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January’s Child

What J.D. Salinger Wanted By Alistair HighetAlistair Highet is a writer and psychoanalyst living in Connecticut.

From the pages of OP magazine, predecessor of Fine Books & Collections: Rare photos of J.D. Salinger by photographer Johanna Alexandra Jacobi were discovered after Jacobi’s death in 1990. Held at the University of New Hampshire, a selection of these photos was published in the March/April 2004 issue of OP magazine, with the help Jacobi’s daughter-in-law, Beatrice Trum Hunter.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll want to know is where J.D. Salinger was born, what his lousy childhood was like, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

In the first place, that stuff bores me, and, in the second place, old J.D. was as touchy as hell about it. He was nice and all—I’m not saying he wasn’t—but he had practically been a hermit in Cornish, up in New Hampshire, for the last 50 years so he wouldn’t have to explain himself all the time. He would probably have had two hemorrhages if I told you anything too personal about him. He really would have.

He had a lot of dough though. He didn’t used to. He used to be a regular writer. Then in 1951 he published The Catcher in the Rye and it still sells about 250,000 copies a year. Very big deal. It’s all about this character named Holden Caulfield who gets kicked out of some snotty prep school named Pencey. You’ve probably heard of it.

Anyway, old Holden takes the train to New York and checks into a hotel where he thinks he should give some prostitute the time, but she has this green dress and it makes him kind of sad, thinking of her buying that green dress and the snotty clerk at the counter at the store where she bought it not knowing what she was going to do with it. Then he goes to see the Lunts in some really sophisticated goddam Broadway show, along with old Sally Hayes, who is the biggest phony you ever saw. Then he gets plastered. He really does.

Anyway, then he has some kind of nervous breakdown, because nobody can tell him where the ducks go in the winter, and his little sister Phoebe has to rescue him at the carousel in Central Park.

That Holden, all he wanted to do was stand at the edge of a cliff and catch all the little kids before they fall of the edge, and that isn’t a very realistic ambition in life when you stop to think about it. But it is a pretty good book though, it really is.

What really knocks me out about it is that when you are done with it, you wish that J.D. was a terrific friend of yours and you could just call him up whenever you felt like it.

But after the book came out then everybody wanted to just call him up whenever they felt like it. He told them he wanted his privacy but they wouldn’t leave him alone. People never listen when you tell them stuff like that.

Take that prince of a writer Ian Hamilton, for instance. In 1986 old J.D. had to practically come out of hiding to stop him from publishing a bunch of stuff from his personal letters in some dopey biography: “Speaking (as you may have gathered) from rather unspeakably bitter experience … I do feel I must tell you, for what little it may be worth, that I think I’ve borne all the exploitation and loss of privacy I can possibly bear in a single lifetime,” J.D. wrote to the guy. Then he actually sued this Hamilton and the publisher, and the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with him.

But that didn’t stop Hamilton and his hotshot publishers. In 1988 they came out with a book called In Search of J.D. Salinger—boy, what a title, what a sparkling imagination—which is a pretty lousy book if you want to know the truth. But you take a guy like that prince Hamilton, you can tell them a thousand times to leave you alone and they won’t take a hint. That kind of thing drives me crazy, it really does.

Anyway, I guess I can tell you that Jerome David Salinger was born on New Year’s Day in 1919, the only son of Sol, a Jewish importer of gourmet foods, and Miriam, his Scotch-Irish chain-smoking and adoring mother, and that he grew up in those apartments in New York where everyone has the right kind of luggage, and all of them are some kind of corporate attorneys who make a lot of dough and talk about how many miles they get to the gallon. Then he flunked out of the McBurney School and went off to Valley Forge Military Academy, and then Ursinus College in Pennsylvania for a year before he dropped out. You may not of heard of it, but Ursinus has a pretty good reputation. It really does.

Then he wrote a bunch of stories and lived in his parents’ apartment and smoked cigarettes—like he was the goddamed Governor’s son or something—until he was drafted in 1942. He was in the U.S. Counter-Intelligence Corps and landed at Utah Beach, with his typewriter. “You never saw 6-feet-2 of muscle and typewriter ribbon get out of ditch and into a ditch as fast as this baby can,” he wrote to some friend of his.

He had a lousy war though. He was in the Battle of the Bulge and all, and because he was so goddam intelligent he had to interrogate all those Nazis after the war and find out why they did it. I don’t think old J.D. came through the war with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact. I really don’t.

But he was practically the best writer he ever met, if you know what I mean. He wasn’t exactly conceited, but he wasn’t exactly shy either. When he was in Europe during the war he tracked down that big shot Ernest Hemingway. I guess he was his idol or something—boy, does that make me want to puke—and J.D. thought that literary hero stuff would rub off on him, or something corny like that. Old Ernest came to visit J.D. right in the middle of the war and all since Hemingway was so goddam charming he shot the head off a chicken with his Luger to show off. It was kind of disenchanting for J.D. if you want to know the truth. That Hemingway, what a prince.

Anyway, right after the war J.D. married some sweet little German babe named Sylvia, but she dumped him. Then he became a famous writer. After The Catcher in the Rye he moved to New Hampshire and put a big fence around his property. Then he married a little number named Claire Douglas in 1955 and they had a couple of kids and lived in his estate like he was the count of Monte Cristo or something until she left him in 1967. The more she though about J.D., the more depressed she got because his refusal to communicate “endangered her reason.” Boy was she sore. Women, they kill me.

You might think that he stopped talking to people but that’s not true. He hadn’t published a book since Seymour—An Introduction in 1963, but it isn’t as if he gave up writing or anything, he just didn’t send it to publishers, who are a bunch of phonies anyway if you ask me. He liked to travel and he had his kids and another wife, or so I hear. The people in Cornish weren’t exactly stupid either. They knew who he was, and all. They just wouldn’t tell you where to find him.

He did some pretty crazy things. He really did. Once in the 1980s he went to Florida, to Jacksonville, to see some television actress named Elaine Joyce perform in some corny revue. He told a bunch of reporters in a written statement that when they were growing up she had carried his schoolbooks for him, which is a total lie. Boy, did he start chucking the old crap around. He was such a liar, no kidding. Once he got started, he couldn’t stop. But boy did it fascinate the hell out of them.

There are other people who went to find him up there all the time, and you could probably have found him too if you really wanted to, but he wouldn’t have been overjoyed to see you or anything. He wanted to be alone. He really did.

©2010 Alistair Highet. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission of the author.

Alistair Highet is a writer and psychoanalyst living in Connecticut.