Betraying Salinger

Salinger, photographed (very much against his will) in 1988.Photo: Paul Adao/INF Photo

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.

The sample cover, with type laid out to Salinger's eccentric specifications.Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

I had prepared two typographical treatments for the text, and he chose the one I thought he would. We went over small details of bookmaking. (Running heads at the top of the page? No. The fabric headband at the ends of the spine? Plain navy blue. “Can’t go wrong with that!” Salinger said, with an explosive laugh.) The cover would carry just the title and, below it, his name. There would be no dust jacket. I showed him a mock-up of the spine, and when he saw the horizontal type, he said, warmly, “Oh good.”

I confessed that my distribution wasn’t great. He told me, “Nothing would make me happier than not to see my book in the Dartmouth Bookstore.” Distributed but not distributed! Of all the writers I have published, only one has ever asked that his book be kept out of stores.

I had spotted a few inconsistencies within the text, and I brought them up, fearing the wrath of the lion. Yet he said, mildly enough, “No, no. I want it left as it is.” He reminisced about reading The New Yorker page proofs in the car of his editor, William Shawn, while Shawn attended an event at his son’s prep school.

What would be the publication date? This I had ready: “January 1, 1997.” Six months off.

“That’s my birthday.”

“I think I knew that.” In fact, I had chosen it for that reason.

We wrapped up a few details, and bussed our trays. I stopped to stare at the waterfall outside the cafeteria, which flows over a set of stone steps right up against a glass wall. Suddenly, Salinger wheeled around. “What are you looking at? Answer quick, without thinking!”

Taken aback, I stammered, “I like that waterfall.” He seemed mollified. In a moment I understood: Had I paused so he could be secretly photographed? A friend later told me that such pictures can be sold for large sums.

Money, though, was not on my mind, nor on his. There was never talk of an advance, and although he did not want the book aggressively priced, he had told his agent, generously, to let me make some money on it. I worked out that I could sell the book for $15.95.

After refusing my offer of a ride, J. D. Salinger walked energetically across the Mall. I was both relieved and sad to see him go, and wondered if this would be the only time we would meet.

A series of letters followed. They were remarkably open, even garrulous, with notes on family life, social observations, gripes about train travel, little jokes about himself. He mentioned working on Glass-family stories, but told me nothing about what he’d written after Hapworth. I certainly didn’t ask.

Around this time, I unwittingly made the first move that would unravel the whole deal. I applied for Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data.

It sounds innocent. It is certainly boring. CIP data are the information printed on the copyright page. The filings are public information, but I didn’t imagine that anyone would notice one among thousands. It would be like reading a list of register codes at the grocery: apples 30, bananas 45, oranges 61.

As we worked on the book, the publication date slipped from January to February. An agreement was drawn up, saying that Hapworth had to appear by June 1, or the deal would expire. There was also an unusual provision: All copies were to be sold at the retail price, whether to individuals or distributors or bookstores. Salinger would get his wish of limited distribution. What store would sell a book on which it could make nothing?

One thing Salinger did tell me was that he’d grown unhappy about seeing his name on the front cover, and we removed it. This was going to be a most austere book. We also learned that the type on the spine was too small to be stamped cleanly into the fabric. Salinger offered a new design, with the letters strung out diagonally. It was awful: ugly, difficult to read, ostentatiously weird. When I said so to Phyllis Westberg, she was succinct: “Bite the bullet, Roger!”

I bit. I ordered two sample cases—the covers of the book, its shell. In November, I sent one to Cornish, and kept the other. We would have Hapworth in stores in just a few weeks.

Then I made another, bigger mistake.

What I know now, but did not then, was that CIP listings are not only public but also appear on, even for books not yet published. Someone spotted Hapworth there, and his sister was a reporter for a local paper in Arlington, the Washington Business Journal. One day, after I arrived home from my job teaching at George Mason University, she telephoned.

It seems clear now how everything happened. Hindsight is always clear. I remember that the reporter told me this would be an article about Orchises Press as well as Salinger. She asked me basic questions, about how I’d got Salinger to say yes, about the size of the press run. Foolishly—if reasonably—I answered most of them. I compared our press run to those of Salinger’s earlier books, mentioning them by name. I thought I could control myself, but my ego came into play. Anyway, what harm could it do? This was a tiny paper.

Then someone at the Washington Post saw it. A writer, David Streitfeld, called. I refused to speak at first, then answered a few questions, nervously, about what I liked about Hapworth and when it would appear. He asked if I’d met Salinger, and that, at least, I kept to myself.

The story appeared in the Post in January 1997. My phone nearly exploded. Newspapers, magazines, television stations, book distributors, strangers, foreign publishers, movie people. South Africa, Catalonia, Australia. The fax machine ran through reams of paper. People wanting review copies. (There were to be none.) People wanting interviews. I held as closely as I could to “no comment,” but when asked for a publication date, I gave one—at first March 1997, then later. I held to the $15.95 price for everybody: bookstore, distributor, chain store, fruit stand, anyone who wanted Hapworth.

The only one who didn’t call me was Salinger. I asked his agent, and repeatedly got the same answer: No news. I couldn’t proceed without him, because we still had too many details unsettled.

Meanwhile, bookstore chains—frustrated by the no-discount rule—had decided to simply mark the book up to $22.95. I inferred (from Westberg’s questions) that Salinger thought I had jacked up the price, to capitalize on the publicity and gouge everyone. I hadn’t, but I’ll never know for sure what he believed.

By February 1997, I had heard nothing for three months, but I had not yet given up hope. On February 20, Michiko Kakutani, working from the original text in The New Yorker, published a punishing review of Hapworth in the New York Times. I have no way of knowing, but this may have been the last straw. It was as rough as anything that Mary McCarthy or any other critic had ever said about Salinger’s work.

I yearned to write to Salinger, but I knew that it would do no good. He must have been furious with me, for betraying him by leaking news to the press, or even confirming it. I could no longer be trusted. I had proven myself part of the crass, opportunistic world that Salinger’s heroes disdain.

We were at a standoff, and soon enough, the contract’s time limit passed. I lost the book on June 1. Westberg’s office told me then that any subsequent moves would be up to Salinger, and that was that.

Some people, when they hear this story, blame Salinger for backing down after going this far, but I find this unfair. Such people want J. D. Salinger to be someone other than J. D. Salinger. Nor is the problem the Washington Post. I know where the blame lies. After thinking I could do right by a man I admired, I let him down.

In the end, I’m left with a box. It contains the buckram sample case and the die used to stamp the cockeyed spine printing. It also contains a stack of wonderful, kind letters from a man who has meant as much to readers as any writer ever can. I have not looked at those letters in years; to reread them would be too painful. Nor will I sell them. That, at least, I can do.

Betraying Salinger