“An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.”—J. D. Salinger.
J.D. Salinger (full name Jerome David Salinger) was an American author best known for his landmark novel The Catcher in the Rye. With the publication of the novel in 1951, he became an almost instant success, but two years later, Salinger left New York City and took up a reclusive lifestyle in New Hampshire. His final published work appeared in the June 1965 issue of The New Yorker, and he gave his final interview in 1980.
Despite spending the last five decades of his life seeking absolute privacy, his life and his work continue to be subjects of fascination. Here are 48 facts about the reclusive author.
1. The One and Only
The Catcher in the Rye was the only novel that J.D. Salinger published during his lifetime, but it ended up being a ground-breaking work that has endured for 68 years. As of 2014, more than 65 million copies of the novel have been sold, with an average of 250,000 copies a year. Not bad for a first try!
2. Constant Companion
Salinger was a sergeant in the US Army during WWII, and according to legend, he carried six unpublished stories about the Caulfield family with him on D-Day and throughout the war. Those stories became the basis for The Catcher in the Rye.
3. Vague on Details
The war had a huge impact on Salinger, but while he often mentioned Normandy, he never gave any details about the experience. According to his daughter, it was as though he assumed that she “understood the implications, the unspoken.”
4. Killer Connection
For some reason, The Catcher in the Rye seems to have struck a chord with murderers. Mark David Chapman, the man who killed singer John Lennon, was apparently obsessed with the novel. When police arrived at the scene of the murder, Chapman was reading a copy that he’d purchased en route to the crime. He inscribed the book “This is my statement,” and signed it as the Holden Caulfield, the protagonist from the book.
The book was also found in the hotel room of John Hinckley Jr., Ronald Regaan’s would-be assassin the following year, and in 1989, Robert John Bardo, the killer of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, was also carrying a copy of the book.
5. Other Interests
Before finding a career as a writer, Salinger was interested in acting. In fact, he was so into it that he would sign his school yearbooks with his different roles. Now that’s passion!
6. Learning a Trade
Salinger’s father wanted him to become a meat importer and didn’t much like the idea of his son pursuing any other interests. When Salinger was 18 or 19, his father sent him off to Vienna to, in Salinger’s words, “apprentice myself to the Polish ham business”. Luckily for the world (and probably for Salinger), he was destined for greater things.
7. Meeting Hemingway
While serving in the war, Salinger got wind of the fact that writer Ernest Hemingway was in Paris, and he and his buddy John Keenan decided to seek him out. To their fortune, they found him, and he was able to show him a copy of his most recent short story in The Saturday Evening Post. The story of that meeting appears in his daughter Margaret’s memoir, and in a letter that Salinger wrote to his friend and editor of Story Magazine, Whit Burnett. Hemingway obviously made an impression, because Salinger gushed about how great he was in his letter.
8. Getting in Check
In 1945 Salinger suffered a nervous breakdown (now recognized as P.T.S.D.) after witnessing some pretty gruesome battles in Normandy on D-Day. He later wrote to Ernest Hemingway that a “despondent state had been constant” and he had decided to get some help “before it got out of hand.”
9. A Second Meeting
Salinger had one more in-person meeting with Hemingway late in 1944, this time in Germany. According to his army buddy Werner Kleeman’s memoir, Salinger suggested they go “look up Hemingway,” and they located him in a farmhouse set up for war correspondents. The trio hung out, talked, and drank champagne out of aluminum cups before returning to their station. Not a bad way to spend a night!
10. Getting Dumped
For a brief period of time, Salinger dated Oona O’Neill, the daughter of Playwright Eugene O’Neill. The relationship wasn’t meant to be and she left him for Charlie Chaplin, whom she ended up marrying. Can’t win ‘em all!
11. Trying Them Out
Salinger was raised Jewish in his father’s religion, but that didn’t prevent him from trying out a number of religions throughout his life. He tested out Zen Buddhism, Catholicism, Vedantic Hinduism, Christian Science, and what would eventually become Scientology. Which, if any, religion he ended up sticking with is unknown, but evidence suggests that Hinduism was especially important to him.
12. Not While I’m Alive!
Despite repeated efforts from people like Billy Wilder, Samuel Goldwyn, and even Steven Spielberg, nobody was ever able to get film rights from Salinger for The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger believed that he alone could play Holden Caulfield (which he was too old to do), but he did hint in his writings that he might leave the rights to his wife and daughter as “kind of insurance policy.”
Salinger’s estate has kept mum about whether or not they had instructions to prevent any adaptations, but when the copyright expires in 2046, filmmakers can go to town!
13. Not a World for Kids
According to Margaret Salinger’s memoir Dream Catcher, when she told her father J.D. that she was pregnant, he told her she “had no right to bring a child into this lousy world” and that he “hoped I was considering an abortion.” Harsh!
14. An Unofficial Prequel
In 1949, two years before the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s story The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls was scheduled to be published in Harper’s Bazaar, but for some reason, he decided to withdraw the story before that could happen. The story was a sort of prequel to Rye, and was about the death of Holden’s older brother.
Salinger later donated it to Princeton on the condition that it not be published until 50 years after his death, but in 2013, it was leaked along with two other stories, and posted on the internet. Since the stories were kept under lock and key, it’s a mystery how someone managed to copy them and post online.
15. Hidden Background
Salinger’s father was the son of a rabbi and his mother Marie was of Scottish descent, but mixed marriages weren’t exactly common or accepted at the time. She changed her name to Miriam and did such an effective job of hiding her background that Salinger didn’t even know she wasn’t Jewish until after his Bar Mitzvah.
16. Just Meh
Despite his obvious literary talent, Salinger wasn’t exactly topping the honor roll at school. He flunked out of the McBurney School in New York, and his parents promptly shipped him off to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania.
17. Laying it all Out
Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, is pretty frank in his discussion of sex and has quite a foul mouth. As a result, the book is one of the most frequently banned of the last 50 years.
18. Key Connection
Upon returning from Europe, Salinger took some night classes at Columbia, and there he met the person who would put him on the path to becoming a professional writer. Professor Whit Burnett was the editor of Story Magazine and despite Salinger’s slacker ways when it came to school, he recognized talent when he saw it! Burnett pushed Salinger to write more.
It didn’t take long before his works were appearing in magazines like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. It’s all about who you know, right?
19. Bizarre Rituals
Salinger had a few odd habits, to say the least. In her memoir, his daughter Margaret states that he was “disgusted by the workings of the body” and went on diets that made his skin turn green, he drank his own urine, and he “spoke in tongues.”
20. Double Hermit
In 1953, Salinger left New York to live in the small village of Cornish, New Hampshire, and after that, he became more and more reclusive. After 1965, he pretty much withdrew from any public or publishing life, and as if he weren’t isolated enough, he kept an extra cabin up in the hills a good distance away from his regular home where he could write and be completely alone.
21. Clear the Room
Despite his fame, Salinger was a really shy man. Later on in life, he’d occasionally visit the Dartmouth College library, and everybody knew that the reading room had to be emptied of people when he got there so he could be completely alone.
20. Bogus Commentary
Just a year before Salinger’s death, a man named Fredrik Colting writing under the name “John David California” published a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye without securing Salinger’s permission. He tried to get around it by calling it a “literary commentary” on Holden Caulfield and Salinger, but a New York District Court Judge found there was no criticism of the characters or themes in the book and banned it from publication in the US. Nice try buddy!
21. One and the Same
Holden Caulfield is an embodiment of Salinger, and Salinger admitted that this first story about Caulfield titled Slight Rebellion off Madison was “spiritually autobiographical.” Maybe that’s why Salinger thought he should play Caulfield in the movie.
22. Dramatic Picture
Salinger’s experiences in the war were captured in great detail in a short story For Esmé with Love and Squalor. In the story, he details the shaking, trembling, puking, hallucinating, and insomnia that are symptoms of battle fatigue. That was the closest he came to talking about the war with anyone.
23. The Nazi Spy
While stationed in Germany Salinger fell in love and married a young woman named Sylvia Welter, who was of German-French descent. Welter often hid her German background and was a pretty mysterious woman. There is no documentation to prove that she was a member of the Nazi party, but based on certain facts her of her life, historians believe she was a Nazi spy.
Salinger’s job in Germany was to gather intelligence on the Nazis, so it’s pretty ironic that he married her.
24. Having Fun?
For a 3-week period in 1941, Salinger was employed as an entertainment director on the cruise ship the MS Kungsholm. His entire job was to make sure that the passengers on the ship were having fun by organizing games, and dancing with the single ladies. The job ended when the ship was requisitioned for the war effort, and since he refused to ever say what it had been like being a ship’s entertainer, he probably didn’t find it that entertaining.
25. It’s Over
The marriage between Salinger and Welter was not destined for a happily ever after. Salinger had evidently been in the dark about his wife’s role in the war, but as soon as he found out, he ended things quite abruptly. After a brief eight months together, he annulled the marriage, sent her back to Europe, and cut off all contact. It also didn’t help that his Jewish parents thought she was an anti-Semite.
26. Just a Tad Bitter
Salinger was pretty devastated when first love Oona O’Neill left him and married Charlie Chaplin. He found out about the wedding from a newspaper announcement, so in response, he sent her a scolding letter and reportedly drew a cartoon of Chaplin holding his penis while chasing after her. Now that’s a mature response!
Even the author of an iconic novel faced rejection in his early career. In the span of a year, seven of his short stories were rejected by The New Yorker, including one titled I Went to School with Adolf Hitler.
28. Bad Timing
In December 1941 The New Yorker accepted a story called Slight Rebellion off Madison about a cynical and disillusioned teen named—you guessed it—Holden Caulfield, who was experiencing pre-war jitters. That same month, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the magazine decided they could no longer publish the story. On the bright side, the story was published 5 years later, after the war was over.
29. What’s in a Name?
How Salinger came up with the name Holden Caulfield isn’t known for sure, but there have been multiple theories about it over the years. One theory suggests that it was a combination of William Holden and Joan Crawford’s names, which Salinger would have seen together in a marquee for their film Dear Ruth, but since Holden first appeared in a story a year before the movie was released, that theory doesn’t really hold water.
30. Just Not Realistic
In 1950, Salinger’s agent offered The New Yorker a chance to publish excerpts of The Catcher in the Rye to as a thank you for their support of his work. The fiction editor Gus Lobrano and one other editor reviewed the book, but rejected the offer because neither one of them liked it. They didn’t find the characters and Holden Caulfield to be believable, and that was that. Little did they know what they were missing!
31. Life Saver
One of Salinger’s commanders in the Hürtgen Forest during the war was a cruel officer who ordered Salinger to stay stationed in a frozen foxhole overnight without the proper supplies. Salinger almost certainly would have suffered injury or illness from the cold and the damp, were it not for a fellow soldier named Werner Kleeman. The soldier gave Salinger a blanket and a pair of woolen socks, helping him to survive unscathed—at least physically.
32. Change of Tune
When The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, Time Magazine praised the work, as did The New Yorker, which had previously rejected the book the year before. Despite their earlier criticisms, they now called it “brilliant, funny, and meaningful.” Somebody had to eat their words!
33. To the Point
Salinger generally was known to sugarcoat anything. He once wrote a letter to a servant asking her to make sure she completed all of the errands before her vacation, so he didn’t have to be “bothered with insignificant things.” The letter later sold for $50,000 at auction in 2011.
34. What a Nuisance
The lack of published material by Salinger after The Catcher in the Rye was because he gave up writing. Ex-girlfriend Joyce Maynard claimed that he had completed two more novels by 1972 when they got together, but he just thought of publishing as “a damned interruption.” In an interview with The New York Times, he stated “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing … I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
35. Decades Apart
It’s no secret that Salinger was infatuated with young women, but his third wife, Colleen O’Neil, was 40 years younger than him. Although Colleen was 33 when she married him, and technically the oldest of his women, the age spread between them was the largest of all of his relationships, making her “young” by Salinger’s standards.
36. Early Preparation
The obituary for Salinger that was published in the Guardian was written by a scholar who had already been dead for 7 years when Salinger died. Perhaps nobody expected him to live to 91, or maybe they just really wanted to be prepared, but it, along with several other of his obituaries were written well in advance of his death and stored until they were needed.
37. Not What He Wanted
The reclusive Salinger went out of his way to avoid doing any publicity for The Catcher in the Rye. He even refused to allow the publisher to print his photo on the back of the book and agreed to just a single interview with a high school paper. Much to his frustration, the interview ended up on the front page of the local paper, driving him into deeper isolation. Immediately after the incident, he put up a 6’6” tall fence around his property, further safeguarding his privacy.
38. A Legal Accounting
When author Ian Hamilton persisted in trying to publish a biography of Salinger in the 80s, Salinger sued Hamilton to prevent him from using any excerpts from his unpublished letters. Hamilton lost that battle in court, but he still managed to get something out of it, publishing the book In Search of J.D. Salinger in 1980, talking about his legal dealings with Salinger. Clever!
39. An Uncomfortable Date
Salinger may have had a number of love affairs in his lifetime, but that didn’t make him especially smooth with the ladies. One of his former girlfriends Leila Hadley Luce claimed that he often used the phrase “Oh my goodness, what a cliché,” in response to whatever she said. She stated that she eventually became so concerned about saying something he would dislike that she became afraid to talk around him. Rude!
40. Not Very Original
To pick up women, Salinger apparently used to say “I’m J.D. Salinger and I wrote The Catcher in the Rye.” Not exactly a creative line, but maybe he figured being a famous author was enough.
41. Admiring Innocence
The type of women that Salinger flocked to were typically young and innocent. The youngest of his girls was 14-year-old Jean Miller, who was a little more than half his age. He was completely infatuated with her and his short story For Esme—with Love and Squalor was inspired by their relationship. When Miller was 20, she apparently pushed him to have sex with her, and the next day, he broke up with her. According to Miller, once she was no longer innocent, that was the end of his interest in her.
42. Missing Anatomy
According to the biography Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno, Salinger was missing one of his testicles. The biographers claim that shame over this deformity was largely what drove Salinger into seclusion, and also the reason that he liked young, sexually inexperienced women. Since the author can’t confirm either of those things for himself, we can only guess whether or not that’s true.
43. Nine Months with a College Girl
When Salinger was 53, he began a relationship with the 18-year-old Joyce Maynard, who was in her freshman year at Yale. He became aware of Maynard when she published an article in The New York Times titled “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back On Life”. After reading the article, Salinger wrote Maynard a letter cautioning her about the difficulties of living with fame—he would know—and that began a correspondence that led to her dropping out of Yale that summer to move in with him.
Unfortunately for Maynard, he dropped her when she started pressuring him to have children. She also found out that he’d been corresponding with other young women throughout their relationship, including the nurse Collen O’Neill, who became his third and last wife.
44. Bought and Returned
In June 1999, author Joyce Maynard put a block of 14 notes and love letters that Salinger had written her during their relationship up for auction at Sotheby’s. The letters were snapped up by a private buyer named Peter Norton, who paid $156,500 for them—double the asking price. He then shocked the world by releasing a statement explaining that he planned to return the letters to Salinger or even destroy them.
The two men had never met and didn’t know one another prior to that point, so it was a pretty generous thing to do for a man who so fiercely protected his privacy.
45. Someday Maybe
Salinger’s son Matt has often been asked about the validity of rumors that have been swirling around for years about five new Salinger works set to be published by 2020, which he completely dismisses. He does, however, confirm that his father did have unpublished writings and that they will be shared “at some point.” When asked what’s taking so long, the answer was simply that “it isn’t ready.”
46. Wishing Her Well
Matt Salinger and older sister Margaret are not what you’d call close. After the publication of her dark memoir Dream Catcher, Matt published a rebuttal, calling them “gothic tales.” While he pretty much only talks to her to keep her in the loop on plans for his father’s centenary, he says he only wishes her happiness.
Salinger met wife Claire Douglas (the mother of his two children) at a party when she was 16 and he was 31. When she was 21, Salinger convinced her to drop out of school a few months before graduation and live with him. Eventually, her husband’s crazy ideas and their increasing isolation made her feel like a prisoner. The couple divorced after two kids and 11 years.
48. The Death of the Author
On January 27, 2010, J.D. Salinger passed away at his home in Cornish at the age of 91. The cause of death was listed as natural, and his widow and his son Matt act as executors of his estate.
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