Friday, March 23, 2012

A guided tour of New York City

Apple of My Eye, Helene Hanff

In the spring of 1976, Helene Hanff was hired to write the copy for a book of photographs of New York City, or at least the part of it that occupies Manhattan Island.  When she sat down to plan out her research, she realized that though she had lived in the city for decades, she had never seen many of its most famous sights.  So she made a list, and over the next two months she and her friend Patsy set out to see what they had been missing in their own town.  The project seems to have morphed rather quickly into a guidebook, with directions and advice and quick vignettes of historical information.  Write that down, Patsy kept saying, the tourists will need to know that.

I have spent a grand total of one day in New York City, the morning in research at the New York Public Library and the afternoon frantically trying to see something of the city.  I was a poor grad student at the time and couldn't afford more than a day trip.  I could have used this book for my one day.  It was originally published in 1977, and the edition I have is a 1988 reprint, with an extended afterword that tries to cover the changes of the intervening eleven years.  But Helene Hanff, who died in 1997, never saw the starkest changes, those that came with 9/11.  In almost every chapter, she mentions the World Trade Center, which she and Patsy visited twice; the second tower was still under construction.

My favorite chapter covers their visit to the Lower East Side, because it reminded me of so many books about New York's immigrants, from the All-of-a-Kind Family stories to 97 Orchard to Jacob Riis.  Just as Helene Hanff built up a picture of London from books and movies over so many years, before she finally traveled there herself, so I've also done with New York City, from Miracle on 34th Street to Jack Finney's Time and Again to George Templeton Strong's diaries to Calvin Trillin's Family Man, not to mention all those years reading The New Yorker.  And just like Helene and London, I'll get there one of these days.

Hanff clearly loved New York, its history, its diversity, its contradictions, and she wanted to share that with her readers.  When she visited England, she was the guest and the tourist.  Here she is the guide, and reading this book I sometimes felt like I had been pulled into a select and rather idiosyncratic tour, with guides who occasionally seemed to be channeling Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough.  Helene and Patsy didn't always see eye to eye about their excursions, Patsy had a tendency to ignore Helene's history lessons, and they were both directionally challenged.  I'm not sure I'd want to take a cross-country tour with them, but I did enjoy their slightly acerbic company in this book.


  1. What fun they must have had! I've never been to NY, but would love to go someday. There's so much to see that it would be hard to know what is essential and what you could skip. It sounds like Helene would make the decision easier. I think my view of NY has been shaped by Edith Wharton, 50's movies and Vogue.

  2. I know I'd be making a list of must-sees - in fact, I have one already! I haven't read much Edith Wharton, but I do think of her as a New York writer.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!