At one point during the more than half century of our friendship, J. D. Salinger told me he had an idea that someday, when “all the fiction had run out,” he might try to do something straight, “really factual, formally distinguishing myself from the Glass boys and Holden Caulfield and the other first-person narrators I’ve used.” It might be readable, maybe funny, he said, and “not just smell like a regular autobiography.” The main thing was that he would use straight facts and “thereby put off or stymie one or two vultures—freelancers or English-department scavengers—who might come around and bother the children and the family before the body is even cold.”
A single straight fact is that Salinger was one of a kind. His writing was his and his alone, and his way of life was only what he chose to follow. He never gave an inch to anything that came to him with what he called a “smell.” The older and crankier he got, the more convinced he was that in the end all writers get pretty much what’s coming to them: the destructive praise and flattery, the killing attention and appreciation. The trouble with all of us, he believed, is that when we were young we never knew anybody who could or would tell us any of the penalties of making it in the world on the usual terms: “I don’t mean just the pretty obvious penalties, I mean the ones that are just about unnoticeable and that do really lasting damage, the kind the world doesn’t even think of as damage.” He talked about how easily writers could become vain, complaining that they got puffed up by the same “authorities” who approved putting monosodium glutamate in baby food.
When he had young children, and was living in Cornish, New Hampshire, he did the usual things. But he was always watching. Once, he showed me a program for the Cornish Fair. It’s innocent enough, and that’s something, he said, but even the fair was guilty of its own style of hustling. He took his children to ride on the flying swings. “I stand around and talk about schools with the other crummy parents, the summer parents,” he wrote in a letter to me. Getting back to work, he said, was “the only way I’ve ever been able to take the awful conventional world. I think I despise every school and college in the world, but the ones with the best reputation first.”
He loved children with no holds barred, but never with the sentimental fakery of admiring their “purity.” After watching his son, Matthew, playing one day, he said, “If your child likes—loves—you, the very love he bears you tears your heart out about once a day or once every other day.” He said, “I started writing and making up characters in the first place because nothing or not much away from the typewriter was reaching my heart at all.”
When I adopted my son, Erik, Jerry was almost as exuberant as I was. Unbelievable, stupendous, he said of one picture I sent: “He’s roaring with laughter. Oh, if he can only hold on to it.”
When he read a story of mine about kids skipping around a Maypole in Central Park, he wrote to me, “The first and last thing you’ve done is to redeem everything, not just make everything bearable.” He liked the way the bystanders were described, noting that they’d been given “their true and everlasting unimportance.”
Salinger was generous with writers he admired, but he was unsparing about those who had what he called “disguises.” He was hard on Kenneth Tynan. “No matter how he stuffs his readers with verbiage, it never amounts to a core of truth,” he said. Tynan bent too much to current hip opinion, he thought. “A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing,” he said. “It takes me at least an hour to warm up when I sit down to work. . . . Just taking off my own disguises takes an hour or more.” He said he’d never “had the annoyance” of meeting Truman Capote, who apparently sicced various “crazy people” on him, people who all closed their letters by saying that Truman sent his best regards.
Emerson was a touchstone, and Salinger often quoted him in letters. For instance, “A man must have aunts and cousins, must buy carrots and turnips, must have barn and woodshed, must go to market and to the blacksmith’s shop, must saunter and sleep and be inferior and silly.” Writers, he thought, had trouble abiding by that, and he referred to Flaubert and Kafka as “two other born non-buyers of carrots and turnips.”
Over the years, Salinger told me about working “long and crazy hours” at his writing and trying to stay away from everything that was written about him. He didn’t care about reviews, he said, but “the side effects” bothered him. “There are no writers anymore,” he said once. “Only book-selling louts and big mouths.”
He liked living in New Hampshire, but he often found fun and relief by coming down to New York to have supper with me and Bill Shawn, this magazine’s editor for many years. In a note he sent after the three of us got together for the last time, he wrote, “It will set me up for months. I was at peace.” Another time he described the fun he’d had on a trip to London with his children, where he took them to see Engelbert Humperdinck in a stage version of “Robinson Crusoe”: “Awful, but we all sort of enjoyed it, and the main idea was to see the Palladium itself, because that’s where the last scene of ‘The 39 Steps’ was set.”
Salinger loved movies, and he was more fun than anyone to discuss them with. He enjoyed watching actors work, and he enjoyed knowing them. (He loved Anne Bancroft, hated Audrey Hepburn, and said that he had seen “Grand Illusion” ten times.) Brigitte Bardot once wanted to buy the rights to “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” and he said that it was uplifting news. “I mean it,” he told me. “She’s a cute, talented, lost enfante, and I’m tempted to accommodate her, pour le sport.”
He was original even in the way he found his pleasures. He told me that one day he went out and bought an iron, and had his housekeeper iron his shirts. “How it cheered me up,” he said. After he bought a Maytag washer and dryer, he was tickled that the salesman quoted Ruskin to him—something about where quality counts, price doesn’t. He was sure that the line wasn’t part of the man’s spiel. “God, how I still love private readers,” he wrote. “It’s what we all used to be.”