Helene Hanff's career-changing ad?
March 20, 2011 5:24 PM   Subscribe

In 84 Charing Cross Rd Helene Hanff's 1st letter to the bookshop Marks and Co., written in October 1949, says she's responding to an ad she saw by them in the Saturday Review of Literature. One little problem: I recently went over a library archive of the Saturday Review. I couldn't find an ad from Marks and Co. in any of the October issues of 1949, nor in any of the issues in September, August, or July. This involved looking at both the display ads and the small-print classifieds. It also involved looking at the Saturday Review's 25th Anniversary issue, August 6, 1949, which was more than triple the size of a typical issue of the time (180+ pgs vs. 50+ pgs, and so many one-off advertisers it had an index to them). So... Has anyone ever seen this ad, that caused such a big change in Hanff's life? Did she perhaps get the magazine wrong? If so, which magazine was it in, and when?
posted by aurelian to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If she's writing in October and looking at a current issue, I would expect the cover date to be November or even December. Too bad Marks and Co. is long gone, or I'd suggest asking them.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:31 PM on March 20, 2011

Response by poster: Monsieur: As the name implies, Saturday Review was a weekly. The long lead dates for magazine covers are generally a way to tell newsstands when to take a magazine off the shelf. So, for example, the current issue of Time is dated March 28, 2011.

Hanff's letter is dated early October. I've checked all the issues for October, with no success.
posted by aurelian at 5:46 PM on March 20, 2011

She struck me as a slightly sloppy person (I can sympathize) so I suspect you're right, she might have gotten it wrong. I would try the NYTimes book review for that time. (Please report back - you may have a graduate thesis here. Pity the poor graduate student.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:49 PM on March 20, 2011

Hm, OK, SR didn't become a monthly until the 70s, but I'd still check the first week in November. Weeklies often follow the same practice for the same reason.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:52 PM on March 20, 2011

Response by poster: Indigo: Thank you for the kind words, but this is as nothing. Check out this post I've made, and John le Carré's letter to me in reply.

It's why I went hunting for the ad in the first place -- I'm still suspicious about Leo Marks' role in all this.
posted by aurelian at 5:54 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

The BBC seems to think it was in the NY Times. I also wouldn't put it past Helene to be paging through an old issue of the Review when she saw the ad, unless she's quite specific about it being the current issue.
posted by katemonster at 6:01 PM on March 20, 2011

Response by poster: Interesting stuff.

I've the New York Times' archive, just for general hits on Marks and Co. This page shows a classified ad by them, in a specialty book listing, in 1946.

However... Does everyone know about the Times' upcoming paywall? The other day, it had me verify my password. Well, I think in a similar infrastructure-building move, the archives one used to have to pay for now appear to be freely accessible (HTML summaries, PDF articles). Presumably that'll change when the paywall is activated on 3/28, but in the meantime... Have at.
posted by aurelian at 6:17 PM on March 20, 2011

She may also have clipped the ad a few months before and held onto it while she saved enough money to splurge -- she seems to have gone through periods where she had more money than others (the vagaries of a writer's life). I've done that - let things sit in wish lists or clippings attached to a cork board for months until I could afford to buy them or at least pursue them.

If she just had a clipping, it could still be from the SROL but is a few months older than expected - or she could think it was from the SROL but it could be another readers periodical. Very frustrating, indeed.
posted by julen at 7:12 PM on March 20, 2011

> The BBC seems to think it was in the NY Times.

I suspect they were simply being sloppy; if they were consciously disputing what she claimed they would have had a footnote about it.

In any case, you've got me fascinated, and I hope there's a resolution to this!
posted by languagehat at 6:35 AM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thicker and thicker! But then- can we really trust LeCarre...?
posted by IndigoJones at 6:55 AM on March 21, 2011

Did you look in the "Personals"? Bernard deVoto mentions that the ad was in the Personals section and in 1970 there was a special mention of the event in the Saturday Review Personals: "Love Started Here. An SR ad led Helene Hanff to order her first book from Marks & Co.....etc"). It would be funny if the Review printed a homage to the event without checking their own archives first.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 7:24 AM on March 21, 2011

I agree with julen that the most likely explanation is that Hanff clipped the ad and then wrote some months later. (Or maybe she bought the magazine and didn't get around to reading it for a while.) However, one thing struck me when I was reading the Wikipedia article on Saturday Review of Literature: it changed its name to the Saturday Review in 1942. Hanff seemed to have no problem with using the new (changed) names for things -- witness her discussion of Avery Fisher Hall/Philharmonic Hall with Patsy in Apple of My Eye -- so it strikes me as odd that she'd use the outdated title. Is there any chance she kept the ad for not only a couple of months, but years?

Also, would you mind expanding upon your theory that Leo Marks was involved in the ad? Are you thinking that it was a way for spies in the US to have a legitimate reason to write to Marks & Co? The blog post you linked to was fascinating.
posted by Georgina at 7:11 PM on March 21, 2011

Response by poster: "Are you thinking that it was a way for spies in the US to have a legitimate reason to write to Marks & Co?"

Yes, exactly. "Hey, I'd like to get these antiquarian books to my field agents so I can send them encrypted messages, and father just happens to own an antiquarian shop. Been around since 1904 -- a perfect cover story, and it has the added advantage of being true!"

This also raises the interesting question of where else Marks and Co may have been advertising, but one step at a time.
posted by aurelian at 9:38 PM on March 21, 2011

Response by poster: lucia: Yes, in all the issues I've looked at (13? 15? On that order) I've gone through the magazine page-by-page, checking all ads, including the personals (which were run as part of the small-type classifieds).
posted by aurelian at 9:49 PM on March 21, 2011

So I was sitting here thinking about this, and I remembered that Hanff wrote a bit about how she came to contact Marks & Co in Q's Legacy. Here's the relevant portion:
A friend took my books in -- I didn't own much else -- and with a suitcase in one hand and my typewriter in the other, I set out, in the teeth of a postwar housing shortage, to hunt for a place to live. After eighteen months of wandering -- of two-week and two-month sublets for a total of eleven addresses and phone numbers and mail that took months to catch up with me -- I finally found a dark little converted apartment in a house in a quiet row on East 95th Street. A friend built me long bookshelves from wooden slats and creates he found in the building's cellar. I painted them (and everything else in sight) with shiny white enamel, and on a September day in '49 I finally moved into a clean, bright, makeshift apartment that was all mine. As I put them up on their shiny shelves, I told them I was finally going to see that they were properly clothed in decent editions.

A few nights later I was reading the bookstore ads in the Out-of-print Books column of the Saturday Review of Literature. There was a whole column of out-of-print bookstores in New York that I hadn't known about (having spent my time with friends more interested in Broadway and Hollywood than in English classics.) I got a pencil and was circling the names of those that seemed most likely to have the books I wanted, when my eye fell on an ad lower down the column:

Marks & Co., Antiquarian Booksellers
84, Charing Cross Road
London WC 2

(page 11 of my edition (Futura, 1986))

So that's both a month and a column name, though I know you said you'd already looked through September's issues. Maybe check them again?

I love the idea of trying to find out where else Marks & Co was advertising. I hope you'll share any results you find, on your blog (which I've just bookmarked) if not here. That New York Times link refuses to show me anything.
posted by Georgina at 11:06 PM on March 21, 2011

Response by poster: "That New York Times link refuses to show me anything."

Ah. You need a log in, which is free -- until March 28th. Sorry, thoughtlessness on my part.
posted by aurelian at 1:37 PM on March 22, 2011

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