J.D. Salinger is in the kitchen when I turn the corner of his farmhouse, his reported deafness probably explaining why he doesn’t hear me until I am a few feet from him and ringing the doorbell. His wife correctly guesses the identity of the caller and, apprised of the information out of my hearing, the author shouts something that sounds like ‘Oh, no!’
It may be succinct but it is the most he has said to the media for years. A tall but stooped figure in a blue tanktop, Salinger won’t even look at me as he sidles crab-like out of his small kitchen with his back to the window. His wife soon appears at the same window and opens it to talk, but the great man — who was 90 in January — has gone. Time may soften many things, but Salinger’s complete disengagement from public life sadly isn’t one of them.
The recluse’s recluse, Salinger has lived in seclusion in the small rural community of Cornish, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, for more than 50 years. After writing The Catcher in the Rye in 1951 — his generation-shaping masterpiece about teenage angst and rebellion — he published only a few collections of short stories. A short piece of fiction for the New Yorker in 1965 was his last published work. He hasn’t spoken to the media since the early 1950s, breaking his Trappist silence only once in 1974 for a brief phone conversation with a New York Times journalist in which he said there was ‘a marvellous peace in not publishing… I write just for myself and my own pleasure.’ He added: ‘I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I’m doing is trying to protect myself and my work.’
There are, of course, few better ways of bolstering one’s own mythology than by hiding away, and Salinger’s silence — compounded by the continuing popularity of his novel, still reportedly selling 250,000 copies a year — has fuelled intense speculation about what he has been up to for 40 years. One theory, supported by a former girlfriend, is that he has been writing feverishly. She said she saw shelves loaded with notebooks and two completed novels. Some say there are 15 manuscripts locked away in a safe.
Reporters have traipsed up to Cornish many times but they’ve usually found the 1,600-strong community as uncooperative about Salinger as he is himself. But that code of silence is clearly disintegrating as many neighbours were more than happy to supply me with their own anecdotes and theories about the local celebrity everyone refers to as ‘JD’.
Salinger’s unnumbered home off a remote hillside road is no longer so hard to find in the age of sat-nav and internet address searches. But there was a time when those who knew where he lived didn’t even let on to their neighbours, said Janice Orion, a retired British schoolteacher who moved there in 1989.
‘I guess he asked them not to. When I moved here and asked where he lived, I was met with a blank stare,’ she said. ‘I was told “Oh, we don’t talk about him”, which I thought was a bit odd.’ Her friend, Beth Lum, added, ‘Not talking about him is a Cornish ritual. Someone asks you where he lives and you point vaguely in the wrong direction.’
Mrs Orion said she had seen him only the day before in the local co-operative supermarket, leaning heavily on a trolley as he shopped with his wife. Her only exchange with him was in the 1990s when she accidentally dropped a homemade loaf of bread at his feet when he came to his gate. ‘I can’t remember what he said but he was very irritated,’ she said.
Locals concur that Salinger is seen out far more infrequently than in the past. Apart from the supermarket, he and his wife occasionally go to a local café in Windsor, the nearest town, for coffee and a sandwich (‘he likes the spinach and mushroom wraps’, said the manager), and a restaurant there. As for socialising, the only events he has attended regularly for years are the monthly turkey dinners at the little Universalist Unitarian church ten miles away in the town of Hartland.
Salinger has experimented with many religions over the years, including Zen Buddhism. Unitarianism, which welcomes all religions, seems an obvious home for him. ‘Nobody is supposed to acknowledge that he’s there. You just treat him like he’s just another normal person,’ said Kay Cavendish, a churchgoer who attends the dinners.
The rule is that if you have to talk to him, make sure you never acknowledge that he is famous, said Robert Dean, who runs a smart Windsor B&B. ‘If you see him, you know not to talk to him unless he talks to you. He’s not one for chitchat,’ he said.
While the locals stress that JD is respected rather than liked, nobody has a bad word to say for his wife. Colleen O’Neill, 40 years Salinger’s junior, is his third wife and was one of the many young women with whom he has corresponded over the years.
As if making up for her husband, she is said to be friendly and a pillar of the community, a painter who runs a quilt-making group, set up a local online noticeboard and runs a food stand at the annual charity fun run.
The big question — what has he been doing all these years, and specifically, has he been writing? — remains unanswered in Cornish. ‘The truth is nobody really knows him apart from his wife,’ said Mr Dean.
He said that a couple of summers ago, an Irish student and Salinger devotee stayed at his B&B and announced his intention to go and talk to his literary hero. Mr Dean said he was amazed when the student returned to say he had found Salinger in his garden and been invited indoors for a three-hour chat about books. It showed that being reclusive didn’t mean the writer had to be heartless, he said, though others doubted the story. ‘I would be stunned if that were true. That’s not [Salinger’s] style at all,’ said a local police officer.
At the Railway Station restaurant in Windsor, another occasional Salinger haunt, a waitress said that when she last served him, everything had to be written down on a wipe board he brought with him because — she concluded — he was so deaf.
She recounted how her mother-in-law had told her that, as a teenager in Cornish in the 1950s, she and other local high-school pupils would be invited to Salinger’s house once a week so that — everyone presumed for the purposes of his writing — he could watch teenagers interact. ‘He doesn’t interact with us much now,’ she said.
Me neither. Moments after he disappeared from the kitchen, his wife — an attractive woman with perfect teeth and a blonde bob — opened the window to get rid of me on his behalf. We chatted briefly. She knew, for instance — presumably from the local police chief, whom I had had to call out — that I had got stuck in the snow on their road the previous night.
‘I’m so sorry you’ve come so far but, as you will know, my husband is someone who values his privacy,’ she said, all smiles. ‘I must ask you to leave now.’ The window is closed. The man who stopped talking to the world more than 50 years ago doesn’t intend to start now.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 4, 2009