Monday, September 17, 2007

J. D. Salinger’s Women


The winsome, uncanny girls of Salinger’s fiction have real-life counterparts. They’ve always kept the secrets of this country’s most famous recluse. Till Joyce Maynard changed her mind.

By Paul Alexander

. . . There were half circles under her eyes, and other, subtler signs that mark an acutely troubled young girl, but nonetheless no one could have missed seeing that she was a first-class beauty. Her skin was lovely, and her features were delicate and most distinctive.
--Franny and Zooey

Last year, on the afternoon of November 5, J. D. Salinger, who would turn 79 on New Year’s Day, headed through his house for the living room to answer the front door. Hard of hearing, his eyesight failing, he was beginning to show his age noticeably. He had lived in seclusion in Cornish, New Hampshire, since 1953, much of it in this spacious, comfortable chalet-style house situated on the top of a hill overlooking the lush Connecticut River Valley. Salinger is not in the habit of greeting strangers kindly. In recent years, he’s been known to brandish a shotgun at trespassers. But the woman standing before him that day was not a stranger.

Her name was Joyce Maynard; 25 years ago, when Maynard was a bright-faced 19-year-old Yale dropout, she and Salinger had ended an affair. In the intervening years, while Salinger has maintained his famous public silence, Maynard has relentlessly chronicled almost every conceivable detail of her private life. She’s written, for instance, about her adolescent anorexia, her post-adolescent bulimia, her alcoholic father, her two rounds of breast implants, her bitter divorce. She has her own quarterly newsletter, Domestic Affairs, dedicated to publishing personal pieces about families, and her own Website, through which interested fans can order tapes of her reading an essay about the death of her mother or her stories from NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

At the time of their breakup, Maynard resolved to keep quiet about their romance. Occasionally, though, she could not resist mentioning it. “Jerry is a very private person, as I’m sure you’re aware” she told a Toronto Star reporter in 1992. “And I will always respect his privacy. I made that promise a long time ago. However, I do have ownership of our shared past. And yes, I can say I was permanently changed by the relationship. He was as much a force in my life as any person I’ve known. After I left, it seemed like I’d been in Lost Horizon. There was no place on earth for me to go.”

Around the time she appeared at his house, Maynard talked about Salinger with the Sacramento Bee. “I was giving a speech one time,” she said, “and the woman who introduced me said, ‘Well, she used to be J. D. Salinger’s girlfriend.’ I thought, ‘God, is that all I’ve been?’ I didn’t want to be reduced to that.”

Shortly after her encounter with Salinger, she described him yet again, on her Website. “Last time I saw him,” Maynard wrote, “I was a frightened and crushed girl . . . and he was, to me, the most powerful man in the world. . . . He told me I was unworthy. But when I stood on his doorstep the other day, I was a strong and brave 44-year-old woman and I knew he had been wrong.”

For the complete story, click here.

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