15 Revelations from New J.D. Salinger Biography
On Tuesday, Simon & Schuster will publish Salinger, an oral history about the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and dozens of other stories and novellas. Three days later, on Sept. 6, a documentary of the same name by screenwriter Shane Salerno (Savages, Armageddon) will debut in theaters.
There have been several accounts of J.D. Salinger’s life and work published over the past few decades, including titillating memoirs by his daughter, Margaret, and his former teenage paramour, Joyce Maynard.
But by conducting more than 200 interviews over nine years, many of them with individuals who had previously refused to speak on the record; by compiling more than 175 photographs, including dozens that have never been seen before; and by combing through diaries, legal records, private documents and lost Salinger letters, Salerno and the book’s co-author, David Shields, seem to have created the most extensive portrait yet of a writer who spent nearly 60 years doing everything in his power to avoid precisely this kind of exposure.
As such, Salinger is full of fascinating revelations. Here are 15 that everyone should be talking about.
1. There’s More Salinger to Come
For the last 45 years of his life—from June 12, 1965, the day that “Hapworth 16, 1924” appeared in The New Yorker, until Jan. 10, 2010, the day he died—Salinger did not publish a single story or novel.
But according to Salerno and Shields, who cite “two independent and separate sources,” five new or retooled works of fiction will be released in irregular installments between 2015 and 2020: The Family Glass, which “collects all the existing stories about the Glass family together with five new stories that significantly extend the world of Salinger’s fictional family”; a “manual” of Vedanta, the Hindu religious philosophy to which Salinger adhered for much of his adult life, with “short stories, almost fables, woven into the text”; a World War II novel based on Salinger’s short first marriage to a German woman; a World War II novella that “takes the form of a counterintelligence agent’s diaries … culminating in the Holocaust”; and “a complete retooling of Salinger’s unpublished 12-page 1942 story 'The Last and Best of the Peter Pans'” that will be collected with the rest of his Caulfield material, including The Catcher in the Rye, to create a complete history of Salinger’s other fictional family.
There are hints in Salinger that, after 1965, the author submitted at least some of this material to The New Yorker. Truman Capote once told biographer Lawrence Grobel that “he knew on good authority that Salinger… had already written five or six novellas, and that The New Yorker had rejected all of them”; writer Phoebe Hoban says, “I’ve heard [William] Shawn turned down at least one manuscript was he was still editor.” But former New Yorker fiction editor Roger Angell denies it, and journalist Renata Adler claims that Salinger gave her a different explanation. “He said that the reason he chose not to publish the material he had been working on,” she tells Salerno and Shields, “was to spare [the famously prudish] Mr. Shawn the burden having to read, and to decide whether to publish, Salinger writing about sex.” So at least the new Salinger books will be saucy.
Speaking of …
2. Salinger Was Born With a Single Testicle
At one point, Salinger called himself as a “condition, not a man.” Based on their research, Salerno and Shields are convinced that the author was referring, at least in part, to the fact that he had been born with only one testicle.
After Pearl Harbor, Salinger tried to enlist in the Army, but he was, as he put it in a letter to his literary mentor, “classified I-B with all the other cripples and faggets [sic].” According to one of his fellow soldiers, however—Salinger later volunteered for a counterintelligence position and went on to serve in Europe—the author once told his hero Ernest Hemingway “that he didn’t think the army would take him… [because] he had only one testicle.” Salerno and Shields write that they initially dismissed the assertion, but “two women independently confirmed that Salinger had this physical deformity, about which, one of them said, he was ‘incredibly embarrassed and frustrated … It was a big deal to him.’”
The biographers go on to theorize that “surely one of the many reasons [Salinger] stayed out of the media glare was to reduce the likelihood that this information about his anatomy would emerge.” They also claim that it inspired him to “embrac[e] Eastern religions that endorsed chastity.”
At the very least, Salinger’s congenital abnormality may have contributed to the fact that …
3. Salinger Had a Thing for Much Younger Women
The contours of Salinger’s attraction to girls on the cusp of womanhood have been detailed before. But Salerno and Shields’s account is the most comprehensive yet. After losing the gorgeous young debutante Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, to Charlie Chaplin in 1943, Salinger seems to have spent the rest of his life fixated on girls who were approximately the same age as Oona was at the time: 17 going on 18. He would begin epistolary romances with undergraduate writers he’d read in the newspaper (Maynard); he would call up gamine actresses he’d seen on TV. He even had a pickup line, according to biographer Paul Alexander: “I’m J.D. Salinger and I wrote The Catcher in the Rye.” Unsurprisingly these come-ons seemed to work.
They certainly did with Jean Miller, the young girl who inspired Salinger’s classic story, “For Esme—With Love and Squalor.” In the early 1960s, a Time magazine reporter interviewed a woman, identified in his unpublished file as “J,” who was alleged to have had an affair with Salinger when she was 16 or 17 years old. “J” denied the affair at the time, but decades later, Salerno and Shields tracked her down—and, after “a number of conversations over many months,” convinced her to talk.
It turns out that Jean Miller was only 14 when she first got involved with Salinger. “Jerry Salinger listened like you were the most important person in the world,” Miller says in the book. “I felt very free with him.” At first, Salinger and Miller would just walk and talk, first in Florida, then in New York, and later at his compound in Cornish, N.H. Years later, when Miller was 20, they finally had sex—an encounter that Miller initiated. The next day Salinger dismissed her forever. “I think he was enjoying me being a child all those years,” Miller says in the book. “I knew it was over. I knew I had fallen off that pedestal.”
Salinger’s relationships always followed the same pattern, according to Salerno and Shields. They said "he was drawn to very young, sexually inexperienced girls whom he knew he was unlikely to become intimate with, or if they did become sexual partners, they were unlikely to have enough experience with male anatomy to judge him. He almost always backed away from his lover immediately after the consummation of the relationship, thereby avoiding rejection.”
But young wasn’t enough; Salinger’s lovers also had to look the part. Once, Salinger flew to Edinburgh to meet a girl to whom he’d sent “over a hundred pages of letters.” But she was ”very tall and big-boned and kind of awkward”—not the Lolita he’d imagined—so he turned right around and left.
That said, even when Salinger liked a girl …
4. Salinger Wasn’t Particularly Smooth in Bed
According to Salerno and Shields, Salinger “never consummated his relationship with Oona O’Neill, Jean Miller had to throw herself at him to get him to respond, and Leila Hadley Luce describes her dates with Salinger as Platonic.”
With Joyce Maynard, the usual routine just wouldn’t work. “I couldn’t do it,” Maynard tells Salerno and Shields. “I couldn’t do it. The muscles of my vagina simply clamped shut and would not release. After a few minutes we stopped.” Salinger eventually took Maynard to a homeopathic specialist in Florida; the same day he announced “I can’t do this anymore,” and their relationship was over.
With his second wife, Claire Douglas, sex of any sort was rare. “We did not make love very often,” Douglas once told her daughter, Margaret. “The body was evil.” Douglas attributes at least some of Salinger’s reticence to his religious beliefs. But according to biographer Paul Alexander, the problem was that Salinger’s view of Claire changed after she gave birth: “Before that, she had been very much the image of the late teens, early twenties woman he was initially fascinated by. Now she was a mature woman.”
And yet …
5. Salinger Was Quite the Charmer… at Least on Paper
In 1999, Joyce Maynard sold her letters from Salinger at auction; they were purchased by a software millionaire and given back to Salinger. Salerno and Shields have obtained them and published excerpts. What comes through in the letters, more than anything else, is the chummy, clever, seductive force of Salinger’s voice—which remained remarkably Holden Caulfieldesque even in 1972, a decade after he penned his last published story.
“A few unsolicited words in strictest privacy, if you can bear it, from a countryman, of sorts, one who is not only an equally half-and-half right-handed New Hampshire resident but, even more rare and exciting, perhaps the last active Mouseketeer east of the White House,” Salinger writes. “I’ve spent a great part of my life in grave and increasingly sad doubt about almost every value I’ve ever had a good, long look at. My little conclusions about this and that sometimes almost sound wise to me, even, but I’m not really taken in, because I really and truly haven’t the character, the strength of character, to be wise.”
6. Salinger Married a Gestapo Informant Even Though He Was Half-Jewish
According to Salerno and Shields, it was Salinger who broke up with his first wife, the half-German, half-French Sylvia Welter, and not vice versa, as previously reported; he left an airline ticket back to Germany on her breakfast plate. The reason? She was allegedly a Gestapo informant.
The evidence here is speculative. To support their case, Salerno and Shields have obtained a copy of the official annulment, which accuses the defendant, Welter, of “bad intentions” and “false representations.” They have included a comment from Salinger friend Leila Hadley Luce in which Luce claims that Salinger had “found out some disturbing things about what [Welter] did in the war, specifically with the Gestapo. And they have commissioned a new investigation by consultant Eberhard Alsen, who uncovered “strange facts about Sylvia’s life that suggest she might have been a Gestapo informant.” Incidentally, Salinger’s parents—his Jewish father and converted mother—were convinced at the time that Welter was an anti-Semite.
7. Salinger Wasn’t As Anti-Hollywood As Previously Reported
In 1949, Sam Goldwyn made “My Foolish Heart”—an adaptation of Salinger’s story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” Salinger hated it, and swore never to cooperate with Hollywood again. Or so the story goes.
But according to Salerno and Shields, the conventional wisdom isn’t true. As late as 1957, Salinger’s agent H.N. Swanson was submitting Salinger’s work to Hollywood producers; the biographers reproduce a rejection letter for “The Laughing Man” as evidence. And later, in the late 1960s, Salinger agreed to let producer-director-writer Peter Tewksbury adapt “For Esme—With Love and Squalor” for the screen, but Tewksbury eventually backed out when Salinger insisted that the daughter of writer Peter De Vries play the title role. “She’s too old,” Tewksbury said. “She is past that delicate moment that makes the miracle of Esme… I would be destroying the beauty of Salinger’s work, and I won’t do that.”
In fact, Salinger spent his last, reclusive decades in his Cornish, N.H. living room, screening Lost Horizon and other classics. He was such a film fan that…
8. Salinger Wanted to Play Holden Caulfield Himself
“He said that the only person who could ever play Holden Caulfield was himself,” Joyce Maynard tells Salerno and Shields. “But even he acknowledged he was too old for that—although, in some ways, he was playing Holden Caulfield forever.”
9. Salinger Wanted to Give His Daughter a Dirty Name
Frustrated by her souring relationship with Salinger, Maynard fixated on the idea of having a daughter. “How this child was to be conceived I can’t imagine because nothing was happening that would have made that possible,” she says, “although we actually had a name for this child.”
The name came to Salinger in a dream: “‘Bint’—the little girl was always referred to as ‘Bint.’”
Later, after Maynard published her memoir, she received a letter from a British scholar. “Do you know what the word ‘Bint’ actually means?” he wrote. “It’s a word that means ‘whore,’ worse than ‘wench’: it’s a very ugly word for a woman.”
10. Salinger Could Be a Pleasant Neighbor—Except When He Wasn’t
Late in the book, Salerno and Shields reprint a short story by Edward Jackson Bennett, the publisher of the Claremont (N.H.) Daily Eagle, about bumping into Salinger one Sunday afternoon in 1968. Bennett, newly divorced, has mixed himself a pitcher of martinis. He is sitting in the sunshine. Salinger, now a full-fledge recluse, saunters by.
“Come up and have a martini,” Bennett says. Salinger does. “We made no introductions, nor were names exchanged,” Bennett writes. “Instead we chatted about the hard winter, the birds, and whether or not we’d be planting peas this May in the upland country.” As Salinger rises to leave, Bennett tells him they have something in common—their divorces were granted at precisely the same time. A smile creases Salinger’s face. “You have a point there,” he says, “and perhaps we share other similarities, too. Thanks for the drink.”
Still, every warm moment in the book is undermined by five or six instances of chilly behavior. A few pages later, for example, Ethel Nelson, formerly the Salingers’ nanny, relates a less neighborly tale. “I said, ‘Jerry, we’re here for the Red Cross drive,” Nelson tells Salerno and Shields. “‘You always give to it. He said, ‘You take more steps toward me and I’m going to shoot at the ground right in front of you.’ He had his gun in his hand. He did not want people trespassing on his land. He said, ‘You wait a minute. I’ll go in and write a check and throw it down to you.’ That’s how distrusting of people he had become.”
11. Even the Local Kids Wouldn’t Leave Salinger Alone
The book is very clear about Salinger’s desire for absolute privacy; the writer stopped considering himself a public figure around 1953 and came to resent all the reporters, photographers, and fans who materialized on his doorstep in subsequent decades. When Salinger first moved to Cornish, he tried to befriend a group of local teenagers, but one of them betrayed him by publishing an article in the local paper. Years later, he still couldn’t fit in. “A number of high school kids devised this elaborate plan,” according to literary agent Catherine Crawford. “They actually threw one of their friends out of a car. They drove by [Salinger’s] house, and they covered the kid in ketchup to make him look bloody. [He was] moaning, rolling around. Salinger came to the window, took one look and knew it was fake, so he shut the blinds and went back to work.”
12. Still, Salinger Wasn’t a Total Hermit
Salinger was reclusive, but Salerno and Shields also make it clear that he wasn’t a total hermit. At one point, he shows up at the center of London society—sharing drinks with a Vogue model he met on a ship; partying with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh; accidentally snorting gin up his nose with Australian ballet dancer Robert Helpmann; arguing with Enid Starkie about Kafka. At another point, Salinger mysteriously appears, in 1966, on the Long Island set of Reflections in a Golden Eye. Even after Salinger had decamped to Cornish, he loved to lunch with William Shawn and Lillian Ross at the Algonquin in New York. (“It will set me up for months,” Salinger wrote to Ross after one of their gatherings. “I was at peace.”) Back in New Hampshire, Salinger liked to watch the horses at the county fair, take in Dartmouth basketball games, and eat spinach and mushroom wraps at a cafe in Windsor, Vermont.
13. Salinger Was Not, However, the Greatest Date
This is how Leila Hadley Luce describes Salinger’s courting style: “Even when he spoke, he was not easy to talk with because if it was raining and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t mind, I like to walk in the rain,’ he’d say, ‘Oh my goodness, what a cliché.’ … Every cliché I used, he would say, ‘Oh, that’s a cliché. How can you say that?’ I felt very self-conscious talking with him because he was, of course a perfectionist.” Sounds like fun.
14. Salinger Was Also a Terrible Poker Player
According to editor A.E. Hotchner, Salinger refused to bluff—which jibes, somehow, with Holden Caulfield’s famous aversion to “phonies. “He felt anybody who bluffed was a weenie, as he would say,” Hotchner remembers. “I said, ‘But if you don’t bluff, you’re not going to be a successful poker player.’ I don’t recall Jerry ever winning a round of poker; he was too cautious and suspicious. God knows, Jerry never drew to an inside straight.”
15. It’s Too Late Now, But If You Want Salinger’s Phone Number, It’s in the Book
Really. It’s on the bottom of page 414, right in the middle of his “lost letters” to Joyce Maynard. “Just in case of anything at all,” Salinger writes, “my phone number here is 603-675-5244.” If only the editors of Newsweek had dug up those digits back in 1972.