Dear Mr Salinger, take back your love letters

The unknown Peter Norton has shot to fame for protecting JD Salinger's anonymity.
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The Independent Culture
WE KNOW little about Peter Norton, a retired computer software entrepreneur turned philanthropist with a mansion in Santa Monica, California, and money to spend. Perhaps that is because he is a man who values his privacy. Privacy, - we learn - was at the heart of his latest purchase which, ironically, has propelled his name into newspaper headlines around the United States.

On Tuesday, Mr Norton extended afavour to a man who has come to embody self-insulation from the glare of the outside world. That man is JD Salinger, who has not published a word since 1965 and, more famously still, has cocooned himself in obsessive seclusion in his New Hampshire home for several decades. Tuesday was set to be a dark day for Salinger, known by every schoolboy in the West for his portrait of Holden Caulfield, the adolescent protagonist of Catcher in the Rye.

Collectors and journalists gathered at Sotheby's auction rooms in New York to witness the sale by a former lover of the author, Joyce Maynard, of 14 notes and love letters he had written to her in 1972 and 1973, some of them while the two of them were engaged in a passionate, though non- physical, affair.

The sale had attracted controversy. Ms Maynard, who was just 18 at the time of the affair, has been roundly vilified for putting the letters on the block.

It was, her critics declared, a selfish act that violated a trust made even more sacred because of Salinger's well-known fixation with snubbing the world. She was, they said, exploiting the relationship of a quarter a century ago merely for financial gain.

The gavel was duly dropped and the letters, some typed, others hand- written, were snaffled by someone - Sotheby's at first would not say who - for the sum of $156,500, more than twice the estimates put on them by the auction house. Sotheby's would only say that the absent bidder was a private collector, and the letters would remain in America in a "happy home".

It was an hour later that the true story began to emerge: the sale is a case of return to sender. The buyer, who had left an upper limit on what he was willing to spend with Sotheby's, was named as Peter Norton.

And there was a statement too: he intended doing with the letters whatever Salinger wanted him to do. He would return them to him, keep them himself under lock and key, or - if the author liked - burn them.

Not an ungenerous gesture this, considering that Mr Norton does not know the 80-year-old author who lives on the other side of the country, in New England. Indeed, even today we are still not sure whether the two have talked or what Salinger's decision will be.

"I share the widely expressed opinion that the work should be bought by someone sympathetic to Mr Salinger's desire to for privacy," the statement explained. "I plan to return the letters to Mr Salinger or do whatever Mr Salinger lets me know he wants done with them."

Mr Norton, one assumes, had been reading the reports filled with opprobrium that have been written about Ms Maynard ever since plans for the sale were made public last month. Perhaps he saw Maureen Dowd, of The New York Times, dismissing Ms Maynard as a leech, or the writer who took her to task two weeks ago in the National Review, saying she was an "opportunistic one-time nymphet". That might have done it.

Still, by any standards, helping Salinger to close the circle on the whole affair is one of the odder acts of philanthropy.

The money comes from the sale in 1990 of Mr Norton's software business, Norton Utilities software, to the Symantec Corporation. The company's main money-makers were anti-virus programmes and UnErase, which allows PC owners to retrieve material accidentally deleted.

Little is known about where else Mr Norton has been spending his money. In 1995, however, his name came to light as the underwriter of an unusual exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, entitled "Black Male: Representation of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art".

So, thanks to this gentleman in Santa Monica, all appears to have ended happily. He has done his good deed and, who knows, may end up keeping letters that amount to the first words we have heard from Salinger in decades.

The author has the chance to recover them and Ms Maynard emerges with the money, which, she has let it be known, she needs to pay for the further education of two children from her subsequent failed marriage.

She nonetheless has her reputation to recover. On the eve of the auction, she penned a statement defending herself, pointing out that in recent years she has found other women who were similarly seduced by Salinger when they also were of tender years. (Adolescence was his field of interest after all.)

She also came to realise that while he had first contacted her, then a budding a writer, to warn her against outside exploitation, it was actually he who had set about exploiting her.

"My decision to sell these letters is not some kind of act of retribution,"

she wrote. "It's a decision that's grounded in practical realities."