Whose Life Is It Anyway?

By McGuigan, Cathleen; Pan, Esther | Newsweek, May 24, 1999 | Go to article overview

Whose Life Is It Anyway?


McGuigan, Cathleen, Pan, Esther, Newsweek


Say you're a very famous writer and also a very famous recluse. You refuse to publish your stories anymore, and you live way up in New Hampshire in a lonely house and it's very tough to meet--well, girls. What do you do? You write letters, sometimes to strangers. You become pen pals. In 1972 J. D. Salinger, then 53, wrote a fan's note to a Yale freshman, Joyce Maynard, after she published a precocious article in The New York Times called "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life." He praised her writing--and begged her to guard his privacy. Now, 27 years later, "Miss Maynard," as he addressed her, is putting that letter and 13 others up for public auction next month at Sotheby's in New York. The letters detail a courtship that culminated in Maynard's dropping out of college to share Salinger's hermitic life for 10 months, until he kicked her out. So rare are Salinger letters--and so notorious is their romance--that Sotheby's estimates they will sell (as a group) for $60,000 to $80,000.

To many Salinger partisans, the sale may seem an unpardonable breach. Last fall Maynard broke her silence about their affair in "At Home in the World," a memoir full of details about Salinger--his obsession with homeopathy, his vault of unpublished manuscripts. The book pointed up the gulf between the compulsively private Salinger and the almost exhibitionistic Maynard, a novelist and journalist who's written about everything from her divorce to her breast implants. Selling the letters, she says, is practical. "I'm a single mother of three children," explains Maynard, 45, from her home in California. "I don't feel any embarrassment at the financial reality of being a writer who's not J. D. Salinger."

Despite the auction, the letters to Maynard aren't likely to become widely public. While potential bidders may read them under the watchful eye of a Sotheby's employee, no one can publish them--not even Maynard. "The person who writes the letter owns the words, and the person to whom the letter is addressed owns the letter," explains Martin Garbus, a copyright expert. In a suit that Salinger brought in 1987, the court ruled that a would-be biographer, Ian Hamilton, couldn't quote unpublished Salinger letters. …

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