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. The romance ended when Sallinger 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 120million 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 a n d v u l n e r a b l e. I t w a s a n 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. He also built himself a separate cabin a quarter of a mile away in the woods, painted it dark green as camouflage against possible intruders, and spent most of the time there working.
Claire, who had tried desperately to please him, found herself plunged into an isolation she had never sought. But when she became pregnant, Salinger cut off all contact with the outside world and from the fourth month of her pregnancy, she saw no one whatsoever. Thirteen months after the birth of their daughter, Margaret, Claire had spiralled into depression and ran away with the baby. But she returned four months later to the husband she still loved, and in 1960 their son Matthew was born.
Salinger shifted the entire focus of his life to the cabin in the woods, staying there for up to two weeks at a time, burning wood in his stove to heat up the cans of food or meals brought to him by Claire or their children. Sometimes he would sit outside between the reflectors he had installed to help him tan.
Margaret's 2000 biography of her father, Dream Catcher, paints a vivid, and disturbing, picture of her parents' life in Connecticut.
Salinger became increasingly eccentric, drinking his own urine and sitting in a special device known as an orgone box, which was supposed to promote health.
He hated sickness, which he tried to cure in his children with homeopathy and acupuncture practised with wooden dowels instead of needles; when they cried with pain or his methods failed, he would fly into a rage.
He worked sitting in an old car seat, typing on an ancient typewriter at a desk made from a plain slab of wood. He hated being disturbed, even by Margaret. One remark he made at this time to his ten-year-old daughter expresses much of his attitude to women. After an argument he told her: 'We'd better find a way to make up because when I'm through with a person -- I'm through with them'.
It was perfectly true; but in his first marriage, it was his wife who cracked first. By 1966, the strain of Claire's life of isolation had begun to have a physical effect on her. She suffered from sleeplessness, loss of weight and sexual problems. In 1966, she filed for divorce, which was granted the following year.
Then, in spring 1972, Salinger saw a picture of a young writer, Joyce Maynard, on the cover of the New York Times Magazine with the headline An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life. Soon, Joyce was receiving fan letters from him.
Intrigued, she wrote back -- and not long after gave up her degree course at Yale University to live with him in New Hampshire. She was 19; he was 53, with a lifestyle based on macrobiotics and Zen Buddhism -- at various times he was also to become involved with Scientology and Christian Science.
Their sexual problems began at once. Salinger did not want more children and their relationship, according to Joyce, was based on oral sex -- she had a condition that made full sex painful.
The nine-month affair ended while on holiday in Florida with his children, whose custody he had kept. Salinger told her to leave at once, go home and clear her things out of his house before he returned. (In 1999, she put the story of their affair in a memoir, At Home In The World, and sold 14 letters from Salinger at Sotheby's, where they fetched almost [pounds sterling]110,000.) Salinger went back to his life of seclusion in the hidden cabin, around which he now owned 450 acres. Dressed in a blue boiler suit, he wrote every day, although not for publication -- a possible treasure trove of up to ten novels are believed to lie in his locked safe.
In 1981, he began a relationship with the 36-year-old actress Elaine Joyce, again initiated by letter. This lasted for several years, until he met Colleen O'Neill, the director of the annual town fair, who was 40 years his junior. They married in the late Eighties.
Salinger's privacy was momentarily breached in October 1992 when a fire broke out in his house and Colleen had to drive her blue pickup truck to a telephone box to call the fire brigade.
One of the reporters who were drawn by the news spotted him looking at the damage, but as soon as he approached, the white-haired writer darted away.
Give or take the reprinting of an early story, Hapworth 16, 1924, it is almost 50 years since the publication of his last book, Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters, in 1963, a silence he explained himself with words that could be his epitaph: 'I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.'
The ultimate anti-celebrity: J. D. Salinger…