I will raise my hand and admit that this was a third choice as a book for me to read. I had picked 84 Charing Cross Street by Helen Hanff as my next literary adventure after finishing my previous book. But alas I could not find an electronic version at all. So I moved onto the Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, by the same author but again no luck on an digital version. I was determined to read something by Helen Hanff so I did a further search and found this book – Underfoot in Show Business. And I must say I think I was rather lucky in being unlucky.
Underfoot in Show Business tells the tale of the author’s attempts to break into the theatre scene and become a successful playwright in New York in the 1940’s, with a quick detour to her writing career in TV in the 1950’s. That sums it up pretty well really.
Now it is no stretch to say that one of the major attractions of this work was the 1940’s New York bit. I love reading stories set in the Big Apple especially if they take place in the past. Don’t ask me why but I find them endlessly fascinating and this fitted the bill perfectly. In a light,breezy and very likable way it created an image of life in the city for a young female aspiring writer very clearly, from the shoddy low cost (and sometimes frightening and endlessly frustrating) housing options, the often chaotic work situation (not just in the theatre scene but the sequence of odd jobs that never seemed to last), the very clever way to get lots of everything for nothing including theatre and movie tickets, clothes and enough equipment to fully stock a kitchen, Greek and Latin lessons, and manual labour to lay a linoleum floor and hang wallpaper. I was always amazed just what Helen and her best friend Maxine, the aspiring Broadway actress, got away with. To be honest I wished I was as clever as they were. They were never underhand in a cruel way in these situations. They just took advantage of the circumstances that were presented – essentially they came to know how to work the system – and didn’t hurt anyone along the way. They certainly wouldn’t have been the only ones working the system. They never resorted to anything illegal and never fell so far as to sell themselves. Maxine lived with her parents and Helen could always head home to Philadelphia if she really came upon hard times financially (which she did at one stage). But she never gave up and and eventually returned to the great metropolis.
One of the other things that I found engrossing was the way the theatre scene worked and functioned. I would have absolutely no idea if it exists the way as described in this book today (adjusted for present times of course) but in the 1940’s it seemed almost an exercise in futility, trying to make it as an actress, writer or even producer. Trying to find that next big hit that would make everyone a star in their respective fields was extremely difficult. For every success (even a mild one at that) there were a large number of flops to be endured. The Theatre Guild, to which Helen was often attached, endured 16 straight flops before they struck gold with a, as described, wholesome american folk opera. We know it as Oklahoma! The lack of stability that this life represented was not something that I could have tolerated so I am in admiration of Helen as she stuck with it.
And there were hard times. Ending up on the street in tears at 3am after fleeing a freezing, leaking, rodent and insect infested room certainly didn’t count in her top ten moments I’m sure. Oh, and that room was located in the red light district although this fact was unknown to Helen at the time. Perhaps the fact that she had a stranger knock on her door in the very early hours asking if she was ‘open for business’ might have been a clue. But in true New York fashion she was saved by a passing cabbie who transported her to the safety of a reputable apartment hotel for women.
There is no doubt about it, this book is a lot of fun to read. The stories of Helen’s quest are related to us in humorous chapters that move along at a crisp pace. Things are never dull and there is always something new to learn. The author is very honest about her naivety at that time in her life but she shows, with no immodesty, how she learns the ins and outs of just existing. The chapter in which she talks about the life of an agent is very funny despite being bleak when you look under the hood of what she is saying, but if she harbours any bitterness, she hides it well.
And she is not blind to the irony (is that the right word) of spending many years trying and failing to be a successful playwright only to be asked to write a book which details her many years trying and failing to be a successful playwright. Her failure leads her to the very thing she sought all along.
It is also very interesting to step back and see how all those years of toil and effort lead her in a roundabout way to her TV writing career. You have to stop and remember that TV was a totally new medium and that at that time was in its infancy as a form of mass entertainment so she was, in fact, blazing a new trail for writers in general and certainly female scribes. I think there was enough material and experience for a whole separate book on that period of her life alone.
I really enjoyed this book. I made pretty quick work of it and along the way got a glimpse into a world and way of life that most of us will never know about or experience. Whether it is all entirely in the past is anyone’s guess but if you want to take a trip to bygone New York then I don’t think you could go wrong with this delightful offering.
Rating: 3 Stars
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)