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J. D. Salinger’s Women

In Cornish, Salinger, who was now 34, devoted some of his social life to entertaining teenagers who attended the local high school. In particular, he often escorted teenage girls to school dances and sporting events. Then, in 1954, at a party in Cambridge, he met Claire Douglas, the daughter of the respected British art critic Robert Langdon Douglas. A peppy, bright Radcliffe co-ed, she was 19. Claire was soon spending time in Salinger’s Cornish home. As Salinger’s romance with Claire blossomed, he was also in the process of imagining Franny Glass, one of his most fully realized characters and one who bears more than a passing resemblance to Claire herself. On February 17, 1955, at just about the time he published “Franny” in The New Yorker, Salinger married Douglas and gave the story to her as a wedding present. They had a daughter, Margaret, in December of that year. A son, Matthew, was born in 1960.

In 1961, Salinger published Franny and Zooey, a literary event considered so noteworthy Time put Salinger on its cover. In 1963, he published Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, which despite horrendous reviews became a No. 1 New York Times best-seller. During these years of intense work, Salinger withdrew more and more into himself -- and away from Claire.

“He was just never home,” says a former Salinger employee. “He had a studio” -- actually a concrete structure resembling a bunker -- “down a quarter of a mile from the house, and he was always there. He’d be there for two weeks at a time. He had a little stove he could heat food on. I think it was tough on Claire. When I was there, Jerry was always down in his little writing room.”

By 1966, Claire’s life of isolation had begun to take a physical toll. “She complained of nervous tension, sleeplessness, and loss of weight, and gave me a history of marital problems with her husband which allegedly caused her condition,” Dr. Gerard Gaudrault, who examined her at the time, would write. “My examination indicated that the condition I found would naturally follow from the complaints of marital discord given to me.” Perhaps on the basis of this outside confirmation, Claire filed for divorce in September 1966. In the divorce papers, her lawyer argued that “the libelee” -- Salinger -- “wholly regardless of his marriage covenants and duties has so treated the libelant” -- Claire -- “as to injure her health and endanger her reason in that for a long period of time the libelee has treated the libelant with indifference, has for long periods of time refused to communicate with her, has declared that he does not love her and has no desire to have their marriage continue, by reason of which conduct the libelant has had her sleep disturbed, her nerves upset and has been subjected to nervous and mental strain, and has had to seek medical assistance to effect a cure of her condition, and a continuation of the marriage would seriously injure her health and endanger her reason.”

A divorce was granted in early October 1967.

I saw her coming to meet me -- near a high, wire fence -- a shy, beautiful girl of eighteen who had not yet taken her final vows and was still free to go out into the world with the Peter Abelard-type man of her choice.
--De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period

On the cover of The New York Times Magazine on April 23, 1972 was a photograph of Joyce Maynard, accompanying a story with the Salingeresque title “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life.” In the picture, she is sitting on the floor of a corridor wearing red socks, blue jeans, a beige sweater. Her black hair hangs uncombed. Her gaze is childish, wide-eyed. Her smile is impish. The look and the pose -- she props an elbow against a step as she tilts her head sideways to rest her cheek in the palm of her hand -- combine to make her seem girlish, yet she is clearly a woman. “There were pictures of her taken around this time that show her,” one friend would later say, “as the Lolita of all Lolitas.”

The piece is an interesting if not brilliant work in the generational-memoir genre, linking private lives to great public events. Maynard’s thesis was that the generation that was born in the fifties -- hers -- was “a generation of unfulfilled expectations . . . special because of what we missed” and held together by common images -- “Jackie and the red roses, John-John’s salute, and Oswald’s on-camera murder.”

Salinger was so impressed by the piece -- and by Maynard -- that he typed out a one-page letter warning her about the hazards of fame. He mailed the letter to her in care of the New York Times.

By the age of 18, Maynard had already lived a complicated and productive life. She was born to intellectual parents; her father taught English literature at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, and her mother, Fredelle, had published two highly regarded books, Guiding Your Child to a More Creative Life and Raisins and Almonds, a memoir of her Canadian youth. There was, however, “an elephant in the living room,” as Maynard has put it; her father was an alcoholic. According to a childhood friend of Maynard’s, she “blamed his alcoholism on having a failed career as an artist” -- a view her family and friends did not share.

In 1970, Maynard transferred from the Durham public schools to Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter’s first co-ed class. While there, she published a story in Seventeen based on the unwanted pregnancy of a teenage couple in Durham; the piece angered local citizens, who felt Maynard had invaded the couple’s privacy. In the fall of 1971, Maynard entered Yale University, as a part of its third class to include women. As a freshman, she published “The Embarrassment of Virginity” in Mademoiselle, then her cover story in The New York Times Magazine. Her fellow students could dismiss the former but not the latter. “When I walked into the first class we had after the Times article appeared,” says Leslie Epstein, who taught the creative-writing class Maynard took that spring semester at Yale, “I could see the envy rising off the other students like steam off a radiator.”

One day, as she was sifting through the bags of fan mail she received in response to the Times article, she started reading one particular letter. Over the years, Maynard would say that, even as she read it for the first time, she knew the letter was the most profound and insightful she had read in her entire life. What’s more, she felt an instant connection with the letter’s author. Then, reaching the end of the page, she saw the signature -- “J. D. Salinger.”

Maynard and Salinger corresponded for the rest of the semester. Salinger sent several letters, each one to two pages long; Maynard answered them all. “It was known at the time that Joyce was in touch with Salinger,” says Samuel Heath, who attended both Phillips Exeter and Yale with Maynard. “It seems Salinger was telling her, ‘Don’t let them spoil you. Don’t let them destroy you as a voice,’ ‘them’ being the Establishment, the publishers, the outside world. He was doing the Catcher in the Rye routine -- protecting her.”