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Betraying Salinger

I scored the publishing coup of the decade: his final book. And then I blew it.

Salinger, photographed (very much against his will) in 1988.  

The first letter I got from J.D. Salinger was very short. It was 1988, and I had written to him with a proposal: I wanted my tiny publishing house, Orchises Press, to publish his novella Hapworth 16, 1924. And Salinger himself had improbably replied, saying that he would consider it.

Hapworth is Salinger’s great mystical not-quite-lost work. It takes the form of a digressive 26,000-word letter sent home from summer camp by the breathtakingly precocious 7-year-old Seymour Glass. The novella took up more than 50 pages of The New Yorker in the issue of June 19, 1965; I was 18 then, and I still have my copy. It’s the last writing that Salinger released to the world, apart from court documents blocking assaults on his privacy, and it never appeared again.

I had the idea that Salinger might find my company attractive for its smallness. (Orchises is based in Alexandria, Virginia, and at the time had about 50 titles in print, mostly poetry and reprints of classics.) I had addressed my pitch to “J. D. Salinger, Cornish, NH,” figuring that the post office would know what to do. They did. Two weeks later, a short note arrived, signed “J D S,” and saying that he’d consider my proposal. I was ecstatic, even if I doubted that he’d proceed. And then, silence.

Eight years went by. In 1996, Harold Ober Associates, which represented Salinger, asked for a catalogue and some sample books. It had been so long, I didn’t make any connection, but I now see that I was being vetted. That May, I came home from vacation to find a letter from Phyllis Westberg, Harold Ober’s president. She began, “It might be wiser to sit down before reading the rest of this … ”

She summarized my communication with Mr. Salinger and said that he would soon write to me. I phoned her, in shock, just to be sure. Westberg warned me that the book would have to be made to exacting standards. (I remember thinking, That means F cloth—the highest grade of buckram bookbinding fabric.)

Why had he said yes? I think he chose me because I didn’t chase him. I had left him alone for eight years after receiving his letter; I wasn’t pushy in the commercial way he found offensive.

Two weeks later, a large envelope arrived. It had been addressed on a Royal manual typewriter, the same as the 1988 note. Inside was a full-page letter, and it took my breath away. Chatty, personal, with that rare sweet and endearing tone that characterizes the story I wanted to publish, it expressed Salinger’s high pleasure in finding a way to put out Hapworth. He proposed a meeting. Just by chance (could this be true?), he would soon be close to Washington, D.C. Might we have lunch?

Later that week, I was in my office and the phone rang. “Mr. Lathbury, please.” “That’s me.” “This is Salinger.” I swallowed. “I, um, am glad you called. Thank you for your letter.”

Then J. D. Salinger pitched me his story, like an unknown, saying that he thought it was a high point of his writing. “I don’t know how I managed to finish it.” Some instinct told me not to offer praise, which would have been superfluous. (Hadn’t I wanted to publish the story?) He proposed a lunch at the National Gallery of Art. Shaking with astonishment, I set up a time the following Wednesday.

That week, I typed out the text of “Hapworth 16, 1924” from my old New Yorker, and designed a dummy that I thought would meet Salinger’s demands. I gave the story plenty of leading (the space between lines of type) so that, as Salinger had put it, “Seymour could breathe.” That bulked up the book, solving another problem. Salinger had told me that he strongly preferred type on a book’s spine to read horizontally rather than vertically, and the volume had been too slim for that.

As I worked out the specifications, I tried deliberately not to make the book “elegant.” He had been quick to object to my use of the word, which to him connoted narcissism and preciousness. The buckram he asked me to use is the functional, unpretty material that libraries use to rebind worn-out books. Hapworth, the book, was to start out this way: straightforward and pure.

When I arrived at the National Gallery, Salinger—tall, in good shape at 77, with silver hair and a blue kerchief around his neck—was waiting. We shook hands, proceeded through the cafeteria lines, and found a table in the middle of the room. Just two guys discussing papers pulled from an old briefcase. He was losing his hearing and was slightly embarrassed about it, but if I leaned in and spoke a little louder than normal, he could manage. Salinger disconcertingly asked me to call him “Jerry.” I was nervous, though small talk came easily enough. Surprisingly, he touched on matters about which I would never have dared inquire, such as his resentment over the lawyers’ fees in his suit against biographer Ian Hamilton. He also made the disparaging remark that he found Little, Brown, his publisher since 1951, completely unsympathetic. I resolved that he wouldn’t find Orchises so. Still, when I said, “Shall we get down to business?” he too relaxed perceptibly.