heart, Underfoot in Show Business is a very close second and should not, NOT BY ANY MEANS, be out-of-print. Hanff's stories about she and her friend Maxine* struggling to make it as a playwright and actress (respectively) in 1940s Manhattan are just hilarious. They make me profoundly nostalgic for that time period without ever overtly romanticizing it. Just the way that certain people have of making everything sound fun without every being dishonest about it, Helene's got that, in spades. She also has genuinely hilarious stories-- like my favorite, of Oklahoma! and its out-of-town opening, in the chapter "No jokes. No legs. No chance."

If you love 84 Charring Cross Road, but haven't read any of Hanff's other books, start here. And if you haven't read either, MY GOD READER, what are you waiting for?? SNAP TO!

*Who always makes me think of the line from When Harry Met Sally-- "People were always crossing rooms to talk to Maxine."
Profile Image for Alana.
1,617 reviews47 followers
May 19, 2018
Why I had never picked up this author earlier, especially with how short her books are, I have no idea; they are truly a joy to read. Hanff wrote with such spunk and dry humor, taking jabs at herself, her industry, the realities of trying to "make it" in show business (and failing miserably), and just ordinary life.

I found her tales of TV writing in the 50s educational and comedic... I grew up watching I Love Lucy reruns with their silly twin beds, so I know it was a bit ridiculous, but the specifics of what Hallmark banned from their stories and what network TV tried to censor were amusing at best, and disturbing at worst, from what they tried to dictate to their viewing public. "Hallmark was a biographical show--and you just wouldn't believe how many of the world's great heroes and heroines failed to live up to the moral standards of American television." And I had to just shake my head at Hallmark's specific criteria about not offending the British by avoiding doing anything about the Revolutionary War.

I had no idea about all of the numerous flopped plays of the 40s or the Theatre Guild's attempts to bring in new playwrights... including educating young writers just about to death, while the year before they had simply given their scholarship money to two young writers and sent them on their way...and they turned out to be two of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. One can, in fact, be over-educated!

I think my favorite moment is right at the end with Helene's "shouted" (because she uses all caps) letter to her best friend, making absolute fun of herself in the best way: "Harpers wants me to write my autobiography how to get nowhere in the theatre...It turns out I spent all those years trying to write plays just so I could write a book about it afterwards..."

Pick up this author, you'll love her!
Profile Image for Chas.
4 reviews2 followers
February 1, 2015
This is a book that lifts the spirits! Poverty there is, but also humour, beauty, outrageous behaviour and life in the raw, it's all there; or is it? Is Helene Hanff putting on a brave face for her readers and only telling us the funniest and least sordid bits of her life as a playwright, hack TV writer and all round back room girl in 'the industry' aka showbiz?
A memoir and 'how to write' manual combined, I have placed this book on the Essential Shelf and the five stars are twinkling like sirens to lead all you future sailors onto the rocks of publishing, may your draught be shallow enough not to collide with them. Amen
Profile Image for Laurie Johnston.
68 reviews8 followers
January 2, 2020

Who'd have thought the funniest memoir I've read would wind up one of the classiest, too? Helene Hanff doesn't back-bite--or tell* too much, either.

A pity she spent so much time on plays and not on more of her fabulous books!

* As in "tell all."

March 11, 2019
Profile Image for Marybeth.
33 reviews1 follower
September 3, 2019
As if I didn't already adore this woman thanks to 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, she writes a hysterical memoir about her attempts to "crash the theatre" in the 1940s. I had already laughed twice by the second page and lost count before I got to the end.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,741 reviews677 followers
November 30, 2016
UPDATE 27.12.15: While staying with my parents for Christmas, I rediscovered this book on their shelves and felt compelled to re-read it. It is just as much of a charming delight the second time around, as well as wonderfully easy to relate to some eighty odd years after events begin. I firmly believe that Flanagan's Law applies outside the theatre.

This book is an absolute delight and several times caused me to commit the social faux pas of laughing to myself on public transport. I think I unsettled my train seat neighbour, who was reading Les Mis on a kindle. In any event, this autobiographical romp recounts Helene's adventures with her friend Maxine, attempting to get into show business and mostly doing terrible jobs for low pay. The sense of friendship, joy, and ingenious attempts to get things for free greatly appealed to me and reminded me of happy times as an undergraduate. Hanff is an extremely engaging writer, always witty and self-deprecating. I can hardly fault a book that fully distracted me from the annoyance of a cancelled train and one hour delay. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for S Gail.
108 reviews6 followers
July 31, 2009
This is actually Helene Hanff's first book, published in 1961, a few years before she enchanted millions with her 84, Charing Cross Road. It's an episodic account of her years as a struggling playwright on Broadway, leading to how she ended up writing for television, and it overlaps (and never mentions) the period of her famous correspondence with Frank Doel and his staff at the London antiquarian book shop. We do meet a couple of friends who figure in 84, most significantly the irrepressible and incorrigible Maxine Stuart, a flame-haired actress who can't hold a tune (and yes, that is important).

I think my favourite chapter covers the how and why of being an "outside reader" which includes everything you need to know about The Lord of the Rings (warning: Hanff is not a fan). However, I recommend your reading it for yourself to find your favourite bits. A book you can put down and pick up again quite comfortably.
Profile Image for Linda Robinson.
Author 4 books139 followers
June 3, 2014
Hanff is a gifted memoirist. This book includes the timeline of 84, Charing Cross Road, which makes the story seem even more personal–as though the author is a friend writing you letters from an apartment smack in the middle of the NY writing scene. She never gets a play produced, but she tells us about the journey without bitterness, happy to be writing, even if it is for television for a few years. The chapter that reveals how she and her actress friend Maxine get into movies and plays for free is funny. "Meet me in front of Sardi's and don't wear a coat." Hanff wrote this first long book because a Harper's editor asked if she could/would, so she did. Made me nostalgic for more memoir that shares the excitement and gratitude for a life that gets close to living the dream, and reminds us that mostly that's what we all do.
Profile Image for Trelawn.
345 reviews1 follower
October 4, 2015
As usual I had a great time reading about Helene Hanff's life. This time she chronicled her failure to make her mark on Broadway. Her Oklahoma! and Lord of the Rings anecdotes alone make this worth the read but there is something romantic about her devotion to the theatre that draws you in. As well as being a Theatre Guild intern she worked as an assistant press agent, prop girl, outside reader and lots more. The stories of Helene and her actress best friend Maxine blagging their way into Broadway shows are endearing and you find yourself cheering for her when she finally earns enough money to move out of residences and garrets and manages to lease her own one and a half room apartment which she blows her savings decorating. I am immeasurably sad that I don't have anymore books by Miss Hanff to look forward to. She has been an interesting companion over the past few months.
Profile Image for Lindsaygail.
212 reviews14 followers
April 11, 2019
Three cheers for Helene Hanff! I wish I’d been a starving theater wannabe in New York in the 50s so I could hang out with her and Maxine. The only sad thing is, I think I have now read all of Hanff’s books, and there’s just nobody else like her.
21 reviews21 followers
October 2, 2017
Delightful and witty memoir of trying to make it in show business. Especially good if you've ever lived in NYC.
Profile Image for Amy Roebuck.
478 reviews4 followers
August 9, 2018
LOVE Helene Hanff!!! So glad another friend is hunting up all her works--smart, funny, often thought-provoking--and not dated, despite the publication year!
Profile Image for Kate.
148 reviews8 followers
October 7, 2021
While Helene Hanff is most well-known for 84, Charing Cross Road and its follow-up The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Underfoot in Show Business is now my favorite work of hers. It's a sort-of memoir in chronological order, but each chapter centers around a different theme based on Hanff's experiences as a struggling aspiring playwright in New York City, whether that be the outrageous hijinks she and her actress friend Maxine Stuart get up to trying to avoid paying for anything, or the Sisyphean process of trying to get one of her plays produced. Hanff spends decades "just scraping by," always short on cash as she works a variety of part-time jobs that leave her enough time to write her (chronically unproduced) plays. It's surely a tough living, but the way Hanff tells it, it's tremendously entertaining. The comedic timing in her writing is tough to describe: it's just unique and brilliant. I also really enjoyed her inside peek into the strange little world of the New York theatre scene and the burgeoning television industry in the 1940's and 50's.

Besides the aforementioned chapters, my favorites were "NO LEGS NO JOKES NO CHANCE" (Hanff works in the marketing office for the Theatre Guild as they experience a series of flops, and there's a great twist ending) and "Outside Hollywood" (in which she pulls back the curtain on being a reader who prepares plot synopses of written work that film studios may want to adapt).

I loved every bit of this book and I'm actually sad to have finished it. I'm equally sad that the omnibus collecting all of Hanff's work is apparently out of print. (While copies of 84, Charing Cross Road are easy to find, I had read her other books on my phone through Hoopla).
Profile Image for Tara .
440 reviews51 followers
August 29, 2022
Really, I blame my husband for this. He is the one who recommended that I watch 84, Charing Cross Road, knowing quite well my love for all things book related. And thus began my love affair with Helene Hanff's writing. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that draws me in. I certainly enjoy her self-deprecating humor. She's a bit of a mess, but that makes you like her more. I've read all of her books, some of them multiple times, but this was my first reading of Underfoot in Show Business. It was her first published book, and it chronicles her failed attempt at playwrighting, and her more successful career as a TV script writer. You learn a lot about how live cheaply in NYC (at least in the 40s... hint, it requires living in a tenement and sneaking into shows for free). You learn about the ins and outs of the theater world, not in a star-struck kind of way, but a rather more realistic assessment. I particularly enjoyed the bits that intersected with what I had read in 84, Charing Cross Road, one example being when she turned a conversation between Aesop and Rhodope from Landor's Imaginary Conversations into a script for the Hallmark Hall of Fame show. Part of me wants to deduct a star due to her distain for Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, a book she had to read and write a detailed synopsis for over a weekend, so I could understand how perhaps you would not fall in love with it. Plus, she hated fiction. But still. However, I'm rising above my own predilections, and awarding it the 4 stars it deserves.
Profile Image for Ashley Lambert-Maberly.
1,360 reviews9 followers
October 22, 2022
Great fun to read, even though I strongly suspect I've read 80% of it before, set it aside, forget that I'd almost finished it, and began again. She writes so charmingly I've almost forgiven her for hating Tokien. (Plus she wrote the Adventures of Ellery Queen tv show, which I have a soft spot for).

I love behind-the-scenes memoirs, even if (especially if) the protagonist doesn't get all that far. Helene really captured the sense of time and place. And she's funny, too. A really enjoyabe book.

(Note: I'm a writer myself, so suffer pangs of guilt every time I offer less than five stars. These aren't ratings of quality, just my subjective account of how much I liked them: 5* = one of my all-time favourites, 4* = enjoyed it, 3* = readable but not thrilling, 2* = disappointing, and 1* = hated it.)
Profile Image for Debbe.
723 reviews
July 19, 2023
Helene Hanff many years ago wrote a delightful, humorous memoir about her pursuit of success as a New York playwright and her success as a writer for early Hollywood dramas. I am mesmerized by her comic humor. I’ve read 3 of her books now and loved them all.
Profile Image for Melanie.
448 reviews
March 27, 2019
I've said it before but now I'm firmly convinced - Helene Hanff was an American treasure and I love her.
Profile Image for Holly.
98 reviews1 follower
August 18, 2019
Thoroughly delightful. It was a perennial favorite in my teens and twenties, and I’m overjoyed that it’s every bit as good at 40-whatever-I-am.
Profile Image for Angela.
462 reviews3 followers
January 2, 2016
It was with a real sense of grief that I finished this book, the last of those written by Hanff that I had yet to read (and the first written by her). I first learned about Hanff after happening upon a Saturday afternoon showing of the movie 84, Charing Cross Road with Anne Bancroft. It was such a charming story and I did not know until then that it was a true story written by an author I had never of. Since then I have savored each of Hanff's books because there are only 6. Hanff is the classic New Yorker who is not from New York. She truly loved the city. She is from an era where starving artists could actually live in Manhattan, a time that is sadly long gone. This book is a witty account of her early life as a struggling playwright and chronicles life in NYC in the 40's and 50's. A must read for those interested in NYC and Broadway theatre.
Profile Image for Roberta.
1,135 reviews10 followers
June 7, 2012
This is a lovely book. A life well lived and so entertainly presented. Hanff is so funny about her adventures as an aspiring playwright with oodles of writing chops but no talent for plot. She's one of the first in the door writng for television and ultimately discovers her best material - her own life. Her best friend Maxine is a hoot. Loved her books 84, Charing Cross Road and Apple of My Eye (in fact must reread the latter). Loved the New York Setting. Wish I had known her.[
Profile Image for Nicole.
642 reviews22 followers
August 11, 2017
This is a memoir of someone who was living my ideal life, knocking around 1940's New York City with her eccentric actress best friend, trying to write plays and never succeeding but having a whale of a time anyway. I finished this book and immediately reserved another book of hers from the library. Helene Hanff is witty and self-deprecating and always manages to wrap her anecdotes into neat little packages, whether that's her bizarre, elderly neighbour becoming her landlady, or that time she had to add exclamation points to all of the opening night Oklahoma! programmes. This is a must-read for folks who love the theatre, love New York, or love memoirs of the little guy.
Profile Image for Liz.
534 reviews2 followers
May 25, 2016
Helene Hanff’s memoir of her attempts to become a Broadway playwright, which lead to a lucrative career as a television writer. Very funny! I especially love the story of the Theatre Guild, where Helene is working as a publicist making one last-ditch effort after years and years of flops – they open an “opera”, for which Helene does not even bother to attend the opening, since the out-of-town reviews have been so terrible. Resigned to her pending unemployment, she goes to bed early, as the opening bars of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” are being sung a few streets away. Why yes, the Theatre Guild was opening Oklahoma!
Profile Image for David Crosby.
86 reviews3 followers
October 23, 2008
Excellent, I am truly captivated by dear Helene. These memoirs of her writing career were such a pleasure to read. I laughed, and laughed again, how did she do it? Well, this book highlights the genuine struggle she had in her chosen field, but she never seemed down. She saw humour in all situations and had the right response for any situation. Oh, how I wish she had written more books. There are some lovely anecdotes in here, and I will see Oklahoma! in a whole new light now. Thoroughly recommended to all.
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