Thursday, January 28, 2010

* J.D.Salinger is Dead at 91 (All Rights Reserved)

Just Being Jerry.

Because I have lived within 20 miles of J.D. Salinger's Plainfield/Cornish, New Hampshire orbit for the last 23 years, and have come in contact with many folks who have known him --- or at least, intersected with him (no one could "know" Salinger) --- I am able to share several anecdotes about him, previously untold. Anyone repeating them in print or plastic media be admonished: I reserve the right to be quoted by name and blog title. (Nod to J.D.'s tenacious publication battles.)

My stories come from friends and neighbors in New Hampshire and Vermont, extending back twenty years up to two or three years ago. They are short glimpses into the sacred Yankee privacy of his private public life (redundancy intended) which was honored by us up here. I do not arrange them chronologically but randomly here according to my whim.

Whether or not they are true is not the issue. They were told to me by people who had no reason to try impress me: just local chitchat. I have purposely been vague about gender and location of some of my sources.

A colleague of mine and his wife who first came to Vermont 30 years ago found themselves tobogganing on Salinger's property around that time in Cornish, without knowing the property belonged to Salinger. Salinger came out of his house and unceremoniously threw them off his land. My colleague says that when he first read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager many years ago "the book changed [his]life" with its honesty about how a teenager really feels. Getting thrown off the property by J.D. Salinger himself way back then, was almost an "honor" for my friend, he admits long after the fact.

Perhaps the most charming anecdote about this man whose reputation is rather "rough around the edges", is from the neighborhood kid who would go over to Salinger's house weekdays and watch Jeopardy with him, a favorite program for both of them. They'd try to beat each other to the answers. (That kid later attended Brown University.) When Halloween would come around, the youngster told me, Salinger would hand out NOT candy but pencils instead!

(I know literary critics and budding authors who would die for a presentation pencil from J.D. Salinger: like receiving a sword from King Arthur himself.)

Another acquaintance of mine is the nephew of a woman who bought J.D. Salinger's former New Hampshire house with detached garage. The nephew told me there's a tunnel between the garage and house which his aunt says "Salinger had built" so he wouldn't be photographed by snoopy journalists and publicity seekers. (Another Cornish resident says the house belonged to Salinger's former wife. Tunnel, same reason?)

Friends of mine in their 60's frequent church suppers around the Vermont and New Hampshire area. They would often encounter Salinger in recent years who "loves church suppers" and was always "first in line with his wife, especially at the Hartland supper." He wasn't aloof or snobby. "He'd talk to you" and wanted to be called "Jerry" my friend tells me, and talk about regular things. "If you mention his book or his name, he'd get up an leave."

In recent years he'd suffered a stroke, and would appear at these suppers in line with his wife "using a ski-pole" as a support, disdaining the old man's cane.

That's style.

(I stole this a year ago Christmas, when I had half a kidney removed and returned from the hospital in a 20" blizzard. That day,and every day thereafter, I used ski poles to walk a mile up my mountain road in the snow, thinking of Salinger's panache every slippery step of the way.)

Perhaps the most dramatic anecdote comes from a member of a local volunteer fire department.

Years ago, Salinger's house caught fire and the the department was summoned. The fire was located in Salinger's basement where he had his study and which contains a large safe. The day after the fire was extinguished, the person tells me, Salinger appeared at the fire department with a ten thousand dollar reward as thanks to the department. The size and unexpectedness of that reward, the persons says, lends credence to local folklore that his house contained manuscripts of unpublished works which he has been hoarding for years, as has long been suspected by literary critics.

A friend of mine's mate worked at the local post office where Salinger received his mail. Salinger had an arrangement that any mail addressed to him by the name "Salinger" should not be delivered but instead returned. He would receive mail only by an alias which he and the worker at the local post office agreed on. Apparently the alias would change over time to further discourage intrusion.

Finally, an anecdote about Salinger's legendary privacy-in-public, is the story of a teenager ringing her cash register at Price Chopper a few years ago. An old man and a younger woman came through with groceries (Salinger's wife is half his age). When the cashier asked for their credit card, she recognized the name on it as that of the author whose book, The Catcher in the Rye, she was reading in school. When her eyes bulged she looked up at the wife who "nodded as if she knew what I was thinking" in a way that said, "Yes, that's him, but don't let on you know." When I asked the young cashier what she did, she said," I played along."

For years, friends told me that if I went to a specific general store in Plainfield at 10 o'clock on Sunday morning I would be guaranteed to run into J.D. Salinger picking up his papers. I have purposely avoided that store and tried to forget its name.

A friend of mine's brother was Salinger's auto mechanic for several years. He says what we country folk up here all knew from instinct: Salinger "just wanted to be Jerry".

And so he was.

And so he will remain --- in the world's most private public place, old fashioned Yankee New England:

Just Jerry.


lapdog said...

I'm confused. Plainfield, NH or Plainfield, VT? Did he live in both states?

PAUL KEANE said...

I hadn't finished composing the post when you read it. Try the completed version. I often edit in-medias-res.