Byline: by Anne de Courcy
THE writer J. D. Salinger, who died yesterday aged 91, was as famous for his five decades of stringent reclusiveness as for his best-known novel, The Catcher In The Rye, which was an instant bestseller when it was published in 1951.
It also marked the beginning of an obsessive withdrawal from the world. This hermit, who guarded his privacy with a shotgun and guard dogs behind high walls, was equally fierce in protecting his anonymity with squads of lawyers who attempted to block anything intimate being written about him.
He was the ultimate anti-celebrity, refusing interviews and insisting his photograph was removed from the dust-jackets of his books. The only recent photograph of him (taken many years ago) is of him wearing a furious face as he fends off an intruding cameraman.
Along with this quest for total seclusion went a predilection for teenage girls -- not so much a Lolita syndrome as an urge to discover innocence and then mould it to the shape he wished. Born in New York on January 1, 1919, J.D. (Jerome David) Salinger's early life gave little hint of what he would become, although there were several factors that affected him deeply.
One was the shock of believing he was Jewish and then discovering that he was only half-Jewish -- his mother was, in fact, a Catholic. Another was his doomed first love affair, in 1941, with the 16-year-old Oona O'Neill, whom he had wished to marry -- she later wed Charlie Chaplin. Their romance ended when he was called up by the Army in 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.
More scarring still, however, were his experiences in World War II, in which he saw numerous comrades killed around him. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day and fought all the way to Paris. There, he met Ernest Hemingway who encouraged his writing.
Still in Europe when the war ended, he was sent to Germany to interrogate Nazis. There, he fell in love with a girl called Sylvie -- later believed to be a former Nazi official -- whom he married and, after eight months, divorced. He later described her as 'an evil woman who bewitched me'.
He returned to the U.S. and began his writing career with short stories. Then, in 1951, he published the novel on which he had been working for ten years.
This was The Catcher In The Rye, a tale that captured the essence of teenage angst before anyone knew it existed, and it had instant and lasting success. So far, it has sold more than 120 million copies worldwide and still regularly tops polls of the most popular novel of all time. When Mark Chapman shot John Lennon, he was carrying a copy.
Told in the voice of its tall, greyhaired hero, Holden Caulfield, who runs away from boarding school to New York, where he finds everyone 'phoney' except his adored little sister Phoebe, it spawned a new genre of fiction that remains stupendously popular: the first-person narrative of someone young, neurotic, misunderstood, insecure and vulnerable. It was an undoubted masterpiece.
But two years after this literary and financial success gave him untold freedom and independence, Salinger headed off to the remote rural town of Cornish, New Hampshire -- and the isolation that characterised the rest of his life.
The house he chose stood behind high walls and a screen of trees and was located on a bluff overlooking the Connecticut River valley. It was reached by a rough road that winds for several miles up a hill. There was no name on the mailbox at the end of the steep drive leading to the house, and No Trespassing signs hung on several of the trees.
At first, he made occasional forays to New York. At a party, he met a young student, Claire Douglas, the 18-year-old half-sister of a British aristocrat.
Soon she moved in, and in 1955, when Claire was 20 and Salinger 36, they married. But as Salinger's desire for solitude increased, he made her burn all her papers and cut off all contact with her friends and family. …