J. D. Salinger’s Women

… 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.

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.”

When Maynard came home for the summer, they continued their correspondence. After they had exchanged about 25 letters, Maynard went to Cornish to see Salinger. Then, instead of returning to Yale for her sophomore year, she moved in with Salinger. “Her father was furious,” says a friend of the Maynard family, “not only because she was living with J. D. Salinger but, on a more practical level, because she had dropped out of college. He always thought she had the potential to write literature. He didn’t want her to sell out.”

No doubt Maynard must have felt she was fulfilling her father’s dreams, for during the fall and on into the winter, while she lived with Salinger, who worked regularly on writing he did not intend to publish, Maynard herself worked on a memoir called Looking Back, a book based on her Times Magazine cover story. One highlight of the long winter was the trip Salinger and Maynard made into Manhattan when, one day, Salinger bought her a coat and then took her to lunch to meet his friend William Shawn.

Mostly, Maynard and Salinger stayed in Cornish and wrote. When they were not working, Maynard puttered around the house, which she later described as being furnished in a “pedestrian” fashion. Salinger liked to lecture her on the advantages of homeopathic medicine and on Zen Buddhism.

The sex life of Maynard and Salinger, Maynard has told people, consisted only of oral sex. The arrangement was Maynard’s decision rather than Salinger’s. Even then, however, one of Maynard’s life ambitions was to have a family, but Salinger had made it clear that he had no intentions of having any more children, and the issue became a source of contention between them over the winter. Finally, in the late spring, when the couple traveled to Florida on a vacation, the conflict reached a breaking point. They were lounging on the beach when Salinger finally gave her his own unqualified answer: If that’s what she wanted, then their relationship was over. When they got back to Cornish, she should move her things out. It was at this point, as Maynard later described it to a friend, that she stood up from the beach, brushed the sand off her arms and legs, and left. Her affair with Salinger was over. It had lasted ten months.

The grey-haired man turned his head again toward the girl, perhaps to show her how forbearing, even stoic, his countenance was.
Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes”

In 1981, the actress Elaine Joyce was working on a short-lived television series called Mr. Merlin when she received an interesting piece of mail. The widow of singer Bobby Van, Joyce was 36 at the time. The letter was from J. D. Salinger. “I was doing a series,” says Joyce, “and he wrote me a letter. I get fan mail all the time, but I was shocked. I really didn’t believe it. It was a letter of introduction to me about my work.” Joyce responded, just as Maynard had; and in this case, as well, a sustained correspondence followed. “It took me forever,” she says, “but I wrote back, and then we wrote to each other quite a bit.” As he had with Maynard, Salinger eventually arranged for the two of them to meet, and they began a relationship. The couple spent a lot of time in New York. “We were very, very private,” Joyce admits, “but you do what you do when you date – you shop, you go to dinner, you go to the theater. It was just as he wanted it.” The only real suggestion the public had that the two were involved occurred in May 1982, when the press reported that Salinger showed up for an opening night at a dinner theater in Jacksonville, Florida, where Joyce was appearing in the play 6 Rms Riv Vu. But to conceal their affair, Joyce denied knowing him. “We were involved for a few years all the way through the middle eighties,” Joyce says. “You could say there was a romance.”

That romance ended in the late eighties when Salinger met Colleen O’Neill, a young woman from New Hampshire who was the director of the annual Cornish town fair. “Jerry used to come and walk around the fairgrounds with her,” says Burnace Fitch Johnson, a former Cornish town clerk. “Colleen would have to repeat things to him when people spoke to him, because he’s quite deaf.”

Their relationship developed to the point where, as of 1992, when the New York Times ran a story about a fire at Salinger’s house, the reporter identified Colleen as being “his wife.” She was also, according to the newspaper, “considerably younger than her husband.”

Johnson confirms that, as of today, the couple has been “married for about ten years.” Since 1992, at least as far as public surfacings are concerned, the Salingers have remained in seclusion – until Joyce Maynard, that ghost from the past, celebrated her 44th birthday last year by showing up on their doorstep.

As for Maynard, since 1973, she has published her books and married an artist, Steve Bethel, with whom she had the children she wanted so badly (a daughter and two sons). In 1989, her marriage having failed, she set out on what would end up being for her, as she called it, a “many-years-long search for true love, while engaged in raising kids.” This search included a six-month love affair with a musician, followed by a period during which she had casual sexual flings with a number of men.

“Fifteen minutes into our first date,” one of these men says, “Joyce kept referring to this guy named Jerry. She was talking about ‘Jerry this’ and ‘Jerry that.’ It was as though they still knew each other. It took me a few minutes to figure out that the Jerry she was talking about was J. D. Salinger.

“Joyce,” he continues, “is the most self-obsessed person I’ve ever met. She gives narcissism a bad name.”

One morning, Maynard let him read her cache of Salinger letters. On a number of occasions, she discussed how she would never write about Salinger, out of respect for his privacy. One story Maynard told him spoke to the very nature of Salinger’s personality, his saga, and the kind of life he may have lived – and the number of women he was involved with – once he and Maynard broke up. One time, Maynard was at a literary dinner party in Manhattan years after her affair with Salinger had ended. At this dinner party, Maynard told her friend, were two women writers about her age, X and Y, who did not like her. Maynard offered a passing veiled reference to Salinger that X and Y overheard. Then X made a comment to Y loud enough for Maynard to hear. “You know,” X said to Y, “I have a cache of Salinger letters, too.”

J. D. Salinger’s Women