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J. D. Salinger’s Women

The winsome, uncanny girls of Salinger’s fiction have real-life counterparts. They’ve always kept the secrets of this country’s most famous recluse. Till Joyce Maynard changed her mind.


. . . There were half circles under her eyes, and other, subtler signs that mark an acutely troubled young girl, but nonetheless no one could have missed seeing that she was a first-class beauty. Her skin was lovely, and her features were delicate and most distinctive.
--Franny and Zooey

Last year, on the afternoon of November 5, J. D. Salinger, who would turn 79 on New Year’s Day, headed through his house for the living room to answer the front door. Hard of hearing, his eyesight failing, he was beginning to show his age noticeably. He had lived in seclusion in Cornish, New Hampshire, since 1953, much of it in this spacious, comfortable chalet-style house situated on the top of a hill overlooking the lush Connecticut River Valley. Salinger is not in the habit of greeting strangers kindly. In recent years, he’s been known to brandish a shotgun at trespassers. But the woman standing before him that day was not a stranger. Her name was Joyce Maynard; 25 years ago, when Maynard was a bright-faced 19-year-old Yale dropout, she and Salinger had ended an affair. In the intervening years, while Salinger has maintained his famous public silence, Maynard has relentlessly chronicled almost every conceivable detail of her private life. She’s written, for instance, about her adolescent anorexia, her post-adolescent bulimia, her alcoholic father, her two rounds of breast implants, her bitter divorce. She has her own quarterly newsletter, Domestic Affairs, dedicated to publishing personal pieces about families, and her own Website, through which interested fans can order tapes of her reading an essay about the death of her mother or her stories from NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

At the time of their breakup, Maynard resolved to keep quiet about their romance. Occasionally, though, she could not resist mentioning it. “Jerry is a very private person, as I’m sure you’re aware” she told a Toronto Star reporter in 1992. “And I will always respect his privacy. I made that promise a long time ago. However, I do have ownership of our shared past. And yes, I can say I was permanently changed by the relationship. He was as much a force in my life as any person I’ve known. After I left, it seemed like I’d been in Lost Horizon. There was no place on earth for me to go.”

Around the time she appeared at his house, Maynard talked about Salinger with the Sacramento Bee. “I was giving a speech one time,” she said, “and the woman who introduced me said, ‘Well, she used to be J. D. Salinger’s girlfriend.’ I thought, ‘God, is that all I’ve been?’ I didn’t want to be reduced to that.”

Shortly after her encounter with Salinger, she described him yet again, on her Website. “Last time I saw him,” Maynard wrote, “I was a frightened and crushed girl . . . and he was, to me, the most powerful man in the world. . . . He told me I was unworthy. But when I stood on his doorstep the other day, I was a strong and brave 44-year-old woman and I knew he had been wrong.”

Maynard had traveled to Cornish from her home in Marin County, California, where she had bought a house with the money she made from selling the film rights to her novel To Die For, which became a Gus Van Sant movie starring Nicole Kidman. By the time she’d come east, she had already completed 200 pages of a memoir about her years with Salinger and showed it to her editors at St. Martin’s Press. The memoir is tentatively titled If You Really Want to Hear About It, a reference to the first sentence of Salinger’s coming-of-age masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye, and is scheduled to be published in the winter of 1999 by Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s. The memoir didn’t stay a secret for long. A Boston Globe writer named Alex Beam, whose novels have also been published by St. Martin’s and who knew Maynard in prep school and college, got wind of it through a St. Martin’s source. He called her about it, after which Maynard promptly called the New York Times. Both the Times and the Globe published articles on November 21.

“I don’t for a moment think he would want me to write this,” Maynard told the Times, which is putting it mildly. Through the years, Salinger has guarded his privacy with, in addition to his shotgun, squads of lawyers. He successfully fought in court in 1986 to block the publication of Ian Hamilton’s biography J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life, forcing Hamilton to completely recast his work and retitle it In Search of J. D. Salinger.

Maynard’s decision to write the book also sparked heated debate within literary and publishing circles. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Maynard had “no sense of shame”; the New York Post called her “shameless.”

The debate spilled over into Maynard’s chat room on the Internet. (It must be said, Maynard’s proposed memoir and the revelations it elicited constitute a weird premonition of the controversy now surrounding the president). One fan called Salinger a “pedophile,” but another believed Maynard “had every right to want the relationship, as is normal for an 18-year-old, physically mature woman.” When one Internet user accused her of exploiting Salinger, Maynard herself answered. “And I wonder,” she wrote, “why you are so quick to see exploitation in the actions of a woman -- sought out at 18 by a man 35 years her senior who promised to love her forever and asked her to forswear all else to come and live with him, who waited 25 years to write her story (HER story, I repeat. Not his). And yet you cannot see exploitation in the man who did this. I wonder what you would think of the story if it were your daughters. Would you still tell her to keep her mouth shut, out of respect for this man’s privacy?”

Although there was nothing markedly peculiar about her gait as she moved through the hall -- she neither dallied nor quite hurried -- she was nonetheless very peculiarly transformed as she moved. She appeared, vividly, to grow younger with each step.
--Franny and Zooey

Up to now, practically the only window into the mind of one of America’s most famous writers has been Salinger’s published books, the last of which came out in 1963. Virtually all of them, of course, are about people on the cusp of adulthood. His writing about girls and young women, while chaste, is highly charged. His teenage heroines, among them Esmé (“For Esmé -- With Love and Squalor”), Leah (“A Girl I Knew”), Barbara (“A Young Girl in 1941 With No Waist at All”), Phoebe Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye), and Mattie Gladwaller (the Babe Gladwaller stories), are singular, uncanny creatures.

Not surprisingly, the women Salinger has fallen in love with bear more than a passing resemblance to his fictional creations. In 1941, while he was living with his parents in New York, Salinger, then 22, fell in love with Oona O’Neill, the 16-year-old daughter of Eugene O’Neill whose mythic beauty and hauntingly quiet personality would later be compared to Jacqueline Kennedy’s. Salinger met O’Neill in the summer of 1941, when he and a high-school friend went to visit the friend’s sister, Elizabeth Murray, at Murray’s home in Brielle, a town on the New Jersey shore where Oona’s mother kept a summer home. “Oona had a mysterious quality to her,” says Gloria Murray, Elizabeth’s daughter. “She was quiet, but she was stunning in her beauty. You just couldn’t take your eyes off her. My mother took Salinger over to meet Oona and he fell for her on the spot. He was taken with her beauty and impressed that she was the daughter of Eugene O’Neill. They dated when they got back to New York.”

Their romance ended when Salinger joined the army following Pearl Harbor. Some time after that, O’Neill moved to Los Angeles, where she met Charles Chaplin. She married him when she turned 18; Chaplin was 55.

In the army, Salinger was involved in some of the worst fighting in World War II, including the four-month period from the D-day invasion through the Battle of the Bulge. Following the war, Salinger appeared to have a nervous collapse. Convalescing in France, he met and married a French doctor, but they were divorced after eight months. Back in the States, Salinger got serious about writing. He published stories in numerous magazine, most notably The New Yorker. Then, in 1951, he published a novel he had been working on for ten years, The Catcher in the Rye. A surprise best-seller, it afforded Salinger the opportunity to become a recluse, which he did when he moved to Cornish in 1953, the year he published Nine Stories.

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