The Morgan Library in Manhattan has put on display Salinger’s correspondence with a friend — Michael Mitchell, the artist who drew the original illustration on Salinger’s 1951 novel, “Catcher in the Rye.”
These letters in particular do not address Salinger’s preference for young women, but the Catholic Church scandal has transformed sexual predators who target young people into a major focus du jour. A topic once so hush-hush that perpetrators could hurt children with impunity for decades now rarely leaves the public consciousness.
Thus, no sooner had I posted the Morgan Library news on my Facebook page, than this comment appeared:
Salinger was a “private person” because he was a pedophile who wanted to be left alone to do whatever it was he did with underage and barely legal teenage girls in peace.
Another friend wrote:
Pedophilia is a disorder involving sexual attraction with prepubescent children. Salinger was involved with young women. He was not a pedophile.
Quickly came this reply:
Tell that to the young girls.
The definition of a pedophile is: An adult who is sexually attracted to children. Pretty straightforward, but with writers, as well as other creative artists, it’s complicated.
While I found no evidence that Salinger ever molested an underage woman, I found plenty of evidence that throughout his life he was searching for a state of grace that he found in the minds of the young, especially young females.
When Salinger was 22, he fell in love with the 16-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Oona O’Neill was known for her quiet charisma and ethereal beauty. The two dated for a while, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Salinger joined the Army and O’Neill moved to Los Angeles, where she met actor and director Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin, 55, married Oona O’Neill after she turned 18. The couple remained married for 35 years and had eight children together. I’ve yet to hear anyone call Chaplin a pedophile.
Likewise Rep. Dennis Kucinich, whose wife is 31 years his junior. Even film director Woody Allen, who married his girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn in 1997, has gained a grudging acceptance. Thirty-five years separate Allen and Previn. Few would argue the relationship was appropriate when it began. But now? Hey, they look happy.
There was a time when May-December relationships were not so taboo or rare. Women died in childbirth. Men died in war. And after all, it’s a compliment to both parties: He’s been all over the world, and yet he loves me. She’s so innocent, and yet she loves me.
My grandmother, born in 1901, had just graduated from college when she married a widower twice her age with three children. I once asked her why she didn’t marry a man her own age. Didn’t she have suitors? Oh yes, she said. “But I didn’t feel anything for them.”
Ah, l’amour. The X factor.
After serving in World War II, Salinger returned to the life of a writer living in New York and publishing in the slick magazines of the day. In 1951, Little, Brown and Company published his novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger’s fame ratcheted up and cracks began to appear.
One of the more poignant anecdotes in the unauthorized (and incomplete) 1988 biography, In Search of J.D. Salinger, by British author Ian Hamilton, was this one. It took place at a party. The unnamed wife of a New York editor said she was unprepared for the “extraordinary impact of [Salinger’s] physical presence.”
There was a kind of black aura about him. He was dressed in black. He had black hair, dark eyes, and he was of course extremely tall. I was kind of spellbound. But I was married, and I was pregnant. We talked, and we liked each other very much, I thought. Then it was time for [my husband and I] to leave . . . and I went upstairs to where the coats were . . . Jerry came into the room. He came over to me and said that we ought to run away together. I said, “But I’m pregnant.” And he said, “That doesn’t matter. We can still run away.” He really seemed to mean it. I can’t say I wasn’t flattered, and even a bit tempted maybe.
Later that night she, her husband, and another couple from the party ended up in Salinger’s apartment. At first he played the congenial host, but when the conversation turned to colleges, his mood darkened. He began a monologue about the 12 stages of enlightenment.
According to the editor’s wife, Salinger said her husband “was at the first stage, the very lowest, and I was around stage four. As for Jerry, he said that for him the act of writing was inseparable from the quest of enlightenment, that he intended devoting his life to one great work, and that the work would be his life. There would be no separation.”This was the man who would eventually leave New York and take refuge in a rambling house near Cornish, N.H. He spent half a century there.
In 1955, Salinger married the daughter of a British art critic. They had two children and then, after 12 years of marriage, divorced. According to court papers, the isolation of the rural New Hampshire home and Salinger’s retreat for days or even weeks at a time to his small writing cabin nearby contributed to the failure of the marriage.
In 1972, along came young Joyce Maynard, by way of a fetching photograph on the cover of The New York Times magazine and the headline: “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” Salinger wrote her a fan letter. She wrote back. After a few months corresponding, they met and she moved in with him. He was 53 years old.
For years Maynard kept quiet about her ten months with Salinger, but in 1998 she went public with the memoir, “At Home in the World.” The book was savaged by critics. Katha Pollitt acknowledges the book’s flaws, but adds this caveat:
It’s easy to make fun of Joyce Maynard. As if her relentless self-marketing and theatricality weren’t enough, the very fact that she presents herself as vulnerable, a victim in recovery, leaves her open to mockery . . . [But] we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that while still very young Maynard was on the receiving end of quite a bit of damage from adults. If she doesn’t always seem to understand her own story — if she seems like a 44-year-old woman who is still 18 — maybe that goes to show how deep the damage went.
After Maynard packed her bags and left New Hampshire, there were more young women in Salinger’s life.
Here was a man who (by his own admission in the Morgan Library letters) could not “afford the marvelous distraction of first-class friendship.” Salinger called himself an “old goat” and “selfish.”
So just who is an appropriate companion for a selfish, friendless old goat?
In the late 1980s, Salinger, by then around 70 years old, married a New Hampshire nurse named Colleen O’Neill. She was 40 years his junior.
In a recent article about hermits, a psychologist said that some people “really need their downtime.” They may have an “avoidant attachment style” or a compulsion to “prove to themselves that they don’t need anybody.” Or it could be simpler than that. Perhaps a recluse merely desires “a mystical experience. You can’t pathologize that.”
Maybe Salinger found the dynamic with younger women to be more spiritual. After all, some have suggested Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in “The Catcher in the Rye,” is a modern-day saint in search of purity.
In the last decade or so, Salinger rarely made the news unless he was going to court to block one thing or another. Then three months ago, he died at the age 91, and suddenly his name was everywhere — in obituaries, in tributes, in wistful reminiscences of the large part this one novel played in the adolescences of so many.
My personal favorite involves a friend. A few months ago on Facebook she posted a picture that dated back 20 years. She wore a lacy, satiny pastel-pink confection of a dress made by her beloved abuelita for quinceanera (a sweet-16 party, only for 15-year-olds). “Somewhere,” my friend wrote, “there’s a picture of me in this dress brooding in a corner and reading ‘The Catcher in the Rye.'”
Over six decades the novel has sold 65 million copies worldwide. Even its detractors, one of whom called the book “mawkish” and poorly written, conceded the novel has had an enormous influence, and it did so by virtue of its sincerity.
A better, more cynical writer than Salinger easily could write a book about a troubled yet appealing teenager, but its artifice and insincerity would be self-evident and readers would reject it as false. Whatever its shortcomings, “The Catcher in the Rye” is from the heart — not Holden Caulfield’s heart, but Jerome David Salinger’s.
So here we have a writer who was personally repellent, but who gave the world his heart. I’ll take him just as he is.
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]