Jerome David Salinger vies with Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes for the title of world's most famous recluse.
The author of The Catcher in the Rye, the bible for four generations of disaffected youth, turned his back on the public in 1953, two years after the novel's publication, and ceased offering his work for publication in 1965.
His shunning of public attention acted as a goad to the media, who tended to see him as a burn-out. But it made him a legendary, heroic figure among his millions of readers – a writer of integrity shunning public attention for the sake of his art. Over his almost 50 years of silence rumours abounded about him and he was besieged in his home by obsessive journalists and fans alike.
In 1986 Ian Hamilton's book In Search of J.D. Salinger lifted the veil a little on an obsessively private man. In 1998 Joyce Maynard tore the veil to shreds with her memoir, At Home With The World, her explicit and vindictive account of their nine-month affair in the early 1970s. In the memoir she presents him not as an artist of integrity but as a cranky, almost paranoid misanthrope, a manipulator of impressionable young women.
Salinger was born on New Year's Day 1919 in New York, the son of Sol Salinger, a wealthy Jewish cheese importer, and his Scottish-Irish wife, Marie. He had an older sister, Doris. He attended various public grammar schools before his father sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania in 1934, at the age of 15. Salinger began his writing career there. His main interest at the time, however, was acting.
He left Valley Forge in 1936 and went briefly to New York University but dropped out in 1937 to try his luck as an actor. His father took him to Poland in the hope of interesting him in the meat-importing business. Salinger wasn't impressed. Instead he went to live in Vienna for eight months.
On his return he went to Ursinus University in Pennsylvania. He did not shine in English, although he wrote for the student magazine. He left after one semester. He spent a little time as a dance partner for hire on a cruise liner in the West Indies.
Later he enrolled in an evening class on short story writing at Columbia University. It was run by the founder/editor of Story magazine and in 1941 the magazine published Salinger's first story. He was 21.
In the same year he began writing The Catcher in the Rye. He also got a new girlfriend – Oona O'Neill, the 16-year-old daughter of the playwright Eugene O'Neill. The relationship didn't last long. In 1942, aged 23, Salinger was drafted into the Signal Corps. Oona, an aspiring actress, had an audition with Charlie Chaplin for a projected feature film. (The film was never made.) The year after, by which time Salinger was being trained in Maryland as an intelligence agent, she married Chaplin. Salinger sent Oona a series of "nasty" letters which later figured in the injunction Salinger took out to prevent Ian Hamilton publishing his biography.
His military training over, Salinger was attached to the Fourth Army Division in Devon. With them he took part in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Second World War, from the D-Day Landing in 1944 on Utah Beach to the battle for Luxembourg. As an intelligence agent, and given the fluent German he had learned during his pre-war stay in Vienna, he would most probably have been involved in the interrogation of senior Nazi personnel.
At some stage while in Europe he met Ernest Hemingway in Paris. There is a story that at a second meeting Hemingway settled a disagreement they were having about the relative merits of the German Luger or the US .45 handguns by shooting the head off a chicken.
In Nuremberg in 1945 Salinger had a nervous breakdown and was taken to hospital. He recovered, and in September that year married a Frenchwoman, Sylvia. On getting his discharge (unrelated to his breakdown) he stayed on in Europe to work for six months as a civilian with the US government and at the end of the contract he took Sylvia back to New York. She didn't like America and soon returned home. Later in 1946 they were divorced.
Salinger resumed his writing career. His short stories were appearing in various publications, including the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. Most were based on his experiences in the army but some later formed episodes in The Catcher in the Rye.
For the past eight years The New Yorker had rejected any story Salinger submitted but in 1948 the prestigious literary magazine accepted "A Perfect Day for Bananafish", which introduced readers to Seymour Glass and the Glass family, the focus of most of Salinger's subsequent writing. Vladimir Nabokov was apparently in awe of the Bananafish story.
The New Yorker became Salinger's main outlet for stories. Some critics think that the magazine influenced Salinger's style, making him a better writer; others that it fostered his talent simply by allowing him to write pretty much what he wanted.
Also in 1948 Salinger made some money by selling to Darryl Zanuck the film rights for his New Yorker short story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut". Renamed My Foolish Heart, the sentimental movie based on the story was released in 1949. Its lead actress Susan Hayward was nominated for an Oscar and the title song won one, but Salinger hated it. Perhaps that is why when the film and theatre director Elia Kazan later asked if he could adapt The Catcher in the Rye for Broadway, Salinger refused, on the grounds that "Holden wouldn't approve."
At the start of the Fifties Salinger was well-known in New York literary circles, going to clubs in Greenwich Village, playing poker with writers and editors and lunching with fellow New Yorker writers such as S.J. Perelman. But he was also becoming difficult, insisting that the magazines that published his stories change not a single word. He took back The Catcher in the Rye from Harcourt Brace, who had agreed to publish it, when they asked for rewrites.
The novel was published by Little, Brown in 1951. It was a Book of the Month choice and an immediate international success. Sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield's idiomatic, non-literary first person account of running away from private school to New York, where he looks for sincerity, pours scorn on all "phonies" and loses his virginity, struck a chord with young readers everywhere.
It has continued to do so. The Catcher in the Rye has sold over 60 million copies, still sells some quarter of a million copies each year, and is on the curriculum of most US and UK schools.
Yet Salinger was prickly about promoting the book. He refused to do any publicity, didn't want it sent to reviewers and insisted his photograph be taken off its back cover. He left America for England for two months upon publication to get out of the way of publicity demands and reviews. The following year he visited Florida and Mexico in the throes of a spiritual crisis. He was increasingly drawn to Eastern philosophy, both to Hinduism and Zen Buddhism with its promulgation of the abandonment of the ego.
That is generally the reason given for his decision to quit New York on his 34th birthday, 1 January 1953, for the hamlet of Cornish, New Hampshire. He bought a 90-acre plot of land on a hilltop and moved into a cottage on the site that was without running water, electricity or a telephone.
In his first months in Cornish, however, he was by no means reclusive. He socialised with his neighbours and his home was open house to students from the high school in the adjoining town of Windsor, over the county line in Vermont. He would buy them drinks and meals and often have them back to his house.
Since Joyce Maynard, in her memoir, pointed out that as he got older he had a succession of young girlfriends like herself (she was 18, he 53 when they met), Salinger's associations with young people have been looked at suspiciously. His fiction, primarily about young people, has been scrutinised for any indications that he might have been a paedophile. Maynard has not been drawn, although she has said: "It's clear that he has a longing for childlike innocence in a woman. That's not a crime but it's emotional abuse."
His friendship with the young students ended when one of them persuaded him to do an interview with her for the high school page of the local newspaper, The Claremont Daily Eagle. Either the paper or the student sold the interview on to a bigger publication, and Salinger was furious. The next time the students came calling they found his house totally surrounded by a high wall.
The interview wasn't actually very interesting, although when asked if The Catcher in the Rye was autobiographical, Salinger did say: "Sort of, I was much relieved when I finished it. My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book, and it was a great relief telling people about it."
In February 1955, Salinger married for a second time. His 19-year-old bride was Claire Douglas, daughter of a British art critic. He wrote the story Franny and Zooey for her as a wedding present. In December 1955, Claire gave birth to a daughter, Peggy. They later had a son, Matthew, in 1960.
Over the next 10 years Salinger published little. His second book, Nine Stories, had been published in 1953 (in Britain under the title For Esmé – with Love and Squalor, and Other Stories). All but one of the pieces had already been published in The New Yorker. In 1961 he published Franny and Zooey, comprising two long stories about sister and brother Franny and Zooey Glass. It went to No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list but Mary McCarthy was harsh, praising him as a ventriloquist, "adept at snappy dialogue but devoid of ideas".
The Glass family remained the focus of the rest of his small output. In 1963 Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction contained two more long stories about them. It too went to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
In 1965 Salinger published his last story. Hapworth 16, 1924 took up much of the 19 June edition of The New Yorker. In it Seymour, a precocious seven-year-old, writes a letter from camp about himself and his brother Buddy, the narrator of the Bananafish story in which Seymour kills himself.
After that, almost complete silence. One view is that Salinger's deepening interest in Eastern philosophy – evident in the stories he had been publishing – meant that while he might still write, his ego didn't require publication. Another view is that he was hurt and angered by the criticism he received from some heavyweight literary figures. In addition to Mary McCarthy's comments, Norman Mailer said that Salinger was the smartest mind to stay in prep school and John Updike devastatingly summed up the Glass family stories: "Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation."
Joyce Maynard's memoir provides a detailed account of Salinger in the year in which she knew him – 1972-73. He had divorced Claire Douglas in 1967 and lived alone in the cottage in Cornish. Maynard, a Yale student, was one of a string of young women he had fleeting affairs with. She came to his attention through a cover story she wrote for the New York Times magazine "An 18-year-old looks back on her life." He wrote to her on 25 April 1972 praising her writing, warning her about the exploitation he had suffered and wishing her well. The correspondence continued and it wasn't long before she had moved in with him. He ended the affair in March 1973.
At the time she knew him, he was on a diet that seemed to be a distortion of veganism – uncooked food wherever possible, primarily peas, nuts and fruit. If he was obliged to have a pizza with his son, he would vomit it up afterwards. He was a fervent believer in homeopathy. His lifestyle was simple and he watched a lot of junk television, a particular favourite being re-runs of I Love Lucy. According to Maynard, he hated literary prizes, literary reviews and New York City intellectuals. He told her that there is "nothing remotely enjoyable about the life of a writer ... A writer's face should never be known." Nevertheless, he was writing every day in a concrete bunker at the bottom of his garden, and Maynard saw two completed novels he kept in a big safe.
In 1974 Salinger made a rare approach to the media. He was prompted to do so by the appearance of a bootleg two-volume collection of his uncollected short stories from his early magazine writing days. He called The New York Times to express his anger at the publication.
The Catcher in the Rye, a blueprint for adolescent angst, attracted more than its share of obsessive admirers. (Mark Chapman had the book in his pocket when he killed John Lennon.) Rare comments from Salinger in public tantalised the legion of fans and ambitious journalists and photographers. The more determined Salinger was to remain reclusive, the more determined others were to get to him. Over the years Cornish had a steady stream of visitors hoping to meet him. Over the years, too, rumours spread about him. He was said to have written a series of pseudonymous newspaper letters and to be Thomas Pynchon, another elusive literary figure.
In the late 1970s Colleen O'Neill, later to be his third wife, moved in with him. In an interview, Maynard identified her as a woman who had been the au pair of "a New York writer". According to this writer, Colleen, age 21, was bombarded with letters from Salinger after she met him on a bus. Another story has it that she used to run the Cornish town fair.
Salinger's reclusiveness inspired Shoeless Joe, the P. Kinsella novel filmed as Field of Dreams in which Kevin Costner's character kidnaps a black writer, Terrence Man, "to ease his pain". In the novel the kidnapped writer is J.D. Salinger. A snatched photograph of Salinger in which he looks hunted and frightened inspired Don DeLillo to write Mao II, about a reclusive writer and the terror of celebrity.
Salinger was forced to break cover again in the Eighties when Ian Hamilton attempted to publish his critical biography of Salinger. Salinger went all the way through the court system to block publication and Hamilton's book came out eventually in an entirely different form, as an account of his troubles getting the biography written and published.
For the next decade Salinger maintained his silence, going about his business in Cornish in blue mechanics overalls, eating in the kitchen of restaurants if he ate out at all, driving around in an old jeep with curtains at the windows. One or two friends let it be known that he was still writing every day and there was speculation that his big safe could contain up to a dozen completed manuscripts. The assumption was that they were all about the Glass family.
In 1998 a new bootleg copy of the 22 uncollected stories began to appear across America at garage sales, flea markets and independent bookshops. In the same year, Salinger's long-defended privacy was violated by Maynard's memoir, interpreted by most critics as her long-delayed revenge on him for dumping her. Like Hamilton before her, she was unable to quote from his letters – she had, of course, still got those he had written to her at the start of the Seventies – but she described what was in them in detail.
The following year, in what was seen by some as a further act of vindictiveness, she put the letters up for sale, claiming that as a divorced mother she needed the money to put her children through college. (She was by now a bestselling author, whose novels include To Die For (1995), the film version of which starred Nicole Kidman.)
A wealthy philanthropist bought them to return them to Salinger. Salinger meanwhile was fighting to control the proliferation of websites devoted to him and his novels, forbidding any of them to quote from his work. The internet allowed the wilder theories about him to flourish. Another biography came out in 1999, by Paul Alexander, rehearsing again the little that was known about Salinger, and much that was surmised, and airing the paedophilia thesis again.
Salinger maintained silence to the end. Gore Vidal said once that his enigmatic exile lent his work a seriousness it didn't deserve. Certainly The Catcher in the Rye is not a masterpiece to compare with the great works of 20th-century American fiction by writers such as Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Bellow or Heller. But it remains one of the most influential and popular books of the 20th century.
Salinger's unpublished manuscripts comprise a remarkable literary heritage that, if they are ever published, could establish him as a giant of modern literature. Then again, if Updike's judgement is correct – and many critics share it – they could be a major disappointment. In 1992 there was a fire on Salinger's estate. The manuscripts may not have survived. It would be in keeping with Salinger's strange, enigmatic life if we never know what he achieved in the long years of silence.
Jerome David Salinger, writer: born New York 1 January 1919; married first 1945 Sylvia Welter (divorced 1946), 1955 Claire Douglas (divorced 1967; one son, one daughter), third Colleen O'Neill; died Cornish, New Hampshire 27 January 2010.
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