I decided to read a biography of JD Salinger partly because of The Catcher in the Rye, which I read in high school, and partly because of his reputation for being so reclusive and hermetic and eccentric. He was known to say that he was in this world but not of it. That was very aptly put, but then again, he was a writer.
To this day, Catcher in the Rye which was published in 1951, the year of my birth, is considered the ultimate novel of teenage angst and rebellion. The character of 17 year old Holden Caulfield was based to a great extent on Salinger himself. The theme is that Holden is on the threshold of adulthood, but he sees so much hypocrisy and so much phoniness in the adult world that he’s not sure he wants to be part of it. Holden is considered one of the most enduring and influential characters in 20th Century American literature, and the only reason why you haven’t seen him on the silver screen is because Salinger wouldn’t allow it.
And that’s another strange thing about Salinger: he apparently didn’t care much for money. He turned down offers that would have made him an Ungodly fortune. His last published work came out in 1965, and after that he retired, not from writing, but from publishing. He continued writing, working like a fiend, and reportedly putting out novels and short stories galore which the world has never seen.
Jerome David Salinger was born in 1919, the son of Solomon and Miriam Salinger. They were Jewish, but Miriam was actually Irish, and she converted to Judaism. Her given name was Mary, and she changed it to Miriam. Salinger grew up thinking that he was 100% Jewish when he was really only half Jewish. I’m pointing it out because his identity as a Jew played a major role in the direction that his life took, which I will explain.
His father was an importer of specialty meats and cheeses from Europe, and his business did well, even during the Great Depression. So, they got to live on Park Avenue, and Jerome (who was called Sonny at home) got to attend posh schools. But, he was a poor student, and he flunked out several times. And it was no different at college; he flunked out of several, including Columbia University. He never did complete a college degree.
His father sent him to Europe for a year to learn the family business. Salinger would later say that his father made him work in a pig slaughterhouse for a year. He spent the time in Poland and Austria, and he saw and experienced the rising tide of anti-Semitism. And when WW2 broke out, he knew right away that he wanted to fight the Nazis- and it was from what he had seen in Europe.
But, the US Army turned him down initially because of a heart defect. It didn’t say what it was, but it probably was a heart murmur. But after a while, they needed more boots on the ground, so they relaxed their medical standards, and Salinger got in.
Now, at that point, he was already semi-successful as a writer. During his time at Columbia, he had a Creative Writing teacher named Whit Burnett, who was the Editor of Story magazine. Whit saw Salinger’s potential and encouraged him to write, and eventually, he published his first story, which was widely praised. And that led to other published stories, including one that was published in The New Yorker magazine, which brought very wide acclaim. So, by the time Salinger entered the US Army, he was already accomplished as a writer.
And, as with other famous people with unique talents, the Army really didn’t want to use him as a fighting man. They wanted to use him as a writer. And he did write for them. He wrote a short story that was meant to stir up passions to join the war effort. And it worked. It was considered excellent. However, Salinger never considered it anything but a fluff piece.
However, like Jimmy Stewart who insisted on getting in the thick of the action, Salinger did the same. So, he was indeed sent into battle. On D-Day, he landed on Utah Beach in the thick of it and then fought in the Battle of the Hedgerows and other fierce battles. Then, he was part of the first American unit to enter Paris. And in Paris, he got to meet Ernest Hemingway who was working as a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine. And Hemingway had heard of him and read some of his stories and had a lot of respect for him. They got to talk shop about writing for hours. Salinger and Hemmingway got to be good friends and stayed so for the duration, but it's interesting that Salinger did not include Hemmingway among his favorite authors.
Then, Salinger was part of the first American unit to enter Germany territory. Then, after months of hard fighting, his unit, the 12th Infantry Regiment, was sent to Luxembourg for some R&R. But there, they got slammed by the strongest battalion left in the German Army. And that developed into the Battle of the Bulge, which was the costliest military conflict in US military history. The death toll was staggering. The 12th started with about 4000 men, but by war’s end, there were only about 1000 left.
And it wasn’t just the fighting that killed them, but also, the elements. The American Brass was so confident that the D-Day Invasion was going to bring the war to a speedy end, that they didn’t bother to provision for the next winter. Well, military progress was swift, but it wasn’t that swift. Indeed, they were fighting through the winter, and the winter of 1944/1945 was one of the most severe on record. You recall how at Valley Forge, it was so cold that men were dying of frostbite, and the same thing happened to Napoleon’s Army, which lost more men to the Russian winter than to Russian bullets. Well, believe it or not, it was the same way during WW2. Salinger spent many nights shivering in foxholes.
But, he was a linguistic genius. He was an intelligence officer and also a spokesman. For instance, when they liberated a town, they would have him stand up on a truck and speak to the locals about what was going to happen next. Why him? Because, with very little academic training, he could speak both French and German fluently.
But, when the war finally ended, he had to enter a mental hospital- for months. He was diagnosed with what today we call post-traumatic stress disorder. And when he got out, he surprised everyone by deciding to remain in Germany to work for the Army as an interrogator. In fact, he was stationed at Nuremberg, and he was involved in interrogating Nazis. And he was doing it now as a civilian. But, the main reason he decided to stay is because he fell in love with a German woman, Sylvia Welter, although he told his family and friends that she was French. They spent one relatively blissful year together (in the marital sense) in Nuremberg. But then, when his contract with the Army expired, the two of them set sail for New York and moved in with his parents on Park Avenue. That was a bad idea. Sylvia and Miriam did NOT get along. And after a few months, Sylvia returned to Germany alone. Ironically though, she wound up coming back here as the wife of another American, and she spent her life here and had a career as an ophthalmologist. She spent her final years as a widow living in a nursing home- writing about her year and a half with JD Salinger.
Salinger was thrown by the marital breakup, but only for a short while. And as usual, his relief, his escape from uncomfortable reality, was found in writing. He kept putting out short stories, most of which were published in The New Yorker. And incidentally, he continued writing all through the war, even from the foxholes. His story: To Esme’- With Love and Squalor, written during the war, is considered one of the finest literary pieces to come out of the 2nd World War.
It took him years to write Catcher in the Rye. You just have no idea how hard he worked on it. But when it came out in 1951, it made him a literary superstar.
But, he didn’t like the fame. He didn’t want any spotlights on him. So, he ran away to rural New Hampshire, buying 90 acres with a cabin near the town of Cornish. It didn’t even have running water, and he lived that way for a while. But eventually, he converted it into a comfortable, fully equipped residence.
Salinger met a 16 year old girl named Claire Douglass, the daughter of an acquaintance of his. And they instantly felt a connection, even though he was a little over 30. The book emphasized that he had no inappropriate physical contact with her when she was a minor. And when she was 22, they got married. They had two children, Margaret (Peggy) and Matthew. Salinger loved his wife, and he adored his kids. And when he was with them, he was with them. But, nothing and no one took precedence over his writing. He built himself a bunker- a writing bunker- on his property, and he spent 12 hours a day there, and sometimes more. And he did not like being disturbed when he was working. It was a major strain on Claire, and after some years (less than 10) she left the marriage.
His life changed after that. At one point, he got romantically involved with an 18 year old girl. She was of legal age, so there were no legal issues, but many considered it sordid. Late in life, he got married for the third time to a local woman from Cornish, Colleen Zakreski, who was 35 years his junior.
He continued writing short stories for The New Yorker, and he wrote several novellas, but it all ended in 1965 with the publication of Hapworth 16, 1924. He said that would be the last work he would publish, and he stuck to it. But he lived to 2010! And he claimed to be writing furiously between 1965 and 2010! There is actually a chance that at some point in the future, more Salinger stories are going to see daylight.
But now, let’s talk about his health because this is a health blog.
He lived 91 years, which is well beyond average. And it’s surprising for one reason in particular: he was a heavy smoker. The book I read is entitled J.D. Salinger, A Life by Kenneth Slawenski, and Ken said that even by the time he was a young man, Salinger’s fingers were stained yellow from all the nicotine. And, it never said anything about him quitting. A lot of smokers, even heavy smokers, do eventually quit. But, I have found no references to him quitting. It doesn’t mean he didn’t, but we can’t assume that he did. And even if he did, he smoked for most of his life, and I don’t think there is any reason to doubt that.
Salinger drank alcohol regularly, and I mean hard liquor. The book didn’t say anything about him getting intoxicated, but he liked to drink. And people have pointed out that there is a lot of drinking in his stories; his characters tend to be drinkers, even his admirable characters. Alcohol is incorporated into most of his stories. To me, it shows a lot of appreciation for alcohol. I am reminded of Ayn Rand who made all her characters bigtime smokers who celebrated the joy of smoking. Why? Because that’s how she was. And I, for one, do not consider alcohol a health positive. I definitely put it on the negative side of the health ledger.
So, what did he have going for him on the positive side? First, Salinger was thin his whole life: thin as a boy, thin as a man, and thin in maturity. He never got fat. And that counts for a lot. Caloric undernutrition is the most proven life-extending modality that we know of, and it’s been proven in many different species. Second, in a big, committed way, Salinger got into eating fresh food. And not just eating it, but growing it. When he got up to New Hampshire, he got into organic gardening, and that was before people even talked about organic gardening. He really wanted fresh uncontaminated, uncompromised food. He grew all he could, and he bought locally otherwise. He was quite active physically. He was no big sportsman, but he played sports with his kids. And he was a homesteader who did work around his spread. I don’t think his health suffered from lack of exercise.
But, here’s another thing: he shied away from medical doctors most all his life. He much preferred natural methods; he was wary of medical drugs. He became very spiritual but unconventionally. He got into Eastern religion and Easter mysticism. He got directly involved in the Self-Realization Foundation and the Yogananda. He practiced yoga. He meditated. He avoided Western Medicine as much as possible. I regard that as a major positive- not that there aren’t exceptions where you need Western Medicine. But, you’ll often find that very long-lived peoples have had little involvement with Medicine, where they have steered clear of it for most or all of their lives.
But, admittedly, another big factor is that both his parents reached their 90s, dying within a month of each other. There’s no denying that genes play a major role in longevity.
Though I think 91 isn’t bad as a lifespan, I think we should try to do better. Why not? I’ll never forget something my father said to me once. It was when he was in his early 70s. We were talking about someone who was very long-lived, and I asked him if he would like to live that long. And his answer was: “As long as I’m feeling good.”
And I agree that quality of life is more important than quantity. So, how was Salinger’s quality of life? It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. He was subject to painful bouts of Shingles. He developed a major hand tremor, which had to make it difficult for him to write. (He did his writing on an old mechanical typewriter, and he hunted and pecked with two fingers. He never learned touch-typing). And shortly before he died, he broke his hip. In fact, that may have been the catalyst that caused him to die. That’s how it often goes when an elderly person breaks a hip. Both the book I read, and every other source I’ve seen, have it listed that Salinger died of “natural causes.” Period. And I have no doubt whatsoever that that was HIS doing, that he arranged it that way. He took his privacy very seriously.