Circling back to a book I read last month….
In the final pages of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, author Helene Hanff includes a story that I keep thinking about. The book is an account of Hanff’s trip to London – a place she imagined and interacted with throughout her 20 year pen pal relationship with Frank Doel, a British antiquarian book buyer for Marks & Co. After publishing their letters in her epistolary memoir, 84, Charing Cross Road, Hanff’s London publisher invites her to come and help with the book’s publicity there. And so it is that she finally travels to London to see for herself. Unfortunately, by this time, Frank, her primary correspondent, has died and the bookstore has closed, but her 5 weeks in London are jam-packed with people and places and a good bit of fanfare.
At the end of her trip, she is squeezing in final sightseeing, meals with friends and acquaintances, and also sitting for her portrait being painted by a local artist, who insisted. As she is sitting down to a goodbye dinner with the artist and the artist’s husband, Hanff hears someone call her name. “I looked up and saw coming toward us a woman I’ve known casually for years. She runs a successful shop in New York and she’s very high-fashion. She’s always perfectly friendly and pleasant when we meet but she’s never considered me worth more than a passing hello.”
The woman, Dorothy, joins them for dinner and in the course of their conversation they come to all the last things left Hanff’s London To – Do list and the artist’s husband, Leo, turns to Dorothy and says, regarding Hanff, “Tell me….we’ve only known her a few weeks. Why is it so difficult to part with her?” Hanff was about to crack a joke about her “popularity” but when she turned to Dorothy she saw, “She was literally open-mouthed, gawking at Leo. She mumbled something and then turned her gaze on me, still open-mounted, still with that incredulous look on her face. Looking at her, I saw my own inward reaction to being a five-week Duchess mirrored in Dorothy’s face.”
She finishes the story:
We left Panzer’s and Dorothy thanked Leo for dinner and declined a lift to her hotel….Then she turned to me and, struggling to make it sound light and teasing instead of plainly baffled, said:
“I don’t suppose there’s any use asking you to fit me into your busy schedule?”
I wanted to say:
“Never mind, Dorothy. Next week the ball will be over and Cinderella will be back at the pots and pans and typewriter in an old pair of jeans and a hand-me-down T-shirt, same as always”
I just grinned and said I’d see her in New York.
I love this story and feel like it speaks into our current cultural age where fame is built with algorithms and measured by metrics that have little to do with the relationships that we navigate each day, begging the question: Who are we to each other?